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How do you determine the objective meaning of a spoken/written word?

Please note that I am not asking about determining the meaning of a concept---a spoken/written word is not a concept.

For example, if I write the word "search", how does one determine whether the word has an objective meaning and what that objective meaning is?

(This question is a reformulation of another question of mine on the same issue. I believe that my original question may have been formulated too broadly and included too many extraneous and/or controversial details. As a result, the answer and comments--although both relevant and interesting--did not squarely address the main issue of my concern. Thus, this reformulated question is an attempt to get answers that are more focused on the main issue of my concern. In particular, I am hoping to see a discussion of objectivity as specifically applied to spoken/written words, rather than a discussion of objectivity in general. Moreover, I am hoping to avoid a discussion of the philosophy of law, which I raised in my original question merely to provide a motivating example of how the answer to the question would have real-world consequences.)

asked Nov 05 '14 at 09:11

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦

edited Nov 05 '14 at 11:07

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦

The meaning of a word is the meaning of the concept it represents.

If you write the word "search", and you used that word to represent a valid concept, then the meaning of the word is the meaning of the concept which you used it to represent, i.e. the units of that concept.

To determine that meaning, one should determine what the referents of the concept are. This might involve asking you questions, and/or looking at the context, and/or looking at previous uses of the word, and/or looking at what purpose is served by the concept and by its use in your sentence.

(Nov 05 '14 at 15:10) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Wow, now that you put the question that way, and give that example, I think I finally see the clear application to law.

(Nov 05 '14 at 15:42) anthony anthony's gravatar image

"the word has at least one objective meaning - the meaning of the concept which [the author] used [the word] to represent"

This sounds more like a subjective meaning to me. It would imply that the word "search" could mean the concept of apples to me if that is the concept I associate with the word, the concept of kittens to Bob it that is the concept he associates with the word, and the concept of to go over or look through for the purpose of finding something to Jane if that is the concept she associates with the word.

(Nov 05 '14 at 15:56) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Words can and do have different meanings in different contexts, not only to different people but even to the same person. I don't see how that makes the meaning subjective.

For instance from a quick search, it seems that the word "kiss" means kiss to me, but it means pee to someone who speaks Swedish.

In theory the word "search" could mean the concept of apples to you, and kittens to some guy named Bob, but I doubt that's actually true.

Different people have different values too, but values are still objective and not subjective.

That said, I got rid of the part about "at least one..."

(Nov 05 '14 at 17:10) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Also keep in mind that one of the constraints I made was that the word was used to represent a valid concept. The attempt to use a word to represent a contradiction would not have an objective meaning of that contraction.

This limitation is quite significant. (If you consider the application to law, for instance, it is quite often that a lawmaking body attempts to use a word or phrase to integrate an error or contradiction.)

In that case I'm not sure that the phrase can be said to have any objective meaning at all, but certainly any objective meaning would not be the invalid/anti-concept.

(Nov 05 '14 at 17:59) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Another important point is that I said "the meaning of the word is the meaning of the concept which you used it to represent", not "the meaning of the word is the meaning of the concept which you intended for it to represent". (I originally may have used the latter but I realized it was wrong and corrected it. It looks like you quoted me after I had corrected it.)

(Nov 07 '14 at 07:52) anthony anthony's gravatar image

In terms of contract law, which I assume you're familiar with but let me know if you're not, you'd determine what concept was represented by the objective manifestation of intent, not the subjective intent. That's why I say that you could, in theory, use the word "search" to mean apples, but I doubt you actually ever will.

(Also don't forget the requirement that "you used that word to represent a valid concept". Neither subjective intent nor objective manifestation of intent would be enough to make a word "mean" an anti-concept. I think that's where current law often gets it wrong.)

(Nov 07 '14 at 07:56) anthony anthony's gravatar image
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How do you determine the objective meaning of a spoken/written word?

Please note that I am not asking about determining the meaning of a concept---a spoken/written word is not a concept.

The main answer to this question is well stated in the comments:

The meaning of a word is the meaning of the concept it represents.

A word is merely a visual-auditory symbol for a concept.

This raises a further question, however: is the choice of symbol for a concept objective? Is there any reason why one symbol has to be used rather than some other symbol? This highlights the concept of language, including who understands the language, and the need for the special sciences of linguistics and etymology. Just as philosophy cannot replace other special sciences, neither can it replace the systematic study of human languages and their origins (as well as the benefits of successful communication among humans).

The question also reminds me of a brief but memorable exchange between Francisco d'Anconia (at age 15) and James Taggart in Atlas Shrugged (p. 96 in my Signet paperback edition, wherein Part I Chapter V spans pp. 89-124):

[Francisco:]... I want to be prepared to claim the greatest virtue of all—that I was a man who made money."

[James:] "Any grafter can make money."

[Francisco:] "James, you ought to discover some day that words have an exact meaning."

Francisco smiled; it was a smile of radiant mockery. Watching them, Dagny thought suddenly of the difference between Francisco and her brother Jim.

This scene is a remarkably condensed concretization of what happens when words are divorced from concepts (and concepts divorced from reality). James views all self-interest, rational or not, as vice; he classifies graft in the same category as making money. Francisco understands clearly that they are not equivalent at all. In terms of wider consequences, observe that classifying the making of money as equivalent to graft, and equally villainous, readily allows others (or "society") to intervene in both cases, perpetrating irreparable harm upon producers and all who benefit from the work of producers.

Technically, of course, the meaning is in the concepts, not merely in the words; but for James that doesn't matter.

answered Nov 06 '14 at 22:03

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

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Asked: Nov 05 '14 at 09:11

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Last updated: Nov 07 '14 at 08:04