Meanings as Species

There is no science without language. This is not merely because scientific judgments must, as a matter of anthropological fact, be communicable, but also because scientific judgments are typically of such an order of complexity that they could not arise without verbal expression. It is therefore incumbent upon us to examine the ways in which the grammatical clothing of a scientific theory relates to the other parts and moments of that complex of structures which is the subject-matter of logic.

Husserl’s conception of language, too, is cognitively based. Linguistic expressions are seen as having meaning only to the extent that they are given meaning through cognitive acts of certain determinate sorts. Those acts which, in becoming bound up with uses of language, may carry out this meaning-giving function are in every case acts in which objects are given to the language-using subject either in perception or in thought: ‘To use an expression significantly, and to refer expressively to an object’, Husserl tells us, ‘are one and the same.’ (II A54/293) An act of meaning is, we might therefore say, ‘the determinate manner in which we refer to our object of the moment’ (II A49/289).(4)

Husserl’s theory of linguistic meaning, like his theory of logic, is therefore non-Platonistic in the sense that it is free of any conception of meanings as ideal or abstract objects hanging in the void in a way which would leave them cut apart from concrete acts of language use. Husserl does however accept that it is inadequate to conceive the meanings bestowed on given expressions on given occasions as being exhausted in the particular acts involved. For meanings can be communicated. They can be realised by different subjects at different places and times. Hence they cannot be accounted for theoretically in merely psychological terms, as real parts or moments of concrete experiences. What, then, are meanings? Husserl’s solution to this problem is both elegant and bold: it is to develop a conception of the meanings of linguistic expressions simply as the species of the associated meaning acts.

To see what this means we must note first of all that meaning acts are divided by Husserl into two kinds: those associated with uses of names, which are acts of presentation,(5) and those associated with uses of sentences, which are acts of judgment. The former are directed towards objects, the latter towards states of affairs.(6) A meaning act of the first kind may occur either in isolation or (undergoing a certain sort of transformation) in the context of a meaning act of the second kind: ‘Each meaning is on this doctrine either a nominal meaning or a propositional meaning, or, still more precisely, either the meaning of a complete sentence or a possible part of such a meaning.’ (II A482/676) The meanings of names, now, which Husserl calls concepts, are just species of presentations; the meanings of sentences, which Husserl calls propositions, are just species of acts of judgment. And the relation between meaning and associated act of meaning is in every case the relation of species to instance, exactly as between, say, the species red and some red object.

More precisely, we should say that, just as it is only a certain part of the red object – its individual accident of redness – which instances the species red, so it is only a certain part or moment of the meaning act which instances any given meaning-species, namely that part or moment which is responsible for the act’s intentionality, for its being directed to an object in just this way.(7) The meaning is just this moment of directedness considered in specie

There correspond to meanings, as to all ideal unities, real possibilities and perhaps actualities; to meanings in specie there correspond acts of meaning, and the former are nothing other than the ideally apprehended act-moments of the latter. (II A322/533)(8)

The identity of meaning from act to act and from subject to subject is then simply the identity of the species

In the concrete act of meaning a certain moment corresponds to the meaning and makes up the essential character of this act, i.e. necessarily belongs to each concrete act in which this same meaning is “realised”. (II A302/B312/506)

We can talk of ‘the same’ meaning from speaker to speaker and from occasion to occasion simply in virtue of the fact that numerically different individual moments of meaning on the side of the relevant acts serve to instantiate identical species. Indeed to assert that given individual objects or events instantiate one and the same species is simply to assert that the objects or events in question manifest among themselves a certain qualitative identity of parts or moments – that they are, in this or that respect, identical, are one and the same.(9) One might indeed, though the detailed justification of this proposal would lead us too far from our main concerns, see Husserl’s talk of species here as consisting effectively in a shorthand for more common or garden talk about certain exact similarities among individual instances.(10)

It is important to stress that meanings so conceived are not the objects of normal acts of language use.(11) We do not mean the meaning of an expression by having this meaning as the object of any associated act, but by being directed to an appropriate ordinary object or state of affairs in such a way that, willy nilly, the meaning is instantiated. Meanings can however become our objects in special types of reflective act, and it is acts of this sort which make up (inter alia) the science of logic. Logic arises when we treat those species which are meanings as special sorts of proxy objects (as ‘ideal singulars’), and investigate the properties of these objects in much the same way that the mathematician investigates the properties of numbers or geometrical figures.(12)

Thus consider for example the number five. This is not my own or anyone else’s number five: ‘it is the ideal species of a form which has its concrete individual instances on the side of what becomes objective in certain acts of counting’ (I B171/180). Two different sorts of objects are then involved: empirical objects which get counted, thereby yielding empirical groupings (as e.g. when we talk of there being ‘a number of objects on the table’); and ideal objects, which are what result when such empirical groupings are treated in specie, disembarrassed of all contingent association with particular empirical material and particular context. And now the same applies to all the concepts of logic: just as terms like ‘line’, ‘triangle’, ‘hemisphere’ are equivocal, signifying both classes of factually existing instantiations and ideal singulars in the geometrical sphere, so terms like ‘concept’, ‘proposition’, ‘inference’, ‘proof’, etc., are equivocal: they signify both classes of mental acts belonging to the subject-matter of psychology and ideal singulars in the sphere of meanings.

Of course when, in our logical investigations, we speak about meanings in specie, then the meaning of what we say is itself a species. ‘But it is not so, that the meaning in which a species is thought, and its object, the species itself, are one and the same.’ The species we think about is a general object, but ‘the generality that we think of does not resolve itself into the generality of the meanings in which we think of it.’ (II A103/331) Those general objects which are meanings (concepts, propositions, higher-order meaning-structures including entire theories) differ in this respect not at all from general objects of other sorts, be they numbers, geometrical structures, or species of qualities given in sensation.(13)

Barry Smith, Logic and Formal Ontology


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