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6 - The meaning of meaning

"[...] the unsullied pleasure of reading ends,
or at least is transformed into something else,
which is not what I want" 1.

Now that we have examined some pioneering studies on perception and evolution of meaning, we will see how two British researchers, Ogden and Richards, in an essay constantly reprinted since 1923, revealingly entitled The Meaning of Meaning, tried to systematize knowledge and strategies of study of meaning in an interdisciplinary perspective. Ogden was educated as linguist, Richards as literary critic, and they both show an inclination toward a global, rather than sectional, view of semantics problems, which sometimes brings them to a semiotic approach, sometimes to a psychological perspective.
  The fundamental approach, owing much to Peirce, as we will see later, defines the three factors playing a role in any uttering: mental processes, symbol (or sign, word, signifier, etc) and referent (or object, reality given, the outer element one refers to). The point in question is how the three entities are related.
  Between thought and symbol there is a symbolization relation, between thought and object a reference relation, while between symbol and object, according to Ogden and Richards, there is no direct relation (note that, actually, these two poles are united by a series of dots rather than a line in the drawing), just an implied relationship. The sign-object relation is mediated by the subjective, idiomorphic mind of the person who codes the utterance (writes, speaks) or decodes it (reads, listens). It is, therefore, variable, individual, inconstant, indirect.

The meaning triangle2

  Let us start with an overview of what the researchers of meaning have meant by "meaning" over different historical periods and according to the different personal and scientific points of views. In the book, sixteen different definitions are examined. Let us see the most important, in our revision, which has the purpose of not using terms that could produce confusion and unifying similar categories.

1. Meaning is magic, i.e. appears as something intrinsically, magically associated to the word expressing it (the series of dots at the basis of the triangle, according to this view, would be a strong line, while the two oblique sides would be missing). It is "the magical theory of the name as part of the thing, the theory of an inherent connection between symbols and references. This legacy leads in practice to the search for the meaning of words"3. It is obviously a superstition, a mystic, metaphysical view, even if much widespread in many historical periods. Even the etymological study (on an intuitive base) was founded on this view of the magical form of the word.
2. Meaning consists of the words comprising the entry in the dictionary. That is the illusion of translation students in their first years of study when they look up words, full of hope, in the bilingual dictionary. The compiler of the dictionary has interpreted reality his way and, trying to be concise due also to space limits (the space devoted to an entry by the publisher or editor of the dictionary), has described with a few words an alleged and generic "meaning". The most serious logical deficiency in this perspective lies in the fact that the words used to describe the other words are, in turn, described by words, with a long chain of definitions that, at best, are coherent only within themselves (but often this sort of self-referential consistency is lacking too). Dictionary entries coincide more or less with Good Use. According to the definitions given in the next unit, there seems to be a great deal of potential intersubjective difference of sign interpretation, since the interpretation depends heavily on the individual''s mental processes. But there is a convention of Good Use (note the uppercase by Ogden and Richards: it refers to the conventional, social, customary nature of the adjective "good"4).
3. Meaning is what one wants to express, what he means in the carrying out of a linguistic act. It is based on the illusion that the senderand the receiver have the same intention. "The meaning of any sentence is what the speaker intends to be understood from it by the listener"5. It is a fuzzy definition because it does not explain what one means by "to be understood", which can be "to be referred to", "to be responded with", "to be felt toward referent", "to be felt toward speaker", "to be supposed that the speaker is referring to", " to be supposed that the speaker is desiring". Because we are dealing with will, there is a fundamental ambiguity regarding the possible - probable - difference in psychic context between sender and receiver. "Given the psychological context to which a sign belongs, the reference made in the interpretation of the sign is also fixed. But it is possible for the same sign (or for signs with very similar characters) to belong in different psychological contexts"6, in which case the "volitional" reference is not communicable.
4. Meaning is the place of something within a system: the meaning of a word is grasped in relation to its surroundings, i.e. taking into account its context and co-text.
5. Meaning consists of the practical or theoretical consequences of a word on our future experience: the former concern Pragmatism, the latter logics.

Ogden and Richards, as we will see in the next unit, go on to identify some aspects of meaning that have a close relation with a more subjective, psychic view of semiosis.


Bibliographical references

CALVINO I. If on a Winter''s Night a Traveller, translated by William Weaver, London, Vintage, 1998, ISBN 0-7493-9923-6.

OGDEN C. K. e RICHARDS I. A. The Meaning of Meaning. A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960 [first edition 1923].

1 Calvino 1979, p. 93.
2 Ogden e Richards 1960, p. 11.
3 Ogden e Richards 1960, p. 243-244.
4 In another part of the book, we read: "This peculiar ethical use of ''good'' is, we suggest, a purely emotive use. When so used the word stands for nothing whatever, and has no symbolic function. Thus, when we use it in the sentence, ''This is good,'' we merely refer to this, and the addition of ''is good'' makes no difference whatever to out reference" (p. 125). The reader is thus warned as to the value the adjective can have in the book.
5 Ogden e Richards 1960, p. 193.
6 Ogden e Richards 1960, p. 195.