copyright Robert M. Ellis 2011

Common but unhelpful assumptions 5: An account of meaning confined to representation or expression

Seven common but unhelpful assumptions in Western thought:

1. The negative implications of scepticism

2. The need to accept or reject metaphysical claims

3. The identification of objectivity with absolute claims

4. The acceptability of pure analysis not applied to concrete contexts

5. An account of meaning confined to representation or expression

6. The fact-value distinction

7. The identification of ego with self

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Western thoughts other unhelpful assumptions all depend on this one. What we assume about justified beliefs or values depends on what we take to be meaningful. Though theories of meaning were seldom made explicit before the twentieth century, those created then and assumed before offer a restrictive account of what is meaningful, in accordance with the abstracted turn noted in assumption 4. Instead of being based on our whole experience, philosophical accounts of meaning have usually been based on the abstracted idea of truth-conditions, or sometimes in reaction to this self-expression, thus ruling whole areas of our experience out of meaningfulness and thus out of consideration to seriously influence our beliefs. The practical effect of this depends on the influence of theories of meaning on theories of knowledge, and of theories of knowledge in turn on theories of ethics - but the indirectness of this influence does not stop it being an important and substantial influence.

The theory of meaning that still dominates the analytic tradition of philosophy is the truth-conditional theory. This asserts that the meaning of a proposition consists in its representation of the conditions that would make it true. One major problem with this its dependence on a purely abstracted state of affairs that we may never experience. It is not concerned with meaning for human beings who inhabit bodies, but meaning from a God's eye view position that nobody actually inhabits. Thus, although there may be something formally correct about the truth-conditional theory within its own terms, for a certain limited aspect of the meaning of some of our language, the conclusions drawn in dependence on it frequently forget the limitations of the sphere to which it applies. It also creates a false dichotomy between meaningful truth-conditional propositions and other kinds of 'strictly meaningless' language, and is entirely irelevant to the meaning we actually experience as human beings. Yet this is the theory of meaning which has usually been assumed in creating theories of ethics in analytic philosophy! To tackle a central aspect of human experience on the basis of assumptions that neglect most of it makes no sense.

A slightly different approach to meaning was taken by the later Wittgenstein. Instead of truth-conditions, Wittgenstein seems on the face of it to be offering a more pragmatic approach. However, instead of the God's-eye-view Wittgenstein offers the social view. Meaning is the product of language-games, which means the community of meaning created by interaction between people using language. In his 'Private Language Argument' Wittgenstein rules out the very possibility of meaning in private experience, on the unnecessary assumption that there could be no objectivity to provide continuity of meaning in private experience. So, Wittgenstein is still consigning a large section of human experience to meaninglessness, and his alleged pragmatism still depends to a large extent on the assumptions of his background in analytic philosophy. Wittgenstein still expects meaning to be based on representation - for the meaning of a statement to depend on some sort of state of affairs beyond my experience, rather than on that experience itself. Social experience is an important part of our experience that makes a considerable contribution to our sense of meaning, but it is far from all of it.

The alternative possible approach in reaction to truth conditions (taken for example by Richard Rorty) I call expressivism, because it assumes that meaning depends only on human desires and purposes - rather than representing something out there, a meaningful statement (or more broadly, a meaningful symbol) expresses the desires we may (individually or collectively) have at a given moment. But this approach makes the opposite mistake. Whilst it potentially allows our emotional exclamations and private experiences a meaningfulness that many analytic philosophers would not give them, it rules out the possibility of meaning arising from representation. The assumption that applies here is no.7, because expressivism assumes that it is only our experience now, rather than the experiences we might grow into, that are meaningful.

Again, criticism of this pair of opposites also depends on the raising of an alternative. However, in this case an alternative has already been developed by a widely-recognised figure: George Lakoff. Lakoff's account of meaning begins with our physical experience and explains our most deeply-rooted sense of the meaningfulness of symbols in relation to our bodies. For example, we understand 'in' and 'out' initially in relation to experience inside or outside our bodies. Our use of symbols then becomes increasingly complex through metaphorical extension, so that even a complex and abstract concept like 'incorporation' is meaningful to us in dependency on our basic physical experience of 'in'.

Lakoff's approach to meaning is potentially revolutionary, because he does not limit meaning to cognitive or emotive areas of experience, but rather shows how they are unified. Whilst the physical basis of meaning in his account explains the emotive aspects of meaning, the metaphorical extension also brings in a cognitive element that allows us to cast ahead and project meaning outside out immediate experience. His approach unifies the representationalist and expressivist accounts into genuine pragmatism. The false dichotomy between 'meaning' and 'meaningfulness' imposed by analytic philosophy is removed. His approach also open up the possibility of meaning, not just for propositions, but for individual words, or even non-verbal symbols such as music or visual symbols. Bound by our physical experience, our representations and desires constantly work together in ever more complex ways, but any approach to meaning that denies that complex interaction through unhelpful abstraction is both impoverished and unhelpful.


Links to related pages on this website:

Language (introductory page)

Meaning (concept page)

Representationalism and expressivism (from thesis - scroll down to section iii)

Wittgenstein (from thesis)

Integration and meaning (from thesis - scroll down to section c) 


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