Wednesday, April 1, 2015

What does "I love you" mean?

Within the context of a romantic relationship, uttering the sentence, "I love you" can be quite significant.  Consider our friend George Costanza, who deliberates over telling his then-girlfriend that he loves her.  Hilarity ensues.

People wonder about when it is appropriate to tell their significant other that they love them.  Tell them too early, like during a first date, and that comes off as really creepy.  Waiting too long, of course, is also not good.  When is the ideal time to drop the L-bomb?

Part of understanding the appropriateness of the phrase involves understanding what the phrase actually means.  There are two possible approaches in understanding the meaning of "I love you."

In the philosophy of language, there are two approaches to understanding how language works.  One approach is called semantics.  The other is called pragmatics.  Semantics is the study of the informational content of words and phrases.  Under this approach, language contains information, which in turn can be evaluated as being true or false.  This information can affect our beliefs, actions and reasoning processes.  When most people think of meaning within the context of language, they have semantics in mind.

There is another way to approach language, however.  Words and phrases, instead of conveying information, can themselves be used to perform actions, similar to how we perform actions with our bodies like giving a handshake, making a pot of coffee, or signing a check.  These sorts of actions are called "speech acts."  For example, in a Blackjack game, you might say to the dealer, "Hit me."  This phrase, rather than communicating specific informational content, is interpreted as an action by the player, i.e. requesting to be dealt an additional card.  Likewise, in a wedding, the officiant my utter the phrase, "I now pronounce you husband and wife."  Again, the point of this utterance is not necessarily to convey information.  Instead, the officiant is performing an action, i.e. making official the marital status of bride and groom.

So, a big area in the philosophy of language involves determining whether certain phrases or types of phrases should be treated as semantic or pragmatic.  For example, there are words like "might" and "must" that are used in sentences like "Bob might be late today" or "The keys must be in the drawer."  How should we treat words like these?  Should they be treated semantically, i.e. as contributing to the informational content of the sentence, or should they be treated pragmatically, i.e. as performing a speech act?

We can ask the same question about the phrase "I love you."  When I tell my girlfriend that I love her, am I conveying some information, or am I performing a speech.act?  What would be the difference between these two approaches.  Well the main thing is this.  If the phrase is treated semantically, then it means that it has a truth value.  It has conditions under which it is evaluated as true and conditions under which it is false.  So when I tell my girlfriend that I love her, and were she to treat that phrase semantically, she might have in mind a set of conditions under which that claim would be true.

Suppose instead that she treated the phrase as a speech act.  A speech act doesn't have a truth conditions, because a speech act isn't true or false, much in the same way that making a pot of coffee isn't something that can be evaluated as true or false.  To interpret the phrase "I love you" as a speech act would be to interpret it as a gesture, like a hug or a kiss on the cheek.

Our attitude about the phrase "I love you" will differ based on how we interpret the phrase.  We often stress out about saying because we think we have to satisfy certain criteria before properly uttering the phrase.  To think that the phrase is only treated in one way would be a mistake, in my opinion.  Sometimes we use the phrase semantically, sometimes we use it pragmatically.

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