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SEHR, volume 4, issue 1: Bridging the Gap
Updated 8 April 1995

the meanings of meaning

Jaap van Brakel


Simon says: "terms like meaning. . . .have gained a clarity [also "precision"-cf. Descartes' clair et distinct]. . . .they did not have in earlier writing."(1) But what cognitive science has contributed to the meaning of meaning eludes me. Space prevents raising all but the briefest questions.

If meaning isn't used in its ordinary sense, but as "dependent upon a theoretical framework," how do we know it has anything to do with "ordinary sense"? Presumably the new sense has to be a clarification of the old sense. How is this judged-in an "ordinary" or a scientific way or sense?

According to Simon meanings are evoked, drawing on memory contents. This only helps clarification if words like "content" are clearer than "meaning." But does "content" lead us back to "ordinary sense" or to another "framework"? Meanings also "flow from the intensions of people." Does it follow that "intensions" are more fundamental than "meanings"? If not, we need an account of how "intensions" flow from meanings-perhaps "intensions" = "meanings," because "intensions" = "contents" (?). If intensions are more fundamental then it isn't clear why this is a cognitive science theory, because "'intension' [is used] in the broad sense in which this term is used in contemporary philosophy."

Or are all these terms defined in terms of the "physical symbol system hypothesis"? Are meanings physical objects? How does one determine their mass? There's even talk about "formal symbolic representations." What does "formal" add to "symbolic"? Formal objects would seem to be abstract; so does cognitive science take for granted that philosophers have proven physicalism to be true? (Does the future of cognitive science depend on the progress of philosophy?) Do cognitive scientists really believe that substituting "symbol" for "meaning" makes the meaning of meaning [read "the symbol of symbol"] more precise?

"A symbol is. . . .any pattern that. . . .points to some other pattern. The pattern pointed to may be another pattern stored in the brain (or computer), or a pattern in the external world."(7) Is the meaning of meaning now hidden further in the meaning of "pointing to"? One pattern, say "meaning," points to another pattern (its meaning?), say "meaning" (or "content" or whatever). How do we get out of this circle? Somehow "meaning" has to point to patterns "X" which point to patterns in the external world. Does the external world include the inside of bodies and brains? Are the patterns in the external world also symbols? If not, then the patterns in the brain are very different from those in the external world (why?). If the external patterns are also symbols what do they point to? (Perhaps they point back to patterns in the brain. Who is doing all this pointing?)

The difference between "the meaning of meaning" and "the meanings of 'meaning'" is not clear (both expressions occur in Simon's paper). On the one hand "[m]eaning for the reader is, at bottom, no different from meaning for the critic or the author,"(22) on the other hand "[t]he same text may have. . . .different meanings for different persons, and for the same person at different times." The "no different" in the first quotation is understood to refer "to the meaning of meaning," but why doesn't the text "the meaning of meaning" have different meanings for different persons, on different occasions, etcetera? Many passages suggest a form of extreme meaning holism (e.g. the quotation above and the "dog" example), but elsewhere Simon seems to appeal to criteria of identity and similarity that are independent of what's going on in people's heads. Is this an example of "the author [being] often absorbed in creating multiple meanings"?

It's suggested that "[t]he concept of context can be made wholly operational." However, opinions will differ on what is and what is not relevant in a context. How is the criterion of relevance operationalised across people and contexts? Simon refers to "the archetypical lever in Plato's heaven," but "archetypes" also "correspond to [one's] prior knowledge." Are there innate ideas (including "lever" and "meaning") or are these archetypes idiosyncratic and passing ? How, in the light of this operationalisation of context, should we understand the writings of, say, Bakhtin?

Simon says he doesn't ignore "the social content and origins of meaning." But if memory contents find their origin in social contents, wouldn't it be better to look there for the meaning of meaning instead of talking about frameworks that model part of the mechanism that underlies the use of (social) meanings?

Some memories "are dyed deeply with happiness or sadness." How is "dyed deeply" to be understood? Is emotion an aspect of meaning or something in its own right? With respect to emotion there is no need "to propose a formal definition." Why not propose the same for meaning? If "meaning," "feeling," "value-laden," "reasonable," are all a matter of "a symbolic coding. . . .that presents itself for interpretation in the mind's eye," how does the mind's eye see what is what? How is the metaphor of "the mind's eye" to be fleshed out?

What is the relation of value and meaning? The text suggests a sharp divide between descriptive and normative discourse: opinions that only assign values are not "proper subjects for rational discourse." Is assigning "truth" an example of assigning value and meaning at the same time? Simon says: "cognition. . . .encompasses emotion as fully as thought." Does cognition encompass value "as fully" as thought and emotion?

Simon advocates to "let a hundred flowers bloom" in "the community of critics." Isn't cognitive science just another "School [describing] some particular mode of evocation, hence of meaning, and then to claim it as the correct one"?

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