On Philosophy

July 8, 2006

The Sense of Meaning

Filed under: Intentionality,Language — Peter @ 1:21 am

Recently I wrote a post detailing what I thought of as a distinction between two kinds of meaning. Later I stumbled across a post by Tanasije Gjorgoski on intra-subjective and inter-subjective intentionality. It seems to me that the inter-subjective category defined there corresponds to what I called “objective meaning” and that the intra-subjective corresponds to “personal meaning”. However Tanasije argues that “meaning” rightfully describes only the inter-subjective. Of course it is largely pointless to argue about exactly how words are used when the concepts behind them are basically the same. However I am going to move forward an argument anyways as to why we might believe that meaning applies to both the inter-subjective and the intra-subjective.

To me it seems that how we use “meaning” is dependant on the context. Certainly if we are talking about a word or concept shared between multiple people the meaning must correspond to the inter-subjective, since by assumption they “mean” the same thing when they use it. If we were going to argue that this is exactly the same as “objective meaning” as I defined it earlier we must also show that for inter-subjectivity to exist there must be some physical aspect of the world that the word corresponds to or is based on. To show this I would argue along the same lines as the arguments presented here and here, namely that for us to have knowledge about something it must have a physical basis, and that all of the abstractions that we can meaningfully construct must also have a physical basis.

However there is another sense of “meaning”, which is used when you ask what a word means to a specific person. It seems obvious in this context that what we are wondering about is what kind of mental constructs and mental states correspond to the word for that person, or, as Tanasije would put it, the intra-subjective. Accepting that the intra-subjective can have “meaning” explains the following situations that a theory which defined meaning as only being associated with the inter-subjective would have trouble with. First consider how disagreement as to the meaning of a word can be possible. Doesn’t the existence of such disagreement imply that each person has a personal, intra-subjective, meaning for the word, which does not necessarily align with the accepted inter-subjective meaning, or the intra-subjective meaning of other people? More tellingly consider the invention of a new word. Before a new word can enter the inter-subjective world a person must create it. For that person to use the word and to be able to explain it to others there must be some meaning associated with it. However since that person has yet to explain it to anyone else (just for the sake of argument), the meaning is, for the moment, purely intra-subjective.

Of course I am not foolish enough to assert that the intra-subjective meaning of words and the inter-subjective meaning are independent of each other. To acquire an intra-subjective meaning a person must be aware of the inter-subjective world and use this information to tie down the meaning of words. For the inter-subjective meaning to exist the intra-subjective meaning must become mostly the same in the minds of the majority of language users. However these issues are complicated enough I will not pretend to explain them here; they deserve a post of their own at the minimum.

Finally this definition of intra-subjective meaning does not fall victim to Wittgenstein’s argument against private language for the following reason: Wittgenstein’s argument assumes that without some public use the meaning of a word cannot be fixed, and hence ends up as unintelligible. This is very similar to the argument I used to show that abstractions must have some basis in the physical in order to be real or intelligible. The reason that the intra-subjective is not necessarily rendered meaningless by the same logic is because the person who has a given intra-subjective meaning for a word has “tied the meaning down” with objective concepts, however his or her way of tying down the meaning may be unique, and possibly inexpressible.

A final note: The meaning being discussed here is not being used in the emotive sense (i.e. “his life had meaning”), nor in the information bearing sense. Although words do convey information not every information conveying event has meaning, at least in the sense used here.

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