GABlog

March 27, 2018

The Meaning of Meaning, and Metalanguage

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:27 am

“Meaning” has come to take on what seem to be two very different, well, meanings: on the one hand, it refers to the shared use of linguistic items—if we know what a word or sentence or passage of texts “means,” then we can use or discuss it with other intelligibly; but, of course, “meaning” has also taken on a more ponderous, or pretentious, “existential” sense, as in the “meaning of life”—a phrase that is endlessly parodied but still seem to pass as verbal currency with undiminished value. People still speak unironically about finding meaning in their lives, their work, their relationships, their families, etc. The persistence of such a, strictly speaking, meaningless, term, suggests that it’s signifying something that couldn’t be signified otherwise, and perhaps its continuing power lies in the fact that there is really only one “meaning.” In other words, when someone speaks of a loss of meaning in the “existential” sense, they are really speaking of a loss of meaning in the “literal” sense, i.e., words (and signs more generally) don’t “mean” anymore, they have no shared sense and reference, and so no longer help us find our place in the world.

Meaning is ultimately grounded in ostensivity—to put it crudely, any utterance points at something, tells you what to notice. Even the most abstract theoretical discourse makes some distinction between one way of using a concept and another. Of course, whether that distinction will “mean” something depends upon what the concepts themselves point to, and what whatever they point to points to, and so on. At the end of it we don’t necessarily get to “that guy, over there,” but we get to an ongoing conversation, in which the references can be traced back and held onto by those intensely interested in that conversation. What seems like unintelligible jargon is very often a way of phrasing some claim that has resulted from the cumulative responses to attacks on a dozen previous ways of phrasing it. But for any utterance there needs to be a center of attention for the utterance to make sense, or “mean.” “So, I’ll see you tomorrow at 8” makes perfect sense to the friend you been arranging dinner with; if you said it to a stranger on the subway, it would seem senseless, bizarre, even menacing. You know what each of the individual words means, of course, but if someone said that right out of nowhere you might not even comprehend the actual words—even framing sounds to yourself as meaningful words and sentences requires some preparatory context. And then they would seem like they might have multiple meanings, none of which would be easy to exclude.

So, a lot needs to be in place for utterances to “mean”: a language, perhaps a particular dialect, a slang, but also a community, an institution, and a history of all of these things. The converse, then, is also true: when utterances “mean” consistently, it means that all of those things are in place. If all those things—a language, a community, a family, an institution, a vocation, and ways of thinking about all these things that don’t insult our morals and intelligence—are all we want, then all we want is for all of the linguistic acts we perform and witness to mean. The things we associate with an existential lack of meaning—a purposeless job, a lack of understanding within one’s family, alienation from the morals and (no longer) shared purposes of one’s community—really come down to signs that don’t find their way to ostensives. The “sense” of a job is an activity in which you earn your living by doing some work of value to others; the “sense” of family is a privileged space of love, affection, solidarity and the transmission of a heritage to the next generation—but these words have no “referents” in your actual job and family. Words like “job” and “family,” and other associated ones like “love” and “purpose” literally don’t mean anything, or perhaps, sinisterly, mean the opposite of what they are supposed to.

If liberal modernity, as it has often been accused of doing, in fact destroys meaning, it is on this level of linguistic meaning that we should be able to identify its effects. If we just look at the most basic liberal concepts we find a junkyard of meaningless phrases: “individual,” “equality,” “autonomy,” “rights,” “freedoms,” and so on. These are all intrinsically corrosive concepts: one asserts one’s individuality against the norms of the community: we can understand the norms (although there’s something corrosively liberal about “norm”) because we can constantly apply them to our own and others’ acts, but we can’t understand what it would mean to be against or outside of those norms. “Equality” is asserted against a perceived “inequality,” but no one has any idea what “real” equality would mean—even the complaint against “inequality” attacks an established order in the name of emptiness. “Rights” is a good example of a word that has been rendered meaningless by liberalism: it means something for a peasant to assert his rights, say for grazing land for his sheep, against the lord, because the rights refer to longstanding practices overseen by mutually accepted authorities. Today, “rights” have almost exactly the opposite sense, that of a claim upon other’s money, or respect, or attention that has never been acknowledged and, increasingly, never even imagined before. A “right” now is a demand that meaning be conferred where it hasn’t been previously, but that is precisely the way “meaning” doesn’t work: meaning is the name given to an emergent site of shared attention. Demands for rights are deliberately destructive of meaning, because the world of meanings is what prevented attention from being lavished on the plaintiff. The most obvious example is transgenderism, which demands that we accept that gender is both all-important and absolutely irrelevant—an almost perfect sink of meaning. It follows from this that persistent, precise, unapologetic linguistic analysis of almost any utterance in a liberal order should prove devastating for liberalism.

There is another stress test for meaning that, while exploited and exacerbate by liberalism, must be attributed to the centralization of institutional power advanced by, but irreducible to, liberalism. We can attribute the centralization that has been given one, particularly baleful, shape by liberalism to literacy. Literacy pretty much guarantees social hierarchy. The reason for this is the metalanguage writing already is, and which it ceaselessly generates. I have recourse here again to David Olson, who points out that since the invention of the alphabet to record utterances required a study of language in order to determine what, exactly, had to be recorded, writing is essentially an inquiry into language. Once we have writing, we can distinguish between proper and improper, correct and incorrect uses of language—distinctions that could never occur within an oral society except, perhaps, within the very controlled setting of ritual utterance. Once the form of a grammatical sentence is set, it becomes possible to make grammatical errors and to be “illogical.” Writing first of all represents a speech act in a specific setting, and must supply everything that is lost in the absence of the actual interlocutors—a whole metalanguage emerges to enable the reader to understand that not only did someone say something, but he said it in a particular way, one that would be evident to those present on the scene—he “suggested,” he “implied,” he “insinuated,” etc.

From this representation of a speech scene comes the creation of what Olson, following  Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner (in their Clear and Simple as the Truth), calls “classic prose,” which is a transparent form of writing aimed at ensuring that the reader sees and hears exactly what the writer does. From classic prose emerges a whole new metalanguage, used to distinguish writing that more closely approximates the norm of classic prose from writing that doesn’t. All the commonsense ways we have of praising or condemning writing and thinking derives from the metalinguistic norms of classic prose. Writing or thinking is “clear” or “obscure,” “understandable” or ‘incoherent,” “organized” or “confused.” More precise rules for writing can be further derived from these values, including how to structure sentences, paragraphs and essays (the infamous five-paragraph essay inculcated into every American high school student is an instantiation of the values of classic prose).

It would be very good if everyone were proficient in classic prose (although maybe not if that were all they were proficient in), but the problem with these metalinguistic terms is that they are, strictly speaking, meaningless. As Olson points out, they allow us to assess a piece of writing, but they tell us nothing about how the writing was produced. A brief discussion with any college student, barely literate or hyper-literate, will confirm this. Ask him what he was trying to do: well, I just wanted to be “clear.” Why did you choose this word—well, it seemed to me to make things clearer. These metalinguistic terms have a sense and referent for those practiced in assessing writing (although even here one will find wildly differing assessments of the same piece of writing from equally “qualified” individuals) but none at all for the person doing the thinking and writing. Now, if this were all there were to modern metalanguage, the teaching of writing would be the extremely frustrating profession it is, but the smarter students, given a chance to read serious books and asked to write challenging papers, would still, through sheer will and more or less obsequious imitation of their professors, figure it out, so we’d still have our academics and other specialists in the metalanguages of the literate arts.

The problem is that the devastation of meaning wrought by metalanguages extends across the entire field of civilized society. Here is Olson on the way in which the literate order, which is also the bureaucratic order, transforms virtues into values:

In a modern bureaucratic world, knowledge, virtue and ability take on a new form. Institutions such as science preempt knowledge, justice systems preempt virtue, and functional roles preempt general cognitive ability. Thus, ability, knowledge and virtue are construed and pursued less in the form of private mental states and moral traits of individuals than in the form of competence in the roles, norms, and rules of the formal bureaucratic institutions in which they live and work.

We can see metalanguage at work all the way through here. “Science” emerges from metalanguages created to assess individual claims to “know” something; “justice systems” emerge from metalanguages assessing competing claims regarding the “goodness” of someone’s acts; thinking like a lawyer, or a doctor, or a history professor are the results of institutionalized metalanguages which reduces the person who talks, however intelligently, about well-being, or the law, or history to a “buff,” or a “crank.” An ordinary claim to “know” something is rendered meaningless, while the professional doesn’t speak of knowing anymore because he makes claims that undergo a formal vetting process that has its own internal norms: the point is not whether what you say is true, but whether it has been verified. And, as I pointed out in my previous post, the metalanguages become vehicles of power and sites of power struggles—if you control the metalanguage, you not only can “assess” others without any accountability but you couldn’t even tell them how to do better if you wanted to, because the metalanguage only, in a circular manner, can tell its subjects to do what they aren’t doing now. When central power is secure, the metalanguages co-exist with ordinary languages—the academic need not police the claims to “know” things made by laymen, and may even accept that within that attentional space “knowing” is in fact the relevant goal. When central power is insecure and a site of struggle, the metalanguages are occupied by those who wish to expand their power and can only do so by delegitimizing non-metalinguistic spaces; in turn the metalanguages themselves abandon their primary function of aligning reality with authority and become power-crazed.

We can’t reject metalanguage, of course—even the most basic mental verbs, belonging to Anna Wierzbicka’s Natural Semantic Metalanguage, like “think” and, certainly, “know,” have something proto-metalinguistic to them. “Know,” in particular, is after the fact and evaluative: does someone really know what they claim to know, or do they just think it, or want it to be true? Epistemologies never really tell you how to get better at knowing things—they just provide models for assessing claims to knowledge. Even “thinking” can only be described in its effects—treatises on “how to think” are really logic handbooks, or lists of tests or questions you should submit your claims to knowledge to. In that case, the focus on metalanguage provides us with insight into the nature of language, which must always presuppose a referent because there was one on the originary scene, but is really “about” the gathering of a community around something that constitutes them as a community. Referring to people thinking, wanting and knowing allows us to make sense of the various acts we see people engage in, but the words generate the illusion that there is something “behind” the words, some mechanism or homunculus inside doing something that we call “thinking.” In other words, there’s no “real” thinking, knowing, wanting, saying or feeling that we would get to once we peeled away all the metalanguage. So, the explosion of metalanguages does us a service by letting us see that all linguistic acts take on their meaning within a community of users who need to maintain a shared center.

One of the primary metalinguistic terms is the distinction between “mention” and “use”—the latter involves the use of the word in “natural language,” while the former involves referring to the word as a word. The way to create meaning against encroaching metalinguistic facilitated meaninglessness is to move back and forth across the (meta)language border, which is to say, using and mentioning words simultaneously. (For example: “word” is a four letter word.) This is how you make it clear that you are always within language, and create disciplinary spaces within the metalinguistic disciplines. This could produce a metalinguistic vocabulary that produces imperatives, tells you what to do, rather than assessing you from a putatively unassailable position. Of course, if we list a set of rules for doing this we’d just have another metalanguage. Use the words others mention, and mention the words others use, and use and mention them in turn yourself, and you will develop new practices of (meta)language. This by itself won’t bring order to the world of referents liberalism has disordered, but oscillating between the use and mention of words will create the kind of disciplinary spaces that keep checking reality along with the linguistic means we develop for attending to reality. Such spaces will have an advantage over a liberalism that is spiraling out of control by swinging back and forth between aimless decentering and punitive assessing.

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