The Meaning of Meaning

Years ago, my brothers and I started debating the existence of absolute truth.  My brothers defended its existence and knowability.  I questioned its knowability, if not its very existence.   After decades retracing the same ground, our dialogue began to seem less like a path to enlightenment than a rut.  My brothers still believed in absolute, objective truth, and that it’s possible to know at least some of it, while I stuck to my subjectivist guns.

My subjectivism included the matter of language.  I see words as arbitrary patterns of sound waves without inherent meaning, which is to say, lacking any meaning until two or more people reach agreement (or at least think they’ve reached agreement) on what idea those sound waves represent.  The word “fruit” is not inherent in apples or oranges.  Not only the sound f-r-u-i-t but the very concept of fruit exists only in the mind.  A “fruit” is not a real thing, but a category, a label for an idea.  And ideas, as we all know, exist only in the mind. 

Having agreed that early ancestors of MacIntosh and Granny Smith had enough in common to be called “apples,” and that the ancestors of navels and clementines had enough in common to be called “oranges,” we then went further and called them both “fruit.”  Slicing and dicing with our verbal ginsu knives, we label some fruit as “citrus.” We group fruit with legumes and call them both plants.  We add ourselves and elephants as mammals, then add plants and viruses and call us all “living things.” All the while, scientists debate the very idea of what living things are, including and excluding actual things from what is, I maintain, just a concept.  Importantly, the things themselves are not affected by what the scientists call them.  A rose remains a rose, by whatever name we call it.   

And so language, I say, remains subjective.  We attempt to group and classify real things by using conceptual labels.  We distinguish between a gallop and a trot, but we ignore the difference between the way I “walk” and the way a thoroughbred horse does, or a camel or a duck.  Arbitraily, subjectively, we call them all the same thing: “walk.”  Why not distinguish between a walk and a shawk and a mawk?  It’s all very arbitrary.  What constitutes a “walk” is obviously an idea – and ideas exist only in the mind.

Comfortable in my subjectivist philosophy of language, I recently came across the late Hilary Putnam, former Harvard professor and president of the American Philosophical Association.  Putnam famously claimed that “meaning ain’t just in the head.”  In his books Meaning and Reference (1973) and The Meaning of Meaning (1975), he used a thought experiment to demonstrate that the meanings of terms are affected by factors outside the mind.

Essentially, Putnam did this by asking us to imagine a world that is a perfect twin of Earth – that is, in every way but one.  The only exception is that its lakes, rivers, and oceans are filled not with H20 but with XYZ.  But everything else is identical, including people, and their tongues, and their languages – so that both Earth’s Frederick and Twin-Earth’s Froderick use the identical word “water” to refer to the stuff that fills the oceans on their respective planets.  Since Frederick and Froderick are physically indistinguishable, and since their words “water” have different meanings, those meanings cannot be determined solely by what is in their heads.  

So said Putnam.

The idea that meanings are rooted in real things, not just in subjective minds, became known as “semantic externalism.” It was credited with bringing about an “anti-subjectivist revolution” in philosophy, a revolution that threw into question the very “truth” of subjective experience.[1]

Yikes!  Was I wrong yet again?  Did I have to rethink my whole philosophy of language?  Did I have to concede to my brothers that there is such a thing as objectivity, at least in the meaning of words?

Not so fast.

Putnam’s Twin Earth thought experiment had me worried.  But at the end of the day, I decided it suffers from the common logical fallacy that its conclusion is contained in its premise.   The real question, I believe, boils down to one that Putnam may have had in mind when he titled one of his books The Meaning of Meaning.

If language is as subjective as I suppose, and if words can mean different things to different people, as I believe, who’s to say what a word really means?  I don’t believe there’s an objective answer, and perhaps Dr. Putnam did, but I think it may come down to what we mean by the word “meaning.” When faced with such questions, I’ve often sought the judgment of etymology, the history of words. I find it instructive to retrace the way words (and their meanings) change over time. And so I set out to unearth the etymological path by which the word “meaning” came to have meaning.

According to my research, the word is related to the Greek and Latin root men– (“to think”) from which English words like mental and mentor have derived.  It came into Old English as the verb maenan, meaning to state one’s intention, to intend, to have something in mind.  And much later, the verb “to mean” led to formation of the verbal noun, “meaning.”

From an etymological perspective, I would argue that meaning is therefore subjective, by definition.  If to “mean” something means to “have it in mind,” then there cannot be meaning independent of someone’s mind.  Definitionally, it is the idea formulated in the mind.  The person whose tongue pronounces the word’s sound is trying to convey the meaning in her mind.  And when the listener who hears the sound uses it to form an idea in her mind, “meaning” happens again.  To “mean” something is, always, to have an idea in mind.

I find it interesting to imagine the day, within the past few hundred years, on which two people were watching a meteor shower, or a lightning storm, or a two-headed snake – some occurrence that struck them as an omen of sorts – and one of them first asked the question, “What does it mean?”

It’s a question we’ve all asked at some point – if not about an omen, then about a symbol, a gesture, or some other mindless thing. The question has become an accepted expression in modern English.  But what a momentous event, the first time it was asked!  Here we had a word – to “mean” something – which (at the time) meant that a speaker had some concept “in mind” and “intended” to convey that concept to another.  That is, as then used, the word clearly referred to a subjective concept.  You’d long been able to ask what a person meant, intended, or “had in mind.” But when the question was first asked, “what does it mean?” referring to a lightning bolt, an earthquake, or a flood, the one asking the question was implicitly asking another, broader question – whether, perhaps, the “it” – the burning bush, the flood, the electrical discharge – could have “something in mind.” 

Alternatively, they were asking if the thing or event had been endowed with a meaning by virtue of having been in the “mind” of some superconscious deity that had caused the event.  If the “meaning” was that which had been in the mind of such a deity, it was arguably still subjective, i.e., still dependent on the idea that existed in a particular mind.  But if the meaning had originated in the thing or event itself – in the rock, or the flame, or the electrical discharge – then the conclusion would have to be that “meaning” can exist independent of a mind.

At any rate, it seems to me that whoever first asked the question, “What does it mean,” was expanding the very idea of “meaning.” Until that moment, to “mean” something meant to have it in mind.  To think it.  Until that moment, as I see it, everyone understood that “meaning” is entirely subjective.  To ask what “it” means was a misuse of the word.

And so, on the basis of etymology, I stand my ground.  “Meanings,” by definition, are ideas that form in the mind.  The idea of fruit.  The idea of walking.  Even Mr. Putnam’s theory of semantic externalism – that meaning “ain’t just in the head” – is an idea that, like all ideas, is just in the head.


[1] Davidson, Donald, Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective, Oxford University Press, 2001.

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3 thoughts on “The Meaning of Meaning”

  1. When I think of external meaning, I am thinking of whatever reality may be. I am not even attempting to describe it with words. I give it the genetal term, “reality.” I am convinced that there is only one reality, not yours and mine. Your reality and my reality we would more accurately call perceptions.

    There is also “truth.” Your truth is what you think is real and may not be the same as my truth. But neither of these is what I call “the truth.” Like reality, the one reality, there is also the one truth. The one reality includes all that is real. The one truth includes all that is either real or abstract.

    I often speak of “all possibility.” These are the best words I know of to describe the one totality of truth that doesn’t have to be real and doesn’t have to be conceived by anyone’s mind to be a fact.

    I add the word “abstract” to emphasize my intention, which is to convey that I am not necessarily talling about anything that exists in any realm. That category of “stuff” that could hypothetically exist but does not exist and may not ever possibly come into being, I still refer to as anstract possibility. So by “all-possibility”, I also mean the impossible. And by “truth” in this singular absolute sense, I am neither referring to the one reality nor to what is real. I am referring to two categories of things: (1) that singular truth which exists as all possibility as a reality and (2) that simgular truth which exists as abstraction in and of itself, apart from any reality other than itself.

    None of this requires that any mind should think of it. None has the capacity. Yet this singular truth and totality of possibility are what they are.

    If I say something and you do not understand what I meant, this does not mean I meant to say what you misunderstood. Words may be weak for describing meaning in that way. And we may use them poorly. But truth, in the singular way I intend it, does not require communication. I am not saying I know the fulness of it. I am merely referring to it, the way that I might refer to the word a quintillion. I’ll never count to a quintillion in my lifetime. I don’t have the capacity but I still understand a quintillion to be a thousand times a thousand times a thousand times a thousand times a thousand times a thousand. And I have counted to a thousand before. Maybe if I had a quadrillion lifetimes, I could count to a quintillion.

    Math has meaning for me but even the word “count” can be meaningless to those who discount abstraction as truth or as possibility. A quintillion what? Marbles? Diamonds? Stars? Nanny goats?

    All possibility can list the things there might be quintillions of and the list may be endless. Since it does not require that any mind should have the capacity to know it, it is free to be real as true possibility, even if impossible, and even if not in reality but only in abstraction.

    If I have ever spoken of objective external truth, this totality of possibility, real or abstract, is what I have been referring to.

    However, there are also common realities. Objectively, I can say that someone just beeped their horn as I was writing and that it happened three times. My mind may lack the capacity ro remember the timing of the beeps or to convey my experience to you accurately, even if I did. But none of that changes the fact that there were three beeps exactly. This is objective truth, however subjective it may be as I convey it. And practically anything you imagine in your mind as you think of me writing while horns are honked three times will reflect the precise reality of the fact. There is thus an objective summarative truth and there is your perception or guess about that truth in your imagination. The fact that the two are probably not the same does not nullify objective truth. It merely addresses the understanding of it.

    Indeed, language is weak in conveying ideas. And language isn’t the only thing that distances us from reality. Our inaccurate, selective memory, our poor hearing, the limitations of commin reference. We are out of touch with reality and certainly poor at communicating it. But that doesn’t mean reality doesn’t exist. And I don’t mean your reality or my reality. I mean reality.

  2. James and I agree in our thinking.
    I believe another way of putting it is that we both believe in a Creator, a power greater than ourselves, in whose likeness we are made. We also believe in another meaning of “Word”, who doesn’t merely know Truth, but is truth. It’s interesting to us that the story of our origins tells of us wanting to be like God, determining Truth for ourselves, thereby falling into disagreements due to subjective judgments, the limitations of language, and self-interest.
    Ultimate Truth requires Ultimate Being. Otherwise, it requires people who regard themselves as the Ultimate Being.
    It seems to me that there are increasing numbers of people who act like this.

    1. When this blog began some three years ago, I solicited nominations for what people considered absolute truths everyone could agree upon. David’s submission was, “We don’t know what we don’t know.” I ended up agreeing with that pearl of wisdom, and it has come to form an important part of my understanding of things. Does it bear on the comments to this most recent post?

      David begins his comment by saying, “James and I agree in our thinking.” His assertion prompts me to ask, “How does he know?” And my question to everyone is, “How does David know that he agrees with James?”

      Now, I grant that both David and James assert a belief in the existence of some absolute truth. But James stresses that he doesn’t know what it is, and that he can’t exactly describe it, but because he believes in its existence, he uses words simply to “refer to” that which he believes in. He also uses words in an effort to clarify what he “means” (intends/has in mind) when he uses other words. Then David says “I agree,” because (as I understand it), David, too, believes that some sort of Absolute Truth exists. But after saying he agrees, David then uses words like “Creator” (which James did not use) to describe what David sees this Absolute Truth to be.

      As I understand them, both James and David assert that there is Absolute Truth. I cannot disprove the existence of Absolute Truth, nor do I have any desire to, because I readily concede that such a thing may exist. But I would rush to point out that my post, “The Meaning of Meaning,” does not speak to the issue of whether Absolute Truth exists. It is a post about language and the question it was an attempt to address is whether language is entirely objective or subjective. As far as I can tell, David and James both agree with me that language is subjective.

      I leave for another day an exploration of why my post about language gets responses focused on the existence of Absolute Truth and a Creator. But since those topics have been added to the thread, I would attempt to summarize (in words) where I think this leaves us as follows:
      (1) As to the existence of Absolute Truth, James and David appear to have faith that it exists, whereas I have no similar faith – I remain entirely neutral on that question, because I consider it unknowable and I see no value in trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.
      (2) We all agree that language is imperfect and subjective.
      (3) Despite point (2), David feels able to read James’s words and assert that he agrees with them.
      (4) As I read both James’s words and David’s, I too sense an agreement in the sense that both of them have faith in the existence of some Absolute Truth, but
      (5) Whether any of James’s thoughts about the nature of Absolute Truth are the same as David’s thoughts about the nature of Absolute Truth cannot be known, because the language they (and all of us) use to communicate our thoughts is imperfect and subjective.
      Is that a fair summary?
      –Joe

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