Sunday, December 24, 2006

Going Back to Meaning

Ludwig Wittgenstein wasn't really associated with post-modern thought. What he is known for are his philosophies on language and meaning, particularly the suspension of definition in favour of meaning.

What the heck is that supposed to mean?

Let's start simple-stupid. Language is made up of words. These words have certain meanings attached to them. These meanings are articulated in definitions, which are used to limit and clarify how those words are used to convey meaning.

For example, the word "hammer" is defined as a construction tool held in one hand used to drive nails into surfaces. But this is where it gets a bit gnarly. Any reasonably smart person can say that the word "hammer" can refer to a lot of different types of hammers: claw hammer, ball and peen hammer, mallet. A hammer can also be a part of the mechanism of a firearm, or it can be a small bone located inside a mammalian ear. What about a wrench used to drive nails for the lack of a proper hammer? Isn't that, according to the definition, also a "hammer"? If I said the word hammer to a guitarist, it means to tap an open string at a certain fret to change its pitch abruptly. "Hammer" isn't only a noun, its also a verb. It can mean to repeatedly strike something or subject something to sustained stress "The speaker was hammered by audience's questions."

What happened to the definition of "hammer"? It isn't really a "definition". In other words, the meaning isn't really limited, because it crosses the whole scale of literal, implied, physical and slang meanings. And that's with a relatively simple word. What about something as abstract as "democracy"? Or, even better still (but rather cliche) "love"? How do you limit the meanings of these words?

Okay, back-track a bit. Why do we even bother limiting words to definitions? Why should a word have an assigned "meaning" when in truth, its being used in so many different contexts? Language, as discussed by Michel Foucault, is an imposition of order and control. We need to define words so that there won't be any confusion when I say something. If I say "cat", it means a mammal with forward looking eyes, padded feet with retractable claws, a tail, and it purrs and has a rough tongue, and is very cuddly. I don't have to say all that; i just say "cat", and other people understand what i mean, because everyone understands its meanings.

Wittgenstein, in his earlier works, argued that the structuring of language, and its entire value, must be placed on these definitions. Everything, in order to have meaning, must be defined in order for it to be of value.

But, as we see above, language defies definition. The meaning of text changes from context to context, from speaker to speaker. This is precisely the problem with an idea such as "democracy". All the people who use it understand it in different terms: a multinational corporation, a populist movement, a local politician, college students, the media, interest groups, religious organizations, the military... all have different understandings of the concept of "democracy", and the board is littered with examples of how these different understandings clash with one another. How do we use democracy when the people using it have a collection of contradictory meanings associated to the term?

Okay, a logical solution is to find a common meaning that everyone can agree upon. But try simplifying the word "democracy" to something everyone can agree upon, and you end up with a definition that leaves so much to interpretation, opening the windows for reletavism and therefore, a deconstruction of your definition. However, if you narrow it down, you alienate and disregard other uses of the word which have just as much value and use as whatever narrow definition you create. At the end of the day, defining the word is meaningless.

Wittgenstein recognized this problem, and after spending half of his career arguing that definition was the core of linguistic value, he completely reversed himself by saying that the meaning of words were no longer in their definitions, but rather, in their use.

It is needless to define "hammer". All we have to know is how it is being used. If a musician is talking about guitar playing techniques and refers to "hammering the string" the value of the statement comes from its use.

I think this is a pretty simple point, but it has some very disturbing implications on our previous discussion on democracy. It means that the interpretation of democracy by the farmer has just as much legitimacy as the interpretation of democracy presented by a professor of political science.

Furthermore, doesn't this also mean that the depth of meaning, or the value of meaning, is contingent of the diversity of meanings associated to the word? A word with one meaning doesn't mean as much as a word with a lot of meanings. "Love" is so loaded with meaning that its use is so...darn...meaningful. In the discourse on democracy, we cannot simply impose one standard of what democracy is, rather we should seek out all the different meanings associated to it by all the people, and then use it in a particular fashion as to approximate the different meanings.

-the 9th Wanderer

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