March 9, 2011

Meaning and Goal-Directedness

Welcome to this blog. This is my very first blog post, and writing it feels a little strange since I do not yet have an audience, but hopefully I will get one...

I recently re-read Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus for the n:th time (I have got no idea how many times I have read it; certainly many more times than any other book) and then decided to go on and read something from Wittgenstein's later writings (with which I have considerably less aquaintance). Only having The Blue and the Brown Books on my bookshelf, I started reading the Blue book, and as I did so I started thinking on my own about the basic question: What is the meaning of a word?

Wittgenstein notes the importance of how words are used: "But if we had to name anything which is the life of the sign, we should have to say that is was its use." Using a word is a special case of doing something, of participating in an activity, and this should make you think of "causality" and "information transfer". How exactly do signs/words fit in here?

One may start by observing that a sign may be used "as opposed to" another sign. For example, a spot on a paper may be black "as opposed to" white. This is obviously related to information/alternatives/possibilities (knowing that the spot is black rather than white gives you one bit of information). Moreover, as Kripke argued in Naming and Necessity, names are connected to the things they name through causal chains. Finally, we may observe with Wittgenstein how words/signs/names perform functions (another word that should make you think of causality) in particular situations (or "language games", as Wittgenstein used to say).

The word "function" makes me think of technology, and unlike Wittgenstein I do not normally think of cogwheels and other mechanical things, but about computers and connections between them. It seems to me that computers offer excellent examples of "language games". For example: Imagine a computer program with one button saying "Gray" and another button saying "Black". Pressing either button will cause a printer to print out a spot that is gray or black according to which button was pushed. The printer is connected to computer B, but to press the button you need to use a mouse or a keyboard connected to computer A (physical connections through cables and the like enable "causal connections" -- once again, causality is what is important).

I guess it would make sense (even though it would certainly seem odd at first) in this situation to say that "the meaning of the button labelled 'gray' is a gray spot on a paper", and one could similarly say that "button 'Purple' and button 'Violet' have the meaning" or that "button 'X' has not been assigned any meaning". In any case, meaning certainly has to do with causal connections.

However, if you are feeling that we humans are not like machines when we "mean" something, then I think you are right, and it seems to me that Wittgenstein misses something important here: Humans may be seen as "organisations" of sorts, and the meaning of a statement made by an organisation is often related to the interests of the organisation. For example, when one "says A but means B", the way to know that one means B is to look at what one is trying to do (for example, one may be trying to win a game, or one may be struggling to avoid being one of the losers in the game). Note that someone who knows what one is trying to do may automatically understand one as meaning B rather than A even though one actually said A.

For theoretical work on "organisations" one may look at subjects like "organisational theory", "operations management", "systems theory" or "cybernetics". I am mostly a novice here, but organisations are so important that I will need to write about them again and again anyway (for example, knowledge can be thought of as always involving an "organisation" that has the knowledge). If you think there are things I am missing or stuff that I ought to read, just write me an email or leave a blog comment.

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