Four Senses of 'Meaning' in the History of Ideas: Quentin Skinner's Theory of Historical Interpretation

in Journal of the Philosophy of History
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Abstract

At least four different senses of 'meaning' need to be kept separate when describing the proper way to do the history of ideas. The first sense, communicative meaning, relies on the communicative intentions of the author and is very close to H. P. Grice's 'nonnatural meaning'. The second sense, meaning as significance or importance, is close to Grice's "natural meaning," but I focus on a type that depends on human interests; in this sense, meaning as significance is always relative to a person or group and changes as the events or the interests of the person or group change. I show that Quentin Skinner in his classic article, "Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas," confuses these senses. While historians of ideas often focus on identifying communicative meaning, what historians care most about is the significance or importance that something had for people in the past or in the present.

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