Tag Archives: stipulation

Not what it really means

The idea that there is something that a person, an observation, a text or a word ‘really means’ seems to me one of the most undermining of our understanding of conditions around us. It is based on a widespread misunderstanding of meaning itself: that meaning somehow stands beyond our experience and we only have to tap into the ‘true’ meaning. To avoid beliefs about ‘true meaning’ is not to give up confidence in meaning or to believe that any particular thing (let alone the world as a whole) is ‘meaningless’: rather it is to recognise that it is us who experience meaning, in our bodies and their activity.Latin_dictionary Dr Marcus Gossler

Here are some examples of the kinds of assumptions people often seem to make about ‘what things really mean’:

A person:

  • “What I really meant when I said that was that you look better than you did before. That was a compliment. There’s no need to take offence.”
  • “What David Cameron really means when he talks about a ‘big society’ is one where the state is so starved of resources that the poor depend on random acts of charity.”

An observation:

  • “What the low level of UK productivity really means is that here can be no long-term or secure economic recovery.”

A text:

  • “What the gospels tell us about eternal life really means an experience that goes beyond the ego.”

A word or term:

  • “What the Middle Way really means is the Buddha’s teaching of conditionality as an alternative to belief in the eternal self (sassatavada) or extinction of the self at death (ucchedavada).”

In any of these examples, I’d argue that, of course, we cannot claim that these things are not part of what is meant. Perhaps they are even an important part. Very often, in practice, by appealing to ‘what is really meant’ people just want to offer an alternative to what someone else has assumed. However, the language of ‘really’ is very likely to involve an implicit absolutisation. Against one set of limiting assumptions, we offer the opposite, which tends to entrench us in further limiting assumptions.

At one extreme, this may amount to a seriously misleading straw man, where we give an account of someone else’s view that they would be unlikely to recognise themselves (e.g. the second example above, about David Cameron). At the other, an illuminating new interpretation may be offered that may greatly add to our useful understanding, and may help get beyond previous absolute assumptions that cause conflict (as in the first and third examples above), but this is still undermined by the new interpretation itself being absolutised. The third example (about UK productivity) and the final one (about the Middle Way) are somewhere in between: they offer interpretations that may be relevant and helpful in some circumstances, but may become limiting and unhelpful in others.

As an alternative, I want to suggest that we not only need to recognise the limitations of our interpretations, but also take responsibility for them. When we assume that our interpretation is the only possible one, we tend to see it as inevitable that we should think in this way: either because it allows us to make claims that are ‘true’ or ‘false’, or because we assume that ‘nature’ dictates how we should think. However, as long as we experience alternatives, we can also experience choice in our interpretations. If you choose to always interpret a particular politician’s statements in the worst possible light because it fits your ideological commitments to do so, then you are increasingly responsible for such a choice the more alternatives you become aware of. If you choose to only interpret the Middle Way in traditional Buddhist terms, you are responsible for deciding to do that to the extent that you have encountered alternatives. You cannot simply avoid that responsibility by appealing to Buddhist tradition as possessing the ‘true’ interpretation.

In my experience people often find it easier to recognise this point in relation to another person than in relation to ourselves. We commonly experience problematic misinterpretation of others and then have to painfully clear it up in order to maintain our relationships with them: that’s the normal grist of social life. Recognising that there was not something that we ourselves ‘really meant’ is much harder, though. We can be taken by surprise by someone else’s reaction because the interpretation they made was not the one at the forefront of our minds, but that doesn’t prove that it wasn’t in the background somewhere. So often “I didn’t really mean it” is a shortcut for “My dominant feelings are friendly, even though there’s always some ambiguity in these things.” The value in giving expression to those ambiguities in humour is, on the contrary, that there isn’t something we ‘really meant’ – rather a set of meanings within us that we can play with.

When it comes to texts and words, feelings can run even higher. For some reason, when it’s written down, it becomes far harder to recognise that the meaning we get from a text lies in us rather than in those apparently permanent words. That’s particularly the case with religious texts, which are deeply ambiguous. Yet relating positively to religious texts as sources of inspiration seems to me to depend very much on acknowledging our responsibility for interpretation, and that interpretation is part of the practical path of our lives rather than a prior condition for it. For example, interpreting the sayings and attitudes of Jesus in the gospels in terms that can be helpful rather than absolutizing is for me a way of engaging with Christianity positively. If, though, on the contrary, I assumed that a certain interpretation was a prior condition of my living my life helpfully, I would be obliged to fix that interpretation from the beginning and thus – however much the traditional view of the text may seem in theory to be supporting responsibility – I would be undermining my responsibility for my life.

But if the interpretation of religious scriptures causes debate, it is as nothing to the outrage that I find can be generated when one attempts to expand the meaning of a word or a term and deliberately use it in non-standard ways. For many, the dictionary appears to be a much more sacred text than any other. But the right to stipulate – that is, to decide for oneself on the meaning of a word one is using – seems to me to be at the heart of human freedom. Other kinds of freedom may turn out not to make a lot of difference, if the way we think about how to use our freedom is constantly limited by conformity to the tram-tracks of accustomed ways of using words. More than anything, I think it is the dualisms or false dilemmas implicit in the ways philosophers and other habitually use certain abstract words that requires challenging: self and other, mind and body, theism and atheism, freewill and determinism, objective and subjective. To use words in new ways, whilst trying to make one’s usage as clear as possible, seems to me the only way to break such chains. Stipulation is never arbitrary, but always builds on or stretches existing usage in some way. It does not threaten meaning, even if at times it can cause misunderstanding, but on the contrary in the long-term aims to make our terms more meaningful by keeping them adequate to our experience.

Empowering words

The limits of our thinking are often the limits of our conventional language, but it does not have to be so. Words are ours to command, and the meanings of words are ours to change as the need arises. If we want our language to be empowering rather than habitual and limiting, we need to exercise our creativity with regard to the language we use.

When I first started researching and writing philosophy for my Ph.D., I remember the recognition of this point as one of the most liberating moments. “You’re always entitled to a stipulation” my supervisor said, and him saying that probably marked the point when I started to realise just how creative philosophy could potentially be (even though much of this creativity is not often used by those trying to climb the academic career ladder). What that means is that when the need arises, we can make up and modify words and phrases – provided of course that you make it clear what you mean. This is exactly what great thinkers of the past have done: think of the Buddha’s Middle Way, Plato’s Eidola (‘Forms’), Jung’s archetypes, Heidegger’s Dasein and Sartre’s Existentialism. All of these terms, that have shaped people’s capacity to have new kinds of thoughts, are coinages, or at least radical modifications of previous terms. Rather than revering and petrifying these past coinages, we need to emulate these thinkers’ creativity. By having a wider variety of word meanings, we then have the tools to potentially develop new and more adequate beliefs.Compass_rose_Cantino Alvesgaspar CCSA3-0

But after my initial period of studying philosophy , I began to realise how relatively unusual this perspective was, and how conservative most people are when it comes to words and their usages. This unnecessary conservatism can take a variety of forms. Perhaps the most basic one is the conviction that a word “really means” what we have been used to it meaning, so that someone using it in a different way becomes offensive in some way. For example, I have been told that religion “really means” supernatural belief, and that Christianity “really means” the belief that Jesus is the Son of God. These are, indeed, meanings that can be adopted for these terms, but they are far from the only ones in a complex field of traditional usages. Those who insist that a word “really means” this or that seem to be avoiding taking responsibility for the fact that they are themselves choosing to interpret it in one way or another. This is a form of repression – of the failure to recognise alternatives as options.

The appeal to a dictionary is another form that this appeal to what a word “really means” can take. Now dictionaries are extremely useful things, but what they tell us is the established conventions of word meaning and usage, not the limits of how we, in our practical situations, may choose to use words. But all too often people use dictionary meanings as prescriptive devices to curtail thought heading in new directions. Anybody who uses a word differently from what it says in the dictionary is assumed to be just wrong.

Another pair of fallacies that may attend the appeal to dictionaries are the etymological fallacy and the original language fallacy . In the etymological fallacy, it is assumed that what a word “really means” is determined by its origins: so, for example, rationality must mean proportionality because it comes from the Latin “ratio”, which involves the idea of proportion. Of course, etymologies can help us appreciate some of the past associations of a word, but not much more than that. In the original language fallacy (beloved of Religious Studies scholars) it is assumed that the true or correct meaning of a term originally derived from another language must be what it meant in that language – and indeed that we must be able to find the truths of a particular religion more directly if we study them in the original language. This takes an extreme form in Islam, where nearly every Muslim boy learns Arabic by rote, and translations of the Qur’an are not even recognised as ‘true’ Qur’ans.

But if we ignore the constraining influences of these kinds of traditional attitudes, as I urge, and dare to use our linguistic creativity, there are also, of course, certain responsibilities that come with that freedom. Though what we do with language is our own business, when we are using it to communicate with others it obviously needs to be transparent to them. Creative use of language, as in Shakespeare, demands a little more of the reader or auditor, and may require glosses or explanations – but with the possibility of greater rewards in return for that effort at comprehension.

One key responsibility seems to me to be that only a helpful purpose should motivate coinages: which means, for example, avoiding mere exclusive language. In my own work I have heard various complaints about ‘jargon’, and ‘jargon’ is normally a term for unhelpful language used by a group to mark ‘in’ status and exclude outsiders. If terms like incrementality, justification, objectivity or archetype are not familiar to you in the sense I use them, then I can only assure you that the normal reason I use new or modified meanings is to try to capture helpful senses and get away from less helpful ones, not to exclude people by confusing them (even if that is sometimes an unfortunate side-effect). For example, the use of ‘objectivity’ to mean ‘God’s eye view’ seems to me comparatively unhelpful because none of us has, or could possibly have, any experience of a God’s eye view – and the use of the same word to mean the gaining of a wider and more adequate perspective, already also in use, is much more helpful. So I use the word in the latter sense and avoid the former, particularly as I see the former sense leading people in some very unhelpful habitual directions. Challenging this use is one way of challenging the basis of the assumption that God’s eye views are possible.

Another responsibility that seems to come with stipulative creativity is that of continuity. People need some sort of hook to hang their meanings on, and generally there is some connection, an association of some sort, between past meanings and new ones. That’s why gradually modifying meanings seems preferable to making up new words from scratch. Continuity can give people the opportunity to start relating to old words in new ways, but it also carries the danger that they will just relapse into the old ways – after all these are reinforced by the context in which they have become usual, and the way that everyone else uses them. Thus a balance needs to be struck – on the one hand insisting on a new sense in order to open up new veins of thought, but on the other maintaining some continuity. That’s what I’ve generally tried to do in Middle Way Philosophy, but that doesn’t prevent the continuing danger of both types of reaction: either bafflement or complacency.

New uses of language often take the form either of distinctions (e.g. ‘joy’ distinguished from ‘happiness’ in Carl H’s recent comment on my previous blog) or of syntheses (e.g. objectivity has the same reference as integration). Either of these can be helpful as long as they’re not presented as the “real meaning” of the term, but rather just as a way of enriching the meanings available to us. The vice of analytic philosophers seems to be to make constant distinctions, with the accompanying assumption that these distinctions tell us final truths that we were previously missing (the ultimate sin for an analytic philosopher is ‘conflation’). But in my experience, people are more likely to use words in different contexts without realising their relationship – for example, scientists often seem to assume that their ‘objectivity’ is completely different from that of artists. Syntheses generally need a lot more attention, but of course they are not final either. There are also differences between the way scientists can be objective and the way artists can be, and the context will determine whether appreciation of these differences needs more attention than the similarities.

But I don’t just want to defend my own freedom to use language creatively. I would like to see other people doing it much more than I generally experience them as doing, and scuttling to their dictionaries and scholarly certainties much less. Perhaps the place where most verbal freedom is actually exercised is poetry (though even here there can be resistance to innovation). If you want a (relatively) safe place to experiment, I can highly recommend that you play with language in the context of poetry. That’s indeed where I started – I wanted to be a poet, in my early twenties, long before I even got interested in philosophy. A blank page can be daunting, but also liberating. You can put anything you like on that page, and it can mean whatever you want it to mean. To quote one great poet of the past “Oh brave new world, that hath such people in it!”


Picture: Compass Rose from the Cantino Planisphere, replica by Alvesgaspar CCSA3.0