Source: Lecture 1-5 (transcription), ... How to Reason and Argue, by Prof W Sinnott-Armstrong The following is from a question that pops up during the video at 3 min 14 seconds.

[Question:] When a word DOES describe or refer to an object, is the meaning of that word the same as the object to which it refers?

[Answer:] No. If my only neighbor is the mayor of my town, the phrases “my neighbor” and “my mayor” refer to the same person. Nonetheless, these phrases still have different meanings, because one is used to describe where that person lives (next to me) and the other is used to describe what that person does (the job of mayor). But if two phrases have different meanings but refer to the same object, then their meanings cannot be the same as the object to which they refer.

Would you please explain the bolded? How's it right?
If 'two phrases ... refer to the same object', then they must share AT LEAST ONE mutual meaning, namely the one which refers to the object?

  • 1
    If the two phrases from the examples have the same meaning, then the phrase "my neighbor is the mayor" would be a tautology. That makes such definition of meaning rather useless.
    – J-mster
    Apr 16, 2015 at 19:56
  • 4
    The man who murdered Smith and The man who just came in mean different things, but they could refer to the same individual. Meaning is not the same as reference.
    – jlawler
    Apr 16, 2015 at 20:06

2 Answers 2


There is some confusion in the use of the term meaning here. The idea that the lecturer is explaining goes back to Frege's notions of Sinn and Bedeutung. The latter is better translated as 'reference', while the former is 'sense', rather than 'meaning'. English meaning has been historically used to translate both of Frege's terms, so that it became unsuitable for both.

With this proviso, we can better understand what the lecturer says: a phrase can be thought of as a mode of presenting some object. Different modes of presentation can be used with reference to the same real-world object. For example, the winner of the 2016 presidential election and the husband of Melania Knauss, though having different senses, refer to the same person: Donald Trump.

  • But what if we then ask 'What does Donald Trump mean?' or 'What sense does he have?'?
    – Greg Lee
    Jan 13, 2017 at 19:31
  • According to Saul Kripke's famous stance, such a word as Donald Trump means only that exact person and nothing else, in any of the possible worlds. It only has meaning (which Kripke intends as equivalent to reference), and no sense. Jan 13, 2017 at 19:42

As the comments on your question say, meaning is not the same as reference. All of the following could potentially refer to the same real world person, but they all have different meanings. Only real world knowledge would allow you to identify that they are co-referent.

The man who murdered Smith
The man who just came in
The man who stole my heart
The Prime Minister of India
The last man who walked on the moon
The creator of Skynet
The lead singer of U2

But if two phrases have different meanings but refer to the same object, then their meanings cannot be the same as the object to which they refer.

The first half is clear I think. They all mean different things, and there doesn't have to be any shared meaning between them.

But I don't know what the second half is trying to say. Real world objects don't have meaning in and of themselves.

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