My Meaning and the Parrot's

Image: Quotes

A while back I read an article titled 'My words have meaning, your parrot’s do not. Wittgenstein explains' and commented:

For me the key message of Wittgenstein's slogan 'meaning is use' is that the meaning of a word or sentence is not inherent in the word or sentence, but rather depends entirely on how the reader or listener regards, interprets or recognizes that word or phrase. We might say, defining this externally, that meaning is determined by context or community agreement. This is the approach taken in this article. And there's an element of truth to that. But there is also an element of infinite regress; at some point we have to ask what a word means for me and at that point the externally defined criteria must give way to a story about experience and recognition.

Anand responded with an email and a question:

When you speak of the element of infinite regress, there's an underlying assumption that words by themselves have meaning. If we take the example of the red rose used in the article, the meaning of "red" is derived in the context of communicating with others and not by itself (which you rightly pointed out). What I do not understand is why do we need to ask what the word means for me?

According to me, the individual can have any word associated with the color red in his/her/their mind for it to make sense as per Locke's view (since it's internal). The clash only comes into picture when they need to communicate the idea to someone else (thereby, making it non-individual). So when the fundamental purpose of words is for communicating our ideas to others, I feel there is no question for an infinite regression that ends with the individual. 

Here is my response:

Hiya Anand,

We agree that the meaning of the word is not inherent in the word itself.

The word is thus a (set of) phenomena experienced by the hearer (as, eg., sounds or images) which, to the hearer, acquires a meaning through a process of interpretation.

I argue that this process is purely internal, and consists in how it is 'recognized' by the hearer (ie, consists in a set of associated thoughts, experiences and impulses to act).

Others, however, argue that this process occurs with reference to *external* phenomena, such as the state of the world (eg. as in Tarski Semantics) or agreement with a community of speakers.

However, each of these external phenomena is *itself* a (set of) phenomena experienced by the hearer (as, eg., sounds or images) which, to the hearer, acquires a meaning through a process of interpretation.This is what creates the infinite regress.

You write, "The clash only comes into picture when they need to communicate the idea to someone else (thereby, making it non-individual)."

The clash occurs only if we depict the act of communication as some sort of encoding where we attach to a sign some sort of independently-determined meaning (ie., the 'idea') as an intention and send it as a message (consisting of sign plus intention) to the third party. But that's an impossibility, since all we actually send is the sign. We don't send the idea; we can't send the idea.

Interaction in a language is, as Wittgenstein argues (esp. in the Blue and the brown books) more like a move in a game than any sort of semantically laden communication. Someone says 'slab' and we might respond "slab?" or we might fetch a slab. There's nothing special about one of the other response, except as an outcome of our recognition of the stimulus 'slab'.

Just a bit more discussion, beyond the scope of the question.

The Kripke interpretation of Wittgenstein presents this as a sceptical argument. There is no way for the hearer to know from one experience of the word to the next that the meaning continues to be or remains the same. Hence, argues Kripke (on behalf of Wittgenstein), there can be no internal language; it is purely an external phenomena. 

It does not follow, however, that the meaning of a word in a language is the same as the meaning of a word to a person. 

There may be no certainty that the meaning of a word is the same for a person from one hearing to the next. In fact, it is probably that the meaning actually changes slightly, since the meaning of the word to the person - ie., the recognition of the word, is based on the totality of previous instances in which the same or similar phenomenon is experienced.

Our understanding of the meaning of the word 'red' is associated not only with experiences of the colour red, but also our experiences of people uttering or using the red in a variety of contexts.

Just so, if there are 'rules' to the language-game we are playing with the person who says 'slab', these rules exist only externally. They might be described after the fact by a person observing the game. But they form no part of our individual playing of the game. If there are rules, we have no means of acquiring them, except by playing the game, which produces in us nothing more than experiences and the potential for future acts of recognition and response.

'Learning' the meaning of a word isn't the internalization or reconstruction of a language (or language-artifacts) in the mind. It consists rather of an indeterminate set of associated recognitions of elements of that language. We don't 'acquire' a language, we grow into someone who is a language-speaker.

All this is important because it tells us that our use of the world isn't fundamentally different than that of the parrot's, but rather, is the same sort of thing, except that for humans the meaning is acquired by a much richer and deeper set of neural connections than for the parrot, which is limited to only the most basic and rudimentary instances of word-recognition.



Popular Posts