Sunday, February 17, 2008

III. From Words to Meaning

Many consider the word to be the smallest fundamental, meaningful unit of language. It is not. Laughingly. Market. Glass. Twirl. None of these words have meaning. All they have are associations, or references – they are metaphors which transfer from one mind to another the idea of an image, object, agent, or action. If I simply said to someone, “Laughingly.” I would get quizzical looks. What could he mean by that? To simply say “Laughingly” is to utter nonsense.

So what is a word? Why name things?

Naming something makes it stand out: The eighteenth-century philosophers Kant and Hegel were the first to make something of the effect words have on our perceptions of the world, a vein of thought still enthusiastically pursued today by philosophical schools such as structuralism and semiotics. . . . The tendency has often been to go too far and argue that our words effectively create the world we perceive. Some sobering research, such as a test of New Guinea tribesmen who have no words for colors yet can still tell two shades of red apart as readily as any Westerner, shows the danger of mistaking words to be more than handy labels for the perceptions themselves. (McCrone, 273)

Words only have meaning within language, which is to say, within a sentence or within a series of sentences – within narrative. Words get meaning when placed in a narrative. The rejection of narrative is the rejection of meaning (and of language). Extreme versions of deconstruction get into the quandary of meaninglessness precisely because they end up considering words outside of their contexts in the sentences. Meaning emerges only as words are patterned into narratives, with emergent meaning arising with emergent, more complex narratives. This is how and why words gain more meaning in and through literature.

Søren Brier goes a step further, saying that

language is a part of the socio-communicative system, but it does not really acquire meaning before it interpenetrates with the psychic system and gets to indicate differences of emotions, volitions and perceptions “putting words” on our silent inner being. But our cognitive, emotional and volitional qualities would only have a weak connection to reality if they were not connected to the survival of the living systems’ organization as a body in its interaction with the environment’s differences in the development of a signification sphere in the evolution of the species. (86)

There is no meaning without cognition, emotion, volition, and perception working together to create meaning from the sentence(s).

Carstairs-McCarthy, in The Origins of Complex Language, points out that only human language makes meaning from meaninglessness (13), and that the meaningless level consists of sounds and syllables, while the meaningful level consists of words and phrases. However, meaning only comes about as a referent is repeated and metaphorized within the context of other referents. So it seems he is confusing reference with meaning – an important distinction for our purposes, especially as meaning does not have to be linguistic, but can be found in music and the visual arts.

Let us take a particular example: the word “unbelievable.” “Unbelievable” consists of the following (meaningless) phonemes: un + be + lee + va + bl. Combinations of these result in the following morphemes:


If we look at the word “unbelievable,” we find that each of its constituent morphemes have reference. “To believe” is to perform an action, while the word “able” refers to a quality. If something is “believable,” it is able to be believed (by the person doing the believing). “Believable” is a quality a person gives an object. The prefix “un” acts as a negator. Does “un” mean negation? Or does it perform negation? One cannot use “un” in a sentence and have it make sense, so it cannot mean negation. “Un” performs negation insofar as it transforms “believable” into its opposite. As we saw in chapter 3, not all actions/performances are necessarily meaningful, and this would include the performative actions of a negator such as “un.” The “un” transforms “believable” into its opposite, “unbelievable,” which is a word with a referent of its own, the quality of being unable to be believed by someone. In this case the “un” is a morpheme that performs an action – but in words like “under” it is merely a phoneme, “un” + “der.”

One may object that we make meaningful use of the “un” in such words as “unbelievable,” and therefore the use of “un” must be meaningful. But is the use really meaningful, just because it is not meaningless? I have already suggested that one could place “referential” between “meaningless” and “meaningful.” While “Reference is a kind of meaning” (Carstairs-McCarthy, 45), we must notice that Carstairs-McCarthy uses the word “kind.” Reference is not meaning, though one could see it as a kind of meaning, as how meaning emerges from meaninglessness, through reference. As Nietzsche points out, words are calcified metaphors – they have calcified into referential words. One gets renewed and expanded meaning through their use in sentences and especially in their use in new metaphors. This is why I have momentarily drawn the meaning-reference distinction, to emphasize how meaning increases within a (con)text.

While words, morphemes, and the use of particular performative prefixes and suffixes are arbitrary, their referents are not. Words do not equate to things, they refer to things, and it is in our association of words with those things that our use of words begins to make sense. The use of the specific word “up” to refer to the idea of “upness,” of casting one’s glance above one’s head, is not necessary. Certainly, other languages have put together other phonemes to refer to this concept. But once we have associated this sound with this concept, it becomes embedded in the language, as a calcified metaphor, making it possible for us to say that “things are looking up” to mean that things are getting better for us. We have related “upness” with “goodness,” and the metaphor has become calcified in our language (for much more on this, in much greater depth, see Lakoff and Johnson’s The Metaphors We Live By, which begins to connect word-metaphors to our physical environment, and develops Nietzsche’s language theory from Philosophy and Truth). Thus, words get associated with truth.

What then is truth? A moveable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions; they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are considered as metal and no longer as coins. (Nietzsche, PT 84)

Nietzsche here equates words with truth. One could just as easily rephrase the above “What then is a word?” Or we could go as far as Carstairs-McCarthy (and I would) and further reduce the distinction between truth and reference, as people are
predisposed to think that the distinction between truth and reference is necessary . . . simply because they are native speakers of some human language and are therefore naturally inclined towards thinking that the sentence/NP distinction . . . must reflect something fundamental outside of language. (39)

This is due to the fact that

syntactic units called noun phrases are typically combined with other units called verb phrases to form sentences, one of whose functions is to make statements about the objects or events referred to. [These] statements can be true or false, according to whether they fit the world or not, and that reference too can be either successful or unsuccessful, according to whether the would-be referent exists or not. (27)

But truth and falsity “are objects to which sentences refer. Even a false sentence has a reference – namely, falsity” (40). We have truth/reference regardless of scale: words, noun (and verb) phrases, sentences, paragraphs, etc. We have forgotten that words refer, and that we made up the words. Based on the theory of language Nietzsche develops in Philosophy and Truth, it seems that Nietzsche would reject, as I do, the idea, propagated by many postmodern linguists, that words have no referent. Without reference, communication is impossible. It is obvious to most people that if there is one chair in a room filled with other objects, and you told a fellow English-speaker to get you a chair, that there would be no confusion as to what object you wished brought to you. And even if there were no chair per se in the room, that the person would come back to you with an object that could be used as a chair, as Wittgenstein points out in his idea of family resemblances, and you (and that person) would still be understood. If one is a Platonist, who believes concepts (words) precede reality, it begins to make sense why one would believe words have no referent. But this is to get the world backwards.

Huizinga too recognizes that:

Language allows (humans) to distinguish, to establish, to state things; in short, to name them and by naming them to raise them into the domain of the spirit. In the making of speech and language the spirit is continually “sparking” between matter and mind, as it were, playing with this wondrous nominative faculty. Behind every abstract expression there lie the boldest metaphors, and every metaphor is a play upon words. Thus in giving expression to life man creates a second, poetic world alongside the world of nature. (4)

The problem of whether or not words signify even arises with Jared Diamond who, in The Third Chimpanzee, asks “how do you explain the meaning of “by,” “because,” “the,” and “did” to someone who understands no English? How could our ancestors have stumbled on such grammatical terms?” (153), implying that each of these words have no referent. Some, such as Austin, suggest that words that somehow do something also have no referent, and that since all words technically do things, they appear not to have a referent either. However, Farb starts us off on the right foot by refuting this idea: “all languages possess pronouns, methods of counting, ways to deal with space and time, a vocabulary that includes abstract words, and the capacity for full esthetic and intellectual expression” (12). Each of these are referents. Every word makes either a direct reference, where I can point to an actual object the word refers to, or it fits into Farbs’ categories, which are themselves ways of referring to the world. Any word that is definable is referential, and if a collection of sounds is not definable, it is not a word.

We can show that any of the words Diamond lists has a referent. But first, we need to define what we mean by “referent.” This is where much of the problem of thinking of words as referring to something other than themselves comes from, because a referent does not necessarily have to be an object. A referent can be a person, place, thing, or idea (the corresponding words we call nouns), the traits of these things (adjectives), actions (verbs), or the traits of those actions (adverbs). These are the obvious divisions. But what about articles, like the word “the”? This example is the easiest, since articles are adjectives, and “the” is referring to a trait of any given noun we are placing “the” in front of. By saying “I watered the plant,” we are saying “I watered a particular single plant that, by my use of the word “the” implies the plant in question to be the only one either in the house or that you were talking about.” The plant has all the above stated traits, without all this necessary baggage. “The” is shorthand, and makes reference to all this that is understood by the person being spoken to. Just because we have been able to play with the language until we were able to come up with such shorthand as articles and “to be” verbs does not negate the referentiality of such words, or of words in general. Nor does the lack of articles in other languages imply the lack of referentiality in languages such as English, German and French, which do. The word “because” is a way of dealing with space and time, and refers to causality, which throughout most of human history was assumed to be a feature of the universe. Causality, things having a cause, or the idea of things having a cause, can be seen as a way of connecting two things. That is why “because”, from Middle English “bi cause” for “by the cause”, is a conjunction. It is part of the narrative structuring of thinking. To use a word Diamond does not suggest, but that easily falls into the trap of being considered without referent, is the word “if.” “If” has a referent, because “if” is an idea; it projects the idea of a future and the idea of possibility. “If” says, “let me posit the possibility that . . .” and is a necessary word (in its various forms as found throughout the world) for any language in that it allows for the projection of possible scenarios. These possible scenarios have in a sense a “reality” which “if” and other words can refer to, since one could easily define ideas as being imagined scenarios to test alternatives before trying them out in the real world (one could also define much fiction this way), and the ability to create alternative scenarios before taking actions (which would necessarily give any group that did this a selective advantage) requires the creation of words that could aid in the communication of those alternate scenarios, or ideas.

The question may then arise as to why the exact word “if” was chosen. Another way of asking this is: does language accurately reflect the natural world? The answer to this is, in a sense, no. Why should any particular sound or group of sounds necessarily represent any particular object? This is obviously not the case, since all languages do not share the same words (or else there would be just one language). It is clear the initial association of any given sound with any given object was initially arbitrary. After this initial arbitrary association of sound with object, however, you must have a family of users who “agree” to associate that particular word with that particular referent for language to work as language. From that point on, the users of that particular language, who, by definition, know of the associations being made between the words and their referents (not necessarily consciously, though, since one does not necessarily have to be conscious of the rules of one’s game in order to nonetheless abide by them), will recall the associations between word and referent when they hear the groups of sounds. So the choice of the sound “if” to refer to what the word “if” refers to was arbitrary (keeping in mind that the need for a word like “if” was not arbitrary), which does not necessarily mean the word “if” does not have referentiality for users of the English language.

Nietzsche further points out in “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” that everything in the world is unique, that each object in a real sense shares nothing in common with any other, but that we treat many unlike things as though they are alike, creating concepts, which are words, which are metaphors. To categorize, conceptualize, we erase the differences we see (or smell, taste, hear, feel). Then we designate them with words, which are all always metaphors (which we forgot were metaphors). These words we see as truth – or as facts – forgetting they can change, that we can change them. It is in our power to change our categories, our concepts, our words, our metaphors. This is what art is about, and why it is needed and necessary – it keeps our languages alive, allows us to see and hear. If we stare at the same image long enough, without blinking or looking away, our neurons will fatigue, and we will cease to see. The image will vanish. We need to renew our images, our language, if we are to see and hear, if our eyes and our tongues are to remain alive.

This is not to say that there are not similarities among unique objects. There is a reason why we can find family resemblances among unique things. It is because these objects fall into patterns pulled together by strange attractors – they are self-similar, complex systems – and we, being self-similar, complex systems ourselves imbedded in a field of such systems, are capable of noticing such patterns. We associate the recognition of such patterns with beauty. Beauty is the ability to see the uniqueness of each individual thing within it created categories. It is to see variety in unity, unity in variety. That is why the creation of new categories, of new metaphors, is beautiful. A new metaphor creates a new set of varieties in unity – it makes us see new unities. We are surprised, saying, “Oh! I never saw it that way before. I never realized those things could go together.” We get a delight from this feeling of insight, from putting a new puzzle together, from seeing pieces put together that shows us something new in the world. It is the joy in becoming, the becoming which gives rise to the appearance of being.

The mistake made by most postmodernist, deconstructionist linguists is in the leap they make by suggetsing that if one can change a word’s meaning, what it refers to, then the word must not have any referent – thus, it must not have any meaning. They want a world of Ideas, which they associate with meaning. Faced with fluidity, they conclude the world has no meaning, that everything is just power-structures. The problem is that they are considering words outside their context – narrative. It is in a narrative, in a sentence, where words get meaning. And it is in the continued use of words in sentences where words have their meaning(s) expanded or contracted. The problem with deconstruction is deconstructionists see language in the same way quantum physicists would if they incorrectly thought the world was only quantum physics, without the emergent properties of chemistry, biology, etc. A word is only an atom within a larger, emergent system. If we extend this metaphor, the point can be made even clearer, particularly in light of the theory of emergent systems. One could see a word gaining meaning in the same way as emergent complex systems gain complexity. Indeed, increasing complexity of narrative would result in increasing complexity of meaning.

Table III

Phoneme — pure energy (no meaning at all)
Word — quantum physics (phonemes interacting to “solidify” into referential morphemes and words)
Phrase — chemistry (some meaningful word combinations)
Sentence — single-celled life
Paragraph — multicellular sexually reproducing life
Scene — Social animals
Episode — Human-type intelligence
Plot — Advanced culture

Carstairs-McCarthy points out that Wittgenstein

equates his own views of names and propositions with Frege’s view that a word has meaning only as part of a sentence. But, whatever exactly Frege meant by that, clearly he did not mean that every time a word appears outside the context of a sentence (say, in a shopping list) it is being redefined or relearned. (47)

Aside from the fact that a shopping list has a narrative context, giving it the kind of meaning one gets by having words in sentences, certainly neither Frege nor Wittgenstein suggest anything of the sort. Words get redefined only within sentences (narratives), not outside of them – it is this which gives them meaning. Words get increasing meaning within a text as they get used at each of the narrative levels shown above. One gets increased meaning with increased narrative complexity. Milan Kundera discusses the idea of novels having “theme-words,” the meanings of which the novelist investigates, expands, contracts, etc. through and in the novel (The Art of the Novel). And such meanings get developed not only in art, but also in our everyday conversations. Deconstruction can tell us as much about words’ meanings as quantum physics can tell us about human morality. Only within narrative structures do words have meaning. Outside of them, they only have referents.

Since words only gain meaning in sentences, we should take a moment to consider sentences in more detail, beyond their narrative form. I have equated the evolution of complexity to the evolution of meaning; let me now suggest that sentences themselves reflect Fraser’s “hierarchically nested integrative levels of nature” (TCHV, 10). Fraser points out that

the hierarchical theory of time recognizes five stable, hierarchically nested integrative levels of nature. By hierarchically nested is meant that each integrative level subsumes the functions and structures of the one or ones beneath it, and each adds to the potentialities of its predecessors certain new degrees of freedom. (10)

This also shows us how new instincts can arise from the combination of other instincts, but let us for a moment stick to the question of language working on various degrees of freedom. Language is a uniquely human instinct, and “It is not possible to make predictions about human conduct in the service of concrete or symbolic causes without allowing for biological intentionality, as well as for deterministic, probabilistic and chaotic contributions” (Fraser, 13), from the levels of macro-physics, quantum physics, and pure energy, respectively, for the last three. Looking at language as containing each of these levels is a good way of understanding the various elements of any given language as exhibiting the feedthrough of earlier states of nature “into the evolutionarily more recent levels of nature” (Fraser, 13). In English the adverb can be placed almost anywhere, meaning it acts randomly chaotic. English exhibits probabilistic behavior in that if you have a noun and a verb, there is a strong probability there will be a direct object (actually, to the extent that there is always an implied direct object, the direct object is in fact determined in each sentence). If there is a direct object, there is a probability that there will be an indirect object. English is deterministic in that if you have an adjective, you must have a noun following it (and if you have an indirect object, there must be a direct object – even if it is only implied). The only apparent exceptions are structures where we turn adjectives into direct objects – but now we are treating these adjectives as nouns. In French, however, adjectives are typically probablistic, since they usually come after the noun. But verbs deterministically follow subject-nouns in all sentences. Also, sentences have intention in that they are intended by the speaker to convey information or to do something. And, on the human level, language is symbolic in that the word “rock” symbolizes the actual object, and is concrete through performative speech, as “I hereby . . . ” and “I promise . . . ” are both concrete actions. Here we see Fraser’s feedthrough occurring in language.

No comments: