When Words Lose Meaning

In which I explain what I meant by my comment to this post from Doug Johnson. I commented, "If the word is not the thing, how do you evaluate the sentence 'Dragons are green?'"

It's probably foundational for semiotics that the word is a sign or symbol, and in some way stands for or represents something else. This separation allows us to meaningfully use words like 'red' without particularly worrying about the reality of whatever they represent.

But the question of whether essence implies existence shaped much of 20th century philosophy. What do you say about the meaning of words that represent or refer to things that don't exist? If the meaning of the word 'dragon' does not depend on representation of or reference to dragons - since there are no dragons - then where does it get its meaning?

You might say that 'dragon' is just a fictional example, that we don't need to worry about its meaning, it's just metaphorical. But what about a sentence like (to use Bertrand Russell's famous example) "Brakeless trains are dangerous." It's not fiction, it is, moreover, true, and known to be true, and yet (by virtue of that very fact!) there are no brakeless trains.

So, while it's simple and appealing to say, "The symbol is NOT the thing symbolized; the word is NOT the thing; the map is NOT the territory it stands for," there are important senses in which it's not true. In some important senses, the thing is the thing symbolized. When we talk about 'tiger' we are in fact talking about the concept 'tiger', which is just what is contained in the word 'tiger', and not about things in the world at all. When we talk about 'the tiger' we are (Russell would say) making two claims: that there is a thing that exists, and that it is an instance of this concept we call 'tiger'. All the referring happens in the word 'the', not the word 'tiger'.

You might think, this is all meaningless babble. Who cares? But it has a direct and immediate impact on how we think about learning. On the simple picture, you just show people some tigers (or trains, or dragons) and they learn about them. Or (since that's very inconvenient) you simply give them a series of propositions about tigers, trains and dragons ("dragons are green", "tigers are orange", etc.) and that teaches you about the world. Except - it doesn't. It teaches you about language. Most of what we learn about in school is language, not reality. Math - science - these are all disciplines of language.

In a very real sense, a traditional (text-based, languages lased) education is an education based on fiction. Very useful fiction, to be sure, since most other people are willing participants in that fiction, and it helps us do useful things. But it renders us unusually vulnerable to propaganda and media, since we can convince people of some reality merely through the use of words - actual evidence or experience is not required. We buy into beliefs like 'the world is described by numbers', 'if it can't be measured it can't be managed' and other variations on the old positivist principle of meaningfulness.

Most of the work in late 20th century philosophy goes to show that meaning and truth are embedded in the representational system - that, in other words, the word is the thing the word describes, the map is the terrain (if you don't believe me, try walking across an international border). van Fraassen on how explanations in science are descriptive mostly of our expectations. Derrida on how the meaning of the word is based largely on the range of alternative possible words that could be used. Quine on how translations are based on guesses (or what he called 'analytic hypotheses').

None of this implies that there is no reality, that there is no physical world, that there is no experience. Of course there is a great deal of all three. It's just that the supposedly privileged connection between word and reality - the one represented by 'The symbol is NOT the thing symbolized' - is an illusion. And that these representational and referential systems are elaborate fictions.

This is not new knowledge. It is very old knowledge. And as the Taoists used to say, knowing that these distinctions we find in language represent our interpretations of the world, represent our projections onto the world, is very powerful. Very enlightening. Because it frees us from the absolutes we believed ruled us with an iron grip. What people thought were right and wrong, for example (which is why we can make sense of how something that was once 'right' - slavery, say - is now 'wrong'). What people thought were plants or animals. Sentient or senseless. Planets or non-planets.

This is not an endorsement of relativism. It is merely the assertion that what is represented in language is fiction. If we rely solely on language - solely on what were told - then anything can be true. Look what happens to viewers of Fox News! What it tells us is that we cannot rely on words, on language, on mathematics, on representational systems. We have to, in our own lives, appeal to our own experiences, our own connection with the world itself. The Taoists would say we have to connect to 'The Way' - the ineffable reality behind human descriptions. But it's not an appeal to the mystical. It's an appeal to the world that lies beyond our descriptions of the world.

In an important sense, then, I want to say that semiotics is wrong. Not in the sense that it is descriptively false - for no doubt there is a truth (or, as experience shows, many, many truths) in semiotic accounts of meaning and representation. But rather, that semiotics as epistemology, or even ontology, are false. That there is no actual relation of reference or representation, only (within the referential or representative system) a fiction of one.

In a sense, we're at the same position today that Descartes was at in 1616 when he said, "I entirely abandoned the study of letters." At that time, knowledge, philosophy and science were in the hands of the Scholastics, who understood the world through finer and finer distinctions and relations between the categories. Descartes descided - and proved, through his sceptical argument - that theirs was a world of fiction, that we would not understand the nature of reality by dividing things over and over again into increasingly arbitrary categories. Descartes (and his contemporaries, for this was a broad social movement) derived an analytical method of dividing the world into parts, and using mathematics, not qualities, to represent this fundamental nature.

Now we understand that mathematics is yet another kind of language. We understand that merely measuring the world is to produce a kind of fiction. Though, to be sure, there are many Scholastics in today's world who are like the doctors of medieval times, shuffling their figures in finer and finer dimensions to articulate very precisely one fiction after another. And now a lot of people are pointing to networks or connections (etc) as the new underlying description of reality. But we ought to know by now that networks, too, are a form of fiction, that they are our imposition of this or that order on our perceptions, experiences and reality.

When we teach, while it is our job to ensure that our students are well versed in the fictions of the day, for they'll need them in order to socialize and make a living, it is our obligation to ensure that our students are not entrapped by these fictions, that they have it within themselves to touch their own reality, their own physicality, their own experience experience.


  1. I don't disagree with you at all, but I have some questions. It's possible I'm not entirely understanding.

    While I think it's very important to understand these fictions, I don't think it's harmful to utilize them in positive ways. We cannot look at the "big picture" with our own reality, own physicality and own experience. There is stuff out there that can only be communicated through what are ultimately human constructs, and "fictions," but would otherwise be left unknown.

    I assume when you say "entrapped" you are meaning that people need to understand the fictions of the world, be able to look around and outside of them -- but still embrace them, and use them when necessary.

    Am I correct?

  2. Yes, absolutely. These fictions are enormously useful. We should use them. We get into trouble only when we confuse them for reality.

  3. Very interesting post, we should be able to differentiate between fiction and reality.

  4. I wonder what has happened to representation of reality and as fiction now that multimodal and visual texts are so prominant / dominant in our technolgies and communication base. Descartes developed what was an easily transfereable mathematical semiotic system - given the technolgies of the time - however now with rapid exchange digitalised photo realism, highly representational imagery combining sound and action, digitalised realities are possibly influencing how we define 'reality' and our realtionship with the world and its ancient yet trusted language systems in an entirely new way. We can now supply on demand a moving & firebreathing, green dragon and probably a few brakeless trains too.

  5. Stephen,

    Fascinating stuff, as always. A few quibbles, as is my wont.

    I'd argue that the primary purpose of language is communication, rather than evaluation. That changes the relationship a bit, from "this is the representative world in words/numbers/etc." to "this is my *description* of my experience, thoughts, ideas on the world."

    It's true that language (in the general sense) allows for more detailed evaluation, but this happens as a result of greater classification, detail, etc. Obviously other systems, like mathematics are designed to do this with more precision.

    I think "fiction" is the wrong word. Certainly, perspective comes into play. For example, I might argue that your comment on Fox News suffers from the some of same conditions that you ascribe to Fox News itself. :)

    The question is, "How closely does the prespective match the reality?" and, as the history you've ably described reveals, our evaluative systems work in the context of that relationship.

    I think then that maybe "description" is a better word. "Fiction" only applies if we really treat the word as the thing. I'm not sure anyone really does that, though. We certainly describe ideas, and some of those are fictions, but some are real, even if they don't form the more palpable part of the world that our other senses can get at.

    I think semiotics works as a tool, though not as an ontology, as you say. Language and mathematics, and networks, etc. are all tools as well that we use to try to bridge the gap between objective reality and our experience of it. I'm optimistic enough to think that those tools allow us to get at a fair amount of truth, but they are certainly abused a great deal, as well.

    Just some thoughts (or clumsy descriptions of them, at least).


    Clint Brooks


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