The Middle Way, language, and meaning

The philosophical and psychological aspects of the Middle Way all depend on an account of meaning. Our inability to understand ethics and our tendency to get stuck in an absolute vs relative dichotomy are due to mistakes in the way we interpret language. The theory of meaning as it predominantly exists in Western thinking reinforces the dichotomy, and the reform of our understanding of meaning can thus contribute to an improvement in our moral understanding.

The predominant theory of meaning in the Western tradition has been representationalist, that is, based on the assumption that language gains its meaning from what it represents. In one of its narrowest forms this is known as the truth-conditional theory of meaning. This means that the meaning of the sentence "there is a spider outside my window" depends on an actual spider outside my window. If I can point to the conditions in which it would be true, then I know what it means. However, there are many other possible forms that representationalism can take: if you think that language gains its meaning by representing in any way, then you are a representationalist. The representations may be believed to be found in the mind of God, or in the innately-known Platonic forms which give us the keys to the universe, or in a shared social understanding of the meaning of particular terms in a given context. Whichever of these the representationalist may believe in, if the spider I'm talking of is to be found there, it is a meaningful spider, but if not, then it is a meaningless spider. If I have no kind of concept or image of a spider from experience, or in my innate mind, or in a communal bank of meaningful shared ideas that enables me to communicate to others using the word, then I may as well say "muhig" as spider: the two are equally meaningless for a representationalist.

The opposed alternative to believing that language gains its meaning from representing what is beyond us is to see it as expressing what is within us. For expressivists, perhaps there is no way of checking language against some criterion of what it represents, but at least I can relate it to what I feel in myself. If it expresses what I feel then at least it can be meaningful to me, even though it may then be difficult to see how it communicates with other people. This is the view of meaning I call expressivism. 

Adherence to either of these predominant views of language tends to catch us up in a dichotomy between the meaningful and the meaningless. If a word, or a sentence, or even a symbol, represents or expresses, then it is taken to be meaningful, but if not then there is a sudden cut-off, and what is left is relegated into the outer darkness of meaninglessness.

I want to argue that this is not how meaning works at all. Instead meaning is pragmatic, incremental and related closely to our personal, physical experience. Any kind of symbol can be more or less meaningful to me insofar as it relates to my experience, though experience should not be understood in narrow observational terms. I feel meaning in a very immediate physical way, and even the meaning of the most abstract terms has an attenuated relationship to that physical experience through metaphor. Symbols do not have to be checked against a representation or a social context to gain meaningfulness, because meaning is not the same as communication. A word might be very meaningful to me without communicating to someone else, or it might communicate to someone else without being very meaningful to me. Meaning is not limited to communicability, but nor is it limited to feelings of significance stimulating interest. Rather it involves both of these things to varying degrees, emphasised in different ways in different contexts and bound together by a shared relationship to physical experience.

Meaning of this kind provides a condition for desire and for belief. We cannot desire anything we do not find meaningful, and we cannot believe in anything we do not find meaningful. Thus, like desires and beliefs, meanings can be in conflict, and that conflict can be overcome by integration. It is possible to desire the same thing as someone else (or as oneself at a different time) but to have conflicting beliefs, or to share meanings as a basis of communication but to desire different things, but the most fundamental divisions arise from not even finding the same things meaningful. Thus the most basic kind of integration, laying the groundwork for others, is the integration of meaning. A mind that has integrated meanings is able to understand its own impulses at different times and thus become more objective. Similarly, extending our capacity to communicate with others by learning their language may create a possibility of  shared meanings, which then enable shared goals.

Limiting meaning to communicability (as in representationalism) or to felt significance (as in expressivism) is the equivalent in terms of meaning to the role of metaphysics in relation to belief. If we shut out an area of experience from consideration as meaningful, we create a basis for rejection of it and for dogmatic rejection of any beliefs it includes. This kind of meaning-exclusivism can be seen, for example, in the rejection of other cultures and languages, in the limitation of meaning to the narrowly rational or to the narrowly emotional, or in the rejection of areas of human experience. One strong example in the early twentieth century was the contemptuous dismissal of religion as "meaningless" by logical positivist philosophers such as A.J.Ayer. Religious beliefs may be unverifiable and unfalsifiable, but that does not make them meaningless. On the contrary, it is important to engage with their meaning in relation to human experience to be justified in rejecting their metaphysical beliefs. 

It is the modern work of George Lakoff who provides the best support for this genuinely pragmatic view of meaning in theoretical linguistics. It is Lakoff who provides an account of how meaning can be derived from bodily experience, rather than solely from representation or (as in Wittgenstein) from social communicability. Many modern theoretical linguists, however, continue to mistake a narrowly defined part of the whole sphere of meaning for the whole, and thus encourage a derivative narrowness in related fields of enquiry.

Links to related discussion

Psychology in relation to the Middle Way

Discussion of representationalism and expressivism in thesis (scroll down to subsection iii)

Section on Wittgenstein in thesis

Section on 'integration and meaning' in thesis (scroll down to section c)

Comment on this issue on the blog

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