Signs mean. People think.

We easily fall into the habit of describing language and its acquisition through the process of naming, almost as though we have gotten hung up on the story of Adam naming the animals.

Signs mean. People think.
Adam naming the animals - from the Aberdeen Bestiary

The following thoughts would not exist in their current form without Henry Staten's exposition of Wittgenstein in his monograph Derrida and Wittgenstein. I recently corresponded with Dr. Staten to thank him for his work, and his responses have been kind, helpful, and gracious. I highly recommend his text.

The problems with pointing

The image of the person pointing at an object and saying “this!” supplies the primal picture which composes our reflexive intuitions about how language works.

We easily fall into the habit of describing language and its acquisition through the process of naming, almost as though we have gotten hung up on the story of Adam naming the animals.

However, this account of the acquisition and function of language runs aground when we try to describe how one learns the meaning of the word ‘red.’

To teach someone the meaning of ‘red,' we can only point at red things.

How do you just point at the red-ness of the thing?

Aren’t you just pointing at the thing?

The problem with pointing, which Wittgenstein helps us to see, is that it’s always open to the response ‘what?’

What are you pointing at?

Are you just pointing at the apple? Which apple? The number of apples? The arrangement of the apples? The location of the apples?

What about the distinctness of the apple – it's "object-ness?"

(In our haste, we have overlooked how to point at the concept of 'this!' A finger pointing at itself? Which hand is really doing the pointing in this scenario?)

Perhaps you're trying to indicate the apple’s difference from, say, an orange?

(Let us not even begin to ask how one points at ‘differing’ itself!)

This image — the scene of a finger pointing at an object, and a voice shouting ‘this!’ — functions as a metonymy in Wittgenstein's thought for a popular theory of language which locates meaning in the mental act of a speaker's intention.

Our unexamined intuitions about language incline us to say that ‘meaning’ is something which a mind does, and thus meaning is located in the act of a person's “intending” a certain meaning. Their intention "encodes" a meaning into the signs which the hearer must then decode to decipher the true meaning.

Under this theory, in order to discover the meaning of someone's words we have to divine the original mental act of the speaker which gave the words their meaning.

The idea that the mental act of intending can impart meaning (as though meaning is a substance or entity?) to a string of signs seems to break down upon closer examination. In fact, it suffers from precisely the same complications as the act of pointing, but the muddled nature of inner experience shrouds this failure from us.

We say that the meaning derives from our intention, but we often discover that more was communicated than our original intention contained. In this situation, we usually shift responsibility to the context for providing this supplement which allowed the other person to understand us. However, we quickly realize that context alone couldn't have conclusively lead the listener to our meaning either, and we consequently shift back to claiming that the true meaning was in our intention all along. In this way we confuse ourselves.

Wittgenstein wants us to start questioning whether this is actually how language and meaning work, and to instead start paying closer attention to what happens in particular instances when we use language.

Language as use in context

Let us return to the example from earlier in which we were trying to teach someone the meaning of ‘red' – since we cannot point at red-ness itself, we must resort to amassing a set of examples of red objects, and then asking the learner "what do all these objects have in common?"

Once we have presented the learner with a family of objects which all seem to share a resemblance, we may then want to test their comprehension. We will have to place a few objects in front of them, some red and some not, and then ask them to pick the one which is like the rest in the set we showed them earlier.

If they are catching on, they will pick the red object from amongst the others.

And now we say that they understand the meaning of red!

Why do we say this?

Because when they hear the word ‘red,’ they pick the red object.

We could not access the mental act of "intending" in order to check that they really intended red when they said "red," but the good news is that we didn't have to.

If we look closely at this example of learning language, we discover that language works much more like Pavlov’s dogs slobbering at the sound of the bell than it does as a device for naming things.

Because the learner produced the expected outcome within a particular situation bounded by certain rules, we say that they understand 'red.' Wittgenstein wants us to see that these games we play with words vary widely, and that they are best described as producing outcomes or achieving goals in context.

We can think about Wittgenstein's example of a worker saying 'Slab!' which prompts his colleague to wordlessly grab a slab and hand it to him.

What is happening here? The worker and his colleague are in a situation – a job at a work site – which constitutes a "game" with its own rules, objectives, and strategies. The word 'slab' functions in this game as a signal for how to proceed in context ("what do I do next?"), and Wittgenstein wants us to see that we can conceptualize our linguistic interactions with others through this metaphor of the game.

Notice how Wittgenstein's focus on games shifts our understanding from that of language as naming to language as the deployment of signs within situations in a life-world. We moved from trying to produce a certain mental state in the learner's mind to using signs as a way of achieving an outcome within a certain situation.

(While one of those desired outcomes could certainly be to produce a specific mental state in another person's mind, we cannot ever know that we have truly succeeded at this, because we cannot access anyone's mental contents directly. Instead, the best we can do would be to infer our success based on the other's subsequent use of signs which either do or do not match up with what we would expect if they had had a similar mental experience to the one we hoped to convey.)

Where does this leave us? Wittgenstein's theory of language as use forces us into the realization that meaning arises through the function of symbols in a context, not from the operation of a mind's intention to "put meaning into" words.

Almost like turning the crank on a hurdy gurdy, the movement of the signs themselves do the work of meaning. We simply have to mobilize them within the context of a particular human situation, be it social or mental.

To understand this better, we will need to investigate what signs are. I recommend this brief section from Saussure for further reading, but for now, let this phrase be a lodestar for further investigation –

Signs mean. People think.

Have you heard of "the meaning crisis?" It's become a popular way of describing our particular social situation in which people are becoming increasingly alienated from themselves and others, depression and anxiety are on the rise, and people are turning with greater fervor than ever to regimes of self-improvement in some hope of finding a deeper meaning to their lives.

"Signs mean. People think." contains the seeds of a re-framing for this "meaning crisis" discourse, one which promises to help us avoid the woo and cult-like dynamics which have developed around some of these meaning crisis gurus, and which perpetuate the very dysfunction they purport to solve.

I think this also points to a Hegelian-Lacanian form of active thought which mobilizes notions in concrete interventions rather than a Jungian approach which would satisfy itself with private symbols, myths, and personal practice.

Thanks for being a faithful reader at Samsara Diagnostics! If you haven't pre-ordered my book about universality, identity, and liberation in Shusaku Endo's novel Silence, you can learn more here.

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