Spinning

In Joyce’s Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus (metaphorical son of the archetypal ‘artificer’) addresses himself as ‘weaver of the wind.’ Weaving and spinning (as threadmaking) are both handy metaphors for the construction of meaning. But there is another sense of “spin” (based on a different metaphor) that we need in any good account of how language works.

The metaphor of spin or bias refers vaguely to a speaker’s more or less subtle (and often unconscious) attempts to manipulate the emotional interpretant while maintaining some semblance of truth in the sign-object relation. When a word is used frequently with a special emotional overtone, the spin tends to stick to the word as an undertone persisting in other uses. Some examples:

“Progress,” as a noun, puts a positive spin on the idea of a progression, i.e. a forward motion: we generally use it in reference to a sequence in which later points (or states) are improvements over earlier points in the sequence. The same happens with “success”: it generally refers to a positive outcome of a succession of acts.

We see the same pattern in the evolution of “happy” in English. Things happen; if the outcome is positive for us, if our luck is good, then the events are “happy” or “lucky”; and we describe our own resulting state in the same terms. (In English, the usage of “happy” as referring to events rather than emotional states has almost disappeared, but we still use “lucky” both ways.) Similarly “fortune” can be kind or unkind, and someone who “tells your fortune” may bring good news or bad news, but if you are “fortunate,” that means the news is good.

Other words have gone in the opposite direction. “Fate” usually has ominous overtones, probably because it is beyond our control, and a “fatal” event, in current usage, is about as negative as anything can be.

A successful translation from one language into another would translate the spin of each phrase as well as its more “objective” reference – but the shifting relationships between sense and spin are rarely parallel across languages, and even differ between people. This is yet another reason why a perfectly “successful” translation is an ideal that can hardly be realized.

Do we understand one another?

Anything worth saying is worth saying in more than one way. There is no ‘best’ way of saying it, since the reader is going to interpret the utterance in ways that are not fully predictable.

Consider for instance Ray Jackendoff’s (1992) essay on ‘The Problem of Reality,’ which explains why ‘constructivist’ psychology is a more viable model of our relationship to external reality than analytical philosophy which tries to base meaning on ‘truth-conditions.’ (He does not consider the Peircean alternative that the sense of reality is grounded in a ‘dyadic consciousness.’) Toward the end of the essay he takes up an objection to the constructivist view, stated as a more or less rhetorical question:

If reality is observer-relative, how is it that we manage to understand one another? (This objection is essentially Quine’s (1960) ‘indeterminacy of radical translation,’ now applied at the level of the single individual.)

— Jackendoff (1992, 173)

Jackendoff gives two answers to this. Translating the first into my own terms: assuming that ‘we’ are both human, our common biological nature makes it a good bet that our meaning spaces are similar. (Jackendoff uses ‘combinatorial space’ where i use ‘meaning space.’)

The second answer to this objection is that we don’t always understand each other, even when we think we do. This is particularly evident in the case of abstract concepts. Quine’s indeterminacy of radical translation in a sense does apply when we are dealing with world views in areas like politics, religion, aesthetics, science, and, I guess, semantics. These are domains of discourse in which the construction of a combinatorial space of concepts is underdetermined by linguistic and sensory evidence, and innateness does not rush in to the rescue.

Since we are now at work in one of those domains of discourse, it is possible that Jackendoff’s ‘combinatorial space’ is more different from my ‘meaning space’ than i think it is. Investigating that possibility would involve exploring the context of each usage more fully, always guided by Peirce’s ‘maxim of pragmatism.’

Energetics of information

Use it or lose it, they say. Another side of this maxim is that if you try to keep too much “information,” you degrade its usefulness.

Howard Odum describes a version of the meaning cycle operating on a global level:

Because information has to be carried by structures, it is lost when the carriers disperse (second energy law). Therefore, emergy is required to maintain information.… So in the long run, maintaining information requires a population operating an information copy and selection circle …. The information copies must be tested for their utility. Variation occurs in application and use because of local differences and errors. Then the alternatives that perform best are selected, and the information of the selected systems is extracted again. Many copies are made so that the information is broadly shared and used again, completing the loop. In the process, errors are eliminated, and improvements may be added in response to the adaptation to local variations.

— H.T. Odum (2007, 88)

The information process, which is the ‘application and use’ of “stored” or potential information to actually inform the guidance system, is the crucial part of this copy and selection circle; ‘the ability to retrieve and use information is rapidly diluted as the number of stored information items increases. To accumulate information without selection is to lose its use’ (Odum 2007, 241).

Idiomatics

While there is no private language (Wittgenstein), every natural language abounds in idioms (from the Greek word meaning private) – expressions whose specific usage is not derivable from the logos of the language. In fact any particular usage of an expression may occupy any position along a spectrum running from fully public to fully private. Idioms, jargon and slang are perhaps signs of the propensity of cultures to articulate themselves as subcultures, and of people to identify themselves as members of a group by adopting the group’s articulation habits.

Looking at language itself is like looking at a mirror rather than at the reflection in a mirror, or looking at a window rather than through it: the phenomenon of language ceases to be transparent and we focus on its dynamics rather than those of “the world.” This can raise its automatic functions into consciousness and restore the immediacy of the habits we have taken for granted.

For instance, we can look at familiar idioms which we normally use automatically, and try to trace their peculiar logic back to the root. Consider the English expression “back and forth”: why is it not “forth and back”? Do we normally imagine that kind of motion as beginning with the return? Maybe we do: perhaps an irreversible “going forth” is the default kind of motion, as it were, and only when this is interrupted by a “coming back” do we notice a distinctive pattern – which we then call “back-and-forth.”

But then why do we say that someone tumbles “head over heels”? Taken “literally,” this expression would be equivalent to “upside up”; “upside down” (or “downside up”) would be better expressed as “heels over head.” Well, maybe the idiom is dominated by the dynamic (rather than the static positional) sense of over – as in “fall over,” “turn over” etc. – and we simply ignore the order of the nouns.

There’s an element of chance in any evolutionary process, including historical changes of word meaning; idiomatic and conventional expressions are full of ‘frozen accidents.’ Some accidents are more likely, more ‘motivated,’ than others (Lakoff 1987, Sweetser 1990), but all are unruly to some degree, as is life itself.

Transparency

When we say the meaning of the text is ‘clear,’ we are testifying to an experience described metaphorically as ‘seeing the meaning through’ the text. By this metaphor the text is transparent. This occurs when the act of reading is effortless, so that we are not conscious of the text as ‘coded’ or of interpretation as such. When we are conscious of the text as coded – usually because we are unable to decode it through an unconscious meaning process – we say that the text is opaque.

If someone points to a text that is transparent for you and asks you ‘What does this mean?,’ your first impulse may be to say that it means exactly what it says. But then you realize that such a response is not helpful for someone to whom the text is opaque; and only someone in such a predicament would ask such a question. In order to deal with this predicament you have to raise the decoding (meaning) process into consciousness somehow. And in doing this, you sacrifice the transparency of the text. This sacrifice is motivated by compassion. (And so is any genuine question about the meaning of the text – for the one asking the question is motivated by trust that the text is meaningful although it is still opaque to him.)

Even a text which has been transparent may lose its transparency if the reader notices an ambiguity in it. Perceiving an ambiguity entails having to make a conscious choice, and thus makes us conscious of the text as coded. If you manage to recover the transparency of the text without losing its ambiguity, the text has gained for you an added dimension of meaning. Thus the ‘fall’ from ambiguity into opacity is ‘redeemed’ by a deeper, richer transparency.

Use and mention

To make anything explicit requires an entire code or symbol system to be functioning implicitly.

While a sign is functioning symbolically within your act of meaning – i.e. while it is in actual use – you can’t pay attention to, or even mention, its function. As Douglas Hofstadter put it (modeling his epigram after a familiar saying), you can’t have your use and mention it too. Likewise Michael Polanyi: ‘we cannot look at our standards in the process of using them, for we cannot attend focally to elements that are used subsidiarily for the purpose of shaping the present focus of attention’ (Polanyi 1962, 183). In scientific practice, you can’t make your measurement (observation) and describe your measuring device at the same time:

even though any constraint like a measuring device, M, can in principle be described by more detailed universal laws, the fact is that if you choose to do so you will lose the function of M as a measuring device. This demonstrates that laws cannot describe the pragmatic function of measurement even if they can correctly and completely describe the detailed dynamics of the measuring constraints.

— Pattee (2001)

Likewise in the realm of cognition or experiencing, of which science is the public expression: if the creative or forming power could emerge visibly from behind the forms which are its expression, then it could not be seen as a form; the seer would instead be ‘blinded by the light.’ As we have already heard from Thomas 83: ‘The light of the Father will reveal itself, but his image is hidden by his light.’ Or as Moses Cordovero put it, ‘revealing is the cause of concealment and concealment is the cause of revealing’ (Scholem 1974, 402).

Feel the concept

Meaning is formed in the interaction between felt experiencing and something that functions symbolically. Feeling without symbolization is blind; symbolization without feeling is empty.

— Gendlin (1962/1997, 5)

Gendlin’s second sentence closely resembles a famous Kantian statement, quoted as follows by Cassirer (1944, 56): ‘Concepts without intuitions are empty; intuitions without concepts are blind.’ Is Gendlin then repeating something already said by Kant? That depends on whether ‘intuitions’ are equivalent to ‘feeling’ and ‘concepts’ to ‘symbolization.’

Does it all mean?

As the human conversation with nature, science is our ongoing attempt to decode the message sent to us constantly by Nature, which message is the phenomenal world. This conversation will continue as long as our actions into the natural world have unexpected consequences. Skeptics may well doubt whether that message really means anything, but a scientist as such cannot be such a skeptic.

Nobody can doubt that we know laws upon which we can base predictions to which actual events still in the womb of the future will conform to a marked extent, if not perfectly. To deny reality to such laws is to quibble about words. Many philosophers say they are ‘mere symbols.’ Take away the word mere, and this is true. They are symbols; and symbols being the only things in the universe that have any importance, the word ‘mere’ is a great impertinence.

— Peirce (EP2:269)

Peirce does not say that symbols are the only realities – quite the contrary. He says that they alone have importance, which implies significance, or meaning; which in turn implies that reality is their Object.