What the Meaning of Is, Is.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Philosophical notes:

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.


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9 responses to “What the Meaning of Is, Is.

  1. TWF

    I had a coworker who was working on a project which was to be built in South Korea. Representatives from that customer came over to iron out some of the details of the performance contract. Through the course of the negotiations, it became clear that those particular Koreans thought that “approximately” meant something like “mathematically precise,” while “exactly” meant something like “relatively close to the value within an acceptable margin of error.” From that perspective, I would argue that there are at least some times when you can be valid in claiming that the other side is using the term wrongly. (By the way, the Koreans were very adamant that they were using the terms correctly, and it was the U.S. guys who were wrong.)

    But, you know, it seems that if the misuse of a word becomes popular enough, it can take on a completely different, even contrary definition than the original word, literally. 😉

    But overall, I think you’ve made some great points here. In fact, knowing how transient and adaptive language can be, it would be good for people who debate to train themselves to the extent possible to perceive differences in how the words are understood by the other side.

    And yet, public speakers have to train themselves in a different way… to use the terms in ways which are consistent with the majority opinion of the audience to provide for the most common understanding, because they would not have time to parse out each person’s nuanced beliefs of what different words mean. Ponderous.

  2. Ian

    Thanks TWF. I think there’s probably a continuum between cases where I would say someone’s use is wrong and those I wouldn’t. But I think it is a continuum of *authority*, not a linguistic one. For example, I’m comfortable telling my 5 year old son that he’s using a word wrong, because that is part of my authority over and responsibility for his linguistic development. I’d be happy as a lecturer to tell a student they have a meaning of a subject-specific word wrong, because that student has explicitly accepted the authority of my knowledge in the matter (else why are they paying me to teach them?). I’d be less happy to tell a language learner they are wrong, unless I’ve previously been invited in some way into helping them learn. And when I’m discussing what a Christian believes by ‘God’, I think it is downright parochial to even think that, let alone say it.

  3. TWF

    And when I’m discussing what a Christian believes by ‘God’, I think it is downright parochial to even think that, let alone say it.

    Indeed. That’s a lesson I need to remind myself of from time to time. Not necessarily only with “God,” but also with other words of the faithful.

  4. Yeah, Ian, I agree with that.
    I think, if people take time, that they would agree too. The problem is, people don’t act like that.
    Perhaps, as you know, I write a lot about this same thing on my site.

  5. Ian

    “Perhaps, as you know, I write a lot about this same thing on my site.”

    Yes, absolutely, and I try not to go over territory I know is amply covered elsewhere, but I did need to set this up a bit.

  6. Words have a meaning by virtue of being used in similar situations by more than one person. The meaning of a word is the set of circumstances in which a group of people would consider it suitable to use that word.

    The first sentence there is good. The second comes across as trying to be a bit too precise about what meaning is. Inserting “roughly speaking” at the beginning of that sentence would be better, and I think that is close to what you actually intended.

    Some people seem to want to take meanings as metaphysical, as independent of humans. Some religious folk would express that by saying that meanings come directly from God. However, the evidence does not support this.

    I am saying all this because, in online discussions about religion, meanings become offensive weapons.

    This is true. But it also applies to discussions about philosophy and discussions about politics. I’m guessing that the same problem even arises in discussions about sports.

    I have often noticed that in so-called logic debates, the disagreements are usually not about the logic. They are usually about the premises. And often the arguments about the premises center on disagreements about meaning. I have tentatively come to the conclusion that these sorts of disagreements are unavoidable. They are part of how language works. Arguments about meaning are part of how we communicate meaning, and of how meaning evolves to meet the current needs of the linguistic community.

  7. Ian

    Neil, thanks a lot for this. Very much in tune with you on this, I think. I’ve made the suggested change.

  8. As I thought about this a bit more, the following phrase came to mind:

    “That language in man-made and not something we discover is no clearer than in the wars we have over definitions.”

    In Triangulations, I have written quite a bit on the efforts of Christians to tell us what “Real Christianity” is. Likewise, some Atheists want to fight ‘mistaken’ notions of Atheism. Also I wrote on battles over the definitions of Buddhism.

    For the last week I have been composing a new post on my Poetry blog on “Poetry is ….” which illustrate the same silly battles in the supposedly secular world of Poetry. Definitions are the battle ground of prescriptive preferences!

  9. Ian

    I think it is a juvenile way of thinking generally. I remember being at school. We used to have conversations all the time about the pedantic application of school rules “Well, strictly, they can’t do that, because the rule is such and such.” It takes a while to realise that there are no such thing as absolute rules, they are a pretence designed to exert power. There are no such things as absolute definitions, only those who want to exert power.

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