Logos Multilingual Portal

7 - Meaning and psyche

"it's the book in itself that arouses your curiosity;
in fact, on sober reflection,
you prefer it this way,
confronting something
and not quite knowing yet what it is" 1.

Let us now see some possible conceptions of meaning that involve directly the individual''s psyche , the subjective vision of reality.

1. Meaning is the emotion aroused by a word. Some words are very difficult to define because they have, for the most part, an emotional connotation: for example, the words "love", "God", "liberty" "leave a trail of affective meaning. We may quite properly speak of the emotional connotation of such words as the funded meaning of previous emotional reactions and the affective abstracts which constitute the psychical correlates of this meaning as the survivals of former judgment-feelings" 2.
2. ... what is related to a sign in reality: for example, smoke and fire. In like manner psychoanalysts speak of the meaning of dreams, introducing the notion of "unconscious desire". In this way they substitute the cause for the meaning. The meaning of a dream is the (supposed) cause that has determined it, i.e. the unconscious desire. For the psychoanalysts, as for all natural scientists - Ogden and Richards argue - "the causal sign-relations are those which have the greatest interest" 3.
3. ...the mnemic effect/s of a stimulus. In this view, reference is a consequence of adaptation to a psychic context, and "the meaning of A is that to which the mental process interpreting A adapts itself. This is the most important sense in which words have meaning". These effects are introspective judgments, i.e. interpretations of a given type, sometimes nonverbal judgments, "obscure feelings accompanying the reference". Sometimes we can express such feelings with words, but that is not always the case: sometimes words are not appropriate for the reference they must symbolize. In this view, we could define a communication act as the use of symbols to originate referential acts in the receiver that are similar to those representing the symbols intended by the sender 4.

Ogden and Richards then find more senses to the word "meaning": what the user of a symbol believes himself to be referring to, what the interpreter of a symbol refers to, what the interpreter of a symbol believes himself to be referring to, that to which the interpreter of a symbol believes the user to be referring. In all these latter cases the psychic activity of both the sender and the receiver plays an important role.
  The intended meaning of a thing does not always coincide with the receiver''s intention to decode. And, on the other hand, sometimes the interpretation of an utterance is based on the sender''s (sometimes fallacious) predictions. In psychology such activity is called "projection".
  In a way, an attempt to understand the other''s intentions is necessary in order to communicate but if, in so doing, our own intention interferes with such attempt, overshadowing the other''s supposed intention, the result is a sort of short circuit in the communication.

  Having taken an overview of the possible meanings of "meaning" in the different definitions revised in the previous unit, let us now see how Ogden and Richards present their "context theory of interpretation", i.e. a view of the semiotic act of assimilation of a verbal text 5.
  The preliminary phase to the understanding of words is that devoted to sensory discrimination, or sensory recognition. By discriminating among sounds and graphic signs we are interpreting an initial sign. To be able to use words, a conscious or unconscious distinction of a sound or image is necessary.

Usually the discrimination is unconscious, our use of words being habitual; it can, however, become conscious, as in learning a foreign tongue 6.

Another distinction is made between scientific prose and poetry: in the former case we can ignore the sensorial features of words, while in poetry we must pay conscious attention, even if that hampers further interpretations.
  In a way, the fact that poetry has a different aspect on paper from prose, the fact that an important part of the page remains blank is a sensory clue to alert that the attention due to these words is not normal, but comprises their sound as well. To follow the track of purely acoustical perception can however be misleading. In poetry, words are not just sounds. To decode them it is necessary to pay attention both to the meaning of their sound and to the meaning of their symbols.


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. 9.
2 Urban, quoted in Ogden and Richards 1960, p. 199.
3 Ogden e Richards 1960, p. 200.
4 Ogden e Richards 1960, p. 205-206.
5 To specify "verbal" is not redundant because in semiotics every object, not only verbal objects, is viewed as a text.
6 Ogden e Richards 1960, p. 209-210. See also the first part of the course, unit 5.