Meaning of Meaning

Meaning of Meaning (Ogden and Richards): “Meaning of Meaning”
C. K Ogden & I. A. Richards

Any discussion of meaning should begin with the classic book by Ogden and Richards. The link above takes you to a page of informative stuff: a slide show intro., links to several papers, and other references. The first task is to try to get clear just what sort of question one is asking when one asks “What does that mean?” E.g., look at these examples:

  1. What do those flashing lights mean? [asked by a driver speeding along the Island highway]
  2. What do these red spots mean? [asked by a patient in the emergency room at NRGH]
  3. What does “retromingent” mean? [asked by a smart-ass student in grade four]
  4. What does it mean to say “Jesus is the Lamb of God”? [asked by a reader of John]
  5. What do those dark clouds mean? [asked by a boater in the channel]
  6. What does Yeats mean when he writes “slouching toward Bethlehem”?

A click on the header should take you to a copy of the book!

7 thoughts on “Meaning of Meaning

  1. I seem to remember a paper by Grice or something like that where he makes the distinction between or among different senses of “meaning” – I looked for it but couldn’t find it.

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  2. You are right! Like most philosophers, Grice starts by making a distnction:

    [In keeping with Grice’s later papers, “U” (meaning “utterer”) has been substituted for “A” (meaning “agent”), so that “A” could be kept aside for “audience”.]
    [http://tinyurl.com/orf2s]

    Originally published in Philosophical Review LXVI (1957)
    ( Hist-Analytic.org)

    MEANING

    By H. P. Grice

    Consider the following sentences:

    “Those spots mean (meant) measles.”

    “Those spots didn’t mean anything to me, but to the doctor they
    meant measles.”

    “The recent budget means that we shall have a hard year.”

    (1) I cannot say, “Those spots meant measles, but he hadn’t got measles,” and I cannot say, “The recent budget means that we shall have a hard year, but we shan’t have.” That is to say, in cases like the above, x meant that p and x means that p entail p.

    (2) I cannot argue from “Those spots mean (meant) measles” to any conclusion about “what is (was) meant by those spots”; for example, I am not entitled to say, “What was meant by those spots was that he had measles.” Equally I cannot draw from the statement about the recent budget the conclusion “What is meant by the recent budget is that we shall have a hard year.”

    (3) I cannot argue from “Those spots meant measles” to any conclusion to the effect that somebody or other meant by those spots so-and-so. Mutatis mutandis, the same is true of the sentence aboutthe recent budget.

    (4) For none of the above examples can a restatement be found in which the verb “mean” is followed by a sentence or phrase in inverted commas. Thus “Those spots meant measles” cannot be reformulated as “Those spots meant ‘measles'” or as “Those spots meant ‘he has measles.'”

    (5) On the other hand, for all these examples an appropriate restatement can be found beginning with the phrase “The fact that …”; for example, “The fact that he had those spots meant that he had measles” and “The fact that the recent budget was as it was means that we shall have a hard year.”

    Now contrast the above sentences with the following:

    “Those three rings on the bell (of the bus) mean that the ‘bus
    is full.'”

    377

    “That remark, ‘Smith couldn’t get on without his trouble and strife,’
    meant that Smith found his wife indispensable.”

    (1) I can use the first of these and go on to say, “But it isn’t in fact full – the conductor has made a mistake”; and I can use the second and go on, “But in fact Smith deserted her seven years ago.” That is to say, here x means that p and x meant that p do not entail p.

    (2) I can argue from the first to some statement about “What is (was) meant” by the rings on the bell and from the second to some statement about “what is (was) meant” by the quoted remark.

    (3) I can argue from the first sentence to the conclusion that somebody (viz. the conductor) meant, or at any rate should have meant, by the rings that the bus is full, and I can argue analogously for the second sentence.

    (4) The first sentence can be restated in a form in which the verb “means” is followed by by a phrase in inverted commas, that is “Those three rings on the bell mean ‘the bus is full.'” So also can the second sentence.

    (5) Such a sentence as “The fact that the bell has been rung three times means that the bus is full” is not a restatement of the meaning of the first sentence. Both may be true, but they do not have, even approximately, the same meaning.

    When the expressions “means,” “means something,” “means that” are used in the kind of way in which they are used in the first set of sentences, I shall speak of the sense, or senses, in which they are used, as the natural sense, or senses, of the expressions in question. When the expressions are used in the kind of way in which they are used in the second set of sentences, I shall speak of the sense, or senses, in which they are used, as the nonnatural sense, or senses, of the expression in question. I shall use the abbreviation “meansNN” to distinguish the nonnatural sense of senses.
    Grice’s paper

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  3. What about metaphor and all those poetic uses of language?
    You know, something like “Life is like a sewer, what you get out of it depends on what you put into it.”

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  4. I agree with SOB. My understanding is this: One’s perception depends on one’s experience, knowledge etc. One makes meaning from this, which elicits emotions & feelings & thus further alters meaning. Thus the variety of responses to the same event, person, object, poem etc.

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