What Does it Mean to Mean?

If I say “lugubrious” means “excessively mournful in a ridiculous manner,” I have told you what the word “means.”  But have I really?  Because what it means isn’t that collection of words, but the environments in which one runs into it.  “Mom” means “female parent,” but that’s not what Mom means.

Meaning is an association between two experiences, a link between two qualia.  It cannot be paraphrased or reduced to symbolic logic; it is pragmatic, not semantic.

A quale, as you may recall, is “what it is to be like” something.  It’s not able to be communicated, only experienced directly, and is the foundation of our consciousness.  We don’t have qualia in isolation, but in networks.  Think of the smell of oranges, and pay attention to what other experiences arise in your mind at the same time.  This is the meaning you have attributed to oranges.

You cannot paraphrase meaning, by which I mean you cannot convey the link between two qualia in language or by means of another symbolic system.  You can hint at it, and point to the connection, but not convey it.  It cannot be reduced to semantic logic, by which I mean, meaning of experience is not the same as meaning of words.  It is pragmatic, not semantic: it is connected, in other words, to context, the whole gestalt of experiences, not to individual lexical units.

Notice how different this is from science.  If I experience the results of an experiment, I can definitely convey that to others in symbolic logic.  Meaning in science is semantic and lexical.  Meaning in magic is pragmatic and personal.  Science seeks to share experiences to arrive at truth; magic seeks to link experiences to create new truths.


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