05 December 2012

Meaning 2

Meaning 2


I relayed the definition of "meaning" that I consider best, which is generally accepted in semiotics:
X means Y just if X is a reliable indication of Y
Lameen Souag asked a good question
how would [meaning as reliable indication] account for the fact that lies have a meaning?


"Reliable" doesn't mean foolproof. Good liars do abuse reliable indicators.
Second, when we have seen through a lie, we do use the term "meaning" in that way. When you know that someone is a liar, you might say "what she says doesn't mean anything" (doesn't reliably indicate anything). Or you might speak of a meaning that has little to do with the lie's literal words, but accords with what it reliably indicates: "When he says `trust me', that means you should keep your wallet closed."

Language interpretation

Perhaps you were speaking of a more surface sense of the lie's meaning? Like, you could say "Sabrina listed this item on Ebay as a 'new computer', but it's actually a used mop." Even people who considered her a liar and her utterances unreliable could understand what her promise meant; that's how they know she told a lie. They extract a meaning from an utterance even though they know it doesn't reliably indicate anything. Is that a fair summation of your point?
To understand utterances divorced from who actually says them, we use a consensus of how to transform from words and constructions to indicators; a language.
Don't throw away the context, though. We divorced the utterance from its circumstances and viewed it thru other people's consensus. We can't turn around and treat what we get thru that process as things we directly obtained from the situation; they weren't.
If Sabrina was reliable in her speech (wouldn't lie etc), we could take a shortcut here, because viewing her utterance thru others' consensus wouldn't change what it means. But she isn't, so we have to remember that the reliable-in-the-consensus indicators are not reliable in the real circumstances (Sabrina's Ebay postings).
So when interpreting a lie, we get a modified sense of meaning. "Consensus meaning", if you will. It's still a meaning (reliable indication), but we mustn't forget how we obtained it: not from the physical situation itself but via a consensus.

The consensus / language

NB, that only works because the (consensus of) language transforms words and constructions in reliable ways. If a lot of people used language very unreliably, it wouldn't. What if (say) half the speakers substituted antonyms on odd-numbered days, or when they secretly flipped a coin and it came up tails. How could you extract much meaning from what they said?

Not all interpretations are created equal

This may sound like All Interpretations Are Created Equal, and therefore you can't say objectively that Sabrina commited fraud; that's just your interpetation of what she said; there could be others. But that's not what I mean at all.
For instance, we can deduce that she committed fraud (taking the report as true).
At the start of our reasoning process, we only know her locutionary act - the physical expression of it, posting 'new computer for sale'. We don't assume anything about her perlocutionary act - convincing you (or someone) that she offers a new computer for sale.
  1. She knows the language (Assumption, so we can skip some boring parts)
  2. You might believe what she tells you (Assumption)
  3. Since the iterm is actually an old mop, making you believe that she offers a new computer is fraud. (Assumption)
  4. Under the language consensus, 'new computer' reliably indicates new computer (common vocabulary)
  5. Since she knows the language, she knew 'new computer' would be transformed reliably-in-the-consensus to indicate new computer (by 1&4)
  6. Reliably indicating 'new computer' to you implies meaning new computer to you. (by definition) (So now we begin to see her perlocutionary act)
  7. So by her uttering 'new computer', she has conveyed to you that she is offering a new computer (by 5&6)
  8. She thereby attempts the perlocutionary act of persuading you that she offers a new computer (by 2&7)
  9. She thereby commits fraud (by 3&8)
I made some assumptions for brevity, but the point is that with no more than this definition of meaning and language-as-mere-consensus, we can make interesting, reasonable deductions.

(Late edits for clarity)

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