American philosopher Saul Kripke once said
There can be no such thing as meaning anything by any word.
Wittgensein on Rules and Private Language Harvard University Press, 1982, p. 55
Kripke does not explicitly endorse this claim himself but presents it as the conclusion of another philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. He doesn’t, however, say how it can be challenged, if he doesn’t believe it. It is simply imponderable.
I won’t give a run down of the argument for such a seemingly paradoxical conclusion as this. That would take too long and presupposes too much backstory. Instead, I want to say why I think this sort of thing is worth taking seriously.
Here we have a classic example of where philosophy produces a conclusion repugnant to plain common sense. This one is borderline self-contradictory. If there is no such thing as meaning something by a word, then can Kripke mean what he says? Don’t we already know such a thesis must be false as soon as we understand it?
Kripke’s statement is important in my opinion because it forces us to question the network of inter-related concepts attached to meaning something (meaning, understanding, intending, expressing etc.proposition, sentence, word, language, communication etc.) These concepts are taken for granted in everyday life. More than that, they are like tools of thought. We use them to help us understand other people and our place in the world.
The importance of a philosophical argument that produces a conclusion that conflicts with our commonsensical conceptual repetoire is that it brings into question that repetoire. If those very basic tools we use to understand ourselves and others are somehow defective, then this is important. And we must know it. We must either prove the tools true by showing how the arguments that called them into question are flawed, or we must replace the tools with better ones.
I don’t see how the arguments that lead to Kripke’s remark can be faulted, so I’m very interested in what changes to our concepts of meaning and understanding we need to accept as a consequence.
But no one can know whether there is any practical benefit to fixing our conceptual tools if they are defective. Our tools might work OK as approximations, given the sorts of jobs we actually need them for in everyday life (the way ordinary carpenter’s tools work well for building ordinary household objects even if we couldn’t use them to build inter-gallactic spacecraft). On the other hand, there could be practical benefit to revising our conceptual tools. It could make it possible to think thoughts no one would ever think given the channels made obvious by the concepts we currently use.
A paradox like Kripke’s is a good sign something is wrong (either in his argument or in the everyday concepts the argument calls into question). It is worth investigating matters to try to discover which alternative obtains and if it is the second, to try to revise the everyday concepts.