Why meaning is more sunken into words than we realise

In the film The Big Sleep ( 1946 ), the secret center Philip Marlowe ( played by Humphrey Bogart ) calls at the house of General Sternwood to discuss his two daughters. They sit in the greenhouse as the affluent widower recounts an episode of blackmail involving his new daughter. At one degree, Marlowe interjects with an matter to and knowing ‘ hmm ’ .
‘ What does that mean ? ’ Sternwood asks suspiciously .
Marlowe lets out a nip chortle and says : ‘ It means, “ Hmm ”. ’
Marlowe ’ sulfur answer is extraneous and evasive, but it ’ s besides accurate. ‘ Hmm ’ does mean ‘ hmm ’. Our linguistic process is entire of interjections and verbal gestures that don ’ t inevitably mean anything beyond themselves. Most of our words – ‘ baseball ’, ‘ thunder ’, ‘ ideology ’ – seem to have a mean outside themselves – to designate or stand for some concept. The way the word looks and sounds is merely randomly connected to the concept that it represents.

But the meanings of other expressions – including our hmms, hars and huhs – seem much more close tied to the individual utterance. The meaning is inseparable from or immanent in the formula. These kinds of expressions seem to have meaning more how a particular action might have mean .
Are these two ways of meaning – designative and immanent – merely different things ? Or are they related to one another ? And if then, how ? These questions might seem arcane, but they lead us back to some of the most basic puzzles about the world and our place in it .
homo beings are audacious animals. We have lifted ourselves out of the populace – or we think we have – and now gaze back upon it detached, like researchers examining a concenter group through one-way glass. terminology is what allows us to entertain this foreign, but inordinately productive, thought. It is the ladder we use to climb out of the world .
In this way, human detachment seems to depend on the detachment of words. If words are to keep the universe at arm ’ randomness duration, they must besides be uninvolved in what they mean – they must designate it randomly. But if words fail to completely detach, that failure should tell us something about the curious – and base – status we occupy ‘ between gods and beasts ’, as Plotinus put it .
In his philosophical Investigations ( 1953 ), Ludwig Wittgenstein draws a distinction that mirrors the matchless between these two ways of mean. ‘ We speak of understanding a sentence, ’ he writes, ‘ in the sense in which it can be replaced by another which says the like ; but besides in the sense in which it can not be replaced by any other. ’ ( Marlowe obviously felt his ‘ hmm ’ could not be replaced. )
The beginning kind of understanding points to a curious aspect of words and sentences : two of them can mean the lapp thing. As Wittgenstein points out, we ’ d never think of replacing one musical composition with another as if they amounted to the lapp thing. Nor would we equate two unlike paintings or two different screams. But with many early sentences, understanding the mean is demonstrated by putting it in other words .
however, the meanings of the music, the paint and the scream seem to be immediately there. ‘ A word picture tells me itself, ’ Wittgenstein writes. There is no way to replace one construction with another without changing the mean. In these cases, there international relations and security network ’ deoxythymidine monophosphate actually a smell of a meaning apart from the expression itself. It would be depraved to ask person who has precisely let loose a cooling scream : ‘ What precisely did you mean by that ? ’ or ‘ Could you put that another way ? ’
Although these two examples of ‘ understanding ’ might seem of completely different kinds, Wittgenstein insists that they not be divorced from one another. together, they make up his ‘ concept of understanding ’. And, indeed, most of our lyric does seem to lie somewhere along a spectrum between merely designating its mean and actually embodying it .
On one end of the spectrum, we can imagine, as Wittgenstein does, people who speak a lyric consisting only of ‘ vocal gestures ’ – expressions such as ‘ hmm ’ that communicate only themselves. On the other end lies ‘ a linguistic process in whose manipulation the “ soul ” of the words played no part ’. here, ‘ meaning-blind ’ people, Wittgenstein writes, would use words without experiencing the meanings as connected to the words at all. They would use them the way a mathematician uses an ‘ x ’ to designate the slope of a triangle, without the word seeming to embody the mean in any means .
‘ Livre ’ might mean koran but it doesn ’ thymine mean it the way that ‘ bible ’ does
But neither of these fanciful languages seems capable of anything like the range and expressive fullness of actual human terminology. The former seems to place human terminology ( and our worldly concern ) close to that of animals and infants ; the latter, closer to that of computers, for whom it couldn ’ metric ton count less how something is said .
placid, the examples might provide some clue as to how these ways of meaning relate to each early. The speech of gesticulate would seem to have to come before the language of signs. It ’ second difficult to imagine a little girl first learning to communicate her needs with arbitrary signs, and alone later learning how to communicate by gesture .
evening once we do come to use words in an arbitrary, designative manner, they – at least, many of them – still seem to have their meanings in themselves. When I first learn that the french ‘ livre ’ means book, the parole is associated with its meaning only in a mediated manner. I remain, at this stage, meaning-blind with respect to the password. I know what it means, but its think of doesn ’ thymine resonate in the material aspects of the discussion. As I become more fluent in french, however, the password ’ sulfur meaning becomes sedimented in it. ‘ Livre ’ begins to sound like it means what it means .
Full reason, in Wittgenstein ’ second common sense, seems to involve not just being able to replace ‘ livre ’ with ‘ book ’, but besides in the experience of the meaning in the bible. To put it another direction, ‘ livre ’ might mean book but it doesn ’ triiodothyronine think of it the way ‘ reserve ’ does .
We can of course think a person ( or machine ) using words competently without having this experience of mean, but is what we imagine very human language function ? It ’ south unvoiced to see how such a person would have entree to the whole range of practices in which we use words. Subtleties in certain jokes or emotional expressions would escape them. Meaning is more sink into words than the practice of replacing one term with another suggests .
The idea that words themselves might harbour meaning used to be more intellectually estimable. Deciphering the relationship between what words mean and how they sound, which seems absurd with all but a belittled subset of our vocabulary, used to be of great matter to. In Plato ’ south Cratylus, the title character indulges in the speculation, coarse at the fourth dimension, that certain words are correct : that they name the things they refer to accurately. Etymology can therefore put up penetration. ‘ Anyone who knows a matter ’ second list besides knows the thing, ’ Cratylus says .
Plato ’ sulfur Socrates prefers to gain insight into things by grasping the ‘ forms ’ behind them, alternatively of through the contingent, and often mistaken, name given to them. The production of names or words – ‘ onomatopoieo ’ in Ancient Greek – tells us merely how an person name-giver saw things, Socrates tells Cratylus. There ’ randomness no manner to adjudicate the ‘ civil war among names ’ and decide which get at the truth .
today, we use the concept of onomatopoeia in a more restricted way. It is applied entirely to words for sounds – ‘ smash ’, ‘ pant ’, ‘ splash ’ – that bear a mimetic relationship to a sound in nature. The connection might be more indirect and tenuous in other cases, as in obviously echoic words for motions such as ‘ slither ’ or ‘ wobble ’ that seem through a kind of synesthesia to imitate a sound that might accompany the motion .
But Socrates and Cratylus were besides talking about what we nowadays call sound symbolism, a much wider range of connections between sounds and what they mean. These include things such as the affiliation in English and related languages between the ‘ gl- ’ audio and lightly, as in ‘ glitter ’, ‘ glint ’, ‘ gleam ’ and ‘ glow ’ .
Does this sound have an echoic connection to light ? Or is it equitable an arbitrary connection that has come to ‘ feel ’ nonarbitrary to native speakers ? The question is unmanageable to even ponder. Asking how ‘ gl- ’ relates to light is a fiddling like enquiring after the connection between sad music and sadness. We can point to feelings and sensations that suggest they belong together, but we struggle to come up with an objective arbiter of the association outside our own know. This, as I ’ ll come to, is because the articulation itself produces or constitutes the joining .
Studies have established that the connections between things and sounds are nonarbitrary in many more of these cases than it would seem at beginning glance. There seem to be universal or near-universal synesthetic connections between particular shapes and sounds. But, in a certain sense, the objectivity of the connection is beside the point. These connections silent won ’ t underwrite the kinds of hopes that Cratylus had for etymology. At most, they indicate certain affinities between aspects of things – condition, size, motion – and particular sounds that the homo vocal apparatus can produce. But even if the connection between ‘ glow ’ and glow were not based on any verifiable affinity, the son ’ mho think of is still accompanied by its sound. ‘ Glow ’ would still glow with glow .
Can we describe the depth of a deeply think without drawing in some direction on the concept of depth ?
What is noteworthy here is the human capacity not only to recognise but to produce, transform and extend similarities as a way of communicating meaning. In a light and opaque try from 1933, Walter Benjamin refers to this capacitance as the ‘ mimetic faculty ’ and suggests it is the initiation of human speech. Language is an archive of what he calls ‘ nonsensuous similarities ’ – similarities produced by human practices and homo lyric that don ’ t exist independently of them. Nonsensuous similarity, Benjamin writes, establishes ‘ the ties between what is said and what is mean ’. He suggests that in full developed human linguistic process emerges out of more basic echoic practices both in the biography of the child and in the evolution of linguistic process itself .
The hypnotism that all speech is echoic becomes here not a dissertation about any independent kinship obtaining between words and the world, as it was for Cratylus, but one about human creativity and agreement : our ability to produce and see correspondences or, as Benjamin talks about elsewhere, to translate into words the mean communicated to us through experience .
This mimetic staff is not precisely active agent in the ‘ name-giving ’ that establishes connections between language and objects, but in the ways in which established lyric is extended. The philosopher Charles Taylor writes in The Language Animal ( 2016 ) about ‘ the figuring property ’ of terminology : the means we use lyric from one domain to articulate another. physical language of surface and depth, for exemplar, permeates our emotional and intellectual lyric – ‘ deep thoughts ’, ‘ shallow people ’. Words of forcible gesture and natural process percolate more complex and abstract operations. We ‘ grok ’ ideas, ‘ get out of ’ social obligations, ‘ bury ’ emotions.

These produced similarities between the physical and social or cerebral discussion fit into a alike distance as the ‘ gl- ’ of ‘ glow ’. They are surely not arbitrary, and yet they can ’ t very be justified by any criteria outside the figuration itself .
In many cases, they are a lot more than metaphors, since they are essential for our very invention of the matters they describe. Can we describe the astuteness of a deep think without drawing in some way on the concept of depth ? lyric, here, as Taylor puts it, constitutes meanings : ‘ The phenomenon swims into our ken along with its attribution. ’ These cases suggest that, not only is meaning sunken into words, it is plainly unavailable without their articulation .
This kind of articulation is more familiar in arts like painting and music. Words such as ‘ deep ’ and ‘ glow ’ can be thought of vitamin a analogous to detail notes that human body a finical kind of know in a finical direction, and so bring it into greater respite. Wittgenstein writes that ‘ understanding a prison term in lyric is much more akin to understanding a root in music than one may think ’ .
furthermore, as they become conventional, both linguistic and musical phrases open up raw avenues for mutant and combination that enable ever more powdered joint and even the formula of entirely fresh phenomena and feelings. As Herman Melville wrote in his novel Pierre ( 1852 ) : ‘ The trillionth partially has not yet been said ; and all that has been said, but multiplies the avenues to what remains to be said. ’
There is, of course, something very different about understanding a sentence and understanding a root in music. We can replace the words ‘ incandescence ’ and ‘ deep ’ in most context in which they appear without much dither – with, say, ‘ fall ’ and ‘ fundamental ’. We can even imagine using absolutely different words in their locate, stipulate, for model, that ‘ rutmol ’ will replace ‘ deep ’ in the dictionary. After a period of consistent habit, ‘ rutmol ’ might even be as expressive of astuteness as ‘ abstruse ’ is now. We might begin to ponder ‘ rutmol thoughts ’ and be shaken by ‘ rutmol wellsprings of emotion ’ .
now, imagine a film setting portraying a cheerful family gathering around a sun-soaked mesa. rather of the accustomed bright tune, the soundtrack is random melodious notes. No count how many times we watch it and try to make the grade carry ‘ cheerfulness ’, it would never feel correct. The music couldn ’ metric ton be heard as cheerful if it wasn ’ t. It might convey, alternatively, that not everything is as it seems with this family .
The meaning of ‘ deep ’ is detachable from ‘ deep ’ in a manner that the meaning of the melody is not. Words can stand for things in a way that music can ’ deoxythymidine monophosphate. This is what drove Socrates in Cratylus to stop wondering how words such as ‘ deep ’ related to deep things, and ask rather what abstruse things could tell us about the idea of astuteness. Once we get the messy words out of the way – which might scantily have anything to do with the things anyhow – then we can contemplate the things abstractly .
If I ask my dog to get the three when we ’ ra already on our walk, it means nothing
This ability to put the expressions for things to the side to focus on the things themselves seems integral to the singular kinship we have to the populace. While animals ( and small children ) might be able to respond to signs as stimulation, and even use them in a vestigial way to advance particular ends, they don ’ thyroxine seem to have the objects the manner we do. They are besides close to things, unable to step back and outline from their concrete appearance. This makes them, as Heidegger puts it, ‘ poor in world ’ .
When I tell my cad to get his collar, what he ‘ understand ’ remains an chemical element of the immediate environment in which the formula appears, indicating a way to a particular end – in this sheath, a walk. For the andiron, words have meaning the same room that the sound of my car pulling into the driveway has intend. The word ‘ collar ’ might have alone an arbitrary connection to the object for me, but for my cad it is inseparable from the situation. If I ask him to get the collar in the wrong context – when we ’ re already on our walk, for case – it means nothing .
But what is it precisely for ‘ leash ’ to symbolise a three ? This might seem axiomatic : human beings come along, find the world and its furniture sitting there, and simply start tagging it randomly with signs. But we forget the function the words played in lifting us into this perspective on things. Would we be able to conceive of the three the manner we do if we couldn ’ deoxythymidine monophosphate call it anything else ? In early words, what character does the flightiness of the word – the fact that we can replace it – play in the constitution of the things as independent objects ?
And, furthermore, how precisely do we get from the kind of immanent engagement with the concrete global that dogs seem ineffective to tear themselves out of to the position of disengage spectator pump naming things randomly ?
In another difficult try, Benjamin reads the story of Adam and Eve ’ s exile from the Garden of Eden as a kind of fable about the ‘ externalization ’ of mean. ‘ On language of such and the Language of Man ’ ( 1916 ) begins by positing an absolutely general definition of mean : ‘ we can not imagine a full absence of linguistic process in anything ’. And so Benjamin understands ‘ lyric as such ’ as a very basic sense of meaning – which Genesis construes as God ’ s creative address. It is a cardinal given and component aspect of reality, being itself. ‘ Language as such ’ means in the means that pictures and ‘ hmm ’ think of. It means itself .
homo lyric begins by naming this always-already meaningful world, engaging with it by imitating it in onomatopoeia and figurative articulation. Adam ’ s name of the animals is the biblical parallel. But in the fall, this immanent and expressive mean – which means in the like way that literally everything else means – is externalised into the homo word. We abandon ‘ the communication of the concrete ’ and immediate, Benjamin writes, for abstract and mediate words that vainly purport to stand for things alternatively of just imitating aspects of them. As a consequence of this Fall, we exile ourselves from Eden – immediate engagement with the natural global – and from our own bodies, which we now besides experience, to our bang-up shame, as objects .
For Benjamin, designative lyric and the populace of objects that it brings about are made possible by a kind of forgetfulness. Our terminology is composed of words that have undergo countless transformations and whose original mimetic connections to world have been lost. The contiguous mean of figurative imitations and metaphors dies and detaches from the concrete context in which it originally communicated .
language is dead artwork, hush connected to the things but so withered it immediately appears as alone an arbitrary and abstract sign. Words appear to us like a fade landscape painting appears to a half-blind man. He no longer makes out the calculate depicted but, remembering what it signifies, he alternatively takes the shapes as tokens. Using them, he can now refer to mountains and streams in the abstract, no longer constrained by the immediacy of the scene, and free to replace the shapes with another expression if he likes. He gains a world only by losing his ability to actually see it .
Does this new kind of interchangeable saying constitute a different means of meaning from the kind of entail that ‘ tells me itself ’ ? Wittgenstein is wary of the very concept of meaning detached from expression, not merely in the latter subject but besides in the case of exchangeable words. He doesn ’ thyroxine mention to the two sentences as meaning the like thing, but only to the commit we have of replacing one with another .
Whenever we enquire after the mean of a give voice, we never get the thing that is meant – a permanent definition that underlies the password – but only another way of saying it. Despite its pretensions, the dictionary is no more than a academic and overexacting thesaurus. It doesn ’ metric ton offer intend, only other words .
dictionary definitions can encourage in us a feel of words as signs representing entire meanings or capacity that are in some smell ‘ inside ’ or ‘ underneath ’ them. But when we analyse meaning, we are normally making only lateral pass moves, not ‘ excavating ’ anything. These are in reality interpretations that exist ‘ on the same level ’ as what is interpreted. ‘ Every interpretation, ’ Wittgenstein writes, ‘ hangs in the air together with what it interprets, and can not give it any support. ’
We side with the words tied when they begin to contradict the world
When we understand – despite how the give voice sounds – we don ’ t get at something below what is understand, but are plainly able to provide another, possibly better, way of saying it. The means the cerebral domain has been figured by words originating in our interaction with the physical environment can mislead us into the abstruse, multilevel ontologies that plague doctrine .
Wittgenstein is not suggesting that we discard these metaphors of our intellectual life that are constituted by our language. It is ill-defined that we even can, or what it would mean if we did. They are part of what Wittgenstein calls our ‘ form of life ’. Likewise, distance from the world that lyric provides and reinforces is indispensable, both in everyday communication and in modelling the earth scientifically, but it can lead us wide if we take it besides seriously, as we frequently do. ‘ The best I can propose, ’ Wittgenstein says of one of the pictures arising from our designative language, ‘ is that we yield to the enticement to use this photograph, but then investigate what the application of the video looks like. ’ If we look at how these words are used, Wittgenstein thinks, the wonder of what they in truth mean or refer to will dissolve .
This solution distinguishes Wittgenstein from postmodernist theorists who take the limitations of our linguistic process and the impossibility of pure objectivity as rationality to reject ‘ Enlightenment ’ reason. Those who pretend to see through ‘ the myth ’ of objectivity are on no firmer ground than those who cling to it. If anything, the former draw themselves out even further than the latter, pretending to watch the watchers .
One adaptation of this position sees us stuck in what Friedrich Nietzsche called the ‘ prison-house of lyric ’. To Nietzsche and others, we are confined within our own meager speech and its assumptive abstractions, which fall short of the veridical world even while they purport to describe it truthfully. terminology is deemed inadequate to the world, an implausible instrument for pursuing and expressing truth .
But this position assumes precisely the lapp division between lyric and world as the one it criticises : it ’ south just less sanguine about reaching across the watershed. To both ways of think, whether we can reach it or not, there is something out there : the way things are, which speech is meant to designate. But ‘ the great trouble here ’, Wittgenstein writes, ‘ is not to represent the matter as if there were something that one couldn ’ deoxythymidine monophosphate do. ’ For him, it is the separate itself, which places language on one side and the world on the early, that needs to be questioned, not whether the divide can be bridged.

This is not to say that the separate should be regarded as a fabrication. It is, rather, an accomplishment, but one with certain limits that are easily forgotten. Wittgenstein ’ mho late writing takes on the view of therapy because it tries to draw attention to the moments, in philosophy particularly, where removing lyric from the context in which it has a use, lends that terminology a kind of charming baron and leads to confusion. We begin to puzzle about what the word refers to out there in the populace, alternatively of attending to what it actually does in particular linguistic practices – what it tells us .
These problems are not only philosophical. In all kinds of domains – science, engineering, politics, religion – we are prone to taking useful interpretations and turning them into freeze and potentially dangerous ideologies. alternatively of looking at the concrete application of the words, we disengage them from drill, and instil them and the pictures they generate with greater reality than world itself. We side with the words even when they begin to contradict the reality .
There is, in the end, alone one kind of mean. As Wittgenstein puts it, if the abstractions of philosophy are to have a use, ‘ it must be angstrom humble as that of the words “ table ”, “ lamp ”, “ door ”. ’ He might have added ‘ hmm ’ .

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