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Spin | Truth
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\ | /
Delude <--------+---------> Enlighten
/ | \ .
/ | \ .
Lie | Story
False | True
In <--------+---------> In
Spirit | Spirit
I recently heard someone say "Meaning is not what we take from a text; it is what we bring to it". The initial thought I had in response to this was to consider the text as a transformative process, examinable by bouncing people off it and comparing their state before and after. By taking a varied enough sample and changing the angle of incidence, one could build up a picture of the group properties of the text, like probing for the nucleus within an atom.
However, this led me to trawl through the wikipedia entries for [Truth] and [Meaning], as part of an effort to clarify how I think the two concepts relate.
- Well, that was about the worst place you could have gone for truth.--ChiarkPerson
- As I said, I went there for starting points, not answers. Further discussion on the nature of wikis in general and wikipedia in particular should go on the Wikipedia page on toothycat. If you have anything constructive to say on the nature of truth or meaning, though, feel free to add it here. --DR
We talk about the meaning of a word, the meaning of a text, the meaning of an event and the meaning of a life. We talk about the truth of a proposition, the truth of an explanation, the truth of a theory and the truth of reality.
I think a good place to start is with rats. You can teach a rat to anticipate a causal relationship. For the rat in the maze, the meaning of the bell sounding is that they are about to be given a choice between running like hell up the yellow passage (in which case they get a lump of cheese) or staying still (in which case they get an electric shock). That is what the bell sound means to the rat - it heralds a specific event or consequence.
When we discuss a politician's speach about future intentions and ask each other "Did he mean what he said ?", we are like rats discussing the bell sound. We are asking what the politician's words herald. When we discuss a politician's speach about past events, and ask each other "Was what he said true?", we are looking the other way at the arrow of causality - from events to words, rather than from words to events.
Wikipedia talks about descriptive definitions versus stipulative definitions, when it comes to the meaning of words. However, I think that is a side track. It is irrelevant how someone 'should' use a word, except to the extent that influences how a listener or reader believes they are using a word.
Xerox did a large study on "the affordances of paper" - what paper can and does get used for. It can be annotated, slammed down on a desk, embossed on fancy parchment for social intimidation value, and many other things. I suppose we could talk about "the affordances of text". A text (in the general sense of the word) can also be used for many things (and I guess some would argue that none of these purposes is privileged over the others as the true purpose). One of those purposes is to convey intention from the creator of the text to the recipient of the text. People argue over whether the 'true' meaning of the text is the information / assertions / other signified objects that the creator intended to signify / indicate / convey by the text, or whether it is what the recipient actually takes away from the experience. Again, I think that is a side track. In the process of conveyance of meaning, a single text is but part of a two way discourse, during which reflective listening and error checking can be used to improve the correspondence between the meaning intended and the meaning received.
So has that brought us any closer to the truth? Is the meaning of these words now any less foggy?
"Truth" seems to refer to a hypothesised objective external reality - either present, past or eternal verities such as maths, logic or the nature of the universe. For something true to exist, no conscious sentient life is necessary.
"Meaning" seems to require intention or reflection. For something to have meaning beyond mere causality requires the existence of will - deliberate intended action. Or reflection - the mental quality required to take some signifier and attribute meaning to it, even when there is no creator behind it. Meaning is intrinsically subjective.
If we go with that, we can then make the following distinction. Instead of asking whether what someone said was true or not, we can split it into two questions "What is the assertion/proposition/meaning that they intended to convey by what they said?" and "Is that proposition true?". We can then say that they lied if they knowingly attempted to convey belief in a proposition that they actually believed to be false, with an intent to deceive.