06 February 2008

Meaning and the logic of vagueness

My work in progress, Turning Words, documents an inquiry guided by the question How do you mean?. The question is not What do you mean?—although that is sometimes a good question for clarification purposes. The root question is how meaning happens, or how semiosis works.

Writers, thinkers and scholars have been asking this kind of question for a long time, but their work tends to be ignored because most of us are either too busy committing our acts of meaning to reflect on how we do it, or don't see the point of thus reflecting. A century ago, C. S. Peirce and Victoria Welby were both looking into the nature of meaning, but they didn't learn of each other's work until near the end of their lives. The correspondence between them began in 1903, and parts of it are among the clearest explanations of Peirce's mature semiotics. Most of it was published in 1977 under the title Semiotic and Significs (which i cite as PW), but copies of this are hard to find, and i only got hold of one recently.

In one of his earliest letters to Welby, Peirce explained why the study of what we mean, important as it is, should not be taken too far:

I fully and heartily agree that the study of what we mean ought to be the … general purpose of a liberal education, as distinguished from special education,—of that education which should be required of everybody with whose society and conversation we are expected to be content. But, then, perfect accuracy of thought is unattainable,—theoretically unattainable. And undue striving for it is worse than time wasted. It positively renders thought unclear.
— Peirce to Welby (PW 11, 1903)

When a theorist like Peirce says that something is theoretically unattainable, he is not implying that it might be attained in practice (because theory is unreliable); he is saying just the opposite, that ‘perfect accuracy’ is unattainable because of the way meaning works. The very logic of meaning guarantees that all language is necessarily vague to some degree. Here's a fuller explanation of the point, written a year or two later (CP 5.506):
No communication of one person to another can be entirely definite, i.e., non-vague. We may reasonably hope that physiologists will some day find some means of comparing the qualities of one person's feelings with those of another, so that it would not be fair to insist upon their present incomparability as an inevitable source of misunderstanding. Besides, it does not affect the intellectual purport of communications. But wherever degree or any other possibility of continuous variation subsists, absolute precision is impossible. Much else must be vague, because no man's interpretation of words is based on exactly the same experience as any other man's. Even in our most intellectual conceptions, the more we strive to be precise, the more unattainable precision seems. It should never be forgotten that our own thinking is carried on as a dialogue, and though mostly in a lesser degree, is subject to almost every imperfection of language. I have worked out the logic of vagueness with something like completeness, but need not inflict more of it upon you, at present.

That last sentence has inspired scholars to look for a text among Peirce's papers that ‘works out the logic of vagueness with something like completeness’, but as far as i know, nobody has claimed to find it. And considering how well that final sentence works as a pragmatic ‘punchline’ to Peirce's argument, it would be at least a little ironic if anyone did find such a text.

When Peirce says that ‘no man's interpretation of words is based on exactly the same experience as any other man's’, he is talking about what i call polyversity (see TW Chapter 2). In the earlier stages of writing this book, i collected quite a few examples of what i took to be statements of the same idea expressed in diverse ways. But there's a limit to the usefulness of that, just as there's a limit to how exactly you can say what you mean. Indeed, as Peirce said, ‘the multiplication of equivalent modes of expression is itself a burden’ (PW 20). I hope that my final draft will not burden the reader too much in this way.

The ‘trust’ in dialog includes a willingness to let most of the meaning process work implicitly—trusting that it can become explicit, can bear the spotlight beam of attention, if that becomes necessary. Genuine dialogue requires an exquisite sense of what needs to be explicated and what needs to work implicitly.

1 comment:

Marian said...

good question How do you mean ? .