This page was updated by Ralph Kenyon on 2017-10-09 at 17:04 and has been accessed 10242 times at 49 hits per month.

Copyright 2005 by Ralph E. Kenyon, Jr.

November 11, 2005

 I want to try to characterize "meaning" or "significance" in general without using the notion, so as to avoid the problem of appearing to try to "lift oneself by one's own bootstraps".

When we abstract, we create an object level response (a map) in response to the putative things and events in the "territory". A very important factor, not accounted for in the structural differential, and seldom mentioned, is the fact that our brain, through the process of auto-responding, bring forth all the memories of similar past experiences in conjunction with how we were feeling at the time, what we did in response to them, and what the results were. The total of these memories "is" the "meaning" or "significance" (semantic reaction) evoked by our object level experience. These memories allow us to decide what to do depending on our current wants and needs and the expected result based on our past experiences. See the 2005 addendum to semantic reaction.

Through the mechanism of time-binding our "memories" include not only our own direct personal experiences, but also our indirect "vicarious" memories obtained from hearing or reading about the experiences of others.

This accounts for  "non-allness", because no one can acquire all the experiences recorded in our time-bound repository of knowledge and because the abstraction process, according to current theory, does not respond to every characteristic. It also accounts for "non-identity", because we know that the abstraction response (map) at any level of abstraction is not that which it is abstracted from (territory).

It does, however, require consciousness-of-abstracting to keep in our awareness both these principles.

General semantics describes "multi-meaning" in three levels, 

  1. "dictionary definition",
  2. "dictionary definition in a context", and 
  3. "dictionary definition in a context in different brains".

The fact of (3) does not allow ignoring or disposing of (1) and (2). A person can write a formulation for a term or event that goes completely against (1) and (2), but the likelihood of communication is lost if the deviant formulation is not included with the communication.

In ordinary communication the speaker assumes (1) and assumes that the listener also assumes (1). The effect of (2) is also added and assumed by both the speaker and the listener. If there is no further feedback, then that ends the transmission and it is "assumed" that the listener and speaker "understood" the formulation. However, if either the listener or the speaker detects an apparent anomaly additional feedback will be require to bring both participants to a formulation that each can agree represents what each independently understands (not necessarily agreement).

When we ask what is "the" meaning of a term, it asks after (1), and the response should be (1). If we ask what does "this" mean, it asks after (2). If we ask what do "you" mean, it asks after (3). In the interest of efficiency, we should proceed from (1) to (2) to (3) only as each step appears inadequate.

I begin with (1), and I modify it with (2) where appropriate. With feedback, I can move to (3).

Consider the claim that we can always ask what is "the" meaning. When we ask a person the meaning of this or that, he or she has the choice of responding from his or her direct personal experiences or in terms of his or her indirect virtual time-bound "external" experiences. In the first case, the answer falls back to the current desires or needs of the person, and that is the end of the matter, unless one wants to go into "theories" of motivation, which takes it back outside the direct personal experiences.

When the query gets answered in terms of the time-bound experiences of others, it can be traced back through a chain of time-bound recordings to some individual's direct experiences, and that again is the end of the search.

Can we stay in the level of words? There are only a finite number of words, so we eventually run out of combinations. Even the largest books have only a few thousand pages, so there is a limit to how many combinations and permutations of words are needed to produce such books. All these combinations, though large, are still finite. The ONLY way to get an infinite number of combination of a finite number of words is to allow infinitely long combinations. But no one can write such a book, and no one can read it if it could have been written. The consequence of this limitation is that there cannot be an infinite sequence of explanations. We will eventually run out of combinations of words to express it. That means that the claim, "we can always ask 'Well, what's the meaning of that?'...endlessly." is not a correct claim. We would run out of different ways to answer the question, so we would be repeating ourselves. The only way out of this circularity is to revert back to the first response, the direct personal experiences of individuals with their wants and needs.

To summarize, meaning and significance "is" the memories and experience (including vicarious time-bound experiences) of prior object level responses, what actions were taken (or could be taken) in response, and the outcomes (or projected outcomes) as a result.

This description or definition does not suffer from the "bootstrap" problem, in that what is being described or defined does not use itself in the process, so the explanation is not circular.

So much for "meaning" as it applies to a person.  Now see about meaning as it applies to words.

  1. As the map is not the territory, there could be "errors" in the above interpretation.
  2. As the map covers not all the territory, there would be more that could be said.
  3. As the map reflects the map maker, the above contribution to the symbolic environment reflects my personal experience.

Annotated bibliography of general semantics papers
General Semantics and Related Topics