Criterion of meaning

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In philosophy, the term criterion of meaning denotes a general standard for distinguishing rationally meaningful statements from meaningless statements.

Logical empiricism

A fundamental goal of logical empiricism was to differentiate cognitively meaningful statements from statements that have no cognitive meaning. This does not exclude that the latter z. B. can have an emotive or metaphorical sense. The logical empiricists, however, took the position that only cognitively meaningful statements can be treated scientifically and rationally. On the other hand, z. B. Rudolf Carnap in the fulfillment of the empirical criterion of meaning only a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for the scientific quality of a statement or a statement system. According to Carnap, especially in pseudosciences such as B. Astrology , statements that are cognitively meaningful, but are not scientific for other reasons. The criterion of meaning must therefore not be misunderstood as a criterion for the demarcation between science on the one hand and non-science on the other, or even as a criterion for pseudoscience .

Rather, the criterion of meaning is directed against those systems that were called metaphysics in the language of logical empiricists . Representatives of the Vienna Circle and the logical empiricists called such systems metaphysics, which consist of emotive and metaphorical statements, but incorrectly treat them as if they were cognitively meaningful statements. In contrast to religion or art, which try to create a certain attitude towards life through emotive and metaphorical statements, a metaphysician uses such statements incorrectly as cognitively meaningful; In the opinion of the representatives of the Vienna Circle, this incorrect use of language repeatedly created pseudo-problems within philosophy.

Based on an empirical basic conception, the criterion of meaning in its first form reads: The meaning of a statement is the method of its verification. Accordingly, all of the statements are meaningful if they can be verified on the basis of observations . "If a statement does not express a fact, it has no meaning." Carnap's criticism was particularly directed against meaningless words and syntactically incorrect sentences. His prime example was the Heidegger sentence: "Nothing does not."

Criticisms both within logical empiricism and from outside have given rise to several modifications of the criterion of meaning. Doubts about the verifiability of scientific statements, especially the impossibility of verifying so-called general statements , have led to the demand for verifiability being abandoned. On the other hand, the deductive method proposed by Popper was rejected as too narrow. Instead, Carnap generalized the terms probation and verifiability in such a way that both inductive and deductive methods are permitted so that a sentence fulfills the criterion of meaning.

Another problem is that scientific theories contain sentences and terms ( theoretical term ) that cannot be formulated as verifiable observational sentences without resulting in a system of statements that cannot be handled by the practicing scientist. On the one hand, this has led to Alfred Jules Ayer and Carnap each developing different relational criteria of meaning. These relational criteria have in common that it is no longer necessary to confirm (or test) every statement itself, but that under certain conditions it is sufficient that confirmable or testable statements can be logically derived from a statement.

Another concept developed by Carnap to deal with the problem of theoretical terms is two-stage theory. According to her, the scientific language is divided into two languages: a theoretical language and an observational language. Statements in the observation language automatically meet the criterion for meaning. Statements are also empirically meaningful if they can be expressed or translated into the observation language. However, for theoretical statements and terms that cannot be fully translated into observation language, the prognosis relevance is required; d. That is, from such theoretical statements it must be possible to infer testable statements in the observation language, which cannot be inferred without them.

A critical objection to the empirical criterion of meaning is that it is not exclusively justified logically, but that it is normative or was introduced for reasons of expediency. Since John Leslie Mackie , however, the explanation of the normative has also moved into the field of view of empirical philosophers.

Another objection to the criterion of meaning is that it is too tolerant, i. This means that systems of statements can be specified that are not meaningful and still meet the meaning criterion according to the bilingual concept. According to Carnap, the requirement for prognostic relevance for theoretical terms is therefore only a minimum requirement, but not a sufficient condition for a cognitively meaningful system of statements.

Pragmatic maxim

Also as a criterion of meaning that is pragmatic maxim of Charles S. Peirce construed:

Consider what effects, which could conceivably have practical relevance, we ascribe to the object of our concept in our imagination. Then our concept of these effects is the whole of our concept of the object. (CP 5.402)

According to Peirce, the meaning of a thought lies in the behavioral disposition it generates for a possible action.


  1. In his answer to K. Popper's contribution (PA Schilpp: The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap. ) Carnap takes the view that the dispute between Popper and logical empiricism results in part from the misunderstanding that both are dealing with the same problem of delimitation. In fact, however, both would deal with different problems: the logical empiricists delimit the cognitively meaningful statements, Popper, however, the delimitation of the empirical-scientific statements, which only made up a subset of the cognitively meaningful statements. Carnap sees Popper's problem and his attempt at a solution in principle as compatible or complementary to logical empiricism, but rejects its concrete solution, since in his opinion pure deductivism is not expedient.
  2. see Moritz Schlick : Philosophical Logic. Frankfurt 1986, p. 144.
  3. ^ Rudolf Carnap: Sham Problems in Philosophy. P. 47.
  4. K. Popper: Logic of Research
  5. Wolfgang Stegmüller : Problems and results of the philosophy of science and analytical philosophy. Volume II, Theory and Experience, 1974
  6. ^ R. Carnap: Autobiography. In: PA Schilpp (Ed.): The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap.