This paper has two principal aims: first, to develop a critique of representational theories of meaning, and second, to outline and defend Merleau-Ponty’s alternative theory of language as gesture. Representational theories are here defined as those which characterise “the crucial activity relevant for linguistic meaning as the framing of linguistic representations”. These theories consider that words are meaningful in virtue of being associated with aspects of the world. As a consequence, their plausibility depends on potential speakers having a certain kind of perceptual grasp of the world. More precisely, if a representational theory is to work, a potential speaker’s perceptual grasp of the world must be sufficient such that she could associate linguistic symbols with those aspects given in perception.
In The Phenomenology of Perception Merleau-Ponty discusses two theories of perception that satisfy this requirement – first, empiricism and second, what he calls “intellectualism”. In the first half of this paper (parts I-IV) I will outline and defend his reasons for rejecting these theories, before briefly defending his own theory of perception. If Merleau-Ponty’s view is correct, then we do not have the sort of perceptual grasp of the world that would allow us to associate symbols with its aspects. Hence, in the absence of a plausible alternative theory of perception that meets the requirement stated above, I argue that we should reject representational theories of linguistic meaning. The second half of this paper (parts V-VI) outlines Merleau-Ponty’s own theory of language. He argues that linguistic expressions are manifestly meaningful in the way that bodily gestures are. Instead of having a meaning in virtue of being associated with world-aspects, words “are in themselves a comprehensible text”. The last part of this paper attempts to defend this theory against several objections. I argue that this theory is able to give a better account of our experience of linguistic creativity than a representational theory. I argue that this constitutes a second reason to prefer Merleau-Ponty’s gestural theory of meaning over a representational one.