How to Think about Meaning develops an even more radical mentalist semantics, which it does by shifting the object of semantic inquiry. Whereas for classical semantics the object of analysis is an abstract sentence or utterance such as “Grass is green”, for attitudinal semantics the object of inquiry is a propositional attitude such as “Speaker so-and-so thinks grass is green”. Explicit relativization to some speaker S allows for semantic theory then to make contact with psychology, sociology, historical linguistics, and other empirical disciplines.
The attitudinal approach is motivated both by theoretical considerations and by its practical success in dealing with recalcitrant phenomena in the theory of meaning. These include: presuppositions as found in hate speech, and more generally the connotative force of evaluative language; the problem of how to represent ambiguity; quotation and the use-mention distinction; and the liar paradox, which appears to contradict truth-based semantics.
Allan develops a series of analogies between Whitehead’s ideas about how we learn and key concepts in his later metaphysical writings, demonstrating that both how we learn and how the world changes involve a tension between open-ended exploration and systematic organization. Novel ideas free us from the blinders imposed by old habits and beliefs. Yet only when these ideas are integrated with the old ways are we able to improve our individual and collective lives—until changing circumstances call for further new ideas and fresh integrations.
Using a rich variety of examples, Allan illuminates the metaphysical ideas he explores by tethering them concretely to the educational practices in which they are rooted. This shows a key but neglected feature of Whitehead’s thought: his pragmatic theory of truth, with its functionalist approach to experience and its humanistic appreciation of the frailty of all human endeavors.