Monday, May 22, 2006

A belated response to Megan in which I repeatedly use the word "hypnagogic," because, well, I just like it, okay?

[Notes on citation: In this post I quote from John Searle's essay "Meaning, Communication and Representation" and Donald Davidson's "A Nice Derangment of Epitaphs," both from the collection Philosophical Grounds of Rationality, edited by Richard Grandy and Richard Warner.]

Megan, responding to my post awhile back, "A brief word on words":
yes, but what if the words are interpreted in a different light. Does that make the listener wrong? I would argue that we also choose words to have meanings that will be seen in the light we mean them, not just in the light we want them. If I were to call you an asshole but mean it as a compliment, that wouldn't necessarily mean you were flattered.
If the listener misinterprets a word, she did just that—misinterpreted. She is wrong in her interpretation. It is the nature of language—and so not necessarily a flaw in a theory of language or a theory of interpretation—that statements can be misinterpreted. Relatedly, instances of communication through language are often wrong, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t instances of communication through language—Searle writes, “For example, the weatherman who predicts rain only to be confronted by a sunny day violates no rule of language. He is simply mistaken.”

That's a minor quibble. Megan is getting at a relevant objection--but to see its relevance, we first need to clarify the grounds of the debate, as it were. In my initial post about Humpty I didn’t really clarify the problem or explain why its important or purposeful to establish, as I asserted, that words mean what we want them to mean (neither more nor less). Meaning and interpretation present many issues; the specific ones I'm interested in are summarized here by Searle,
[Concerning communication,] what must be added to these noises, marks, etc., in order that they should be statements, orders, etc.? What, so to speak, must be added to the physics to get the semantics? In short, that question can be posed as, ‘What is it for a speaker to mean something by an utterance?’
Or, even more simply, What do our words mean? My response, roughly, is that words mean what we want them to mean. An alternate response to this question (one that Megan seems to be hinting towards) might be “Words mean what Webster says the mean,” or, more technically, “Words mean what they are commonly held to mean among a given set of people.” That is the sociological alternative.

Let me first establish that words have no inherent meaning. A word, not uttered by an intentional agent (that is, by a person or intelligent being) has no meaning. If a random word--say, “hypnagogic"--coalesces in your Alphabits soup, that word has no meaning. If, however, that word is used in conversation by your roommate, then she has impelled that word with meaning in order to convey her intentions. But it must be used intentionally. If your roommate had randomly muttered sounds equaling the word “hypnagogic” while in a hypnagogic trance, the word is meaningless. The word hypnagogic, then, and all other words (and pictures, too) have no meaning unless they are used purposefully by a conscious agent. We, in some sense, give meaning to words by our using them intentionally.

That words have no inherent meaning beyond an intentional agent seems compatible with the idea you put forward, but you offer something further, on how we choose these meanings:
"I would argue that we also choose words to have meanings that will be seen in the light we mean them, not just in the light we want them."

I say this is a false dichotomy. If the purpose of choosing words is communication, then our “want” will be aligned with our “meaning.” We choose words as a means to an end—that is, we choose words that will best convey our intentions. Usually, this choice will fall in line with the sociological alternative mentioned above. We will usually impel words with a meaning close to that of their common usage, because we assume doing this will unable others to easily understand them. However, we can also convey meaning using words that mean completely different things than their Webster/sociological meaning.

Donald Davidson gives this example, paraphrased and slightly modified here, to show that words mean what we want them to mean, rather than have some objective meaning, to which we appeal must be made in order to communicate. Say there is a lady, Mrs. Malaprop we'll call her, who, in conversation, uses the word “derangement” when she really means what we would commonly denote with “arrangement.” Likewise, she substitutes “epitaphs” for what would usually be denoted with "epithets." Now, say you are in conversation with Mrs. Malaprop and she remarks that something is “A nice derangement of epitaphs.” Given the context of the conversation, you can tell that Mrs. Malaprop is referring to what would commonly be denoted as a “nice arrangement of epithets.” You, therefore, correctly interpret her meaning. If she successfully transmitted her meaning in this way, then evidently her words weren’t meaningless. Indeed, her words appear to have meant exactly what she wanted them to mean.

This example makes use of malapropisms, and notes the need for a theory of interpretation or language to account for “our ability to perceive a well-formed sentence when the actual utterance was incomplete or grammatically garbled, our ability to interpret words we have never heard before, to correct slips of the tongue, or to cope with new idiolects.” (Davidson) Malapropisms and the like are where sociological alternatives tend to founder. People constantly “mangle” language, but we can understand them nonetheless, because understanding is not about interpreting “words” themselves but about interpreting “intentions"--what we want words to mean.

So, in conclusion, I’ll amend my admittedly vulgar theory of interpretation as such: Words, themselves, are meaningless. But, when used by intentional agents, such as us, words gain a meaning according to our intentions—they mean exactly what we intend them to mean, neither more nor less. What we intend them to mean is what we expect to best convey our intentions.

Humpty chose to use “glory” in a capacity which, it is clear from the exchange, he knows that Alice will not understand. Therefore, he used “glory” in such a way as to convey no intentional meaning (unless he was speaking solely for the benefit of himself, as in a soliloquy, in which case he was conveying meaning intentionally to himself). So, while Humpty is right that words mean exactly what we want them to, he is wrong that he “wanted” (intended) “glory” to mean what he later says he did (again, unless he was speaking in soliloquy.)

It might seem that words have a certain meaning, but Davidson reminds us:
"There is no word or construction that cannot be converted to a new use by an ingenious or ignorant speaker."

Therefore, in conclusion, hypnagogic.


Anonymous Megan said...

"(one that Megan seems to be hinting towards)" You would, Grant. You would.

10:08 AM  
Blogger Grant said...

I didn't mean that derisively or anything--it just looked like that was the direction you were going.

10:46 AM  

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