On Philosophy

October 15, 2006

A Theory About Meaning

Filed under: Language — Peter @ 12:43 am

Let me cut right to the chase; my proposal about meaning is that the meaning of a word is the transformation rules that individuals employ to understand it. The transformation rules themselves convert words into a kind of conscious experience we might call satisfaction conditions. For example, the word “dog” is transformed into “something that looks such and such”, where “such and such” is a range of possible experiences (drawing from an earlier post, it is the act of intending “dog”). Obviously for some words the satisfaction conditions are purely experiential, which is to say that the satisfaction conditions are entirely in terms of the experiences that one might have when coming into contact with that object [1]. However, satisfaction conditions are not limited to this, they may involve relations to other objects, functional role (i.e. how some other components of the world will affect or be affected by them), grammatical role, feelings that it evokes, ect. In general, then, we say that the transformation rules take the symbol and turn it into a conscious act, which is like intending, but broader. Intending is something that deals strictly with what can be experienced, but the conscious experience created by the transformation rules can be about any properties we can conceive of the object as having. Perhaps then it is somewhat misleading to label this kind of conscious experience “satisfaction conditions” since “satisfaction conditions” seems to imply a set of rules when it is really more like a horizon of possible experiences, but unfortunately I cannot think of anything better to call it. [2] I should also mention, briefly, that the meaning of sentences is arrived at by a kind of transformation of the results of transformation rules for the constituent words. In brief the words of the sentence are transformed into their satisfaction conditions, and then these satisfaction conditions are put together (a second transformation) based on the structure of the sentence (which includes things such as connective words and verb tense). Admittedly this is just a bare outline of what must occur, but for reasons of brevity I will leave a detailed explanation for another day. Finally, I must stress that these transformation rules are a “knowing how” and not a “knowing that”, they are acquired and operate unconsciously, and though we can often reflect upon how we use words and discover some of the transformation rules they are not the subjects of infallible introspection.

The kind of meaning described above is best thought of as the individual or personal meaning of words. The transformation rules employed by one person are likely to be extremely similar to those used by someone else who speaks the same language, but the probability that they will be exactly the same is close to zero. We do, however, want to be able to speak of the “objective” meanings of words in order to explain how a person can misunderstand a word, since if there was no objective meaning there would be no misunderstanding, only understanding differently. Recovering objective meaning really isn’t that difficult, though, since we can define it as simply a similarity between transformation rules, with similarities shared by the majority of speakers of that language defining the “real” meaning of the word. How useful this objective meaning is something that I will remain silent about, but certainly it is something that we can make reference to in our ordinary talk.

To finish introducing this theory about meaning I should mention its connection to the extension or the reference of words. The reference (extension) of a word is the object or objects in the world that it “picks out”, for example the reference of “dog” is all existing dogs. In one sense the meaning, the transformation rules from word to satisfaction conditions, do define the extension, since they determine which objects can fit the meaning of the word (by meeting the satisfaction conditions). On the other hand, the meaning says nothing about if objects actually exist which actually meet the satisfaction conditions, or if an object presented to us meets the satisfaction conditions, as there is always the possibility that we may be deceived or in error. This separation of meaning from reference allows this theory to define meaning, the content, as something that is internal, in contrast to theories that identify meaning with reference, which necessarily lead to externalism, a topic I will return to in the future.

Now let me show how such a theory of meaning can meet the objections that I previously developed in order to show that T sentences couldn’t be a satisfactory theory of meaning. The first objection was the case of encrypted languages, which I set up as follows: “Consider then a language that is encrypted (specifically a public-private key scheme based on prime number factorization). The aliens that use this language are born knowing the encryption and decryption keys. Internally they form their sentences in an English-like language but they encrypt them before publicly communicating them. Their listeners hear the encrypted sentence and decrypt it, which allows them to understand what is being said. Clearly the public, encrypted, version of the language has meaning, since the aliens are able to communicate using it…” Obviously if we had the transformation rules (the kind of theory of meaning described here) for such a language they would include the decryption process (since that is how the alien speakers themselves transform the public language into something that they understand), and so it would seem that a theory of meaning for such a language would indeed allow us to understand any statement made in it, even ones we hadn’t heard before.

The second objection to T sentence theories of meaning, that they seem to deny that certain self-referential sentences have meaning, clearly isn’t a problem for the transformation rules approach, so I won’t go into any details. Finally, there is the problem of subjective words, such as “cute”. In such cases it is natural to assume that the transformation rules would convert the word into satisfaction conditions that can be met only by something that “feels” cute. But are such transformation rules possible, or have we pulled a fast one? Let me dispel such fears by describing how an individual might come to have such a transformation rule. The ability to feel that something is cute is an ability that people are born with, I assume. This is not to say that they recognize that feeling as feeling “cute”, just that they have a distinct feeling that arises when they are presented with things that are cute. As a result of this feeling they will be disposed to act in certain ways towards those objects (for example, to cuddle them). Additionally, they will notice that when people call an object “cute” they are disposed to act in certain ways towards that object, and that these dispositions are similar to the ones that the person learning the language has to certain objects when they feel a certain way about them. From here it isn’t hard to see how they would come to have a transformation rule that takes the word “cute” and turns it into satisfaction conditions that are met when an object “feels” a certain way.


1. Actually most of us think that objects in the world have an independent existence (i.e. they exist even why we aren’t experiencing them), which isn’t a satisfaction condition that can be stated in terms of possible experiences, so there may not be any words that are transformed into purely experiential satisfaction conditions for some people.

2. We can also assume that the transformation rules can be run backwards, allowing the person who understands the language to transform some part of their experience into the appropriate words.



  1. You say that the meaning of a sentence is the horizon created by its transformation, but doesn’t this have the negative side effect of making all sentences that cannot be the objects of possible experience equivalent? Thus, “This sentence is false,” would have the same meaning as “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” since neither has a possible horizon, but instinctively, I would want to say that the first is contradictory but the second is nonsense, which are two different meanings for the sentences.

    Comment by Carl — October 17, 2006 @ 9:26 pm

  2. No horizon = nonsense, and all nonsesne is the same. And “this sentance is falase” does have a horizon in the loose sense given here. “However, satisfaction conditions are not limited to this [possible experiences], they may involve relations to other objects, functional role (i.e. how some other components of the world will affect or be affected by them), grammatical role, feelings that it evokes, ect. In general, then, we say that the transformation rules take the symbol and turn it into a conscious act, which is like intending, but broader.”

    Comment by Peter — October 17, 2006 @ 10:13 pm

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