A brood comb

….philosophical and other notes….

What “meaning” means ?

Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on April 3, 2006

The word “meaning” seems to be used uncritically, as if there are such things as meanings which exist as meanings separate from words.

We speak of meaning of the words, or meaning of the act, and so on. What meaning points to in this kind of relation, is that there is certain other thing, which serves as a meaning of a word, act, and so on. But that other thing is not because of that in some realm of the meanings, it is merely in “is a meaning of…” relation with the word, act, etc…

Let me explain by an analogy: In the relation “being sister of”, there is no specific thing about a woman which makes her sister in general, she is not kind of sister; she is a sister only because she is in a specific relation with the other sibling. Same is the case with other words of that type, which depict relations between people, like father of, mother of, brother of, friend of, enemy of… and so on. What is important in those examples is that though just instances of some class (e.g. females in case of sister, males in case of brother, humans in case of friend, etc…) can stand in that certain relation, those classes can’t be equated with the relation itself.

In similar way we can talk about “meaning” (similar to “sister of”). We say that the word “tree” means a tree, but that doesn’t make trees to belong to specific class of meanings, a tree is not a meaning per se. Analogous to the previous comment, we can say that trees belong to that class of things which can be meanings of a word, act, etc…

There are no things which are meanings in themselves in the same way as there is no things which are friends in themselves. There are things which can serve as meanings. Meaning is just that relation between the sign and signified (to use the terms from semiotics).
So that leaves two separate questions:

  • What can be sign, and what can be signified?
  • How does this connection between sign and signified happen?

Let’s check few sentences about meanings and words, and how they sound when we comprehend “meaning” as signifying a relation…

  1. “The meanings are not in the words” , sounds like “The sisters are not in their siblings”
  2. “Words don’t have meanings”, sounds like “People don’t have sisters”

One other problematic usage of the term “meaning”, connected again with the misconception that there is specific class of things which are meanings, (whose essence is that they are meanings), is saying that “the meanings are in the head”. It is based, I guess, on the idea that meanings are mental phenomenon. But, nobody just means – we don’t ask people “What are you meaning?”, or “What do you mean about current events in France?”. We ask them “What are you thinking about?”, or “What do you think about current events in France?”. Though “the meanings aren’t in the head” is not much better, it again seems to assume some ontological category of meanings, that exist as meanings outside in the world.
The question about this last issue, in my opinion, would be better stated as.. “are those things which we mean by words in the head, or in the world?”
Is that which we mean by “tree” in our head ?

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3 Responses to “What “meaning” means ?”

  1. […] In the previous post – Conversations (and before that What “meaning” means?), I sketched simple account of “meaning” […]

  2. Fraser said

    My simple take on this, which you have covered here already, is that nothing inherently possesses meaning. I think it was Nietzsche who said that, ‘Man is a conclusion’. This simple saying explains a lot regarding human nature, for me. Of course, meanings are logics, networked logics, inferences etc that we paint onto and into things fundamentally to operate as a specie; but the drive to conclude, the drive for meaning is perhaps an area that has grown superfluous to merely existing as a specie, and has grown into ridiculousness. How much error we are open to with the unwisely controlled drive for meaning – with the unwisely controlled drive to conclude!? hehe.

  3. Hey Fraser,
    I must admit I still haven’t read anything by Nietzsche (well, I have read something as teenager, but really that doesn’t count).

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