I am working on a post about modern religions that don’t think of themselves as such. To do that I needed to talk about what the meaning of ‘religion’ is. But that grew too large, so I think it is worth trying to break the idea down and be clearer about how I think about the meaning of words.
This post is an invitation to be critical about my ideas, so please weigh in.
Words have a meaning by virtue of being used in similar situations by more than one person. Roughly speaking, the meaning of a word is the set of circumstances in which a group of people would consider it suitable to use that word.
In the case of concrete nouns, we could say that the meaning of a word is the set of things that a group of people would label with that word. For example: what is a chair? If I got my friends and family together, and showed them a whole series of objects, we’d surely agree that some of them were chairs and others weren’t (I’ll return to the disagreements. below). So, to us, the meaning of chair includes those objects we all agreed were chairs.
At least four issues are important here.
- In our parade of chairs we didn’t see every object or conceivable object. So this idea about meaning isn’t simply extensional (i.e. I’m not defining chair as the set of all possible chairs). It recognizes that people are inherently good at generalizing and pattern matching and interpreting. The definition is inherently fuzzy around the edges, because, even if you and I agree on 100% of the examples we’ve seen so far, there may be some object we’d disagree about.
- A group of people may not agree on all uses of ‘chair’. Some things may split the jury. This is fine, definitions are not precise and their edges are not cleanly delineated. I’m happy to say that certain things are more of a chair than others, or more clearly a chair than others.
- Different groups may have different patterns of what they determine a chair to be. If I include the consensus of all English language speakers, I may get a very narrow definition of a chair. If the group is the furniture design class at RISD, the definition of ‘chair’ would include all kinds of object that I might not choose to call a chair.
- A dictionary definition simply primes us to use a word in a way that would correspond to its use by a broad range of other users of that word. A dictionary definition doesn’t specify what a word should mean, or really means.
I am saying all this because, in online discussions about religion, meanings become offensive weapons.
When someone insists on what a word should mean, it is an attempt to exert control over the use of the word. This is a political act, and can be a deliberate act to disenfranchise certain people’s use of it, or identification with it.
It is valid for me to suggest that your use of a term suggests to me meanings that you didn’t intend. It is valid for me to suggest that it is likely to do the same for many other people (though presumably if we disagree on that, we’d have to resolve the disagreement empirically).
It is not valid for me to say that therefore you are wrong to use the word, or should not use it in the way you wish — unless I also want to claim that I am the arbiter of linguistic morality.
Once we have established how we are using a word, I should be happy to converse using it — unless I want to suggest I am such an idiot that I can’t accommodate your intent.
If, however, it becomes clear that I keep on misunderstanding you because of that term, then you should help the conversation by suggesting a different one, more neutral of the problematic connotations. Doing so is not a concession of the term on your part, nor a rejection of it on mine, just a recognition that it is not helpful.
When I talk about the meaning of words, I am referring to a descriptive definition, I believe such definitions are never extensionally adequate (we can never give a definition without someone giving a counter-example), much less intensionally adequate (a definition that can have no possible counter-example). The classic example of an intensionally adequate definition being that water is H2O, seems obviously wrong to me, since I call various things water that aren’t pure H2O (tap water or sea water, for example), and yet other things that are more purely water (dilute aqeous acid, for example) I would not call water, and there are forms of H2O that I do not typically call water.
I recognize that there are certain philosophical uses of meaning and definition that are not descriptive. But those senses are not useful in this context, most are not even applicable.
I’ve talked here primarily about nouns, but the same idea works for other words, though we rapidly stop being able to point at objects. That’s why I started talking about the contexts in which a word is used. At its core this is post-Tractatus Wittgenstein: language is a performance, and meaning is a by product of the situations in which a particular word may be performed. I think this explanation of the meaning of language is also sufficient to build notions of language acquisition upon. But I’d be interested in rehearsing criticisms of it, if anyone finds it objectionable.