"You're being mean."
"No, I'm not."
"This album is amazing!"
"What are you talking about? It's clearly trash."
"Tomatoes are my favorite vegetable!"
"Dude, they're fruits."

People often argue about what things are, and they often do it with words. Sometimes this can create another argument about what a certain word means. This leads me to semi-rhetorically ask you the question, where is the meaning located? In the words? The people? The air? If this seems like philosophical thumb-twiddling, note that where you think meaning is determines where you go looking whenever a question of meaning pops up. If I think the dictionary is the end all be all of meaning, it's the first place I'll go when pondering, "What really is happiness?"

If you've ever been quoted out of context in a way that made you look bad, you might have grumbled, "That's not what I meant!" On some level, I think most people understand that words themselves do not have inherent meaning. There are thoughts in your head, and words are the things that come out of your mouth, which hopefully let others guess what you are thinking.

And yet... damn sometimes it just really feels like meaning is baked into a message. Like it's just there, waiting to be discovered. We're going to explore this feeling, what I think it means, and how to not let it trip you up.

Context and Predictability

Context matters:

"My sister just got a new dog."
"You snuck in? You sly dog!"

Context still matters:

Mobster: "Watch do to that guy who owed you money?"
Mob Boss: "I put him to sleep."
Spouse 1: "Where's our Henry? I haven't seen him in a bit"
Spouse 2: "I put him to sleep."

Neither of those are meant to be shocking, just reminders that you already know that the same word, even the same sentence, can mean completely different things based on the context.

Everyone has the shared context of "having a human brain" and "being subject to the same laws of physics". This lets me communicate things like "Get away! You're not welcome" merely by throwing rocks. Language is a wild invention that was bootstrapped from an incredibly general context, and now it lets us create even more shared context which allows for even more specific thoughts and ideas to be shared. The context that you share with the people you're talking to is incredibly important in figuring out who meant what.

Given that it seems pretty clear that context is essential to understanding the meaning of someone's words, let's hop back to examine the feeling that meaning is intrinsic to words. Douglas Hofstadter talks about this feeling in Godel, Escher, Bach (the chapter "The Location of Meaning" really digs into some interesting ideas about meaning that are beyond the scope of this post). In the context of the Rosetta Stone being translated, he says:

Just how intrinsic is the meaning of a text, when such mammoth efforts are required in order to find the decoding rules? Has one put meaning into the text, or was that meaning already there? My intuition says that the meaning was always there, and that despite the arduousness of the pulling-out process, no meaning was pulled out that wasn't in the text to start with. This intuition comes mainly from one fact: I feel that the result was inevitable; that, had the text not been deciphered by this group at this time, it would have been deciphered by that group at that time-and it would have out the same way. That is why the meaning is part of the text itself; it acts upon intelligence in a predictable way. Generally, we can say: meaning is part of an object to the extent that it acts upon intelligence in a predictable way.
(emphasis mine)

Predictability is key. You can see how if saying "Good morning, what's the time?" prompted some people to give you a handshake, others to tell you their cell phone number, and others to start dancing, you'd be far less inclined to think that "Good morning, what's the time?" had intrinsic meaning.

I claim that "It feels like meaning is intrinsic to the words themselves" is a thought composed of multiple steps:

  1. I notice that some words predictably convey a particular meaning.
  2. When I communicate, say in writing, I'm only giving the other person words.
  3. If I'm only giving them some words, and they reliable get the same meaning, it must be because the meaning is some how baked into the words.

And now that we've drawn out the implicit jumps of logic hidden, we can see that step 2 is a bit fishy. Yes, you might have only given someone your words, but what they already had was some context. Context from having grown up in the same country as you, context from having know you from work, context from earlier parts of your conversation. When a context is very familiar you can fuse to it. When this happens you no longer notice your context when you look at the world, because the context becomes the lens through which you do your looking. If you turn your attention to these mysterious words that seem to so predictably convey your meaning, they are the only culprits available and you quite reasonably decide that they must contain the meaning.

There is a right answer to "What did you mean by [words you said]?" but there is not a right answer to "What do [words you said] mean?"

Go to the source of the meaning

A sketch:

Dale is chopping up a tomato and putting it into a fruit salad
Brice: What are you doing?! A tomato is a vegetable, don't put it in a fruit salad!
Dale: Nope, I looked it up, totally a fruit.
Dale and Brice spend 10 minutes having an unproductive argument about whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable, it ends with them agreeing to disagree

Brice said some words. What does the word fruit mean? Let's investigate the definition of fruit.

Here's a parallel universe where Brice has read A Hazardous Guide To Words (or the Sequences, but then again Brice is reading HGTW because he can't be bothered to read the Sequences):

Dale is chopping up a tomato and putting it into a fruit salad
Brice: What are you doing?! A tomato is a vegetable, don't put it in a fruit salad!
Dale: Nope, I looked it up, totally a fruit.
Brice: Sorry, what I meant was that the flavors of those bananas, strawberries, blueberries, and orange that you already have in the fruit salad won't really jive with the flavor of the tomato, and I think you shouldn't include it.
Dale and Brice spend 10 minutes having an interesting conversation about what sorts of flavors do and don't go well together. It ends with them both learning something.

Brice said some words. What did Brice mean? Let's have Brice tell us more.

Remember, words don't mean things, people mean things. And because language is awesome, plenty of words are particularly good indicators that a person meant a particular thing.


3 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:07 AM
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Explanations can be about a few different things. I've been having some luck splitting them into variant (who, when, where) and invariant (how, why, what) parts. Aristotle and Sun Tzu had their own type systems for causality, and I'm curious why I haven't been able to find much in either philosophy or computer science about it. One guess is that I just haven't found the right keywords yet, but I have gone hunting around citation chains from knowledge representation and Pearl's stuff, as well as the stuff from here and here. The modal logic stuff seems promising but most of what's been built on it seems like epicycles.

Indeed, words don't mean things on their own, people use words to mean things. But with enough shared context, it's a reasonable approximation to say that words mean things. Up until they don't. Scott A expressed it rather well when discussing whether whale is a fish. https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/11/21/the-categories-were-made-for-man-not-man-for-the-categories/

With all due respect to the immortal Scott Alexander, I think he's getting the moral deeply wrong when he characterizes category boundaries as value-dependent (although I agree that the ancient Hebrews had good reason to group dolphins and fish under their category dag, given their state of knowledge). For what I think the correct theory looks like (with a focus on dolphins), see "Where to Draw the Boundaries?".