Alex Cohen

Derivative Intentionality & Gricean Meaning

April 2, 2021   /  

Student Name: Alex Cohen
Major: Philosophy
Advisor: Dr. Garrett Thomson

At the end of my junior year, I became very interested in semantic meaning. I wanted to ask the question “what does semantic meaning consist of?” and answer it coherently and philosophically. In a course I took called Understanding Language, we learned about Grice’s theory of meaning, which essentially states that an utterance’s meaning consists of the utterer’s intention behind the utterance. For example, if I said to you “the sky is blue,” then, under Grice’s theory, what my utterance means is that I intend for you to recognize my intention for you to believe that the sky is blue. An interesting implication of this theory is that meaning in language is derivatively intentional. That is, meaning is language is derived from the ways in which one perceives things in the world. The ways one perceives something is called mental content; if I am looking at a tree, then my mental content is howI perceive the tree, the color of its bark and leaves, burls I notice throughout the truck, etc. If I said, “this book isgood,” then the meaning of my utterance is derived from how I perceive the book. And so, I found my answer to the question: language has derivative intentionality because meaning in language is derivative of one’s mental content. My I.S. is an argument for two theses: that language has derivative intentionality and that Grice’s theory of meaning is a good way to explain why language has derivative intentionality.


Alex will be online to field comments on April 16: 10am-noon EDT (Asia: late evening, PST 6am-8am, Africa/Europe: late afternoon)

33 thoughts on “Derivative Intentionality & Gricean Meaning”

  1. This is awesome Alex! In a lot of my classes we have learned about Grice’s maxims of effective communication. It is so interesting to me that a lot of the principles that drive our language just happen subconsciously, and as a society we have this common understanding of what it is and how it is used.

    1. Thank you, David! One of the reasons I was drawn so much to Grice’s theory of meaning was because he seemed to pick up on something few others did. He saw that when we utter something to someone else, we’re doing more than just saying something, we’re trying to get the person to understand our intention behind the utterance in addition to trying to get them to believe the utterance itself.

  2. Hi Alex, Congratulations on your Independent Study! How will your findings shape your educational and/or career path forward?

    1. That’s a great question! I think the short answer would be in how I interact with people. Writing about this topic has demonstrated to me that semantic meaning is multi-dimensional. Words mean more than they mean, if that makes sense. So in the future, I’ll be more cognizant of what someone means when they say something and hopefully be better able to understand them.

  3. Congratulations, Alex!! This is a really interesting topic that you made digestible for non-philosophy majors. Sociology has a similar concept with symbolic interactionism so it was cool to hear another discipline’s take on it. I hope you enjoy the rest of your semester!

  4. Toutes mes felicitations, Alex! Une étude qui semble passionnante. Je te souhaite une très belle vie après Wooster!

  5. Brilliant job, Alex! Congratulations! As a fellow philosopher and Hellenist, your presentation was a joy to watch and your argument makes a lot of sense. It’s intriguing – enlightening even – to consider that all language is derivatively intentional, but I’m wondering: do you think there are any instances in which language does not maintain this usual derivative intentionality?

    1. Thank you so much, Dante! That’s a great question! I’m inclined to say no, that language is always derivatively intentional because meaning in language is always derived from the mental content of the speaker. But the point you bring up, that language may be nonderivatively intentional, is an interesting one. One of the larger portions of my second chapter was arguing against Donald Davidson who claimed that mental states are linguistic, and because of this, language cannot be derivatively intentional. What he means is, how can one have a thought without a language to think it in? Where I argue that language is an expression of thought, Davidson would say that language in a sense is thought itself. For him, language is intentional because it’s perceived and understood intentionally, but it can’t be derivatively intentional because its meaning doesn’t derive from anywhere.

      1. Yes, I think I agree. I am fairly familiar with Davidson as well and I definitely agree with you rather than him! Language seems to be, in most cases, not pure instantiation of thought, but a filtered adaptation of thought refined for communicative purposes. Very interesting! Thank you!

  6. Congratulations, Alex. It’s fascinating to hear more about your thinking on language in this video.

  7. Hey! You’re concept is awesome to read about and definitely has me thinking about the layers of meaning that words have. Yay for IS!

  8. Congratulations, Alex! It’s incredibly fascinating that you’ve woven together language and consciousness in your research. Great work!

  9. Alex, I am breathless and proud of you, this project has come so far and you’ve pushed very hard. I do have a gripe though! I am left to wonder what implications your thesis has on the interpretation of texts (most specifically within queer theory and the queering of readings of books) how does that fit into the author’s intension theory of intensionality?


    1. Thank you, Max, that means a lot! And what a great question! As far as the interpretation of texts goes, I would say that one would best interpret a text through the lens that most lends (get it?) itself to the mental content of the author. While I may not be able to emulate the mental states an author has about whatever it is they are writing about, I can at least try to understand how they mean what they are saying. For example, if I’m reading a text within queer theory, the meaning of the author’s words and sentences are derivatively intentional of their mental content, and while I can’t quite relate to that, I can use queer theory and its tenets to glean a little more understanding of what exactly the author means.

      1. Interesting!

        Does this mean that it’s possible for an author to have intensions (see what I did there?) they’re unaware of?

        1. Hmm, that’s a good question. Without diving too much into the philosophy of mind, I would say it’s possible. I could be shooting myself in the foot here, but I think that if human beings are capable of unconscious biases/beliefs, then one’s mental content may indeed consist of more than one is aware of.

  10. As someone who also loves learning languages, this is very interesting and insightful!! Congrats 🙂

  11. Ah, philosophy, the bane of my existence… Normally I have no idea what you’re talking about but the video was very clear so thank you for that. Awesome job and congrats on everything you’ve accomplished!

  12. Congrats Alex! This project is very interesting! And your presentation was clear and coherent. Thanks. Wish you the best!

  13. First of all, I love the suit. But hearing you explain your project is SO engaging and I love how you manage to make it make sense for people who normally don’t understand philosophy. Amazing job Alex!!

  14. Hi Alex, thanks for sharing the summary of your IS thesis. I am not familiar with Grace’s theory of meaning, but I had a question when you refer to “intenions”…is this along the same line of reasoning that Husserl, Heidegger and others deploy intentionality as an “aboutness”? Congratulations and best wishes!

  15. Congratulations, Alex!!

    I love your I.S. topic and how it provides a deeper understanding in how we perceive language. It’s always great to see that ancient Greek has had such an impact on your I.S.!

    Best of luck in your future endeavors!

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