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Meaning theory and the problem of the acquisition of a first language

The thesis begins by making two distinctions which are central to its methodology. The first is that between valid and invalid criticism, the second between philosophy of language and meaning theory. These distinctions combine to produce the methodology which informs the thesis, namely that a theory of meaning can be validly criticised in terms of its account, implicit or explicit, of first language acquisition and, conversely, an account of first language acquisition can be validly criticised in terms of its theory, implicit or explicit, of meaning. The thesis continues by testing the appropriateness of the methodology against the classical empiricist and rationalist accounts of meaning expressed in terms of Ideas, arguing that the majority of criticisms of these accounts misfire as they do not operate within the framework of the positions they purport to criticise. Such invalid criticism is replaced with that argued for here, the conclusion being that the classical accounts of meaning are to be rejected on the grounds that they make use of a phenomenon, language, whose acquisition they cannot, within the terms of their own position, explain. Modern, post-Fregean, empiricist and rationalist positions, those of Quine and Chomsky respectively, are then subjected to similar treatment. Both of these positions have explicit accounts of first language acquisition and so the conclusion to this section of the thesis reverses that reached when discussing the classical positions, in that the explanations of first language acquisition given by modern empiricists and rationalists are based on meaning theories which, for a variety of reasons, do not justify their explanations of the phenomenon of first language acquisition. In an attempt to move towards a more positive position two alternative accounts of meaning theory, the formal and the descriptive, are then examined. The formal account, Davidson's, is defended against those critics who produce attacks centering upon its meaning theory as being, in the sense described above, invalid. However, as it is then shown not to be able to account for first language acquisition, it is eventually rejected. The descriptivist account is identified by tracing the development of Wittgenstein's philosophy to support a particular interpretation of his later account of meaning as being a descriptive one and a defence is offered to a number of criticisms of that position. A poorly worked out experiential account of first language acquisition is then identified, and this is developed further by introducing the area of non-linguistics, where meaning can be given without words. The thesis concludes by suggesting that this area's account of first language acquisition, although having a number of difficulties with its implied meaning theory, can be combined with the later work of Wittgenstein to produce what is at least a descriptively adequate account of both meaning and first language acquisition.
CreatorsGilroy, David Peter
PublisherUniversity College London (University of London)
Source SetsEthos UK
Detected LanguageEnglish
TypeElectronic Thesis or Dissertation

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