Tag Archives: meaning

The Mechanism of Meaning (it’s all in the mind)

Meaning matters. It is bound up with so many things: understanding and misunderstanding, doubt and certainty, to say nothing of philosophy, poetry, music and art; so it is worth considering the mechanism by which it operates. ‘Mechanism’ is a useful image here: when mechanisms are hidden – as they generally are – their effects can seem mysterious, even magical (as in the marvels of the watchmaker or the stage magician); yet when they are revealed, they offer reassurance: the point of a mechanism is that, unless it is impaired or interfered with, it will go on working in the same way.

Audemars_piguet_1908_montre_poche_640_360_s_c1_center_center magician-performs-a-levitation-trick-on-stage-nita-the-hypnotised-and-suspended-lady

The problem with the mechanism of meaning is that the popular notion of it is misleading: we speak of meaning as something conveyed, like a passenger in a car, or transmitted, like a radio message; we also speak of it as being embodied or contained in things that have it, whether they are sentences, poems, works of art or the like. These two usages combine to suggest that meaning exists independently in some form, and that the business of ‘meaning’ and ‘understanding’ consists of inserting it into and extracting it from whatever is said to have it. That seems like common sense, but as we shall see, when scrutinised it proves problematic.

Wittgenstein points us in another direction with his observation that ‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language’ which he uses alongside ‘language game’ and ‘form of life’ when discussing meaning, to denote the (wider) activity of which language forms a part and from which it derives its meaning.

It strikes me that the basic mechanism of meaning lies in connection : meaning is only found where a connection is made, and that connection is made in the mind of an observer, the one who ascribes meaning. In other words, meaning is not a fixed property of things: a thing in itself, on its own, does not have meaning. But we must be careful here: this is a stick that some will readily grasp the wrong end of – to suggest that a tree or a person (say) ‘has no meaning’ is liable to provoke outrage and earnest outpourings about the inestimable value of trees and people. That is because ‘meaningless’ is a pejorative term, properly used in cases where we expect meaning but do not find it; it might be compared to our use of ‘flightless’ which we apply to certain birds that are exceptions to the general rule; we would not apply it to pigs or gorillas.


We can gain some insight into how meaning works – its mechanism – by considering an allied concept, purpose. Let us suppose some interplanetary traveller at a remote time of a quite different species to ourselves. Somewhere on his travels he comes upon this relic of a long-lost civilisation: a rectangular case constructed of semi-rigid, possibly organic material, which opens to disclose a cellular array – there are some twenty-four rectangular cells of the same organic material, each containing an identical object, rounded, hard and smooth to the touch. He is quite excited by the find as it reminds him of another he has come across – again a cellular array in a case of semi-rigid, possibly organic material, and again each cell containing a smooth, hard, rounded object, though there are differences of detail both in the shape of the cells and the objects. He may submit a learned paper to the Integalactic Open University speculating on the purpose of these strikingly similar discoveries; he is in no doubt that they are variants of the same thing, and share a common purpose, on account of the numerous points of resemblance.

Were we at his side we might smile, since one is a packet of lightbulbs and the other a box of eggs; it is likely that the resemblances that strike him as the best clues to their purpose might elude us altogether, since we would dismiss them as irrelevant – ‘that is just how they happen to be packaged, for ease of transport or storage: it has no bearing on what they are for. As to the slight similarities of shape and texture, that is mere coincidence. These objects are entirely unrelated, and could not be more unlike.’

577e028b29cf98908190de258ad90d73 light-bulb_1467547c

It is worth considering the key difference between us and the interplanetary traveller that allows us to smile at his ill-founded speculation. These are familiar objects to us, and we can connect them at once to a context or situation in which they belong, where they fit in and have purpose; our ‘reading’ of them is entirely different from the alien traveller’s – we disregard all that seems to him most striking, because we know it is of no significance. We see that the apparent similarity has nothing to do with the objects themselves, but the fact that they are both in storage, awaiting use; neither is ‘active’, i.e. in the situation or context where they are used and have purpose.


How far an examination of the objects in detail might allow our traveller to deduce, on the one hand, a national grid for distributing electricity from power stations to homes and workplaces rigged with lighting circuits, and the delights of omelettes, fried, poached and scrambled eggs on the other depends on quite how alien he is – if he a gaseous life-form sustained by starlight, he is unlikely to penetrate far into their mystery. On the other hand, if his own existence has ‘forms of life’ or activities similar to ours, he might make much better and even surprisingly accurate guesses.

That, after all, is how we ourselves proceed if we come across artefacts or objects that are unfamiliar: we guess at their purpose by thinking of the kind of the thing they might be, the sort of use they might have, by analogy with our own activities or ‘forms of life’ (and it is no accident that truly mystifying objects are often tentatively described as having ‘possible religious or ritual significance’ since in our own experience this is where many things are found whose use could not easily be guessed; and in this connection consider the use made of everyday objects in burial rites – offerings of food put alongside the dead, or cooking or eating utensils for use on the onward journey).


I would suggest that, as far as the mechanism by which they operate goes, ‘purpose’ and ‘meaning’ are the same, since both are defined in the same way, viz. by placing the thing in question in relation to some context, situation or larger activity where it has a place, where it ‘makes sense’, if you like;  (imagine our alien traveller’s reaction to being shown the circumstances in which a lightbulb is used – the mystery of the object disappears once the connections are made – literally, in this case).

This brings out important aspects of meaning that are often overlooked, not least because – as I observed at the outset – they are contradicted by most popular accounts of what meaning is. The first aspect is that meaning is not inherent: no amount of studying or dissecting the object in isolation will discover it – I emphasis ‘in isolation’ because discovering, say, the filament in the light bulb and how it is connected to the fitting at the base will advance our understanding only if we can relate them to other things: if we have no notion of electricity, or that it will make a wire filament glow brightly, then they will tell us nothing.

The second aspect is slightly trickier to explain but of greater significance. If we agree that meaning is not inherent, not something that can be found simply by examining the object no matter how minutely, then we can reasonably ask where it is located. One answer, from what we have said, is that it lies in the relation or connection to the context, situation or ‘form of life’; but I think that is not quite right.

Rather, it consists in being related to, or being connected with – in other words, it exists as the result of an action by the onlooker, and where it exists – where it means – is in that onlooker’s mind. This is not the usual account that is given of meaning, which is generally more like this, from Wikipedia:

‘meaning is what the source or sender expresses, communicates, or conveys in their message to the observer or receiver, and what the receiver infers from the current context.’

At first sight, this might not seem significantly different – we have relation to context, we have a process of inference; the main addition appears to be that the source or sender is taken into account, as well as the receiver. However, there is one slight-seeming but important difference, which is the notion of the meaning as something which retains its identity throughout, and which exists prior to the communication taking place and survives after it – the model that springs readily to mind is the letter, which the sender puts in the envelope, which is then conveyed to the recipient who takes it out and reads it.


The analogy with the letter is probably what makes this seem a ‘common sense’ account that most people would agree with, but the logic of it gives rise to problems. If we picture the process of sending a letter, we might start with the sender at her desk, pen in hand, poised to write; she puts the message on the page, folds the page and seals it in the envelope then sends it off; at the other end the recipient takes it out, reads it, and ‘gets the message’. What is the difficulty there, you might ask?
It begins to emerge if you try to make the analogy consistent. At first glance, it seems that

message (that which conveys the meaning) = envelope

But there is a problem here: the message is in the letter, rather than the envelope; in actual fact, the envelope is superfluous – the message could be sent without it, by hand, say, simply as a folded note. Still, that seems trivial – the sender puts her ideas into words, the receiver reads the words and gets her ideas: isn’t that just the same?

Not quite. The question is whether the meaning (or the message) exists before it is put into words; and if so, in what form? Again, this may seem unproblematic: of course the message exists before she writes it down; and indeed she might change her mind and instead of writing, making a phone call and say what she means instead, directly, as it were.

But we must be careful here: the question is not whether the message exists before she writes it down – or even before she speaks it – but before she puts it into words. This is where the image of  the letter in the envelope is at its most misleading: isn’t the meaning just something we put into words, in the same way we put the letter in the envelope?

That is what Wittgenstein calls the ‘private language’ argument – the notion that my thoughts are in my head in some form to which I have privileged access, and which I could choose to give public form if I wish, thereby making them accessible to others. Though this again seems like common sense, when examined closely, it is problematic. It forms the basis of popular notions of telepathy, but trying to imagine what such ‘direct transmission’ would actually consist of highlights the difficulty.

If you convey your thoughts to me, what do I experience? Do I hear your voice speaking in my head? if so, we are back to ‘putting things in words’ and no nearer any prior form our thoughts might take. The temptation is to fall back on images, as if these were somewhow more immediate (a picture is worth a thousand words, after all) but what would they be images of? And how, having received them, would I be able to infer your thought from them? A more illuminating (but no less problematic) possibility is that we might hear your thoughts as a musical phrase which we intuitively understand.

This works to some extent because we are accustomed to the idea that music can consistently evoke definite feelings in us – ‘that passage always makes me feel this way, invariably calls this to mind’ – though we have no idea how: ‘it just does’; so that seems consistent with our finding in it something that someone else has put there; but it still leaves the question of what happens at the other end – how would such a musical message originate?

The options here would seem to be either that the message is originally in some other form which I then embody in the music – which takes us back to where we started: if it’s comprehensible to me in that form, why can’t I convey that directly instead of ‘translating’ it into music? – or else we have to accept that only in expressing it do I find what I am thinking; what we experience prior to that is an urge, a sort of pressure which can only be relieved by giving it expression in some way – whether it is an inarticulate cry of rage, a musical phrase (the terrifying opening of the Dies Irae in Verdi’s Requiem, for instance), an image (Munch’s The Scream, maybe) or the words ‘I am very angry about this!’

The Scream

This brings us by a roundabout route to something I have been trying to articulate for a while  – the key distinction between language as the instrument of thought and as one means of expressing experience; but that is a subject for another article. In the meantime, I would conclude by saying that, if this account of the mechanism of meaning is accurate, then it has some interesting implications. It suggests, for instance, that meaning (like beauty) is in the eye (or mind) of the beholder; that it is not fixed, but variable; that it is impermanent; and – perhaps most importantly – it is inseparable from its context, the ‘form of life’ or wider activity of which it forms a part and on which it depends.


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Can you be offside in chess?

the-football-players-1908(The Football Players by Henri Rousseau)

Two people are arguing; one insists that you can score a drop goal in football, the other that you can’t. Eventually it emerges that the first is talking about rugby football, gaelic football and Australian rules; but the other means only association football.

So who is right? Once we know the context, that question no longer makes sense – we can say that if by ‘football’ you mean these particular codes, then it is right to say that you can score a drop goal; but if you mean only association football, then that is not the case. So what about the original question – can you or can’t you score a drop goal in football?

There is no absolute sense of ‘football’ in which the question makes sense, though it can at least be resolved; but if you asked ‘can you score a drop goal in chess?’ or ‘can you be offside in chess?’ it would be clear that you didn’t know anything about chess (you might be a foreigner who knows it is the name of a game and is trying to work out what kind of game it is).

Wittgenstein uses the terms ‘game’ and ‘way of life’ a lot in his discussion of language, and in particular of meaning. His central contention is that words have meaning only in context, only as part of a larger whole in which they stand in relation to other things; hence his dictum that ‘in most cases, the meaning of a word is its use in the language’.

To get the full force of what Wittgenstein is saying, you need to consider the position he is arguing against, which is that ‘meaning’ is something which the speaker imparts to a word by some kind of mental process, that when I make an utterance like ‘it is raining heavily’ there is some sort of parallel mental process that accompanies (and possibly precedes) my words. I suppose this arises from the idea that language is the expression of thought, which conjures an image of my thoughts forming a sort of mental cloud inside my head and my words having some correspondence to them, as if a line ran from each word to something in my mind.

(It is interesting, in passing, to see the spectre of Cartesian Dualism haunting that particular image)

But Wittgenstein’s argument is that this picture is simply mistaken and misleading and in fact unnecessary – we can explain how words mean perfectly well, indeed rather better, without having recourse to it. Meaning is a property, not of individual words, but of language, and not of some single over-arching language (an absolute ‘football’ in the terms of the argument above) but of a language made up of many different ‘codes’ or ‘games’ or ‘ways of life’.

A good dictionary illustrates this point, though at first sight it might seem to support the idea that words have fixed meanings in themselves. While a cheap dictionary will simply cite a single meaning, or a range of meanings if you are lucky, a dictionary like the OED will furnish a dated quotation to illustrate the earliest known occurrence of each particular meaning in use.

One of the earliest things you learn in studying philosophy is to define your terms; and this generally takes the form of the philosopher’s favourite statement, ‘it depends what you mean by…’ . Thus, in the argument above, one could say ‘It depends what you mean by ‘football’’ and that could quickly bring the argument to a happy resolution – but not necessarily.

This is where another of Wittgenstein’s ideas comes into play. If I was asked what makes Wittgenstein a philosopher of the first rank, I would point to his wonderful ability for quietly upsetting apple-carts – in other words, his breathtaking capacity for demolishing received ideas of central importance without making any fuss about it. In this case, the received idea is the notion of ‘essence’, which goes back to Aristotle.

Again, this is something you learn early in philosophy, and it can be a powerful tool in argument: that whatever is called by a particular name has an essence, some quality or set of qualities that makes it what it is, a defining character which entitles it to that name, and excludes other things from having the same name applied to them.

The whole system of classification from general to specific, which we also owe to Aristotle, depends on this concept: that all the members of a particular class have something in common that makes them members of that class. This is such a powerful and useful tool, with such a wide application, that we can overlook the fact that it is only a tool and (mis)take it for an actual description.

Wittgenstein, without the least fuss, demolishes the concept of essences, offering instead two other ways of looking at it: family resemblances, and strands in a thread. He uses the first in relation to games, then the second as a development of that, in relation to number:

‘Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”… what is common to them all? – Don’t say: ‘there must be something in common, or they would not be called “games”’ but look and see whether there is anything common to all.

[he cites board games, card-games (including patience), ball games (including a child throwing a ball against a wall) and even ring-a-ring-a-roses, then concludes]

And the result of this examination is: we see a  complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.

I can think of no better expression to characterise these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. – And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.

And for instance the kinds of number form a family in the same way. Why do we call something a “number”? well, perhaps because it has a – direct – relationship with several things that have hitherto been called number; and this can be said to give it an indirect relationship to other things we call the same name. And we extend our concept of number as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.’

(Philosophical Investigations I,  nos 66 & 67)

This for me is a very liberating step, though perhaps that is only for those who have been in thrall to philosophy in the first place, in particular philosophy descended from Aristotle and Plato. It seems to me that as long as you have the concept of essence you are driven to the chimerical notion of some single order of reality at the back of everything which it then becomes the task of the philosopher to discover: the equivalent, in the argument we open with, of trying to find a single definition of ‘football’.

To dispense with, at a stroke, a single scheme of things into which everything must fit and replace it with a whole family of such schemes none of which can make an overarching claim seems to me a very healthy development and one that defuses a great deal of argument and eases a lot of tension. And there is another aspect of Wittgenstein’s concept of meaning that strikes me as potent and fruitful.

It occurs to me that there is a strong parallel between the concept of meaning defined by context and that of a character in a story, and that the two point to a third thing about our own ‘meaning’  as individuals in the world.

Meaning is not the property of a word; it is something that a word derives from the context in which it occurs, the language-game of which it forms a part, the way of life in which it is used, to use the Wittgensteinian terms. Similarly, a character in a story does not have a separate existence in his (or her) own right, but is defined in relation to the other characters and the action of the story – the story is the thing, if you like; the character is only a part.

(Of course you can play literary games and have Hamlet put in an appearance as Bertie Wooster’s house guest, but all you are really doing is inventing another form of football, as it were – you now have a third story, which features one character also found in Shakespere and another in Wodehouse; but you don’t reason from that that Hamlet and Bertie exist independently apart from the places where we find them)

Is it too bold a step to see ourselves in the same light? That our ‘meaning’ is derived from being part of a greater whole, rather than something we possess absolutely as of right? How compatible or incompatible would such a position be with other world-views, religious and otherwise? (I sense that the most strenuous objection would come from those who make a cult of individualism and advocate extreme self-reliance; from the wide range of others, not so much)

An interesting consideration, not least for the prospect it opens on the subject of personal boundaries and the limits of the self.
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Not waving…

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

I first read Stevie Smith’s poem at school and could make neither head nor tail of it, yet this morning, lying in the dark, the lines above came to me and resonated. They seem to me to capture perfectly that sense of being trapped in a despair that is impossible to communicate. It is a commonplace now to observe that we say ‘I’m fine’ when the opposite is true, and yet the psychology of it is complex – it is not that we could just say instead ‘actually, I’m not fine’ and make all well – because one aspect of the despair is that you cannot say how you feel; you cannot in fact act to save yourself at all – you can only wave as you drown.

I was going to add  ‘ – and hope that your conventional gesture is understood as a cry for help’ but the point is that you do not hope for anything – that is what despair consists of. You hold two thoughts in parallel but can do nothing to bring them about: you think, ‘if only someone would come and rescue me, say kind words, simply touch me, all would be well’ yet at the same time it seems quite impossible for you to initiate such an act: you cannot say, ‘hold me, touch me’ – because somehow the asking would alter it, turn it from a gesture of love to – what? – one of pity, perhaps, or indulgence – ‘You are only doing this because I asked, not because you feel like it.’

How puritanical and ungenerous despair makes us! ‘What I want is a spontaneous gesture of affection which I have done nothing to elicit.’ And not only do you not hope, you almost relish the fact that you know the gesture will not be forthcoming, because that will prove that you were right to despair in the first place, that you are not loved, that no-one cares that you are drowning. It is easy to see the strong link that exists between pride and despair.

(At the back of my mind I wonder if there is not also a link between reason and despair: it seems to me that when I am at my bleakest, I also feel that I am being at my most rational: it is reason that persuades me there is no way out, reason that persuades me that action is futile – yet I do not say this to condemn reason (which seems to me a most valuable thing) but only perhaps to be wary of the use we can make of it – it is the perversity of despair that it uses our strongest tools against us, a point I will come back to).

It is little wonder that I did not understand Stevie Smith’s poem as a boy, though I was accounted good at English, and I’m sure I grasped intellectually whatever explanation we were given, at least sufficiently to reproduce it for an examiner (one of the great exercises in futility that we have allowed ourselves to mistake for education – by all means encourage young people to read poetry and make of it what they will and can, but don’t examine them on it; just let it do its work. Literature, Art, Music need no supporting structure: exposure and opportunity is the thing. Then, when people are enthralled, they will learn about it because they want to).

As a boy, I simply lacked the experience of life to – do what? – I am conscious of avoiding what seems the obvious choice of words, ‘to know what that poem meant’, because I am wary of ascribing meaning to something as if that was definitive (though, as a matter of fact, it is exactly that clarity we seek when we are young – ‘but what does it mean? How can he be dead yet still moaning?’).

When we are young our feelings are enormously powerful but without any subtlety (which is hardly to be wondered at): we really do feel we might die of a broken heart, and equally that we might soar to the heavens if only the right person would look at us the right way; in the same way, we want all our causes to be black and white – we are impatient with any suggestion of shading, any hint that there might be something to be said on both sides of the argument. We want to know the right answer (and not hear there isn’t one, or that perhaps there is more than one).

It is only with the unfolding of life that our feeling, like our palate, becomes more refined and we acquire a taste for the subtle rather than the strong (ask a young man to make you a curry if you have any doubt on this). But this is scarcely news. However, what interests me about my experience with the Stevie Smith example is the mechanism involved, because it strikes me as one that is of fundamental importance.

Rather than say ‘I knew exactly what Stevie Smith meant’ I would sooner say ‘that line resonated with me’. Now, this is no mere pretentious dressing-up of a plain concept in fancy language to make it (or the writer) sound more impressive – rather it has to do with that difference alluded to above, between the youthful desire for clarity and the more mature realisation that there is a lot to be said for vagueness, for being open to interpretation (Wittgenstein somewhere speaks of the error of ‘making the vague precise’ which is something else I shall return to).

When I say ‘resonated’ I am trying to pin down the feeling it gave me – a sense of recognition (what someone else of my acquaintance terms an ‘aha!’ – meaning the moment when something comes to you and makes you exclaim). What interests me particularly is what it is that you are recognising –  and it is notable that another exclamation we use in these circumstances is ‘that’s right!’ We sense a rightness, an aptness, in whatever it is – it rings true.

That ‘ringing true’ is, I think, our sharing in the artist’s intuition – it is the instant of seeing or sensing something like she did when she made the line – whether it is a line of poetry or music or in a drawing. (and it resonates rather than means because this is something the artist did and felt rather than set out to say) In similar circumstances we speak of  ‘seeing the truth of something’ and it is generally accompanied by a desire, not to explain whatever it is (which is often impossible), but to draw others’ attention to it – ‘just look at/read/listen to that’ we say, with the firm conviction that the same thing that has become apparent to us will become apparent to others (it doesn’t always work, of course – some people ‘get it’ while others don’t).

(In this connection, consider Eliot’s response on being asked what he meant by the line “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree” –  ‘I meant, “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree”.’)

It seems to me that I am approaching, by a circuitous route, something I spoke of the other day, namely St Patrick and the shamrock, and the mystery of what it is we understand when we grasp an explanation that is couched in metaphorical terms – but that is matter for another day.



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