An Assessment of (Mentalist) Cognitive Semantics

Esa Itkonen


Common claims within cognitive semantics (e.g. Johnson 1987; Lakoff 1987; Langacker 1987) are that “the most fundamental issue in linguistic theory is the nature of meaning” and “meaning is a matter of conceptualization”. But the latter claim creates a problem. On the one hand, for many cognitive semanticists conceptualization takes place under the level of consciousness. On the other hand, semantic analysis is carried out on the level of consciousness, namely by means of (conscious) intuition-cum-introspection. What is, then, meaning? As Wittgenstein argues, meaning is use, understood as a web of intersubjective norms, comparable to rules of a game and accessible to conscious intuition. In this article I elaborate on this claim, and thus offer critique to those who equate linguistic meaning with conceptualizations understood as private mental representations. Furthermore, I argue that the non-causal study of norms (langue) must be kept separate from the causal study of (norm-following or norm-breaking) behaviour (parole). Because of its variationist nature, linguistic behaviour demands statistical explanation.

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