Words and Meanings

Freshman year of college my friend Rebecca tried to explain to me the literary school of deconstruction. After some time I tried to sum up what I had heard in a phrase that (be it my own or not, and whether it be accurate or not) I have kept with me six years later.

Words have meanings, but meanings don’t have words.

Now I’m still not sure what that means, but I do know it has to be true. My friend’s grandmother, sage that she is, disagrees entirely. Meanings are the words they mean—sometimes people misuse words—but that doesn’t detract from their instrinsic definitions. But if that were true, we wouldn’t have any need for dictionaries. If words were their meanings, then words couldn’t be defined in terms of other words. That’d be silly. The other words have their own (other) meanings, after all. Imagine what a dictionary entry might look like in this alternate semantic universe:

apple, n., apple. What don’t you understand? Apple means apple.

Of course, maybe I’m taking too naive an approach. DJ’s grandmother might be onto something. How can you sufficiently define terms like ‘this’, or ‘I’, or ‘you’? This is what it is. It’s nothing else. It’s this. I am who I am. Or am I? Words, like people, take on a meaning that emerges from their use. How words are used, though, follows from larger, guiding principles. Culture helps define who we are. So, too, culture—which is really no more than a vast set of complex and subtle rules—defines what are words mean. So, words do have meaning. But only in relationship to other things (that have meaning). It’s sort of like music.

In music syncopated rhythms accent the beats which normally go unaccented. But without some concept of normal, syncopation doesn’t exist. But it does because in our music there is a structured sense of normal. And if we let loose the structure, we loose some of the meaning. Syncopation just disappears. Ironically, the tighter a straight-jacket we put on rhythm the freer we can be within its constraints: we get things like syncopation back.

In mathematics, too, Kahler manifolds are surfaces that exhibit a rich geometry. It’s thought that the physics of our universe is actually encoded on one of a special class of these surfaces known as Calabi-Yau manifolds. The thing about Kalher manifolds, though, is that their geometry is so highly structured that the surfaces are almost flat. Flat surfaces are the simplest to investigate. It turns out that these guys, by comparison, are notoriously difficult to analyze. There may be something to that—that the most useful, interesting cases often lie just on the cusp between simple and intractable—but I’m not sure what it is.

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One thought on “Words and Meanings

  1. You’re veering very close to Wittgenstein’s notion of language. Though I have an objection/question for you. Simply because something has an intrinsic meaning doesn’t mean that there would be no need for dictionaries. It might be intrinsic, but not apparent by reflection. Water has an intrinsic property of being H20, but I still have to look it up to learn that intrinsic fact.

    A more fundamental worry might be that you seem to want to limit meaning to something that is (or could be) found in a dictionary. That is, you seem to want a single word for any meaning, which, to me, seems to presuppose that meanings don’t have a word. So, I can come up with a concept that doesn’t have a single word for it, say, all odd numbers between 103-534. True, that meaning has no word. But, it does have words. Specifically, the words “all odd numbers between 103-534”. So, my meaning has some words. I would say that all meanings have a word in this sense, since how can I think or have meaning outside of language? Can I have a meaning that is inexpressable in words (broadly construed, so, for instance, a picture can be coded into even something as simple as a computer image file). This last point is something along the lines of W’s private language argument, where he denies that I can have such private thoughts.

    Still in Boston? Wanna meet up to talk in person bout this?

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