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.
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.
 Davidson, Donald, Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective, Oxford University Press, 2001.