For my students: meaning does not live in words

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Semiotic manifestations (including words, texts, spoken written or non-verbal) do NOT contain meaning in themselves. We give them meaning (words on a page are just black squiggles on a white background). More precisely, these semiotic manifestations, are meant to instigate/ trigger/ incite/ provoke/ arouse/ inspire/ activate/ actuate/ impel/ induce/ stimulate/ suggest/ awaken/ kindle meaning in the listener/reader/viewer which, from the perspective of the producer of the manifestation, may (hopefully) match the meaning that the producer of the semiotic manifestation was hoping to “communicate”.

Here is one way of thinking about how it works (approximately). We have thoughts that we wish to share. These thoughts are likely to be multi-modal in nature. They are not just linguistic or visual or emotional or… who knows. They depend on our logical and representational systems. These systems may or may not be consciously known. As best we can, we try to represent our thoughts as accurately as possible through the semiotic systems at our disposal and in our control (including language). In so doing, we inevitably lose part of our thoughts: those that we cannot access in order to “encode” them,  those that the semiotic systems we choose cannot adequately represent (or that we do not know how to use effectively) or those that the semiotic systems that we have available simply cannot represent at all (how many times have we felt/said: “I just can’t express what I am thinking about”. Because semiotic systems are necessarily rule-bound (otherwise we would never have a chance to understand each other) they are not able to they cannot include all possible representations of meanings. They are necessarily limited to what the rules will allow (even though the rules may be flexible).

We then “publish”  (we make public) our representations (through language, spoken or written, drawings, gestures, etc.) and, in so doing, immediately lose control of their (potential) meanings. We lose control because meaning is no longer within us (i.e. being created or otherwise manipulated by us) but it is being created/manipulated by others who inevitably use different logical and representational systems (their own) to make their sense of our attempts to make sense.

These people take our semiotic manifestations of our attempts to “communicate” and give them their meanings, not ours. These meanings are in their heads and, ultimately, we have no control over them. If we are lucky, the meanings in their heads will accurately match the meanings in our heads. More likely than not, however, this will not happen and they (and us) will need to engage in a process of verification to ensure that they have understood “correctly“. “Correct” understandings will be achieved by a process of negotiation of meaning through external and internal dialogue where, inter alia, they will formulate their understandings of the “intended” meaning in different ways so as to ensure a form of triangulation. If you develop enough different ways of saying the same thing and say that you agree on the meanings of these different formulations in a back-and-forth dialogue, you can finally say  that you understand each others’ meanings. Of course such back-and-forth dialogues are not necessary (or can be shorter) once meaning agreement (often habitual) is struck over specific formulations/representations of meanings between two or more people. 

It is because of this agreement on meaning usually based on long-standing habit that we use the shortcut of saying that a specific word has a specific meaning.