Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS)


About the Centre

image of brain with letters marked on, language and meaning

Research on most characteristically human activities - conversation, text and reasoning - relies on an explanation of how meaning arises from language use. 

While psycholinguistic and computational approaches to language have by now made great progress in determining the sounds and grammatical structures of language, progress on meaning remains elusive. The reasons for this are twofold. First, meaning is productive, constructed in part from basic building blocks, described in the work of philosophers and logicians of the last century. Second, meaning in language use is significantly influenced by two interacting sets of factors: linguistic and social/pragmatic. The productivity of language makes the determination by simple statistical or big-data methods limited to a small subset of phenomena: current AI produces impressively accurate translations (when trained on enormous data sets) but it lacks the ability to accurately answer simple factual questions about the content of a text. While compositional models can provide accurate analyses of texts, they are restricted to simple samples and cannot integrate the nitty gritty of context and nuance. 

The elusive problem is to provide a framework which pinpoints the way in which productive composition is modulated by these factors. In the recent past, some real progress has been made by linguists and philosophers of language in developing explicit theories of meaning construction in context. This progress has come about in part through the use of a wider range of methods, especially formal/analytical, experimental and computational methods; in part it has come about through the embrace of a wider range of ideas, drawn from game theory, economics, and Bayesian models in psychology. Ideas from deep learning are also now being integrated into compositional models of meaning.  

UCL is in an ideal position to lead theoretically-informed research on linguistic meaning. We house leading scholars in philosophy of language, linguistics semantics and pragmatics, and psychology. Most importantly, here and in the context of the wider London environment there is a rich tradition of dialogue among philosophers, linguists and psychologists when it comes to research on meaning. In particular, members of UCL philosophy and linguistics departments were among the founders of a leading interdisciplinary journal Mind and Language; while the Pragmatics Reading Group has for more than thirty years been a forum for interdisciplinary researchers on meaning. 

More recently, several specifically interdisciplinary activities have made the links even stronger. Currently, UCL’s philosophy and linguistics departments have a number of prominent researchers working on meaning, and have already been co-operating across the faculty boundaries on graduate teaching, workshops and events, and research.