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Aspects of Meaning

In assessing and responding to twentieth century philosophy there is one subject in particular one must come to grips with.  It loomed large both as a topic and method of investigation and the charge of its absence was a favorite form of criticism.  In the first half of the century it was even thought to hold the key to the very history of philosophy, explaining its past failures as well as its future prospects.  

We are speaking of course of meaning.  While today meaning is still investigated within mainstream philosophy it is no longer the main player and magic mover it once seemed to be and its former importance (as well as the finer concerns of many early twentieth century thinkers) are comfortably dismissed as philosophical over-excitement.

Still, if we are not quite so happy or comfortable being dismissive, we owe it to our better philosophical selves to approach meaning with a cultivated sensitivity.   This meetup will be the first in a series in which we do just that.

As an anchor for the discussion we will look at a short text by Paul Grice, called, appropriately enough, "Meaning", in which Grice begins to develope his famous theory of meaning based on nested intentions. (A sentence is meaningful when it is said with the intention of getting you to do something via your recognition of my intention to get you to do it via your recognition of my intention.)  We will take a look at Grice's theory--intention is an important "aspect of meaning"--but we will also pay close attention to other aspects and distinctions stressed or at least glanced at in the paper:  natural vs non-natural meaning, sentence vs speaker's meaning, timeless vs occasion specific meaning.  

And perhaps we can add some things to this list.  The goal of the meetup is not so much to analyse what Grice has to say as to improve our understanding of meaning's many forms and facets.  

The paper can be found here:

http://semantics.uchicago.edu/kennedy/classes/f07/pragmatics/grice57.pdf

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  • jerry

    I think Brian’s original query was about how best we should classify what meaning means, with attention on intention. As you can tell from the recent exchange about what my intention was, the conversation contains many points at which the discussion can diverge. An essence of intention is that it is directed. It focuses. The thing that helps focus in sufficiently complex conversations are what we call common ground, which has deep meaning but can be considered the context/ a priori mental representation/ a possible world.

    January 14, 2014

    • jerry

      ...or even better yet, "What SHOULD be the difference between natural vs. non-natural meaning"?

      2 · January 14, 2014

    • Brian

      Yeah, the posts here indicate an interest in free discussion beyond the authority of the text

      1 · January 15, 2014

  • Brian

    If intention is an important aspect of meaning for Grice, what would it mean to say anything meaningful about meaning, say, at a Grice meetup?

    1 · January 12, 2014

    • Chad B.

      It goes without saying that we may have spent too much time debating Grice's taxonomy. I am interested in what meaning actually is, how it is produced or destroyed, what makes it possible or impossible. Of course we may revise our understanding of what (e.g.) a gesture means by clarifying intention. It may be rude, or just done involuntarily or ignorantly. But some things may seem more meaningful precisely because unintentional (body language when detecting a lie, or the entire Freudian vocabulary of slips, dreams, and inkblots). Are the complete works of Shakespeare less meaningful if typed by an infinite number of monkeys? Is life really meaningless if God does not exist? etc. Rather than showing that there are two "types" of meaning, Grice seems to be showing that "meaning" is used in two equivocal senses. But if so, then he is more like a stage magician sawing a word in half, only to find that he can't restore it whole again.

      3 · January 13, 2014

    • K. Scot S.

      Certain things/experiences seem to resist the boutique, accredited evasion, whether in British or French (OR scientistically positivist) accent. Wonder becomes urgent necessity; the dikes of 'research' momentarily burst under the pressure of human-scale 'search.' I'd recognize the always-already marriage of both - technical reading and disciplined wonder while noting the daylight that momentarily 'slivers' among bibliographic-historical­­ masteries and ?? the 'intellectual love of the good' (if we can still speak of the latter without embarrassment).

      January 14, 2014

  • K. Scot S.

    A Trinitarian thinker, for instance, might see social context as paramount in the determining of value/meaning without precluding the POSSIBILITY of reasonably objective/intrinsic/share-able value - resiliently objective 'presentations of meaning.'

    January 14, 2014

  • K. Scot S.

    "...it [the notion of only context-based meaning] is up for monitoring but there has been no counterexample provided to falsify it."
    Rather than submitting counterexample or falsification, I largely wanted to provide a sense that the explanation regarding Meaning might be insufficient if it is not actively considering the possibility of that 'including but arguably not explanatively exhausted by social context' (peculiarly objective/efficacious presentations resonating with another kind of 'intrinsic value' - persons).

    January 14, 2014

  • K. Scot S.

    It does seem that reducing meaning to either ONLY [a.] an objective or [b.] a co-operative locus is insufficient - not realistic/helpful (whether regarding 'Meaning' or more technical-linguistic 'meanings').

    January 14, 2014

  • K. Scot S.

    Thanks for your clear remarks, Jerry. Please allow me to respond 'piece by piece' here: You wrote "I think Brian’s original query was about how best we should classify what meaning means, with attention on intention." I took us to be addressing a number of issues around meaning and our ongoing reflections, including Brian's, on Meaning. Intention is certainly part of this. I obviously agree that 'the conversation contains many points at which the discussion can diverge,' meaningfully and helpfully. Your lesson on intention - that it focuses and is directed - is well taken.

    January 14, 2014

  • K. Scot S.

    While the question of "onus" being on speaker or hearer is meaningful, it often evades an element perhaps equally part of pertinent relational/'meaning-full' economies. The sense of responsibility for meaning is indeed shared, particularly at the point of a great phenomenon that calls upon both vision and co-operation (the latter presumably being well proportioned to and registering the peculiar presence of share-able value, whether more or less ephemeral in form). Jerry wrote "...I have also implied a sufficiently complex type of meaning in my assertion to narrow discussion..." I see this as important. As my better examples of intrinsic meanings might be the proverbial Bach chorale or say, the body-language and empathy-based Michelangelo sculpture - the question of what specificity of meaning might be counted as sufficiently objective and share-able will have been as controverted as it is relevant.

    January 14, 2014

  • K. Scot S.

    Jerry wrote:
    "...some types of meanings may exist in the things themselves..." AND "...how can we show [this] if we aren’t around to examine it?..."
    Being present, personally and corporately, to Meaning's presence is not a possibility I'd acknowledge as being 'off the table.' My issue is not with the space-time context arguably necessary for the largely perceptual making and giving and receiving of meaning. It is more about how such space-time may, however infrequently, entail peculiarly stable objects - cases of 'deeply subjective objectivity and vice versa,' if you will, that are proto-relational (apparently 'meaning-full' sufficient to a kind of communication or [largely inherent] shared-ness of value).

    January 14, 2014

  • K. Scot S.

    Jerry also wrote "As long as there are no cognitive interactions (unicorns are not allowed!) to consider the meanings of things, one cannot prove that meaning can exist outside of cognitive interactions." I agree. I've also suggested, however, that it may yet be meaningful to consider whether social context is sufficient - on our best intuitions regarding meaning (or the apparently 'meaning-ful'). I made no claim nor entertained any illusion of 'proving' anything. I would also acknowledge that there are probably decent arguments available, in more 'analytic' dialects, for constructing a germane proof but this wouldn't pertain to either specialty or interest in my case, particularly here - now. Additionally, such a proof might run aground on both hermeneutic freedom (a subset of relative personal freedom) AND on great if less apparent POSSIBILITY: the infrequent but real case of largely intuited intrinsic value - that perhaps meaningfully entailing perhaps meaningful communication.

    January 14, 2014

  • K. Scot S.

    ...one problem relevant to your remarks is that there are divergent positions on what constitutes the germane AND the specific. I have seen my contemplative meanders as less cleanly stylized but focused sufficient to particular purposes, all of which may not be equally apparent or preferred. You wrote, also, about common ground. I'd acknowledge both its centrality and its controverted state, particularly in light of quite important if 'secondary' at-hand topics. (From one perspective, a present lesson on common ground may read as tacit question begging.)

    January 14, 2014

  • jerry

    Since meaning is a social construct, it should be defined with respect to sociality. So, there is speaker's meaning, recipient's interpretation of that meaning and then there is the range of possible meanings embedded in the communication that exists outside of speaker or recipient's attention/intention. Context would determine that range but if the context remains implicit, it doesn't allow a useful social exchange about the truth of that meaning. So, another interesting problem is how much context is required in a situation to convey intentional/unintentional meaning that takes into account the speaker and recipient's attentions.

    2 · January 13, 2014

    • K. Scot S.

      ...'when is "meaning is a social construct" not necessarily true?' When we actively engage the possibility that social construction MAY not 'explanatively exhaust' [manifest] Meaning - particularly in the case of the best possible experiences of the best possible phenomena/works. When a PERHAPS revelatory 'whole' is carefully sensed as including but ultimately outrunning even the nobel, co-operative 'sum's perpetually untethered 'context,' we perhaps recognize a remainder ultimately outstripping the theorized, pure context basis of meaning.

      January 14, 2014

    • K. Scot S.

      Jerry- 'sorry I wasn't more clear. I mainly wanted to parse the notion that 'meaning in general is simply determined by context' from the notion that the meaning of a given term in some given case may be determined by its immediate/strategic context. One seemed an absolutized presumption (as premature and violently delimiting principle); the other seemed less damaging to a broader concern for meaning and/or to the pursuit of its possible locus/origin/bases/goals­.

      January 14, 2014

  • K. Scot S.

    ...Particularly in the case of great works, those infrequent as they are real (and those perhaps suggesting an entailed shared-ness in 'Meaning') - I don't know that either our understanding or our relating will have been helped in the establishing of such popular sentiments as "context DETERMINES the range of possible meanings...". This seems as absolute as it is reductionistic. I would attempt, rather, to recognize a rich co-incidence: Yes - the powerful signifying effects of contextual processes (including various kinds and scales of agency) but, also, various kinds/scales of phenomena, some of the latter further (and powerfully) suggesting another peculiar co-incidence:

    January 13, 2014

    • K. Scot S.

      ...an inhering resiliency of [communicative] value -WITH- unrelenting hermeneutic vulnerability. Certain THINGS, however ephemeral, may yet seem embedded with meaning, or 'proto-relational value.' The latter might -again- be quite vulnerable to relative fields of cooperation, in and across selves. This may be the case, it seems to me, WITHOUT necessitating an absolute abandonment of yet compelling alternative theories (that is, beyond that of a pure determining by context/situation).

      January 13, 2014

  • K. Scot S.

    "...Since meaning is a social construct, it should be defined with respect to sociality..." Whether vicious or not, this might seem circular. More importantly, we might regularly ask ourselves whether we can afford not to recover the deliberative space-time necessary to certain questions (regarding, for instance, several alternatives where it comes to basics like a proto-generative locus of Meaning [or of a meaning, or of meanings, OR of the meaning/s of variously confused significations])? The reduction to sociality may seem like that to system, or language, or form, or atom, or etc.: a half-conscious strategy in which beautifully crucial elements prematurely displace - or are taken, either efficiently or rhetorically, to be 'sufficient' (--OR, in practice, to BE the proverbial whole).

    January 13, 2014

  • K. Scot S.

    In the private-public edjudication of certain dialects or 'conjecture-claims,' just what is brought to bare? ...or in WHAT (in the provisional ignoring of a number of perchance pertinent claims) is the compunction? The answer is anticipated as "Well, Scot, we'll (obviously) have to read all the local context book-ending this fragment!" A related logic might suggest that the most resilient issue is one of accounting or helpfully overcoming a seemingly insurmountable variety in scale - and the significant arbitrariness with which, in the face of the same, relevance's border is placed. Out apart from contemporary academe's hagiographic and subsistence economies, the revealed artificiality with which we place certain boundaries finally asserting the innate sufficiency of given epistemic ghettos/texts/issues/readings (and the laughable moot status of that 'beyond' same) seems to perforate the new-and-improved no less than the old-and-oppressive.

    January 13, 2014

  • K. Scot S.

    First - Grice says "...linguistic intentions are very like nonlinguistic intentions..." However dutiful one might want to be as a close analytic reader, the 'how's and 'why's of this claim (and of its implications) have real difficulty, it seems to me, 'beginning and ending' with Grice's intentions, or with those of this particular piece.

    How might some of you feel about that?

    MORE IMPORTANTLY- what 'are' the 'meanings' (including implications) of this claim, ...'to your minds'? Thanks, kss

    January 12, 2014

    • jerry

      Here's an example of non-linguistic intent: "in the words of phenomenological founder Edmund Husserl, is "to the things themselves"‑-in other words, how would the thing studied describe itself if it had the ability to speak?" David Seamon, Goethe, Nature and Phenomenology http://www.arch.ksu.e...­ So, how did Goethe say we should figure out nature's intent and how can we compare against linguistic intent?

      1 · January 12, 2014

    • Erik C.

      Aristotle said that things on their own already seemed to have a logos character. There may be a sense that language is already more proper to the things than to us, and that intent is also something more proper to things than to us. When Brentano (who seemed to influence Husserl a lot) introduced 'intentionality'­, it was something that holds the things to be what they are. Even though he used these as a sort of starting data for empirical psychology, we could still say that the 'mentality' was in some sense more proper to the things first (in the order of discovery. Intentionality in Brentano is like Aristotle's entelechy (Brentano was an Aristotle scholar).

      1 · January 12, 2014

  • K. Scot S.

    ..thanks for welcome AND patience, folks. As you might surmise from the 'insufficient inhibition' exhibited last night, I've yet got a pinch to say/clarify regarding several insistent (AND, I'm convinced, authentically germane) issues rising out of more bibliographic/technical concerns from last night. Please forgive as I yet hope to 'impressionize' one or two of those after work, later today. Best wishes to each of you.

    1 · January 12, 2014

  • Cathy

    Running a little late - but on my way!

    January 11, 2014

  • Brian

    To dismiss an idea on the grounds of philosophical over-excitement interests me. What is it to be moderate with regard to 'loving wisdom'?

    1 · January 7, 2014

    • eric

      Playing around with the meaning of "love of wisdom" to "love and wisdom"...moderatio­n could be seen as balancing or integrating the two halves of our brain...for most that harmony is precarious and takes work. We all know people who are wise but have little heart and vice versa. Love then is not a gaining idea but an inclusiveness... a recognition and embrace of all that already is...all that already is = Truth. Wisdom is the ability to differentiate and make sense of all that already is. Virtue would be that harmony expressed in action via thought, speech and body. Agreement can only happen when people are like minded eg. developed and integrated past the divisiveness of selfish desires or mania. My favorite quote from Nisargadatta..."Lov­e says 'I am everything'. Wisdom says "I am nothing'. Between the two, my life flows."

      2 · January 11, 2014

    • Brian

      =]

      January 11, 2014

  • Chad B.

    On page 380, Grice makes the following argument: "Obviously not." Somehow I am left wanting.

    1 · January 10, 2014

  • jerry

    "Those spots don't mean chicken pox, they mean cancer!"...said THIS physician...

    1 · January 8, 2014

    • Brian

      Jerry I was making a joke about the ambiguity of the word SPOTS Haha :)

      1 · January 9, 2014

    • jerry

      Ha! Sorry...no sense of humor on this end :)

      1 · January 9, 2014

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