In defense of hearing meanings


According to the inferential view of language comprehension, we hear a speaker’s utterance and infer what was said, drawing on our competence in the syntax and semantics of the language together with background information. On the alternative perceptual view, fluent speakers have a non-inferential capacity to perceive the content of speech. On this view, when we hear a speaker’s utterance, the experience confers some degree of justification on our beliefs about what was said in the absence of defeaters. So, in the absence of defeaters, we can come to know what was said merely on the basis of hearing the utterance. Several arguments have been offered against a pure perceptual view of language comprehension, among others, arguments pointing to its alleged difficulties accounting for homophones and the context-sensitivity of ordinary language. After responding to challenges to the perceptual view of language comprehension, I provide a new argument in favor of the perceptual view by looking closer at the dependence of the justificatory qualities of experience on the notion of a defeater as well as the perceptual nature of language learning and language processing.

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  1. 1.

    It is slightly misleading to talk about auditorily perceiving what is said (or loosely: hearing meanings). In far the most cases, we don’t auditorily perceive what is said, but see people say something. The latter case is not a case of auditory experience as such but rather one of multisensory experience. It is to be expected, of course, that seeing lip movement and gestures can contribute in significant ways to our perceptual grasp of what is said. I shall set aside these more complicated cases here but hope to deal with them in future work.

  2. 2.

    The second epistemic component is, in principle, an optional addition to the perceptual view. However, the attractiveness of the perceptual view may in part depend on the cogency of the argument for the epistemic component.

  3. 3.

    Here I follow the tradition in linguistics of using ‘utterance contents’ and ‘utterance meanings’ synonymously.

  4. 4.

    There are, of course, other ways to block the Davidsonian line of argument. So, this line of argument should not be taken to be the main reason to adopt the perceptual view of language comprehension.

  5. 5.

    This is not to say that O’Callaghan’s intention in putting forth the argument was to establish that we don’t perceive semantic properties but only that one might potentially use this sort of argument to attempt to show that we don’t perceive semantic properties.

  6. 6.

    Here we can imagine that someone is simply named ‘Poll’, pronounced like the English word. The utterer would then be asking someone to give the doll to Poll.

  7. 7.

    Longworth (2008) notes that the appearance that a sentence like ‘More people have been to France than I have’ is meaningful may persist even after we realize that it is, in fact, incomprehensible.

  8. 8.

    See, e.g., for a cat allegedly expressing how much she loves her owner. Retrieved on 15 December 2015.

  9. 9.

    Food Tongue Wiki,

  10. 10.

    “FoodTongue: Interview with Alan Huang”, Retrieved on 16 December 2015.

  11. 11.

    1(a) Yogurt! Plantain wasabi! Apple cauliflower Berry [Hello. And welcome. My name is Berit], 1(b) Apple oyster Food Tongue; apple sauce Food Tongue grass ham-sandwich tongue [I love Food Tongue; I think Food Tongue is a math camper language], 1(c) Food Tongue grass tongue quiche stew camper fish ham-sandwich yellow-pepper dough. Mint tongue-slice calamari grass food. [Food Tongue is a language that math campers invented in mathcamp in the past. Each lexical item is a kind of food.]


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I am grateful to Brendan Balcerak-Jackson, Ned Block, Anna Drożdżowicz, Casey O’Callaghan, Francois Recanati, Josh Weisberg and Wayne Wu for helpful discussion of these issues and to Elijah Chudnoff, Kathrin Glüer, Anandi Hattiangadi, Casey Landers, Luca Moretti, Peter Pagin, Tommaso Piazza, David Poston, Dag Westerståhl, audiences at Stockholm and Houston and two anonymous reviewers for this journal for helpful comments on a previous version of the paper.

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Correspondence to Berit Brogaard.

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Brogaard, B. In defense of hearing meanings. Synthese 195, 2967–2983 (2018).

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  • Ambiguity
  • Cognitive penetration
  • Cognitive phenomenology
  • Language comprehension
  • Perceptual learning
  • Phenomenal contrast argument
  • Phenomenal dogmatism
  • Presentational phenomenology
  • Polysemy
  • Top-down influences