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Meaning (non-linguistic)

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Main article: Meaning
Main article: Nonverbal meaning

A non-linguistic meaning is an abstract object which is not associated with conventional signs that are arranged in any compositional way. It is a general term of art used to capture a number of different senses of the word "meaning", independently from its linguistic uses.

Meaning as interpretation Edit

The sense that sentient creatures have of the patterns they recognize in the world, as a result of an understanding of phenomena in a coherent way, is commonly referred to as a person's sense of "meaning". This is the sense of meaning at work when asking a person when they leave a theatre, "What did that movie mean to you?" In short, the word "meaning" can sometimes be used to describe the interpretations that people have of the world.

This sense of meaning is fundamental to mental health in people. The Rorschach inkblot test is a popular example of a psychological diagnostic tool which is used to tease out this type of meaning.

Somatic meaning Edit

In another sense, the word "meaning" can be used to describe the internal workings of the mind, independently of any linguistic activity. This sort of meaning is deeply psychological.

One approach to this way of understanding meaning was the psychosocial theorist Erik Erikson. Erikson had a certain perspective on the role of meaning in the process of human bodily development and socialization. Within his model, a "meaning" is the external source of gratification associated with the human erogenous zones and their respective modes. See imprinting (psychology) for some related topics.

Some communication by body language arises out of bodily signals that follow directly out of human instinct. Blushing, tears, erections and the startle reaction are examples. This type of communication is usually unintentional, but nevertheless conveys certain information to anyone present.

Natural meaning Edit

Another example of a non-linguistic sort of meaning is where a certain sign is associated with another event naturally, without there needing for there to be a conventional association made between the two. For instance, in the sentence, "Those clouds mean rain", "mean" is describing a natural association. Another example of natural meaning is the weathervane: when it points in a certain direction, that is taken to mean that the wind is blowing in the same direction. This notion of "meaning" was described by Paul Grice as "natural meaning".

Consequences and meaning Edit

Still another perspective comes courtesy of the Pragmatists, who insist that the meaning of an expression lies in its consequences. Philosopher and polymath Charles Sanders Peirce wrote the following:

"The whole function of thought is to produce habits of action... To develop its meaning, we have, therefore, simply to determine what habits it produces, for what a thing means is simply what habits it involves. Now, the identity of a habit depends on how it might lead us to act, not merely under such circumstances as are likely to arise, but under such as might possibly occur, no matter how improbable they may be."

"...I only desire to point out how impossible it is that we should have an idea in our minds which relates to anything but conceived sensible effects of things. Our idea of anything is our idea of its sensible effects; and if we fancy that we have any other we deceive ourselves." (from the essay "How to Make Our Ideas Clear", hosted courtesy of peirce.org).

Outside of the Pragmatic tradition was Canadian 20th century philosopher of media Marshall McLuhan. His famous dictum, "the medium is the message", can be understood to be a consequentialist theory of meaning. His idea was that the medium which is used to communicate carries with it information: namely, the consequences that arise from the fact that the medium has become popular. For example, one "meaning" of the lightbulb might be the idea of being able to read during the night.

The controversial social psychologist and ethicist Thomas Szasz also seemed to hold this view, stating that "a word means its consequences" in debate.

Meaning and cognition Edit

Some non-linguistic meaning emerges out of natural history as a development over vast periods of time. This is the theory behind autopoiesis and self organization. Some social scientists use autopoiesis as a model for the development of structural coupling in the family.

A typical example of this kind of relationship is the predator-prey relationship. These relations carry strong intrinsic (life and death) meaning for all living organisms, including people.

Observations of child development and of behavioral abnormalities in some people indicate that some innate capabilities of human beings are essential to the process of meaning creation. Two examples are:

  • rapid language development in children, at a pace that can not be accounted for by the usual learning process.
  • the functioning of a personal theory of mind about other people, or empathy, as an innate capability of people.

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