Signifikat

Semantics!
Abt_Nihil at 2:09PM, Feb. 24, 2010
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A classic common-sense theory of semantics holds that the meaning of a word is its object (– Of course this theory only tracks our intuitions insofar as we’re thinking about nouns; it’s rather hard to find objects correlating to verbs, predicates, relations and the like). So the meaning of the word “sun” would be the sun. However, since the only thing we’ve really achieved by employing this theory is getting rid of quotation marks, the pay-off seems rather sparse. Sure, you could directly point to the sun and get rid of words altogether; but there’s a rather harsh difference between pointing to an object and meaning it by using a word. Even if there weren’t, there still would be a myriad of things which can hardly or never be explained by pointing to something.

An alternative theory holds that the meaning of a word is its place in the linguistic framework. This may seem more counter-intuitive than our first theory (if only because the sentence you’ve just read seems much harder to understand in the first place), but it promises to hold less pitfalls. Let’s look again at the sun (make sure not to look directly into it though ^_^). As mentioned above, the meaning of the word “sun” is the sun. This may seem trivial to everybody knowing the word, but let’s imagine we would explain the meaning of “sun” to someone who hasn’t learned it yet. We wouldn’t say “the meaning of the word ‘sun’ is the sun”, but something like “it means the brightest light in the sky”, or “the center of our solar system”, “the closest star to the earth”, “the source of warmth and daylight” etc. So, all of these expressions we’ve used to explain the meaning of the word “sun” make up an interconnecting framework. Some words would again have to be explained, invoking further linguistic expressions, widening this framework. The punch line being that any language makes up a highly complex framework, in which individual expressions are to be explained. And individual expressions, be they words or sentences, gain their meaning by being placed into this framework. Their specific place in this framework would be identified by their specific relations to other expressions. This theory is called holism, because in order to know specific meanings, knowledge of the whole language (or a large enough fragment) is required.

This, in a nutshell, is the theory signifikat is based on.
last edited on July 18, 2011 10:24AM
Abt_Nihil at 4:25PM, July 2, 2010
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This was my initial comment on ch.6 pg. 14… but obviously, it's much too long and doesn't help you understand the page one bit!

Now, it's quite strange to write something about understanding, and having to think about how it will best be understood at the same time. There's that paragraph in the 5th prologue about “what it means to grasp a thought”. Most of us have to learn things all our life, from school through university and on the job, and I think it is quite illuminating to look at the tests which are supposed to make sure you've understood something - mostly, these expect us to replicate a given abstract content “in our own words”.

Now, how do you grasp a thought? If someone tries to make you understand something, and you do not (at least, initially), they will try to rephrase it in ever simpler terms until you do. I guess most of us are tempted to say that we have grasped a thought once we've grasped the meaning of it - but that just means substituting one obscure concept for another. Of course, in daily life, these concepts are far from obscure - we deal with them all the time. And yet, it is so incredibly hard to explain them - because explaining is nothing else but trying to make someone understand, and if understanding always consists in understanding a meaning, then we've got a rather vicious cycle of explanation, understanding and meaning.

Once again, if we look at how this vicious cycle is dealt with in everyday life, we'll find that people who don't understand something (meaning, not even the simplest possible rephrasing of it) will repeat it until they do. Obviously, repetition can be a way to enter this vicious cycle. But what does repetition do? My personal opinion is that it conditions you to use the words referring to the meaning you want to understand. You are conditioned to use words in the proper way - what you learn is a rule like “in context C you'd best use phrase P”. Yet, this is not how we usually understand “grasping a thought” - introspectively, we don't feel conditioned to think of, say, the phrase “beings which eat meat” when we are prompted to explain “carnivore”. Rather, we think that “carnivore” refers to an entity, and that entity is described by “eats meat”. We really do have objects in our minds - we really do have minds, after all! We don't feel like automatons who are programmed to say P in context C. And yet, at some point, we have been conditioned to do so.

How utterly, utterly strange.
last edited on July 18, 2011 10:24AM

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