Intention-Based Semantics

In Ernest Lepore & Barry Smith (eds.), The Oxford Handbook to the Philosophy of Language. Oxford University Press. pp. 250--266 (2006)
Emma Borg
University of Reading
There is a sense in which it is trivial to say that one accepts intention- (or convention-) based semantics.[2] For if what is meant by this claim is simply that there is an important respect in which words and sentences have meaning (either at all or the particular meanings that they have in any given natural language) due to the fact that they are used, in the way they are, by intentional agents (i.e. speakers), then it seems no one should disagree. For imagine a possible world where there are physical things which share the shape and form of words of English or Japanese, or the acoustic properties of sentences of Finnish or Arapaho, yet where there are no intentional agents (or where any remaining intentional agents don’t use language). In such a world, it seems clear that these physical objects, which are only superficially language-like, will lack all meaning. Furthermore, it seems that questions of particular meaning are also settled by the conventions of intentional language users: it’s nothing more than convention which makes the concatenation of letters ‘a’^‘p’^‘p’^‘l’^‘e’ mean apple, rather than banana, in English.[3] So, understood as the minimal claim that intentional agents, who have a practice of using certain physical objects (written words, sounds, hand gestures, etc) to communicate certain thoughts, are a prerequisite for linguistic meaning, the idea that semantics is based on both intention and convention seems indisputable. I will label a theory which recognises this preconditional role for speaker intentions an A-style intention-based semantics and we will explore one such account in §1
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DOI 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199552238.003.0012
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