Language and meaning in linguistics and philosophy


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language and meanings

Meaning in Linguistics In the use of language for communication, meaning is what the ‘sender’ of the message expresses or tries to express to the ‘receiver’. The receiver in its turn infers or derives the meaning from the corresponding context.

Through language, we can express ideas, and we assume in most cases that the receiving party understands what we want to express. He or she understands the meaning of our words. This understanding, attaching meaning to vowels and consonants, is quite amazing if you stop to think about it. As Kim Krizan says in the film Waking Life: When I say “love” – the sound comes out of my mouth and it hits the other person’s ear, travels through this byzantine conduit in their brain, through their memories of love or lack of love, and they register what I’m saying… and they say yes they understand, but how do I know? Because words are inert. They’re just symbols. They’re dead – you know? And so much of our experience is intangible.

Often language is described in terms of Signs; both by many philosophers (which we will treat later on) but also by linguists, e.g. Ferdinand de Saussure, who divided them in signifieds and signifiers. The part of a sign that is perceivable is the signifier. So, in written language, it is the combination of letters that make the word up and in case of oral language it is the sound uttered for the word. The signified is the signification or semantic. So, the actual idea, image or mental construction associated with the sound of the word by the sender or the receiver. The signifier is arbitrary. It’s a convention between the sender and the receiver; which implies a relation between them.

It is very important in linguistic semantics to know how words have been used in the past. In general semantics, the focus is on what people mean and refer to; what assumptions they make in their propositions with the intention of asserting a certain meaning. Body language, including facial expressions, and tone of voice affect meaning and have to be taken into account in semantics, but also what connotations words carry and what the sender intents to imply with his words. In Pragmatics, the way that context affects meaning is studied. In general, the two most important forms of contact we can distinguish is linguistic context and situation context. Ambiguity and confusion Words have the power to reveal or conceal and can deliver messages in an ambiguous way. This had already been asserted by Socrates a millennia ago. Apart from intentional ambiguity in the meaning of an expression, there are many situations in which there are plain unintentional misunderstandings. Especially when the ‘sender’ and ‘receiver’ are not physically together, as it is the case in most writings, this can occur. The receiver cannot respond nor ask for explanation. The sender cannot be sure that his words are interpreted as he meant. In direct conversations with speakers both present, we know that most communication is non- verbal. Body language, tone of voice etc., while in text it’s only words.

Communicating though other media directly can create misunderstandings; through phone you can’t see body language. In written language the authors often use extra harsh words to give their meaning an ‘extra push’ as argued by the Dutch linguist Christine Liebrecht; maybe to make up for missing the extra emphasis by tone of voice or body language. Examples of words that are used to make statements harder to catch the interest of readers are: amazing, relaxed, shameful, intriguing, outrageous, bizarre, brilliant, and crucial. This happens especially on the Internet in forums etc., where people give their personal opinions. In newspapers it happens less, maybe because editors take off ‘the sharp edges’ of the authors of the articles. Words like ‘fine, nice, good and even, very, quite,’ etc. seem to do little with readers and are mostly used by amateur writers. Professional writers are more creative with their way of expressing. In her opinion, nowadays, saying about a film that it’s good is hardly a recommendation. It has to be ‘great’ or amazing at least. She also states that negative opinions tend to arrive harder; for positive judgments, opinions or statements you would need to use stronger words to achieve the desired effect. Her tip for writers is to be as creative as possible.

Hermeneutics In interpreting texts, you can often find that someone’s words actually imply something else than that which the author wanted to express. Hermeneutics comes from the Greek word ἑρμηνεύω; Hermeneuo: To translate, interpret. Its purpose is getting coherent explanations of texts; it’s a method of interpretation to determine truth or falsehood of a message. Hermeneutics was originally a discipline of theory and methodology of the interpretation of texts, (mostly scriptures etc.), but nowadays also applied to verbal language. Its applications are found in many disciplines, amongst which: archaeology, architecture, environment, international relations and law, philosophy and psychology, but throughout history it has mostly been Holy Scriptures that were the main focus of hermeneutics in history.

In this area of hermeneutics, we can distinguish 4 ways of interpreting texts: literal, moral, allegorical (spiritual), and anagogical. In the first type, the interpretation is based upon the ‘plain meaning’ of the linguistic construction in combination with the historical context (semantics of the time, etc.). In this case it is assumed that the literal meaning of the words in the text is exactly what the authors intended to express. For the moral interpretation we look at moral lessons which can be learned from the biblical texts; seeing them as allegories, closely connected with the allegorical interpretation, which views the figures, events etc. as ‘types’, not facts and has an interpretation on a level above or behind all the events (e.g. think of Noah’s Ark which would have a meaning ‘behind’ the events of the story). The last one; the anagogical interpretation is also referred to as mystical interpretation, which concerns itself with explaining holy scriptures (especially the Kaballah) in relation to speak about the future in terms of prophecies.

Meaning in Philosophy Much has been said about the nature of meaning in the history of Philosophy, which we can distinguish by different theories of meaning. Throughout history we can distinguish several of which the most important ones are summed up chronologically here: Correspondence: The earliest theories of meaning emphasized that true beliefs and statements correspond to a factual state of affairs in the world. ‘The sky is blue’, claimed by someone would have a true meaning when he means to say exactly that and the sky is actually blue. These ideas about language and meaning date from around the birth of Christ, delivered by philosophers like Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Augustine and Aquinas. For them, the truth or falsity of a statement is determined entirely by how the statement relates to ‘objects’ in the world and how it describes them; ‘true’ would mean: ‘corresponding with reality’. Meaning is a relationship between a sign and that what it means or signifies; in mentioning ‘sky’, the idea or mental construction of our concept of what the sky is directly comes into mind. It is partly based on the law of identity, one of the classical laws of thought in logic: ‘Each thing is the same with itself and different from another’.

Correspondence theories assume an independent objective reality which we can represent in thoughts, sounds, words or symbols. However, critics of this theory assert that we do not only speak about physical things or objects; if we speak about esthetics for example, or ethics. There are many intangible ‘objects’ discussed in these areas which are not in an ‘objective reality’. Also, there are some words, which have meaning for people in a certain language (saudade in Portuguese or Zeitgeist in German) which apparently are untranslatable in other languages for not having that concept in the corresponding culture.

Coherence: In general, coherence theories are based upon correspondence but have an important condition; that true statements cannot contradict each other. Every underlying concept of meaning and truth must together fit as a whole, coherent system. It does not only have to be logically consistent but also all possible true propositions should mutually support each other. This ‘break’ with Aristotelian logic is accounted to Gottlieb Frege, a German logician, mathematician and philosopher in his book Über Sinn und Bedeutung. He states that the concepts Sense and Reference are not equal in meaning. In referring to something (i.e. the sky), then you refer directly to an object in the world and we can verify the truth of what you say about it. However, if you speak about a Pegasus, then that doesn’t refer to anything real in the world. Nevertheless you can make ‘sensible’ statements about it. According to Aristotelian logic there would not be an object to which the word corresponds so it could’t make sense. Constructivist: In constructivism (or social constructivism), agents argue that the concepts of truth and meaning are social constructions and specific for each culture. It is formed historically through politics, technology, environment etc.; all characteristics of a community.

Contrary to correspondence theories, there is not necessarily one objective reality from which we derive our knowledge or to which we verify the truth of statements. All knowledge is a construct of our social behaviour within which truth and meaning apply. How they apply depends on the culture; its conventions and beliefs. Amongst agents of these theories were Hegel and Marx. Consensus: Similar to the constructivist theories, in consensus theories truth and meaning are seen as a type of ‘agreement’ by certain social groups as advocated by philosophers as Jürgen Habermas. Again there is not necessarily an independent, objective reality to which we refer with statements, but instead it is more useful to refer to truth or meaning from the perspective of what is agreed upon by human kind or any kind of subset of people in general. Pragmatism: Also coming from the need of a useful and applicable theory of meaning seen from a consequencialistic point of view, pragmatists are only concerned with the results or putting concepts or ideas in practice. This is the only way to verify truth and meaning. Language and usage: One particularly interesting theory is from the ‘later Wittgenstein’ (the ‘early Wittgenstein’ published the Tractatus logico-Philosoficus in which he claims to have solved language philosophy; a ‘logical atomism’ in which he accounted for all possible true statements, but much of what he said was rejected by himself years later). In his posthumous published book Philosophical Investigations he argues that the meaning of words is best explained seeing the use of words as language-games. So, do we communicate anyways? Is there a way to finally get through others? I guess we will never know…