Category Archives: Linguistics

The MWS Podcasts 131: Emma Byrne on the Benefits of Swearing

We are joined today by the scientist Emma Byrne. Emma normally specialises in the field of artificial intelligence, however she’s recently taken a different tack and is here to talk about her latest book entitled ‘Swearing is good for you’. Using peer reviewed science, she argues that swearing is likely to have been one of the first forms of language that we developed and that since then, it’s been helping us to deal with pain, work together, manage our emotions and improve our minds.

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The meaning of meaning

[In recent months I have written very little by way of blogs on this site, due to being preoccupied with other matters – and, when I had the time, finding that I still lacked the creative momentum. However, I have already written large amounts of material on the Middle Way, particularly in the form of my books, and I have decided to start offering some selected extracts from my books as taster blogs. They will just be lightly edited to fit the blog form. This one comes from the beginning of Middle Way Philosophy 3: the Integration of Meaning. – Robert]

Although meaning has traditionally been separated into the two spheres of cognitive and emotional, Middle Way Philosophy involves an inclusive and unifying account of these two spheres of meaning. In every practical situation in which a flesh-and-blood person finds a given symbol meaningful, there must be both cognitive and emotional aspects to that meaning.

By “cognitive” meaning, I mean the recognition of symbols, particularly but not only words, in terms of semantic equivalences: for example, dictionary definitions. The bare recognition that a cross represents Christianity is cognitive. The understanding that the word “cross” refers to the shape of two rectangles overlapping in their centres, with the longer sides of each at 90° to the other, is also cognitive. The ability to recognise a cross and pick it out from other shapes tests understanding of its cognitive meaning.

Cognitive meaning (when treated in isolation in its own limited terms of reference) ultimately depends on the truth conditions of propositions (i.e. the conditions in which a statement would be true), even when it is applied to the meaning of a non-verbal symbol. That is because my ability to cognitively identify a cross depends on my ability to judge whether a statement like “This is a cross” or “This is not a cross” is “true” or “false” in terms I would accept in my representation of the world.  “Cross” by itself doesn’t tell me what that judgement would be, because it doesn’t tell me whether a cross is being claimed to be present at all, or where it is. The dictionary definition of a cross can only follow from this ability to tell what is a cross and what is not in the terms in which we accept the word. This is the standard account given in the theory of meaning used by analytic philosophers, which applies exclusively to cognitive meaning.Cross_in_the_Sky_Photo Dharma CCA2-0

This cognitive meaning also applies to the merely cognitive interpretation of non-verbal symbols, or what have often been called “signs”. A “sign” in this sense is just a non-verbal indicator of a verbal equivalent: a cross means “Christianity”; a red traffic light means “stop”. Because our understanding of these signs depends on our ability to relate them to verbal equivalents, and those verbal equivalents depend for their meaning on truth-conditions, the cognitive meaning of a sign also depends on truth-conditions. The same can be said for signs in a wider sense. If I think the unpleasant noise of a violin is a sign that it is badly tuned, or a footprint is a sign of deer, then these meanings depend similarly on my ability to relate the sign I am experiencing to a verbal equivalent, and ultimately to recognise whether propositions like “The violin is badly tuned” or “Deer have been here” are “true” or “false” in terms I would accept.

By “emotional” meaning, on the other hand, I mean our responses to symbols: responses that vary in intensity. Regardless of my appreciation of its cognitive meaning, a given statement may be of enormous interest to me, or of practically none. If I am waiting expectantly for an announcement that is crucially important to the fulfilment of my desires: say, the announcement of whether or not I get a job I’ve been interviewed for, or an indication of whether a sexual interest is reciprocated, the language that follows is highly meaningful. On the other hand, routine and formalistic language is likely to be of very little interest, because we know that the person giving it is only going through the motions: for example, the safety information at the beginning of a flight (unless it’s your first flight), or the legal terms and conditions that most people don’t read before installing new software. I can fully understand such language in a cognitive sense, and yet barely register it, because it has little emotional meaning for me.LOT_1968_safety_instruction_card_(front)

Emotional meaning is not ultimately dependent on interpretation in terms of propositions, or indeed on interpretation of any kind. It means what it means because of its impact on us, regardless of whether it is a misunderstanding of what the speaker or writer meant to communicate. Emotional meaning can be attached to single decontextualised words (think of “vomit” or “blood”) and to symbols, or to anything that we choose to interpret as meaningful. The emotional meaning of a cross as a symbol may depend on our background and relationship to Christianity, and may be very negative or very positive. Our emotional relationship to a favourite tree on a frequent walk, or a certain gurgle made by a baby, is also a matter of emotional meaning, despite the fact that the symbol to which we attach this significance may be purely personal and not recognised by others as symbolic.

My central thesis about the relationship between these two spheres of meaning is that neither is ever wholly absent. Although our experience of certain symbols may be overwhelmingly dominated by one, and the other may be very attenuated, we can never justifiably claim of any symbol that it has no cognitive or no emotional significance whatsoever. This is because, in the concrete situation in which people experience meaning, both are required to some degree.

This is perhaps most obvious in the case of language that depends strongly on its cognitive meaning, where its emotional meaning may be attenuated. A bored school-child, who is supposed to be reading a textbook which she is quite capable of understanding but has no interest in, will find that textbook as meaningless as any set of undeciphered hieroglyphs. Attention is simply a necessary condition for meaning, and attention has to be motivated by desire. In the absence of such desire, that meaning is absent. As soon as some attention is brought to bear on the symbols, though, cognitive meaning can also follow.

I set aside here the abstracted scenario assumed by analytic philosophers, who assume that a proposition can have meaning by itself, even if it is not a meaning for anyone. Analytic writings on meaning are full of examples like “Paris is the capital of France if and only if Paris is the capital of France”. This is the locus classicus of analytic philosophy abstracting itself into irrelevance by totally disregarding all the conditions in experience by which people find “Paris is the capital of France” to be meaningful. People find it meaningful because they have an understanding of the terms, yes, but also because they find the claim worthy of attention.

Where symbols depend much more strongly on emotional meaning, however, there also needs to be some element of cognitive significance present, however attenuated. Take the example mentioned earlier of a favourite tree. That tree is meaningful to me because I frequently pass it and admire it. I do not merely perceive it, but also accord it a specific significance. So although the significance of the tree consists mainly on my admiration of it, it also has a cognitive significance that could be given a verbal equivalent, such as “That’s one of my favourite trees.”

There is obviously a vague boundary line between perception and meaning, particularly as perception is not a uniform appraisal of everything in view, but is already guided by what might be taken to be at least a potential form of meaning. The boundary-line could be roughly defined by desire, because I define meaning in general as a habitual attachment of desire to a symbol. If I have no particular desires in relation to a landscape, say, I may perceive that landscape without attaching any particular meaning to any features of it. However, if I pick out an ash tree because I want to impress my companion with my tree-identification skills, or because its shape has an aesthetic appeal to me, the intercession of desire has simultaneously created a symbol. Where there is a symbol, there is meaning rather than merely perception.

This raises the question of how far the capacity for meaning of this kind is a unique capacity of persons: “persons” generally meaning, in practice, human beings with sufficient sentience, although theoretically extending to other possible persons such as intelligent aliens. There seems to be no good reason to limit meaning to persons, because other animals seem capable of experiencing both the emotional and the cognitive aspects of meaning. Obviously particular objects have an emotional impact on animals: for example, a dog may signal its desire for a walk by bringing its lead that it associates with walks. However, this same example has a cognitive element because the lead, for the dog, is obviously a sign for “walk” and could be given a verbal equivalent. The verbal equivalent does not have to be given by the dog for it to have that significance for the dog. The cognitive meaning of “I want to go for a walk” as the meaning of the dog’s gesture of bringing the lead ultimately depends on its truth conditions, but not on the dog being able to analyse the truth conditions, any more than it does for the majority of human beings, who would also (if they have not studied any philosophy) probably not be able to analyse the meaning of their language in terms of truth conditions. Meaning, even when understood representationally (i.e. as purely cognitive), thus provides us with no discontinuous justification for discrimination against animals purely on grounds of species. Animals may have a less sophisticated understanding of meaning, but their relationship to meaning only varies incrementally from ours.

The analysis of meaning in terms of cognitive and emotional spheres is of limited value. I think a Lakoffian account of meaning in terms of bodily experience and metaphorical extension is generally more helpful. However, I do not regard the Lakoffian account as inconsistent with cognitive and emotional accounts of meaning, provided that they are understood in the inclusive way I have described here. What Lakoff and Johnson effectively do is to explain why symbols have an emotional (or, more accurately, a bodily) impact on us. Their work on metaphorical extension also helps to explain how the cognitive element of meaning can be related to bodily meaning without appealing to “truth” or “falsity” of an abstract or metaphysically defined sort. However, I have started by relating these two spheres of meaning in order to create some continuity between my account of meaning and those widely used, and to show that my account does not contradict them so much as put them into a wider context.

“Representationalism” is not simply a representational or truth-dependent account of meaning, but the belief (or assumption) that such an account is an exhaustive one, or that meaning is entirely cognitive. Similarly, its less common opposite “expressivism” is not just the belief that meaning is emotional, but the belief that it is entirely emotional and has no cognitive element. The Middle Way can be applied here to avoid such metaphysical accounts of meaning, which are absolute, dualising, and non-incremental. However, like many other metaphysical beliefs, representationalism and expressivism are based on the recognition of certain conditions, the interpretation of which has been over-extended and absolutised. We can reject both representationalism and expressivism, whilst simultaneously accepting that language and other symbols both represent and express. Provided that we maintain an awareness of both, these explanations can both be incorporated into a wider account of meaning.


  1. Cross in the Sky by Photo Dharma (CCA 2.0)
  2. LOT safety card from 1968

Chinese characters and embodied meaning

Students_learning_in_China_Thomas Galvez CCSA 2-0

To the vast majority of Westerners, including me until recently, Chinese characters are just squiggles. But I have recently begun the study of Chinese, in preparation for a period working in China that should begin in a couple of months’ time, and found myself unexpectedly fascinated by the characters. If I had an expectation about learning the characters, it was that it would involve hard graft, trying to remember the relationships between random squiggles and meanings. But instead, if anything, it seems more like play, because it recapitulates the gradual assemblage of meaning we go through in childhood. Instead of graft, it involves a development of meaning connections that are accompanied by something more like delight. My progress has also been greatly aided by a delightful book called Chineasy, first created by a graphic designer called Shao Lan to help her children learn Chinese characters.

Shao Lan’s book makes clear how Chinese characters have developed out of what she calls ‘building block’ characters (which are not quite the same as the more commonly known ‘radicals’). These building block characters have all developed out of stylized representations of everyday, concrete things; the kind of things you would expect the ancient Chinese to represent first. These include terms like person, tree, fire , water, weapon, sheep, horse and tiger. Here are some examples: Chinese kou mouthon the left is the character for ‘mouth’ (kou), which looks a bit like a mouth except that it’s been squared off; on the right theChinese mu tree character for ‘tree’ (mu), which looks like a simplified tree with spreading branches and roots; and on the left the character for ‘person’ (ren), which you could think of Chinese ren manas a stick figure minus the head and arms. Some more examples of ways that modern characters have developed from early pictograms are given in the table at the foot of this blog.

These basic building blocks are then extended to produce graduallyChinese ben origin more abstract terms. For example, put an extra root on the ‘tree’ character and you get the character for ‘origin’ (ben) – see left. The idea of an origin is a metaphorical developmentChinese ti body of ‘root’. Combine this character with an abbreviated person to the left of it and you get the character for ‘body’ (ti) – see right. The body is the root of the person.Chinese pin quality Put three mouths together (presumably all offering different opinions), and you get the character for ‘quality’ (pin) – see left.

It didn’t take long, as I began to engage with this learning process, for it to suddenly dawn on me that the composition of Chinese characters graphically illustrates the development of embodied meaning as explained by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson – a theory that has had a huge influence on Middle Way Philosophy as I have developed it in my books (especially Middle Way Philosophy 3, which is all about meaning). Lakoff and Johnson offer a radically alternative understanding of meaning to the mainstream ‘representationalist’ view that is still assumed in much philosophical and scientific thinking: one in which meaning is not based on a relationship between words and symbols on the one hand and some sort of assumed ‘reality’ on the other, but rather one in which we build up meaning through the links we make in our brain as we learn from early infancy, connecting words and symbols with embodied experiences. Their explanation begins with what they call ‘basic level categories’ and ‘image schemas’ – basic building blocks of meaning in which a particular common experience becomes associated with either a word itself, or an implicit connection between words. It then explains how these building blocks of meaning gradually get elaborated through metaphorical extension into more abstract terms. Crucially, to understand even very abstract ideas, we draw on our earlier layers of meaning-linkage: so, for example, to understand the concept of an academic field I draw on my understanding of ‘literal’ fields or other bounded ‘containers’, which connects this abstract idea to my most visceral, infantile experiences of putting things into other things that contain them (including my own body). This reflects what Lakoff and Johnson call the container schema.

Lakoff and Johnson’s theories are explained and evidenced in some detail in their works, but (although they give a range of examples) I have long felt the lack of some kind of ’embodied meaning dictionary’ which might assist one in working out how a particular word, symbol or term developed out of basic level categories and image schemas. Of course, there are also a number of possible problems with such a project. One is that there are probably no definitive answers as to how meaning developed in each case, just a range of plausible explanations – the main point of the theory being just to show that it must have developed in that way in general rather than to prove any specific example. Another problem is that the basic level categories, image schemas and metaphors obviously vary enormously in different linguistic contexts. Perhaps even the same or a similar term may have a different embodied sense for different people, depending on what the basic level categories were, how they have interacted and how the metaphors have developed.

But Chinese characters seem to offer a kind of graphic record of this process of meaning development. The ‘building block’ characters can be readily identified with basic level categories: not necessarily our basic level categories, or even those of modern Chinese people, but those of the ancient Chinese who developed the characters. The associations between these characters that allow them to develop also depend on image schemas that allow connections of meaning  between basic level categories in a particular embodied situation. If I’m an ancient Chinese person, I won’t just passively appreciate a ‘tree’ as a separate object, but probably chop it down and build a house out of it, creating a set of associated meanings that combine associationsChinese oracle bone tiger hu of timber, origin, foundation, and home. I won’t just contemplate a tiger as an object (early ‘Oracle bone’ version on right), but rather I’ll associate it with the bodily experience of fear, allowing the creation of characters that develop ‘tiger’ into words that refer to danger, as they do in modern Chinese. I’ll also combine the basic level building blocks in ever more complex ways dependent on metaphor, as in the development of ‘quality’ from ‘mouth’.

It has to be stressed that embodied meaning is our meaning as individuals, so this cultural record is only an approximation of the process by which meaning develops in an individual. Nevertheless, the parallels are striking, and seem to offer evidence in support of Lakoff’s and Johnson’s whole way of thinking. The relationship also offers much potential for improving language education so as to take into account the way in which we process meaning. A Ph.D. thesis by Ming-San Pierre Lu shows that this kind of approach leads to much more effective learning of Chinese.

In some ways the same development can be traced in the phonetic scripts that most of the rest of the world uses (such as the Roman script I’m writing in now), except that a disconnection obviously occurred early in the development of phonetic scripts, when pictograms began to be used to represent sounds. For example, the capital letter A still looks a bit like an upside-down ox, reflecting its origins in a Sumerian pictogram that then came to mean the initial sound used in the word rather than the meaning of the word itself. Since the relationship between sounds and meaning is largely abstract and conventional (except for a few onomatopoeic words), it’s very easy to lose any sense that the letters we use depend in any way on a base of embodied experience. That can happen in Chinese too, of course, where the characters are highly conventionalized, and doubtless the experiential basis rarely reflected on in practice. If a Chinese symbol only means an abstraction to a particular individual, its past historical development will make no difference. It’s learners of Chinese, probably much more than proficient users, who have the privilege of reconnecting with that experiential basis.

So how does this all relate to the Middle Way? Embodied meaning is closely related to the Middle Way, because acknowledging it can be a very useful element in practising the Middle Way and avoiding absolutisations. You can only make and believe an absolute claim if you assume that the language you use represents the world in some way, and that the claim you are making can thus be ‘true’ or ‘false’, rather than helpful or unhelpful in relation to experience. I don’t want to suggest for a moment that users of Chinese are any less prone to absolutisations than other linguistic groups. I have no evidence for that. I’d only suggest that they have a very helpful tool in their hands to help them reflect on the embodied roots of the language they are using. For me, learning Chinese also seems potentially to be a helpful practice in freeing up my remaining tendencies to implicitly think of language as having solely representational meaning (as well as other integrating effects, such as leading me to re-examine my beliefs). But in terms of my proficiency in Chinese, I have a very long way to go indeed. This is merely the first report of an intrigued learner!Evolution of Chinese pictograms

Picture: Students learning in a mountain village in Xijiang, China, by Thomas Galvez CCSA 2.0

Table of pictograms and individual characters from Wikimedia.


Inside the third person

My own habit when I write even the more academic of my books is to freely use the first person: “I want to argue…”. Of course I’m still trying to put forward a case that has wider significance than just for me, but the use of the first person seems a vital aspect of honesty in argument – to show that it’s me arguing from my perspective, and I’m not pretending to be God. The I is a provisionality marker. So it sometimes comes as a shock when I realise just how much insistence on the use of the third person there is in many corners of schools, colleges and universities – particularly in the sciences, both natural and social, and for some reason also in history. Sometimes that just means lots of impersonal constructions like “it is argued that…” or “this evidence shows that…”, but when helping someone with the proof-reading of their dissertation recently I found that they referred to themselves throughout as “the researcher”. This degree of third person pretence seems very jarring to me, and the reasons I reject it have a lot to do with the Middle Way view of objectivity I want to Thinking girl CCpromote.

The reason that many teachers and academics drill their students to write in the third person are all to do with “objectivity”. The idea is that when you write in the third person, you leave yourself out of it. You’re no longer dealing with the “subjective” experiences of your own life, but with general facts that can be supported with evidence. Now, as an experienced teacher, I’d agree with the intention behind this – students do need to learn how to justify their beliefs with reference to evidence or other reasons, and learning to do this is one of the benefits of education. But I’m also convince that this is the wrong way of going about it. Whether or not you use the third person doesn’t make the slightest difference to whether or not you use evidence to support your claims and argue your case critically – but it does reinforce the apparently almost universal human obsession with the idea that you have ‘the facts’, or ‘the truth’ – an implicitly absolute status for your claims. If you really believe that you have ‘the facts’, then the evidence is just a convenient way of getting others to accept the same ‘facts’ that you believe in, not a source of any possible change of view. The ontological obsession hasn’t just emerged from nowhere, but is fuelled by centuries of post-enlightenment linguistic tradition.

Far better, I would argue, to use the first person to own what we say, in the sense of admitting that it’s us, these fallible flesh-and-blood creatures, who are saying it. Then the objective is objective because we have argued it as objectively as we can, not because we are implicitly pretending to view it from a God’s eye view. If we really recognise that objectivity is a matter of degree and depends on us and our judgements, then it is not enough to merely protest that we don’t really mean it when we use ‘factual’ language that habitually bears an absolute interpretation. If we are to bear in mind the limitations of our perspective in practice, we need to constantly remind ourselves of those limitations. The use of the first person offers such a reminder.

Objectivity depends not on ruling ourselves out of our thinking so as to arrive at pure ‘facts’, but rather on acknowledging our role in reaching our beliefs. Recognition of evidence of the conditions around us needs to be combined with a balancing recognition of the limitations with which we are able to interpret such evidence. Neither idealism nor realism, neither mind nor body, neither naturalism nor supernaturalism: but a recognition that none of these categories are ‘factual’ – rather they are absolutizing limitations on our thinking. If we are to take the Middle Way as the basis of objectivity, we need to stop falsely trying to rule ourselves out of the language with which we justify our beliefs.

I’ve spent enough time in schools and universities to know that academic habits are not easily reformed, and that we will probably be stuck with these third person insistences and their cultural effects for some time to come. No teacher will want to disadvantage their students in an exam by teaching them to use the first person if they know that the students will lose marks if they do so. But please let’s not use or spread this unhelpful custom needlessly, and let’s take every opportunity to challenge it. To use the first person to refer to our beliefs is to connect them to our bodies and their meanings and perspectives – which is one of the prime things we need to be doing to challenge the deluded absolutised and disembodied interpretations of the world that are still far too common.


The MWS Podcast 115: Ellen Bialystok on Bilingualism and the Middle Way

We are joined today by Ellen Bialystok, a Canadian psychologist and professor who is one of the world’s leading experts on bilingualism and the advantages it brings and this will be the topic of our conversation.

MWS Podcast 115: Ellen Bialystok as audio only:
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