Varieties of Meaning

From Jean Nicod Lectures

Varieties of Meaning

The 2002 Jean Nicod Lectures

By Ruth Garrett Millikan

Bradford Books





Many different things are said to have meaning: people mean to do various things; tools and other artifacts are meant for various things; people mean various things by using words and sentences; natural signs mean things; representations in people's minds also presumably mean things. In Varieties of Meaning, Ruth Garrett Millikan argues that these different kinds of meaning can be understood only in relation to each other.

What does meaning in the sense of purpose (when something is said to be meant for something) have to do with meaning in the sense of representing or signifying? Millikan argues that the explicit human purposes, explicit human intentions, are represented purposes. They do not merely represent purposes; they possess the purposes that they represent. She argues further that things that signify, intentional signs such as sentences, are distinguished from natural signs by having purpose essentially; therefore, unlike natural signs, intentional signs can misrepresent or be false.

Part I discusses "Purposes and Cross-Purposes"—what purposes are, the purposes of people, of their behaviors, of their body parts, of their artifacts, and of the signs they use. Part II then describes a previously unrecognized kind of natural sign, "locally recurrent" natural signs, and several varieties of intentional signs, and discusses the ways in which representations themselves are represented. Part III offers a novel interpretation of the way language is understood and of the relation between semantics and pragmatics. Part IV discusses perception and thought, exploring stages in the development of inner representations, from the simplest organisms whose behavior is governed by perception-action cycles to the perceptions and intentional attitudes of humans.

Bradford Books imprint


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262134446 254 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 3 illus.


$25.00 X ISBN: 9780262633420 254 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 3 illus.


  • An outstanding and exciting book on the relationship between purpose and reference, and essential reading for cognitive scientists interested in the naturalization of intentionality.

    Vittorio Gallese

    Department of Neuroscience, University of Parma

  • Ruth Millikan's project is nothing less than a complete account of signs—animal and human, natural and intentional, public and inner—and it is wonderfully realized, carefully argued, and richly exemplified. Varieties of Meaning is essential and engrossing reading for philosophers of mind, cognitive psychologists and linguists, and for everyone else who cares about how we think and communicate.

    Robyn Carston

    University College London

  • Varieties of Meaning is essential reading for those interested in mind and language. Millikan deepens and extends her pioneering theory of mental and linguistic content. She clarifies the role of teleology and information in her approach; she advances the provocative thesis that words can be used to perceive the world directly; and she offers an exciting new account of the difference between human and nonhuman thought. Her pages sparkle with colorful examples of animal behavior, sensible correctives to orthodox views, and resonant new insights. In short, this is quintessential Millikan.

    Jesse J. Prinz

    Department of Philosophy, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, author of Furnishing the Mind

  • Over past two decades, Ruth Millikan has been showing philosophers how many central philosophical categories are best understood within a biological framework. Her work has revolutionized our understanding of mental representation and language. Varieties of Meaning pulls together these themes and illuminates them further with a series of powerful insights about the evolution of cognition.

    David Papineau

    Department of Philosophy, King's College London