What do You Mean? (notes)

Last updated 11/21/1993.

What is language for? Communication among hunters? Emotional bonding among nurturers? Teaching children? If language evolved to answer other people's questions, would a primitive language-user be able to talk to itself? Why do we talk to ourselves -- don't we already know whatever we might say? And if not, what can we possibly mean when we say things we don't know?

Does meaning derive from the intent to be understood by a reasonable listener? What does a dog mean? A chimpanzee? A bee? A Freudian slip? An unintentional shrug? A hiccup? A computer? A thermostat? How is a man speaking Spanish to an English speaker different from one speaking gibberish? What constitutes a "reasonable listener"? What is the "intent to be understood"? Can we mean things we didn't intend to mean? What the hell kind of question is that?

When is hardwired stimulus-response meaningful? Smiles, frowns, disgusted faces. Bilateral symmetry. Sweet and sour. Does "|||||" mean "5"? Does "3 3 3 3 3"? What about "T H R E E"? Optical illusions? Reflexes?

If the speaker can't control meaning, and the listener can't control meaning, then what does it mean to say that we mean what we say? What the hell kind of question is that?

Does a coded message mean anything? What does a 5-year-old mean by the Pledge of Allegience? What about reading omens in the flight-patterns of birds, or learning the Pledge of Allegience from a 5-year-old? Did the listener create the meaning? The child? The writer? The birds?

Is "You are stupid" meaningless? If not, what does it mean? What about "I am stupid", or "I am capable"? Self-hypnosis and positive thinking.

Definitions ("what is furniture?") vs. prototypes ("Is an ostrich a bird?"). Associations ("train of thought") vs. structures ("Are canaries yellow?" "Can canaries fly?" "Can canaries breathe?"). Stereotypes as a defense strategy in a complex world. (Are all Japanese smart? All Blacks good basketball players? All Jews good at finance? What are whites good at?)

Isomorphisms... keyboards vs. bit-patterns vs. CRT commands vs. light/dark patterns vs. printer commands vs. ink patterns vs. "reading" vs. "understanding" vs. vocal commands vs. speaking vs. hearing vs. "listening." Do isomorphisms exist?

Does smoke mean fire? Or are they just causally related ("Just" causally related?)? Does money mean wealth? Does "wealth" mean wealth?

What is an argument for? To convince someone, to express your opinion to someone, to vent agression, to irritate someone, to score points, to boost your ego, to teach something. Each of these has a different utility schema -- that is, if you want to irritate someone or to vent agression, you probably want to use as invalid an argument as you can, as sincerely as you can ("See? That just proves my point!"). If you want to score points, you want to use as emotionally laden an argument as you can ("So basically what you're saying is that it's ok to rape crippled children?"). Expressing your opinion and convincing/teaching someone else are more difficult...