The term “meaning,” like the term “fact,” is a high-order abstraction, and becomes useful only in specific contexts. There are at least five sources of meaning. It can come to us (i) from signs which are not symbols, (2) from gestures, (3) from spoken words and symbols, (4) from written words and symbols, (5) from “ideas” which seem to appear spontaneously in our heads.
Meaning as interpretation of signs which are not symbols. You are driving a car along a road at night. The headlights illuminate pavement, shoulders, fences, trees, houses. The route is clear and in good order. No words come through, but in that you keep the speedometer at 45 miles an hour, it is evident that meaning comes through. Referents are being accurately interpreted. Suddenly, as you approach a curve, the scene goes blank.
The shadows are wrong. Is that a field or a pond? Does the road swing right or left? Is that a tree you are heading for? Most motorists have experienced this devastating failure of meaning. What do you do? You do what any healthy animal does in a similar perplexity. You slow down, look sharp, wait until the world outside reassembles itself into a pattern you know. If you do not wait, you may be killed.
This is perception of “meaning” in its primary form. A pain in some part of the body, hunger for food, an urge to sexual activity, also give elemental meanings, and are part of the survival mechanism. The higher animals receive similar signs—though they do not drive motorcars—and similar meanings. Hobie receives the message “food” from his own insides or from observing the family at table.
Above the survival level, but also wordless, are various esthetic stimuli: the pleasure taken in a landscape, a well-proportioned building, the notes of music, the pattern of a dance or of games being witnessed. In these nonverbal contexts, meaning becomes sharper with experience, as the Thingumbobs are more readily recognized. Language does not enter, and semantic reform is not seriously called for.
Meaning as interpretation of gestures. You are out in the woodlot cutting down a tree. You hear a whistle and, looking up, see your wife beckoning. That means the pesky life insurance man has come. The beckoning is a nonverbal symbol, and carries plenty of meaning. It is
the oldest human language. Hobie Baker employs it when he sits up and begs for food. Semantic improvement is not a requisite here. Per contra, communication might be improved if we made more use of gesture language. Pointing, despite Emily Post, nails down referents as nothing else can.
Meaning as interpretation of spoken words. Here the higher animals leave us, although dogs and horses react to speech, even if they cannot imitate the words spoken. You talk to me; I talk to you. You tell me to watch for the red light at the railroad crossing, to stop making a fool of myself, to be sure and vote the Republican ticket, else the Constitution will be violated and the nation destroyed. The first warning is good communication leading to my survival; the last is mostly blab.
A similar conclusion must be drawn when Adam x speaks to you and me as part of a crowd. If Adarrii is a policeman or a fireman with an urgent message for our immediate safety, well and good. If he is an actor in a play, well and good. If he is an orator, a lecturer, a diplomat, a counsel on public relations, a communist, or a member of the Chamber of Commerce, God help us.
Verbal meaning is especially intense in a joke. If you get the point, it blazes. If you do not, you feel a sorry fool. So you laugh anyway. When you become baffled by the concepts of meaning, think of jokes.
I have used the term “survival” several times as a touchstone for “meaning.” Let us find some referents for this concept. Here is a row of them: food and drink, houses, the birth and care of children, provisions for physical and mental health, facilities for play, the Red Cross in action, the work of Dr. Victor Heiser as set forth in An American Doctor’s Odyssey, the activities of the United States Government in the Ohio flood of 1937.
Meaning as interpretation of written ivords and symbols. In this division the nonverbal context ranges from Pop-Eye in the comic strips to the tensor calculus. Illiterates are not affected by semantic difficulties here, but one cannot afford to be illiterate in the Power Age. One might overlook a third-rail sign, or somewhat less fatally, a one-way street sign. In mathematical symbols, semantic confusion is at a minimum, as we have seen, provided one steers clear of number magic and the pitfalls of extrapolation. In written language—notably advertising, legal opinions, state papers, and treatises on political economy—there is frequent confusion.
Meaning as apparently spontaneous ideas ivithin one’s head. I am writing this book. It is constantly on my mind. I wake in the night and begin to think about a chapter. Suddenly I get an idea of how to develop it or conclude it. Where did the idea come from? Did I receive a sign from without, a sound, an itch, a light-beam, that started me thinking? Or was the mechanism internal, an intricate electrical disturbance among the six quadrillion cell dynamos of my brain? Psychologists make a good case for association of ideas, how one thing leads to another. You see a fire engine. It makes you
think of the night you watched a skyscraper burn at the corner of Central Park. The boards of the scaffolding flung out like fiery feathers. Which makes you think of a scarlet tanager. Which reminds you to clean out the wren house, for it is early May.
The wren-house idea came straight from the fire-engine sign. But what about ideas in the dark, still night? Is a sign always necessary before the cortex goes to work? I do not know; probably no one yet knows. What I do know is that internal ideas, whether spontaneous or not, are felt before they are verbalized. The feeling is often vivid. I do know that meanings of this nature are charged with dynamite—brilliant, noisy, and dangerous. If the idea can be handled as a hypothesis, pending facts to verify it, it may be useful; more, it may mark the beginning of important new knowledge. Scientists frequently report a kind of mental spontaneous combustion which fuses facts upon which they have been working into a splendid deduction. But if the idea is rushed into print without verification, as a segment of “truth,” rather than as a preliminary hypothesis, we may have a sad spectacle of false conclusions or at best pure jargon. The libraries are full of such treatises.
new-dug ditch. Here is the argument of this book in a sentence. We need true meanings for survival, either as motorists or as a biological species. We need protec-
tion from chasms made by words as well as from dangerous ditches across the roadway. By and large, interpretation is accurate for nonverbal things; otherwise we should have perished with the saber-toothed tiger. For verbal things the case is less happy.
Meanings in a given situation may be true, false, absent, or combinations thereof. Absent meanings may be characterized as blab. Foreign words, new words, long words, higher mathematics, often register blab. No savvy. New experiences, like things seen by the kitten first opening its eyes, give no meanings initially. False meanings arise from misinterpretations of signs; from misunderstanding of words in which the hearer’s referents differ from those of the speaker; from emotions aroused by such terms as “red,” “atheist,” “infidel,” “capitalist,” “international banker” (a favorite spook of Henry Ford’s).
Perhaps the greatest contribution of a science of semantics would be to turn false meanings into no Tnean-ings, to hear nothing but blab blab when the high abstractions were rolling back and forth. This negative reaction would probably do more to improve communication than positive action. One’s mind would shut out bad language as the turn of a radio dial shuts out a third-rate crooner—leaving a clear and lovely silence.
Communication between man and man is a two-way process. The hearer may work as hard as the speaker. Recall the Ogden and Richards triangle. The speaker receives a sign which gives him a referent to talk about.
He interprets the referent in his mind and symbolizes the thought in words. For the hearer, the sound-waves (or the light-waves from the printed page) are the sign; the mind then goes to work on them to find out what they mean. The minds of speaker and hearer meet njohen they agree on the same referent. If the hearer finds no referent (blab) or selects a referent different from that of the speaker, their minds do not meet. Agreement is impossible. Bitter arguments are incipient.
Thinking of a candle flame, A says to B, “Light is a discontinuous flux in the nonluminiferous ether.” B finds no referents for this high-sounding remark, and replies, “You don’t say so”—a tactful substitute for “I don’t know what in hell you are talking about.” Communication is zero. Again C, a theologian, says to D, a member of the Nazi party, “We must drive out the Devil.” D finds a referent immediately by identifying “Devil” with “Jew” or “Churchman,” and speeds up the persecution process. Communication is viciously in reverse. let us arrange a sequence of statements and note what happens as we pass from no meaning to maximum precision.
“Beyond the Whither is Elsinore stoobled.”
Persons looking for referents here are headed for Bedlam or Bellevue.
“The divine is rightly so called.”
There are many quarters in which a statement like this will be listened to respectfully. X may agree that “Divine” is just the right word for the divine; Y argues
that a better word might have been selected, say “Omnipotent”—”It gives more a feeling of power. The divine should be powerful, brooking no opposition.” Z is disposed to quarrel with the whole idea of divinity and proposes to substitute the “laws of nature.” Here is something, he says, which is really divine, and begins to quote lines of poetry about God and Nature. This commands a hushed silence from the assembly, and a general nodding of heads. And so on, for hours, days. Yet the statement under semantic analysis has no more meaning than poor stoobled Elsinore. No referents can be found for it; no operations are possible to give it validity as a concept.