concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2009



Expressivism is a theory of meaning based on the belief that the meaning of symbols derives from the way in which the self or a subjective reality is expressed in those symbols. Expressivism lies in dualistic opposition to the more common representationalism, the view that symbols gain their meaning from the way in which they reflect an external or phenomenal reality. As accounts of meaning, both of these theories are based on metaphysical assumptions about meaning's ultimate basis, which fail to take into account its shifting pragmatic basis in human experience, beginning most basically with physical experience of the body.

Expressivism appears to be more of a default set of assumptions for those philosophers who attack representationalism than a recognised position in its own right. Richard Rorty, for example, is one modern philosopher who makes cogent attacks on representationalism, but whose positive account of language fails to distinguish the Middle Way from expressivism. Practically speaking, though, expressivism is found in those whose understanding of the meaning of their experience is narrowly aestheticised into symbols (usually artistic or literary) which merely express themselves, rather than recognising the interrelationship between self-expression and external stimulus: those, for example, who find scientific language meaningless. For such practical expressivists, it is personal feeling that makes the world meaningful, rather than thinking that attempts to engage with conditions, but the sole reliance on this mode of understanding the significance of the world is unbalanced, and prevents some key aspects of conditions from being addressed.

One of the most famous attacks on expressivism in Western philosophy is Wittgenstein's so-called 'Private Language Argument', found in his Philosophical Investigations. Here Wittgenstein claims that it is impossible for an individual to create and maintain meaningfulness in relation to a symbol they had created privately, because there is no objective way of checking the similarity of meaning between the first use of the symbol and subsequent uses. A 'private language' limited to one mind would thus be a meaningless one in the sense that its terms must constantly be defined anew and have no stability. Wittgenstein's argument here is correct in pointing out that it is not the metaphysical features of a subjective mind that create the potentiality for meaning (for example, words are not indexed into our souls). However, Wittgenstein's argument is flawed in its assumption that individual introspection cannot produce objectivity in relation to meaning (as in relation to belief or anything else). The objectivity of meaning in a term does not depend solely on its relationship to public communicative use in 'language games', as Wittgenstein insists, but on the objectivity of the mind determining the meaning of symbols in relation to his or her experience. A 'private language' maintains the stability of its meaning only to the extent that the private mind using it maintains awareness of that meaning. The stability of meaning has nothing to do with whether language is 'public' or 'private' but with how much reflective attention is habitually brought to it, whether than attention is individual or shared.

The basic problem with expressivism, then, is that it relies on negative metaphysical assumptions about meaning, rather than beginning with the intention of understanding meaning independently of metaphysical assumptions. As in other generally nihilistic approaches, a recognition of the limitations of positive metaphysics slips too easily into the converse. In this case, a recognition of the way that we create our own representation of the world slips into the rejection of all objectivity of meaning and a reliance on the expressive self as a sole source of meaning.

Links to related discussion

Representationalism and expressivism from thesis (scroll down to subsection iii)


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

The Middle Way and language


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