Quadriga

On Meaning

[This page compiles in sequence the two-paragraph posts I’ve been writing one by one. As such, and as I’ve written the short posts over the course of months, I’m likely to have repeated myself, left an uneven transition, or some other mistake. Likewise, until I stop writing, it will probably end abruptly. It’s all part of the process.]

A great many hermeneutical conundrums fall away if one gives up the initial premise that words and language constitute the paradigmatic instance of meaning, expression, and communication. If one begins by recognising that words/language are the least typical instance of the domain constituted by modes of meaning, the way language works follows fairly simply.

This alternate premise will always be unpopular, because most people do not want to understand meaning so much as they want to control interpretation. The myth of subsistent meaning sustains that libido dominandi by positing a point of reference, a Sache, a kernel/pearl/nugget/“real meaning” to which the interpreter can lay claim. Neither “liberal” nor “conservative” scholars will yield on the (non-)existence of subsistent meaning, because all hope that they can deploy it to prove their case against the other.

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Let’s start with waking up in the morning. My bedroom is lighter than it was several hours ago, perhaps even admitting a beam of light or two. I infer that it’s time to get out of bed, or at least to look at the clock. Where is the “meaning” in the ambient light? Or if it’s dark, grey, and cloudy, I expect rain; is there “meaning” in the clouds? In the lack-of-brightness?

We who are able to, we identify cues that experience has taught us to associate with situations — and to respond on the basis of that experience. Where (as in these examples) the cues to which we respond are not (typically) associated with intentional agency, we do not need to divine someone’s thoughts in order to ascribe some sort of “meaning” to sunshine, or clouds, or chilly winds, or long tracts of muddy field, or whatever. To this extent, we understand well enough the syntax of “meaning” in situations apart from [human] intentional agency. “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’”

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I’d like to pause here for a moment to distinguish several usages of the verb “mean.” In the first, we say “I mean” in the sense of “I intend”; in a second, we say “That [word] means” in a lexical/semantic sense (“This word means ‘insubstantial’”); in a third, we say “That means” in the sense of an implication or entailment (“That means Heather is Robbie’s aunt!”). When we talk about “meaning,” it’s easy to slide from making claims about intentions to making claims about semantics, or to implications — and although I don’t suppose I’ve thought through enough possible examples to say that these should always be distinguishable, I certainly have seen cases in which an entailment has been used to warrant claims about an intrinsic semantic property. Likewise (to resume the example from last time), if we say “Red sky at night means good weather tomorrow,” the most fitting usage regards this as an inference from observation of weather patterns, not as a semantic property of red skies or as a celestial intention.

So we don’t need to succumb to the vapours if somebody (such as I) who opposes the notion of subsistent meaning uses the formulation “X means Y.” They might be using the phrase as an alternative to “X implies Y” (the option “X intends Y” won’t often come up as an intelligible possibility, I think). Or they may be using “X means Y” as a reasonable shorthand for “I can show numerous instances in which X is used synonymously, or ‘with the force of,’ Y.” The Greek word cheir (sorry, I haven’t bothered to change the DB_CHARSET setting in my wp-config.php file yet) means “hand.” Although I try to avoid this construction, Introductory Greek classes usually just want to know glosses, not semantic theory. Once you get beyond the very most simple glosses, though, the casual use of “means” tends to fund confusion about how languages and translation work. People can mean (intend) and circumstances can mean (imply) and words, glyphs, sigla, et cetera can “mean” (signify). In this last case, though, attributions of “meaning” always imply particular bounds, particular qualifications, and they never attain to simplicity or transcendence — we can’t appeal to “it just means X” or “it really means Y.”

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Now, this is the pivotal dimension of my first premise: all interpretive activity involves inference as its key element. Whether I’m interpreting cloud formations, or the quality of light in my bedroom, or gestures, or spoken words (the interpretation of speech, especially in an unfamiliar language or accent, is a big clue here), or words on a page — all of these entail a practice of inferential reasoning. “It seems awfully bright — I may have slept late.” “Those clouds look heavy and dark — I should wear my macintosh.” “Her hand brushed mine — maybe she likes me!” “Ye cannae fling yer pieces oot a twenty story flat.” I notice; I ponder; I infer from what I perceive; I’ve attained an interpretation.

Contra approaches to interpretation that posit an intrinsic meaning which the interpreter endeavours to discover, the process of inference I’m describing here asks the question “Why does this look that way?” or “What accounts for these sounds in this sequence?” When an interpreter sets out to answer the question “What’s going on here?”, the range of appropriate responses may very sensibly include alternatives other than “the intrinsic meaning of this phenomenon — clouds, smell, light, pitch, tone, glyphs, touch, whatever — is X.” Where the phenomenon in question appears to involve an intentional agent, some interpreters will want to determine the likeliest intent that came to expression in the phenomenon. That’s not the only legitimate, only “normal,” only regulative, only ethical approach to take, however. Sometimes interpreters have a particular interest in considerations other than those that the intentional agent considered paramount. Sometimes the self-conscious intent in question differs from other dimensions of the expression (think of the small child, weeping, red-faced, loudly asserting “I’m not upset!”). Interpretation of phenomena comprises a great deal more than ascertaining the meanings of words and paraphrasing the combination of the words used.

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“Inference” is a tricky category. We can think of plenty of instances for which we can specify precise criteria for successful inference, but these are swamped by the plenitude of situations in which successful inference from circumstances can be judged only on a rough-and-ready, close-enough sort of way. I can infer the time of day from the illumination filtering through my bedroom curtains, and that is ordinarily a satisfactory guide; but some mornings are exceptionally cloudy, or unexpectedly bright, and that pattern of inference really only works during the transition from night to day (it’s harder to distinguish 10:00 from 11:00 than 5:30 from 6:30 this time of year), some of us are better-attuned to morning light than are others, and of course some days the government instructs us to change our clocks by an hour. And even under the optimal circumstances, most of us can determine “It’s time to get up” but not “It’s exactly 6:47.” We do well enough (relative to particular expectations) almost all the time (but not absolutely always) by inferring time from bedroom-illumination; yet illumination-inference differs profoundly from consulting a radio-controlled digital timepiece.

Similarly, when Margaret and I need not to speak — when our infant children were sleeping, or when we’re observing an interval of silence, if we’re at a concert or in a gallery, or even if we’re playing Charades or Pictionary — we know one another well enough that we can often communicate effectively by gestures and facial expressions. Similarly, particular musical compositions generally evoke predictable sentiments among listeners. Colours apparently tend to cue particular physiological and behavioural responses. Scents, textures, noises, ambient temperatures, architectural and decorative spaces (awkward phrasing, can be improved), provide the basis for inferred responses. Some of these are highly predictable, some are more idiosyncratic, and the more aware we are of the degree to which a particular sensuous expression can be relied upon to evoke a particular response, the more successfully we negotiate the semiotic environment.

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You have graciously borne with me in considering communication by wordless inference, in both non-intentional (“natural”) and intentional (“conscious animal life”) circumstances. I used inverted commas in my parenthetical characterisations because I’d like to allow for non-intentional inference in circumstances that aren’t simply “natural”, and because I want to be careful about what I say about intentional communication among some animals (without prejudging the circumstances for or against). Clearly animals interact in ways that seem to imply “communication” of some sort — and again, that’s all I’m after at this point.

I’m ready to add words to this picture, but please allow me to do so not all in a rush, but very slowly and carefully. Let’s go back to Margaret and me communicating; you’ve already allowed that we can get by, when we need to, without words (for topics that don’t require intense intricacy or precision). Once we begin to add words into the picture, our capacity to communicate effectively enters an entirely different domain of economy, precision, and effectiveness. We’re about to go buy some groceries; if we had to work out our shopping list, indeed even the premise of “going to the grocery store”, without words, we would take a very long time and might not arrive at a fully agreed agenda. With words, we can assent to the premise of a shopping trip, determine what we anticipate purchasing, and change our plans on the fly with minimal trouble. Yes, sometimes we misunderstand one another and find ourselves at cross purposes — but compared to the practice of communicating for such errands without using words, our verbal communication functions with fabulous ease and success.

(Comment)

You have graciously borne with me in considering communication by wordless inference, in both non-intentional (“natural”) and intentional (“conscious animal life”) circumstances. I used inverted commas in my parenthetical characterisations because I’d like to allow for non-intentional inference in circumstances that aren’t simply “natural”, and because I want to be careful about what I say about intentional communication among some animals (without prejudging the circumstances for or against). Clearly animals interact in ways that seem to imply “communication” of some sort — and again, that’s all I’m after at this point.

I’m ready to add words to this picture, but please allow me to do so not all in a rush, but very slowly and carefully. Let’s go back to Margaret and me communicating; you’ve already allowed that we can get by, when we need to, without words (for topics that don’t require intense intricacy or precision). Once we begin to add words into the picture, our capacity to communicate effectively enters an entirely different domain of economy, precision, and effectiveness. We’re about to go buy some groceries; if we had to work out our shopping list, indeed even the premise of “going to the grocery store”, without words, we would take a very long time and might not arrive at a fully agreed agenda. With words, we can assent to the premise of a shopping trip, determine what we anticipate purchasing, and change our plans on the fly with minimal trouble. Yes, sometimes we misunderstand one another and find ourselves at cross purposes — but compared to the practice of communicating for such errands without using words, our verbal communication functions with fabulous ease and success.

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Adding words to our account of the communicative landscape does not fundamentally change what we’ve observed about inference and communication. Just as I make inferential estimates of what time in the morning it is (speaking of which, I need to find my sleep mask soon), or from my beloved wife’s mimed gestures when babies are sleeping, so I make inferential estimates of the most likely sense for the words she speaks or writes. There’s no “inner” or “real” meaning in the words; they’re a gesture, a verbal gesture, with the same status as a finger held to her lips, or a flat hand raised above her shoulder.

But that’s the second key element in the picture: when Margaret (or anyone, but we’re talking about Margaret now) speaks or writes words, they are words she has chosen based on her estimate (as speaker) of what I am most likely to infer from them. Again, there’s no intrinsic meaning at stake; she produces words calculated to elicit from me the results she wants. If she wants me to go to the grocery store to obtain food for dinner, she says, “Sweetheart, would you go to Tesco for a couple of things?” and it’s a pretty safe bet that I will in fact satisfy her desire. Were she to aim at the same effect by saying “Rapidly piddlepot strumming Hanover peace pudding mouse rumpling cuddly corridor cabinets?”, we may safely predict that the results would be different. Linguistic communication, on this account, is not sui generis nor paradigmatic for other modes of communication; it is continuous with other communicative modes, albeit in an extraordinarily precise, rule-governed way. It would be a dire mistake, however, to leap from “atypically precise” to “intrinsically precise” in order to amp up the degree of certainty that our inference can provide. We may be able often to recognise “time to wake up”, but that doesn’t entail our capacity really to ascertain that it’s 6:47.

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To sum up from the past eight paragraphs, or so: Most of the problems in hermeneutics can be addressed most productively by regarding the problem as in interplay of expression and inference. A canvas by Monet entails one particular sort of expression; an installation by Tracey Emin is another sort of expression; Nigel Hess’s theme for the BBC television series “Campion” is another sort of expression; Margaret’s irresistible Oatmeal Lace Cookies are a different kind of expression; and a letter from St Paul is yet another sort of expression. St Paul expressed himself in words, but not only in words: although his facial demeanour, his posture, and vocal inflections are lost to us, we can be sure that we would apprehend his expression somewhat differently if we were on the spot. That doesn’t mean that our interpretations are insufficient in Paul’s physical absence, only we infer meaning differently when we draw on different pools of circumstantial information. When we have access to information that suggests that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 are an interpolation into the text of Paul’s letter, some of us read the passage differently from the way we read it in the absence of that informatio