MWP 1.2.b: Experience and meaning

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The above theoretical account of adequacy can be strengthened further by introducing the account of meaning that has already been mentioned at several points in section 1. Although a detailed account of this theory of meaning must wait until volume 3, an outline has already been offered: meaning needs to be understood as based on physical experience, and that physical experience unites cognitive and emotional aspects of meaning. Not only should our account of the breadth of human experience influence our account of meaning, but also vice-versa.

Our experiences are clearly influenced most basically by our desires. Although things may impact on our experience that we don’t want, our experience is also driven by desires, which lead us to act in ways that create further experiences. For example, I choose a holiday because of my desire for that holiday, and then my experiences are determined by it. What we signify from that experience, however, is not only influenced by what we want to signify, but by the limits of our sense of meaning.

The limits to our sense of meaning take two distinguishable (but inter-related) forms: the cognitive limits of what I am able to represent through language, and the affective limits of what I am motivated to express. Both aspects of meaning are necessary when we signify our experience. For example, I cannot talk about my experience of looking at the circuits inside a computer with anything like the specificity that a computer engineer could bring to discussing it: I do not have the specialised vocabulary or sufficient understanding of what I am looking at, so here I encounter cognitive limits. I also do not enthusiastically start a conversation with a friend about the fact that the stones used to build my house are still mortared together in the same pattern they were yesterday: this is normally just not of sufficient novelty to evoke interest (except perhaps as a special mindfulness exercise), even though I do have the technical capacity to describe it.

If we were to take a purely representational view of language, like the truth-conditional theory routinely used by analytic philosophers, then the affective elements of meaning would simply not be taken into account. My selection of experience to express in the form of words or symbols could be explained only by my technical ability to represent it, if it could not be explained by my desires or my beliefs. This would be inadequate, because the motives to use certain signs to represent my experience that I experience as affective meaningfulness are only a subset of my wider desires, and these motives are not always formulable as beliefs. To create meaning I combine affective desires to express with a technical capacity to represent, with a combined result that is reducible neither to desire, to belief or to an ability to represent.

For example, suppose I am invited to a friend’s house for a meal. I am generally motivated by hunger (as well as politeness and social expectation) to eat the meal, but the aspects of my experience of that meal that I choose to signify (even to myself) are limited. I may comment on a particularly tasty dish, or the method used to cook the potatoes, but my signification is selective. That selectivity is not explained by my technical ability to talk about these things – I could have done so in detail had I wished to do so. It is also not entirely explained by my beliefs. There are all kinds of implicit and explicit beliefs that relate to the experience of the meal, such as beliefs about my relationship with the friend, the nutritional properties of the food, the moral status of eating particular foods, and so on. However, my selection of features to signify is a prior condition (though not a sufficient condition) for the explicit expression of beliefs, and my implicit beliefs may form a condition for signification but do not necessarily lead to it. For example, it might be the fact that I chose to talk (or even just think) about the cooking of potatoes that led me to express my belief in the culinary superiority of waxy potatoes over floury-textured ones. This belief is dependent on my signification of the cooking of potatoes. Perhaps my implicit belief that I had correctly identified these vegetables I was eating as potatoes forms part of the necessary background to my talking about them, but that implicit belief would not have necessarily led to my talking about them. Instead, it was the affective meaningfulness of the potatoes – the way they impacted on my emotional experience – that made them an interesting topic of conversation or reflection, and it is this interest combined with my articulate use of the right grammar and vocabulary to signify these things that made my talk about potatoes meaningful.

The meaning of potatoes in my experience is thus distinguishable from beliefs about potatoes and also from the desire for potatoes. My talk about potatoes required not only a technical ability to use language signifying potatoes, but also a desire to use that language, which put together created meaningfulness that would not have existed had the cognitive or affective meaningfulness been separated out.

Thus a purely representational account of meaning, concentrating on our capacity to create verbal pictures that are capable of representing ‘truth’, completely neglects an important dimension of the way we conceptualise our experience – namely affective meaningfulness. This in turn leads to an inadequate epistemology and an inadequate ethics based on the fact-value distinction (see 1.i), as these depend on a theorisation of how we process experience.

Meaning in the truth-conditional account inheres in propositions, whilst in the Wittgensteinian account it inheres in language according to its communicative function in a language game. Neither of these limiting assumptions needs to be made here about the relationship between meaning and signs. If meaning can be both cognitive and affective, the signs we use to represent meaning do not have to be cognitive propositions – they are still meaningful for affective reasons if they are just exclamations, or even if they are abstract pictures or musical notes. Nor do meaningful signs have to be communicative: it is the mere act of linking an experience with a sign that makes the sign meaningful in our experience, whether or not we choose to try to communicate using that sign, and whether or not others understand and share our experience to any extent. Signs are thus an aspect of experience, rather than a separate phenomenon that attempts to comment on experience from outside. The adequacy of our signification is seen as part of the adequacy of our experience, without going to the other extreme of treating experience as entirely reducible to signs.

A parallel point can also be made about the alternative (but less common) approach to meaning that I call expressivism. Expressivism explains meaning only in affective terms, and does not recognise the cognitive elements in meaning. However, if we analyse our signification from experience only in these terms, we take no account of the capacity to make mental representations of different aspects of our experience. However, there are also occasions when representational ability is at a premium in communication, and any account that leaves it out would obviously be impoverished. For example, when a scientist writes up an account of an experiment, the extent to which she contributes to the advancement of understanding by doing so depends not just on being motivated to select salient features of the experiment, but having the capacity to do so precisely, probably using highly technical vocabulary. This capacity is likewise not fully explained either by the beliefs of the scientist or by her drives.

One can also think of this account of meaning in terms of the relationship between the brain hemispheres. Cognitive or representational meaning is the preserve of the left hemisphere, whilst affective meaning is the preserve of the right hemisphere[1]. Without the activity of the left hemisphere, I would have no way of linking my experiences together to form a representation of the world in which to act, but without the activity of the right hemisphere, those representations would become closed and affectively meaningless, like the words of the headteacher in the school assembly that I mentioned at the beginning of my introduction. Left hemisphere meaning is part of a self-referential closed system of truth or usage conditions, whilst right hemisphere meaning depends ultimately on physical experience, which can give life to abstractions through metaphor. As McGilchrist puts this: “Everything has to be expressed in terms of something else, and those something elses eventually have to come back to the body.”[2] Rather than seeking ultimate status for either of these sorts of meaning, we need to combine them and treat both as necessary.

In order to explain our selection of experience for signification, then, we need a theory that combines both cognitive and affective elements of meaning, and that also considers meaning in distinction from desire and belief, even whilst recognising the complex interrelationships between desire, meaning and belief. The details of how a Lakoffian theory of meaning can be used to support such an account will be given in volume 3. Such a theory, however, also has a further great usefulness in providing a fuller account of the idea of the adequacy of experience mentioned in the previous chapter.

As mentioned above, experiential adequacy is the extent to which we are open to experience and able to learn from it, using provisional theory to support us but not limited by rigid prejudices. There are three levels at which we could analyse that adequacy further – desire, meaning and belief. Desire obviously shapes the adequacy of our experience by conditioning both situation and focus. Belief affects the adequacy of experience by being more provisional or dogmatic (for more on both these other kinds of adequacy, see 6.g, and more broadly volumes 2 and 4). Meaning, however, also plays a key role in determining what we signify about our experience and how we signify it – which then feeds back into conditioning what we actually experience.

The more capacity I have to signify, linked to an interest in signifying, the more my experience will be able to take into account experiences it would otherwise neglect. The trained scientist experiences the object of his investigation differently partly because he can talk about it in a way that makes distinctions others are oblivious to. The poet not only finds new forms of expression, but maintains an affective openness to experiences that is conditioned by the process of turning those experiences into poetry. Even the musician experiences musical sounds differently because they are part of her means of expression. Each of these figures has extended meaning in a way that also extends experience, taking it beyond the norm in specific appreciable ways.

I have already proposed an incremental view of both desire and belief: desire being more or less adequate as it is more or less consistent and sustainable over time, and belief being more or less adequate as it is more or less provisional. However, I am also going to propose an incremental view of meaning. This will come as a surprise to Western philosophers who are used to treating meaning as a set of discontinuous representational conditions, but it begins to make sense when you consider the full implications of treating meaning in both cognitive and affective terms. The adequacy of my experience is extended both by the extent to which I can represent what I experience and by the affective meaningfulness of what I experience, each of which are interdependent incremental features that can be treated quantitatively. Together these incremental features create adequacy of meaning. Thus the adequacy of experience can be analysed in terms of the adequacy of desire, the adequacy of meaning and the adequacy of belief, each of which contributes necessary conditions to my ability to learn from experience and justify my claims on the basis of experience. My claims about the universe can be justified, not by the way in which these claims represent an inaccessible reality, but by the extent to which I (and/or my society – see 6.f) have developed these kinds of adequacy. In section 4 I will be developing my account of how this experiential adequacy can be understood as objectivity, in section 5 as a basis of justification, and in section 6 as integration.

[1] McGilchrist (2009) p.110-126

[2] Ibid. p.116