The idea of meaning plays, together with the notion of caring, a pivotal role in recent nursing theory, informing its approach to philosophy, research and practice. Unlike caring, however, it has received relatively little analytical attention – a fact that is surprising in view of the scepticism about meaning that is characteristic of much contemporary philosophy and social theory. This paper reviews the philosophical literature on meaning, highlighting sceptical currents in the Wittgensteinian corpus, neo-behaviourism and poststructuralism. It also considers a similar line of thought that has emerged in social theory, questioning the explanatory value of concepts such as ‘practice’, ‘culture’, ‘norms’, ‘tacit knowledge’, and ‘tradition’. All these perspectives suggest that there is something wrong with the common-sense picture of a set of shared, implicit rules that account for our ability to understand and communicate; and they all point to an alternative picture which is naturalistic, materialist and causal, and which depicts ‘shared meaning’ as a rather mysterious quality, unable to explain the familiar regularities of verbal and nonverbal behaviour. In this picture, while the idea of meaning can be retained, it ceases to be something shared, and becomes something individual and idiosyncratic, a unique cluster of associations, concomitants, and other habits of thought. The paper closes with a brief interpretation of what the alternative implies for a research methodology in nursing. In particular, it proposes that certain well established approaches will have to be abandoned, and that qualitative strategies will have to be grounded in a rigorous scientific framework, rather than in techniques (such as phenomenology), which presuppose a misleading and inaccurate conception of what meaning is.