14.767, Disc: New: Performatives and Meaning

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Mon Mar 17 17:20:00 UTC 2003

LINGUIST List:  Vol-14-767. Mon Mar 17 2003. ISSN: 1068-4875.

Subject: 14.767, Disc: New: The Meaning of Meaning

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Date:  Mon, 17 Mar 2003 02:18:13 +0000
From:  "Ahmad R.  Lotfi" <arlotfi at yahoo.com>
Subject:  The meaning of meaning

-------------------------------- Message 1 -------------------------------

Date:  Mon, 17 Mar 2003 02:18:13 +0000
From:  "Ahmad R.  Lotfi" <arlotfi at yahoo.com>
Subject:  The meaning of meaning

Dear linguists,

William G. Lycan begins his ''Philosophy of Language'' (2000) as follows:

   Not many people know that in 1931, Adolf Hitler made a
   visit to the United States, in the course of which he
   did some sightseeing, had a brief affair with a lady
   named Maxine in Keokuk, Iowa, tried peyote (which
   caused him to hallucinate hordes of frogs and toads
   wearing little boots and singing *Horst Wessel Lied*),
   infilterated a munitions plant near Detroit, met
   secretly with Vice-President Curtis regarding sealskin
   futures, and invented the electric can opener.

   There is a good reason why not many people know all that:
   none of it is true. But the remarkable thing is that ...
   you *understand* it perfectly, whether or not you were
   ready to accept it, and you did so without the slightest
   conscious effort.

                                    (Lycan, 2000:3)

Apart from what Lycan himself has in mind concerning the meaning of
meaning, one may take this example as some support for Ayer's claim
that unless a sentence can be verified (in principle), it's
meaningless. Lycan's sentences do make sense (and we understand them
even if we don't accept them) for the very reason that they can be
falsified. Wittgenstein (also Austin) rejects this as performatives
(sentences used to perform acts of the very sort named by the verb,
e.g.  (1) ''The meeting is adjourned'') are neither true nor
false. They can only be evaluated as felicitous or infelicitous. Then
meaning is more than verifiability as performatives do make sense (and
we understand them) although they are not verifiable (in principle).

What disturbs me, however, is the fact that once a performative
sentence is changed in its tense, e.g. (2) ''The meeting was adjourned
right now'', it stops being a performative, and (as a result)it can be
verified. Though this is still in agreement with Wittgenstein and
Austin's reasoning, it also raises the question of how real-time
hearers ''understand'' a performative. One possibility is that the
moment the chair utters (1), they construct (2), and then (and only
then) they understand (1) as meaningful. ''I hereby know a lady named
Maxine'' doesn't normally make any sense because ''Adolf Hitler knew a
lady named Maxine right now'' doesn't make sense either. If so, then
even performatives are still understood as sentences verifiable in


Ahmad R. Lotfi
English dept.
Azad University at Esfahan (Iran)&
American University of Hawaii

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