Language is a striking feature of human life: somehow, systems of meaningful sounds have arisen in all human communities, despite the fact that those sounds were originally totally meaningless. What is it, then, that makes an initially meaningless sound into a meaningful linguistic expression?
One particularly influential answer to this question comes from Paul Grice, who argues that sounds become meaningful expressions in virtue of our intentions when we produce those sounds. In contrast to the Gricean tradition, I argue that sounds become meaningful linguistic expressions just in virtue of observable features of our behavior with those sounds, and not in virtue of the intentions or other mental states that we have when we produce those sounds. More specifically, I argue for my Behavioral Account of expression meaning: a sound becomes a meaningful linguistic expression in virtue of the production of that sound becoming some group’s conventional way of getting people to involve objects or relations in their activity. Because social conventions play a central role in the Behavioral Account, another major project within the dissertation is to develop the right understanding of conventions.
I begin, in Chapter 1, by defining the key terms in the Behavioral Account, motivating the idea of using conventions to understand expression meaning, and situating the Behavioral Account in the literature. Then, I turn to the task of finding the right understanding of conventions. In Chapter 2, I argue against David Lewis’s influential account of conventions. Next, in Chapter 3, I discuss Ruth Garrett Millikan’s more promising approach to conventions, criticizing aspects of her account and developing a positive account of conventions in light of those criticisms.
In Chapter 4, I use the account of conventions developed in Chapter 3 to argue for the Behavioral Account of expression meaning. Then, in Chapter 5, I show how the Behavioral Account can be applied to specific kinds of linguistic expressions such as verbs, indexicals, prepositions, and quantifier expressions. I conclude the dissertation by foreshadowing the Behavioral Account’s ability to bolster the distinction between semantics and pragmatics.