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Can the Meaning of Language be Objective?

09/26/12

Permalink 09:01:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 1236 words   English (US)
Categories: Words and Meanings

Can the Meaning of Language be Objective?

This post continues the series on language and meaning. The first post asked the question of how language has meaning and how we can come to know what words and sentences mean. Since then, I have posted on a few different theories of language and meaning, most recently on the theory of the “language of thought”, which is also known as “mentalese”. This series follows the modern phenomenological method (MPhM), which I explained in a prior series of posts. Last week's post constituted steps 3 and 4 of this method as applied to the current phenomenological research project on language and meaning. The current post begins step 5 of this project, which is the formulation of a transcendental theory of language that incorporates all evidence that has been considered up to this point, but avoids getting into scientific evidence for the time being (this is saved for step 6). The transcendental theory of language and meaning I'm going to be explaining is kind of complicated, so I will have to split it out into probably four separate posts over the coming weeks. The current post is about the possibility that the meaning of language can be objective.

So let's get back to the original question: how does language have meaning? After considering the evidence from the last few posts, the most reasonable conclusion is that the meaning of any symbol, word, phrase, or expression in a language comes from the ideas that the speaker was trying to convey by speaking or writing them. It seems that (nearly) all people are capable of thinking, whether they are able to express their thoughts in language or not. Those who do have the intellectual capacity for language are able to figure out what linguistic expressions will likely convey their intended meaning to others. Although this process is complex and there are several points where it can go wrong, it is nonetheless possible for people to convey meaning to each other through communication and from this to form a mutual understanding of certain ideas.

Communication, though, is not perfect. It is probably impossible, or at least extremely difficult, for people to communicate through language and from this to form a perfect understanding of each other's thoughts. People's ideas are not constrained by the language that they know, at least not entirely. A case in point is that people are able to form complex ideas and sometimes struggle to find ways of expressing them in language. In these situations, it is not the ideas that are being constrained, it is one's ability to express them. Language does not do much to limit people's thoughts, but it does often limit their ability to communicate. Although it is possible for people to communicate complex ideas through language, there is a point at which language becomes inadequate. It is apparent that people can conceive of pure ideas of such complexity that they cannot be straightforwardly communicated by any inter-human communicative language. In these situations, people often have to make creative use of language in order to try to get their point across.

Since the source of meaning can be found in the ideas that people have in mind when they speak, it is important to understand what an idea is. Strictly speaking, ideas are instantiations of pure concepts. Based on this, to say that multiple people have the same idea in mind actually means that each person's idea is an instantiation of the same concept. Also, ideas can take the form of either active thoughts or memories that can later be recalled and become active thoughts.

Gottlob Frege and Ferdinand de Saussure are both very influential linguists from the past, and both would probably agree on this main point: that the symbols (or “signifiers”; words, phrases, expressions, etc.) that we use to communicate with can have different senses (or “signifieds”) in different contexts. Since the meaning of a symbol comes solely from the ideas that the communicator intended to convey, we cannot say that any symbol actually has a meaning intrinsically, and thus no word, phrase, expression, etc. has a sense intrinsically either. While Saussure believed that the relation between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary and the result of established convention among language users, Frege's view was that symbols have senses objectively. As was pointed out in an earlier post, the phrases “the evening star” and “the morning star” both have senses that refer to the planet Venus. Also, “Tom Sawyer” has multiple senses, including the book written by Mark Twain and the character featured in this and other books. Frege believed that phrases have these senses objectively. While I understand these senses of these two phrases and it is likely that most readers of this understand these senses, the idea that any symbol can have meaning objectively is problematic.

Admittedly, “objective” is a somewhat ambiguous term, but none of its possible senses seem to be appropriate here. One sense, which I dislike, is that “objective” sometimes is supposed to refer to the reality that exists regardless of anyone's beliefs about it. As was explained above, the meaning of words comes from people's ideas, so if this it is this sense that Frege had in mind when he said that meaning is objective then he had to have been mistaken. The definition that I prefer is “detailed knowledge of an object that is as unbiased as possible, using the most direct methods of perception that are available, with the aim being that anyone else should be able to have a very similar understanding of the same object using similar methods of observation and bias minimization”. This definition seems to be an accurate description of what scientists aim for and what they usually mean when they speak of “objectivity”.

The only way that it would be possible for a symbol to have a sense objectively, according to the definition stated here, is if we all had a shared medium through which we could read each others minds. If this were the case then we could easily compare our own thoughts to the thoughts of others and also understand that other people could read our thoughts. This medium would allow for a truly objective understanding of the ideas that underlie communication. Unfortunately, while we have visual and auditory communications mediums, we do not have one through which we can actually read each others minds. We can use the visual and auditory mediums to build an objective understanding of things like the factors that make water boil and the effects of electrical resistance, but the absence of a communications medium for thought means that we cannot form a truly objective understanding of the ideas that people have in mind when they communicate. We can have an objective understanding of the words that people speak and write, but we cannot have a detailed an unbiased understanding of people's thoughts. So Frege was incorrect in his assertion that words or phrases have their meanings objectively. We can, however, use the visual and auditory mediums to discuss the nature of our thoughts amongst each other and from this to formulate an intersubjective understanding of the pure concepts that underlie the words that we use to communicate with. We can use our objective knowledge of language along with the first person understanding that we all have of our own thoughts to create this intersubjective understanding, which is the next best thing to objectivity.

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