Meaning as Experience. On the Analogies Between Linguistic and Perceptual Meaning-Making

Is there a relationship between the way we make sense of linguistic utterances and the way we make sense of any other percept (say, an image, a sound, a natural scene)? In other words, is there a relationship between language comprehension and perception in general?

If we are to judge by most semiotic and linguistic accounts of language comprehension, there isn’t. Language comprehension seems a matter of possessing a rich grammar (syntax) that supports highly articulate modes of meaning (semantics), which can be used in many ways conversationally (pragmatics). Perception, on the other hand, seems a matter of turning the array of sensory stimuli into meaningful configurations according to completely different principles: Gestalt laws, shape extraction, feature integration, etc. There is no syntax, semantics or pragmatics of perception. This leaves us with a divide, which most current accounts struggle to motivate, between language and other fundamental semiotic faculties.

I want to suggest that this divide is largely specious. A careful scrutiny of what happens during both language comprehension and perception reveals deep analogies between the two. With a systematic comparison, I will show that the two processes are subject to the same underlying principles and pose the same recurring problems. We make sense of utterances in the same way that we make sense of our environment. As such, a theory of linguistic meaning should focus less on traditional language-centric notions and should instead be seen as part of a general theory of perception. I will discuss the consequences of this view for some traditional problems in the philosophy of language, such as the semantics/pragmatics divide, the hermeneutic circle and the ineffability of contextual meanings.

Jacopo Frascaroli

University of York

Fourth-year PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of York, where he works on a Leverhulme-funded project entitled “Learning from Fiction”. Before coming to York, he studied comparative literature at the University of Turin, where he got his bachelor’s degree in 2015 with a thesis in semiotics, and his master’s degree in 2018 with a thesis in philosophy of language. His work brings together philosophy of language, aesthetics and cognitive science.

language comprehension
semantics/pragmatics divide