© giovanni casu, 2016

Extract III:


(...)To further my argument I will now introduce a precious distinction suggested by Gilbert Harman in his “Three Levels of Meaning" . Journal of philosophy, 65, 1968. Harman identifies three different kinds of theories of meaning and points out that theories that wish to explain meaning must clarify on which level of definition they are working.

W. Sellars uses Harman's classification as an introduction to his “Meaning as Functional Classification” (17_III) (A working paper for the UConn Conference on linguistics): “Gilbert Harman, in his admirable paper "Three Levels of Meaning(…)” distinguishes three approaches which different groups of philosophers have taken in attempting to clarify what it is for linguistic expression to have meaning. Each of these approaches finds the Ariadne thread to guide us through the labyrinth of semantics in a different function of language. One group takes as its central theme the idea that language is, so to speak, the very medium in which we think, at least at the distinctively human level. Another finds its clue in the fact of communication. Still another focuses its attention on the kinship between such linguistic acts as stating and promising and a broad spectrum of social practices. Harman correctly, in my opinion, points out that viewed as three attempts to answer one and the same question, these strategies involve serious confusions, and that those who take them to be such have inevitably become entangled in fruitless controversies. He also, somewhat generously, I think, recommends that we view them as attempts to answer three different questions and suggests, accordingly, that we refrain from criticizing any one of them for failing to do what can be done only by a theory of meaning of another level.”

Harman thus summarizes his argument: “In this essay I have distinguished three levels in the theory of meaning corresponding to the meaning of thoughts, the meaning of messages, and the meaning of speech acts. I have argued that distinguishing these levels helps to clarify three well- known approaches to the theory of meaning(…)”.

The 3 levels are defined as follows: LEVEL 1 (the meaning of thoughts): Meaning is “connected with evidence and inference, a function of the place an expression has in one's 'conceptual scheme' or of its role in some inferential 'language game’”; he specifies Sellars’ approach: “the meanings of one's words are determined by the role of the words in an evidence inference-action game, which includes the influence of observation on thought, the influence of thought on thought in inference, and the influence of thought on action via decision and intention.” LEVEL 2 (the meaning of messages): Meaning is “a matter of the idea, thought, feeling, or emotion that an expression can be used to communicate”; LEVEL 3 (the meaning of speech acts): Meaning has “something to do with the speech acts the expression can be used to perform.” In my view, a similar distinction can be applied in order to define the artwork. Harman give an example how to extend the use of his distinction “(…) the assumption that the three approaches to the theory of meaning are approaches to the same thing. I suggest that this assumption is false. Theories of meaning may attempt to do any of three different things. One theory might attempt to explain what it is for a thought to be a thought of a certain sort with a given content. Another might attempt to explain what it takes to communicate certain information. A third might offer an account of speech acts. As theories of language, the first would offer an account of the use of language (or other representations) in thinking; the second an account of the use of language in communication; the third, an account of the use of language in certain institutions, rituals, or practices of a group of speakers.” The distinction is based on different levels of analysis. As a human activity, the process of analysis always includes a private dimension where an individual is confronted with something (a thought, meaning, language, art or “other representations”), but this confrontation can also be extended to a social level where transmission between people must be possible. The level of analysis can also be situated in different institutions or macro social entities. For each of these 3 levels a different definition can be formulated because, in each case, we are talking about three different things (...).