The Mechanics Of Meaning

1st April 2014
Odette Power

Living in London highlights the value of sharing a common language. Here, every day, many different cultures meet and work together using English to communicate. The accents and choice of phrases differ, but we get by. However we often fail to convey our meaning accurately. For example, when it comes to personal relationships we often only open our mouths to change feet!

When we tackle problems as a group at work and aim to collaboratively design solutions things get messy fast. Try to notice how much time is wasted on misunderstandings – people talking past each other, violently agreeing, arguing about irrelevant details – the next time you are in a meeting.

There is a better way. The field of General Semantics has some useful tools which can help us transfer our fully intended meaning to each other. The mechanics of meaning is strongly linked to how our brains work and the private context of our experiences of the public, physical world.

Ogden and Richards' semiotic triangle

Why choose such a dull name as General Semantics? The founder, Alfred Korzybski, wanted to distinguish the field from that of the field of Semantics. He believed that the sense-making applies to a wider area than the meaning of words and symbols. There is a more general application here, such as people’s personal lives and everyday situations. Ironically, like him, we often struggle to find the right words when naming things, the words seem so vanilla and ambiguous.

Korzybski founded General Semantics in 1920. In my opinion, one of his works, Science and Sanity (1933) is a red pill book. Several other authors have taken up reinterpreting and expanding some concepts, such as C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards with their book The Meaning of Meaning (1923) or Stuart Chase in his book The Tyranny of Words (1966). Korzybski has built on what Charles Peirce and Ludwig Wittgenstein did.

Alfred Korzybski's Science and Sanity

Standing on the shoulders of giants, we see even further than they. Building on other people’s work we express our uniquely human ability. Korzybski called this concept “time-binding” – cross-generational learning using symbolic communication. Past achievements continue on in the present for others to use. Our works outlive us.

If we accept this statement as true, what have we done that others can possibly build on? Now that’s a haunting question. Some more musings on meaning should follow over the next few months.

1 Comment. Leave new

Experience over Language - Energized Work
23rd January 2015 3:35 pm

[…] This post follows on from a previous blog post entitled “The Mechanics of Meaning”. Software development bridges the human and the digital world. Building software together as opposed to working by oneself supposedly produces better results. Otherwise, a single person would build something better. Building anything together relies heavily on aligning our efforts. Nothing aligns people so well as a precise problem definition. Many methods such as TDD (test-driven development), the A3-method (lean), PDCA (the Shewart Cycle) and the Lean Canvas Model depend on it to provide focus for groups of people. Let’s say the problem is that there was a DDOS attack on our website and we don’t ever want that to happen again. Creativity now has a secure yard to play in. We almost spontaneously generate a myriad of design ideas to solve The Problem: How do we prevent another DDOS attack? Most have an idea (or six!). Before we can evaluate these ideas we must understand them. But how do we explain our concepts to others in a precise way – to really convey meaning? What can we do to make sure that our expression causes everyone to think of one and only one thing – the one we intended? Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) suggested in order to do so we need to express the thought content and the thing in the world (the referent) separately. Ogden and Richards expanded on this by modelling the semiotic triangle. When we hear the word (bottom left corner), we have a thought (top) which relates to a thing in our world (bottom right corner). [vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][mk_image src=”” image_width=”800″ image_height=”350″ crop=”true” lightbox=”false” frame_style=”simple” target=”_self” caption_location=”inside-image” align=”left” margin_bottom=”10″][/vc_column][/vc_row]The idea that a single symbol could refer to a single thought and that thought could refer to a single referent is of course an over-simplification. (The process in the speaker’s mind is different from the hearer’s mind and would be for every other person). But at least we can now recognise the only way of transferring meaning is indirect. The field of General Semantics highlights that true translation is not between phrase and phrase but matching one experience to another experience. During any human experience the word-thought-thing association is built. All three are required to convey what we really mean from our personal perspective. A word can be ambiguous but a concept is not. How you have experienced the concept and how I have experienced it can be different but the attributes of the concept overlap. They key lies in the referent – the real-world object – which has attributes we can perceive through our senses. It is publicly testable and verifiable. Example: Which real-world object(s) represents the word ‘robust’? […]


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