Dialectical Theory of Meaning:
Part One (Extracts)

By Mihailo Marković


The title of this work—The Dialectical Theory of Meaning—calls for still another explanation—i.e. what in this context is meant by dialectics. It goes without saying that there can be no question here of setting forth a ready‑made theory of meaning as part of a Marxist or any other dialectical philosophy, for the simple reason that no such theory has been developed within Marxism. The question here is to attempt to formulate systematically a theory of meaning from the standpoint of Marxist humanistic dialectics.

What is often referred to by Marxist dialectics is a kind of ontology embodying the most general laws of the movement of being (the unity of opposites, the transformation of quantity into quality, the negation of negation). Furthermore dialectics is often understood as a kind of logic applied to developmental processes, exempt from the formal logical principles of noncontradiction and the exclusion of the third. Of late, recognition has been given to an anthropological conception of dialectics as a general theory of human practice.

All these varying interpretations of dialectics are possible in principle. However, we shall not concern ourselves here with discussing these various possible conceptions but rather with specifying the meaning in which the term 'dialectics' will be applied to the theory of meaning in this work.

We shall utilize 'dialectics' to refer to a general philosophical method characterized by a procedure of investigation that is maximally objective, comprehensive, dynamic, and concrete, considering creative human practice to be the key to theoretical objectivity.

1. The tendency toward objectivity is characteristic of many philosophical doctrines, but the question is what 'objectivity' refers to. A matter on which there is agreement among philosophers of many schools is that the process of investigation should lead to interpersonal knowledge about the objects and their interrelationships such as they are in actual reality, regardless of the consciousness of the individual subject. The demand for objectivity entails the elimination of all extra‑intellectual factors (desire, interest, feeling) in the process of investigation. Of all our mental capacities we are left merely with observations aimed at establishing individual facts and logical thinking aimed at drawing general conclusions. There exists more or less full agreement—in theory at least, if not always in practice—that in investigation one should not proceed on the basis of ready‑made schemata and uncritically accepted assumptions.

The distinguishing characteristic of the dialectical conception of objectivity is the firm linking of theoretical investigation to practical activity. The object is not understood as something merely given, external to man and completely independent of him: human social practice is included in the definition of the object. There are many objects that unquestionably exist in themselves, but we know them only as they are for us, transformed by practice. Accordingly the objectivity of the finding of an investigation is to be determined not solely in a theoretical manner (by observation and thinking), but rather through purposeful action and the alteration of the object.

What should be the consequences of the application of this principle in the theory of meaning? In this field we are confronted with the following situation. A large number of theories tend to reduce meaning to a subjective act or disposition or concept, a set of observations or mental operations, a readiness for suitable physical reaction, or—in the case of symbols from the field of art and morals—the emotional state of appeal and approval, recommending and encouraging others to change their attitude. On the other hand, we have theories that conceive the meaning of a sign as the corresponding object in itself, or an ideal essence whose existence is related neither to the mental life of man nor material reality, but rather to a third, ideal sphere of validity.

The dialectical conception of meaning has to be placed in opposition to both groups of theories mentioned. If a sign is actually used in social communication, so that by means of it people can understand one another and coordinate their activity, it certainly signifies something that is objectively given, independent of the consciousness of any individual subject. But in distinction from the views of various types of realists and vulgar materialists, 'object' is to be conceived more elastically. This is a very broad category which embodies both individual material things, general properties and relations, social institutions, and even social ideas and the general structures of collective mental processes—for these are all entities that exist independently of the consciousness of any individual subject. These are not absolute objects, postulated and given in themselves. A man can know only that with which he has come into at least an intermediate practical relation, and which he has practically modified. One can say something only about the humanized world of objects. An object in itself is the most abstract of all abstractions.

This implies an essential criterion for decision whether a particular symbol signifies a real object or there is no object of that type, so that at least in a cognitive sense the symbol is meaningless (which does not involve that it could not refer to an imaginary or ideal object and that it could not have some non-cognitive meaning). This criterion is sharply distinguished from purely empiricist criteria according to which one may meaningfully speak only about objects that can be experienced by the senses. It also rejects the uncritical realism of those who overload the sphere of being by postulating all possible types of objects, proceeding upon the conviction that anything one speaks about must exist in some way or another. The dialectical criterion involves practical operations that mediate between theory and reality. When results of practical actions coincide with predictions derived from a certain theory T, we have good reason to hold that a symbol that is a constitutive element of the theory T truly refers to a real object. This criterion is severe enough to exclude various imaginary, unreal objects, such as Pegasus, phlogiston, the ether, etc., while remaining sufficiently elastic to encompass objective correlates of the most abstract logical and mathematical symbols that are often claimed to have no relation whatever to objective reality.

2. One of the characteristics of the historic process of human cognition is that, consciously or not, we simplify objects in order to study their various aspects and relations. At a later stage of inquiry we correct and enrich such oversimplified images of objects. Eventually we tend to integrate the various partial aspects of knowledge into a unified synthetic whole.

Every good scholar carries out such analytical simplifications in a conscious, methodical manner, taking account of everything that has been excluded, with a full measure of criticism of the natural, spontaneous tendency to hypostatize and absolutize such one‑sided, isolated abstract elements. Each time this analytic, simplifying phase of investigation must be overcome with a fresh effort to encompass synthetically and comprehensively the object of investigation in its complexity.

None of the foregoing is unique to dialectics: many philosophers and methodologists assume a critical stance toward one‑sided approaches to objects and advocate the mutual complementarity of analysis and synthesis. The differentia specifica of the dialectical method is that in the analysis of the object of study there is the tendency to discover opposing and even contradictory elements and, conversely, in the processes of dialectical synthesis to establish genuine continuity and the temporary unity of ostensibly irreconcilable oppositions.

This principle of investigation is based on the universally applicable empirical premise that all objects have properties and dispositions that are mutually exclusive and thus represent a source of the dynamic impulses that determine movement and change.

In application to general theoretical problems, dialectics incorporates the demand to encompass synthetically all the separate aspects, dimensions, and components that have been obtained in analysis. Thus, by its very nature, this method represents a criticism of all one‑sided theories in which one element is unjustifiably hypostatized at the expense of all others opposed to it. Thus for example many theories in modern philosophy tend to explain meaning by reducing it to a single relation (the relation of a sign to a designated object, to the concept which it expresses, to other signs of the given linguistic system, or to the practical operations associated with the given sign). Thus there arise ostensibly irreconcilable oppositions between individual theories. The utilization of the dialectical method ensures an openness to maximal complexity and elasticity in approaching this problem. If two or more theories well supported by real facts appear to exclude one another, the question arises as to whether they do not express partial fragments of truth that should be encompassed by a broader and more complex theory. Is not meaning a complex of relations (a structure)? Is not the very concept of meaning relative to different systems of signs, to different types of functions that a sign can perform in order to satisfy various types of human needs? In this way one can establish a continuum of opposing, discrete elements.

This method might lead to eclecticism if carried out in a subjective, arbitrary manner. But the unity of opposites must be objectively founded. This means that one must proceed from genuine linguistic practice. Two opposing relations will be interpreted as two dimensions of a higher unity—meaning, only insofar as the concept of meaning is used in both ways, or in other words, if linguistic practice cannot be explained in toto by reducing meaning to a single relation. But one may be critical toward actual linguistic practice insofar as it leads to confusion or in any sense seems unsuited to the attainment of important human purposes. In the latter case one assumes a practical and creative stance toward one's own linguistic practice: we wish to change it. But it is of vital importance that this desire for change be objectively founded: we must provide a reasoned, rational criticism of existing linguistic practice, and we must cite the objective reasons that justify our purpose and practical intervention. For example, in our synthesis of the concept of meaning we shall try to encompass one of its neglected components in order to eliminate confusion, ambiguity or incoherence.

Provided it is correctly theoretically reasoned and practically justified, this dialectical unification of opposites, firstly, will not be arbitrary and eclectic and, secondly, will in many cases lead to the relativization of opposites and the elimination of their formal‑logical incompatibility. The integration of opposing factors assumes the determination of a context (coordinant system) in which each of them applies. Inasmuch as these contexts (coordinant systems) differ from one another, the result of this process will be the elimination of the apparent irreconcilability of opposites.

3. One of the most essential characteristics of the dialectical method is that it treats all objects as developmental processes. True, dialecticians are not the only ones who study the genesis and dynamics of the object of investigation. Following the triumph of Darwin's theory evolutionism penetrated all fields of learning: today. there are no serious scholars or philosophers still prepared to believe that objects and forms are absolutely stationary, or who believe that the explanation of their genesis and evolution is not an essential part of a rational explanation. But nevertheless evolution may be conceived in a number of different ways. For example Darwin and many evolutionists conceived of the evolution of living beings as gradual change without discontinuity between old and new forms. Many historians believed that in spite of all the variability of individual events they all expressed certain unchanging, universal forms. The causes of development were often sought in the action of certain external factors (God as the prime mover of nature, the geographical environment and climate as the determinant of the development of societies, etc.).

A distinctive feature of Marxist dialectics is to conceive of development as the abolition of internal limitations and, accordingly, with respect to two successive developmental forms, to note gradualness and continuity in some properties and discontinuity and discreteness in others. This means that each successive higher phase brings with it a new quality which cannot be reduced to the preceding one or be explained as greater complexity or a greater quantity of the same. On the other hand this new quality cannot be explained fully if it is not correlated with the quality from which it emerged and some of whose essential elements it has retained in a new form.

Moreover dialectics also directs toward investigation of the invariant structures in variable phenomena and the discovery of laws, types, and cycles. There is no other way of conceptualizing movement. Nevertheless for dialecticians there is nothing absolutely stationary. All apparently permanent forms are conditional, changing over time, disappearing, and being superseded by other forms. From a dialectical standpoint, the only absolute is change and development.

The causes of development, for dialecticians, are principally internal. The dynamics of an object are determined by opposition and the processes of mutual exclusion of their properties, dispositions, and internal tendencies.

As applied to the question of meaning, the dialectical principle of development implies the demand for the study of the origin and development of signs and meaning. A separate chapter will be devoted to that problem, in which it will be necessary to take into account, on the one hand, the history of human language and symbolic activity generally, and on the other hand, the development of language and thinking in the individual history of the child.

Finally the general character of the dialectical method, and particularly of the principle of development, also determines to a great extent the method of criticism. Criticism should be creative in the sense that it transcends both the viewpoint being criticized and the critic's own viewpoint. Ever since Hegel, to transcend has meant to eliminate and to maintain. Unless one discovers and eliminates a limitation one cannot give shape to a particular new quality. But conversely, unless one maintains certain values, unless one establishes continuity and accepts the partial, if only relative truth which the criticized viewpoint embodies, there can be no genuine progress. Thus, in order to be dialectical, criticism should not be destructive—and above all it should be self‑critical; its own point of view evolves in the process of criticism. In setting itself in opposition to the other viewpoint criticism sees its own limitations and strives toward a new synthesis.

4. Dialectical concreteness is the tendency to link the universal with the particular and individual. In the literature the meaning attached most often to 'concrete' is "that which is applied to an actual individual thing as opposed to an abstract quality," or "the specific as opposed to the general." Dialectical concreteness is taken to mean here a particular manner of interpreting the meaning of abstract terms: meaning is not reduced solely to the common definition of a class of individual cases or the bare generality taken in isolation, which can be expressed in toto with a relatively brief definition. To comprehend concretely the meaning of an abstraction is to encompass conceptually the distinctive features of the individual objects to which the abstraction may be applied, the conditions under which this application is possible in various contexts, and finally the practical consequences relevant to its use. This mode of interpreting the meaning of abstract symbols may be traced, in part, to Hegel's idea of the "concrete universal." The same notion is to be found in Peirce's principle of pragmatism and in Korzybski's demand (Universal Semantics) that the abstract always be exemplified and understood 'extentionally,' not just 'intentionally,' and that we utilize only those symbols that stand for genuine objects.

As applied to the problem of meaning, the dialectical principle of concreteness implies principally the demand that one not be content solely with giving a general, abstract definition of meaning, but instead show how meaning varies and specifies itself in various types of languages, given the various functions that a symbol may perform. Therefore although our prime interest is a specific type of meaning—the cognitive meaning that the expressions of scholarly language can have—meaning as a general category, and accordingly cognitive meaning will not be able to be determined concretely if we do not take into account other specific types of meaning, such as emotive and prescriptive meaning. Similarly, in discussing the various dimensions of meaning, such as objective meaning for example, we shall succeed in defining them concretely only if we specify them with reference to various types of linguistic expressions—for example if we specify the objective meanings of various categories of words, sentences, descriptions, logical connectives, etc.

Moreover, the explication of the concept of meaning implies the use of a range of general philosophical categories, such as object, experience, symbol, concept, practice, and so on. The concept of meaning will be defined in a relatively concrete manner only on the condition that these fundamental theoretical‑cognitive concepts are specified and made concrete. Thus the development of the dialectical theory of meaning requires a separate section providing an explanation of the basic categories necessary for the construction of the theory.

Finally maximal concreteness in treating the problem of meaning can be achieved only if we identify the practical consequences of the proposed solution. In this case practical consequences of the proposed theoretical explication of the concept of meaning is the determination of the conditions under which meaning can be clear and communicable to others and under which the interpretation of the meaning of others may become maximally adequate. Thus the practical purpose of this entire work is to define precisely the conditions of effective communication among people.

The foregoing specification of the subject matter and method of this work determines its structure. Part One will deal with the epistemological foundations of the dialectical theory of meaning. Part Two will be devoted to an analysis of the various dimensions of meaning and their interconnections. Part Three will trace the genesis of signs and meaning and discuss the general conditions of effective communication.


Each of the three philosophers we have mentioned (and not those alone) seems to agree that the existence of real objects can be neither directly known nor logically proven. And in fact if direct knowledge is taken to mean only that knowledge which is acquired by passive sensory experience, and if proof is taken to be strictly exact proof in the sense of modern formal logic, these assumptions are correct. Hume's great contribution is that he resolved this question for modern philosophy, if only by arriving at a negative result.

Since Russell, Quine, and Carnap are convinced that the use of symbols that assume the existence of external objects cannot be avoided, they attempt to justify it by means of such pragmatic arguments as effectiveness, fruitfulness, simplicity, etc. In any case positivism and empiricism have had numerous points of contact with pragmatism. (James characterized pragmatism as 'radical empiricism,' and the pragmatic criterion of convenience has always been acceptable to positivists.) Of late there have been more elements of pragmatism in the doctrines of the leading empiricists and positivists than ever, and nowhere is this as evident as in the case of so‑called ontological questions. Propositions that were once unhesitatingly proclaimed nonsensical (for example, concerning the reality of the material world) are now considered possible or even advisable alternatives, on practical grounds.

The other important factor with both Quine and Carnap is an increased tolerance for realism and materialism, coupled with the undertaking of a number of necessary steps so that with the acknowledgement of the equal rights of the language of material objects one does not smuggle in the old realistic metaphysics, with its profusion of various objective entities. Hence the effort to restrict the ontological assumptions of a theory to a minimum. This is the purpose of both Russell's theory of description and Quine's method of eliminating names from a language and Carnap's refusal to acknowledge the theoretical significance of 'external questions.' But one must immediately observe that in this important effort to eliminate metaphysics, today—as two and three decades ago—pragmatic arguments go too far as regards material objects.

Thus, in his collection of articles entitled Mysticism and Logic, Russell speaks of physical particles as logical constructs, and in Analysis of Mind he terms matter a "logical fiction." Elsewhere he has written: "Common sense believes that when one looks at a blackboard one sees a blackboard. This is a serious mistake.”  In spite of all his tolerance and objectivity, Quine states that the phenomenalistic conceptual system is epistemologically more fundamental, while asserting in a number of instances that from the phenomenalistic point of view the conceptual scheme of physical objects is merely a "convenient myth.” Carnap says the same thing in different words when he categorically denies that in accepting the language of things one simultaneously accepts a belief in the reality of the world of things. He not only denies the justification of such a belief (which is a logical question), but also the very existence of such a belief, which is an empirical, factual question.

In reality, virtually every normal human being "believes in the reality of the world of things." Hume's problem did not arise because he failed to believe in the existence of things and other people external to his consciousness, but rather because he did not find sufficient reason for such a belief. But neither he nor any other philosopher found sufficient reason against it. In such a situation the basic question arises of the relationship of philosophy and science to common sense. There are numerous fallacious or unsound common‑sense assumptions and interpretations. But in all such cases we know the reasons why we believe them and can explain how we arrive at our misconceptions. We know the optical laws because of which a stick stuck into water necessarily appears crooked. We know the laws of celestial mechanics which explain why the Sun appears to rotate around the Earth. We also knew about those forms of movement which are unknown to common sense and on the basis of which we are aware of all the naivete of the common‑sense point of view (embodied in Aristotelian physics), according to which all bodies are at perfect rest until some external force moves them. But if a straight stick were not really straight and a crooked were not crooked, we would not only be unable to distinguish sensory illusions from adequate perceptions, but also all knowledge would be impossible—for in the final analysis truth and the most abstract scientific propositions depend upon the adequacy of certain perceptions. Similarly, we do not normally err in assessing the reciprocal relations of movement, and for many purposes, particularly operative‑practical ones, the assumption of static objects constitutes a useful simplification.

In brief, common sense is far from being a label for the entirety of human illusions and naive, unfounded beliefs. It is an indispensable basis for any genuine knowledge. Science and philosophy do not proceed from assumptions differing totally from common‑sensical ones. In spite of the critical stance of science and philosophy, their assumptions are revised when good reasons call for it; i.e. when it may be shown that common-sensical notions are leading us to accept as true certain propositions that are assuredly false, or to reject as false propositions that have been established to be true.

There is no common‑sensical axiom that is so firmly and generally accepted as the belief in the existence of an objective world external to our consciousness. Empiricists claim this belief to be 'naively realistic,' and have their reasons for their criticism: they have drawn attention to instances of various illusions and hallucinations where there are no genuine objects corresponding to our experiences, or at least identical to them. But if one may distinguish illusions and hallucinations from other perceptions and assign them to a separate class, this argument merely leads to the conclusion that 'naive realism' should be replaced with 'critical realism,' i.e. observations are not substantively identical to observed objects, and sometimes such objects do not even exist. What additional reasons exist to call material objects 'mythical,' 'convenient formulas,' 'logical constructions,' 'fictions,' etc.?

There are no such reasons. While science critically transcends common sense, pointing out both its errors and its psychological inevitability, positivism—which considers itself to be a scientific philosophy, utilizes a different method: it rejects before it has found arguments, it ascribes to itself the qualities of science in contrast to common‑sensical naivete before it has demonstrated its superiority with respect to other alternatives.

True, one may challenge the view that philosophy should take common sense as its departure point and deviate from it only when sufficient reason exists to do so, One might say that the task of philosophy should not be understood so positively and optimistically, but more negatively and skeptically: one might proceed from universal doubt rather than from the conception that we already know a good deal on the basis of common sense. In the latter case the question would not arise as to whether we have sufficient reason to abandon a common-sensical belief; the issue would be rather whether we have sufficient reason to accept it. But in this instance skepticism is transformed into a kind of dogmatism, for it generalises and gives absolute validity to conclusions from a very limited field of investigation. Modem skepticism—and its founder, Hume—takes into account only two possible sources of cognition of objective reality: sensory observation (conceived as passive contemplation, rather than as an integral element of material practice), and logical reasoning (conceived as the exact, formal derivation of one set of propositions from others in accordance to explicitly formulated rules). One would be justified in saying only that neither of the two forms (without claiming to be the sole ones) provides good reasons to assert anything about existence external to our consciousness. Any other conclusion would be a non sequitur.

Accordingly the first objection to the viewpoint taken by Russell, Carnap, Quine, and many of their followers is that their moderate skepticism (as opposed to the radical skepticism that leads to solipsism) diverges from a widespread and deep‑rooted viewpoint, while lacking sufficient arguments to do so. To that extent, their own viewpoint is arbitrary and unfounded. It becomes fallacious to the extent that it may be shown that in addition to the two forms of cognition that empiricists rely upon solely there also exist others, or if it is shown that these two forms are much more complex than empiricists treat them, consequently that, when sources of knowledge are taken in its totality and in all its complexity, sufficient reasons may be found for belief in the existence of material objects.

Secondly, we have seen that empiricists have converted the ontological question about existence external to consciousness and language into a linguistic question concerning the suitability of the use of terms and forms of language referring to material objects. They permit a choice of various forms of language and conceptual systems, and deny that the decision is cognitive in character. Thus the question of the criterion of choice appears to be not theoretical, but rather a purely practical one.

One can raise against this viewpoint all the well‑known objections that have made pragmatism untenable as a complete philosophical doctrine. First and foremost, without certain theoretical considerations one can never know whether a conceptual system is truly effective and fruitful or merely appears so temporarily. Moreover the very concepts 'effectiveness' and 'fruitfulness' are relative and depend upon the given purpose. Since the purpose for which a given language is used may be cognitive, the criterion of choice between various forms of language must be a cognitive question of the first order. Carnap, speaking about the purposes for which a language may be used, cites only an example that makes his viewpoint plausible. He says: "The purposes for which a language is to be used—for example the purpose of transmitting factual knowledge—will determine the factors relevant to a decision. Effectiveness, fruitfulness, and simplicity of the use of a language of things may be among the decisive factors.”

But obviously the purpose does not need to be objective or social in character—such as the purpose of transmitting factual knowledge. Other purposes may be to advertise the products of a company, propagandize for a church, sect, state or political party. In that instance one may deem as 'effective' and 'fruitful'—with respect to the purpose of a given subject or social group—a conceptual system which is cognitively worthless, i.e. in which scientifically false propositions have the status of true ones, and vice verse.

Thus either the selection of a particular conceptual scheme is in fact a purely practical question, which leads to relativism and subjectivism, or practical criteria must be supplemented with theoretical ones. If one restricts the purposes for which a language may be utilized and if one wishes to provide an objective scientific interpretation by means of the concepts of effectiveness and fruitfulness, this may be achieved, in the final analysis, solely by relating it functionally to the ultimate goal of knowing the objective truth. In that case the question of the selection of the form of a language becomes a significant cognitive question. In addition to the effectiveness and fruitfulness of a set of concepts, the question also arises of their compatibility with all the relevant existing knowledge and their compatibility with one another. This means, first, that a conceptual system must have an empirical justification regardless of its effectiveness and fruitfulness in various instances of practical application and, secondly, that the theoretical investigation of a given system in the framework of a metasystem must demonstrate whether its categories are justified and necessary, whether they may be derived from other categories or, conversely, whether the latter require the former to be defined precisely.

The necessity for such a theoretical analysis of categories may not be denied by appealing to an increasing utilization of the postulation method in modern exact sciences. The postulating of certain concepts is better perhaps than bad explanation, and the postulation method in general deserves respect to the extent that in every theory certain concepts go undefined. But sometimes it is a symptom of lazy thought or the impotence of a theory that it avoids rather than confronts problems. In other words, there should be as few postulated concepts as possible: wherever possible the meaning of terms should be discussed and defined explicitly.


A very common misconception among philosophers and logicians is that every thought is discursive and that the symbols of thought are either discursive or meaningless. One after another modern empiricists and logical positivists have advanced the view that the symbols of metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, and literature do not signify anything, but have only an expressive function. This is the natural consequence of narrowing the ontological basis of their philosophy. If the sole objects are individual things or events, then the sole symbols that 'signify' something and have an extralinguistic meaning are the words and propositions of empirical science, and perhaps also verifiable, true propositions of ordinary speech.

Logical symbols are, then, symbols referring to language, whereas an other symbols would merely express feelings. Carnap said, "The purpose of a lyrical poem which repeats the words 'sunshine' and 'clouds' is not to inform us of certain meteorological facts, but to express the feelings of the poet and to arouse similar feelings in us . . . Metaphysical propositions—like lyrical poems—have only an expressive function, but not a representational one. Metaphysical propositions are neither true nor false, for they state nothing. . . Like laughing, poetry, and music they are expressive. They express not temporary feelings but rather permanent emotional and volitional dispositions."

The concluding Carnap sentence is correct, but it requires two addenda. First, nondiscursive, artistic and other nonscientific symbols express not just permanent emotional and volitional dispositions, but also reflective ones as well. Secondly, if we are confronted by social symbols and not just those meaningful to a single individual, these dispositions are intersubjective and common to all the members of a social community.

What then is the fundamental distinction between scientific and literary symbols?

In both cases the symbols are related to certain intersubjective permanent dispositions to observe, imagine, conceive or feel something. Why does Carnap, like many before him (including Ogden, Richards, and Korzybski) believe that in the former case there is an object that is signified by a symbol, while in the second case there is no such object? Because verification by sensory experience is taken as the sole criterion for the existence of an object.  Thus the word 'cloud' in scientific language signifies an object because a cloud may be seen. When the word 'cloud' is utilized in literary language as a symbol that signifies misfortune, 'misfortune' is not an object because it can be neither seen nor touched.

The difficulty with this empiricist reasoning is that mere verification is an insufficient criterion to ascertain the existence of anything. This was seen even by those empiricists who were sufficiently consistent to derive the solipsistic or moderately skeptical consequences from the acceptance of such a criterion of existence. In this manner Hume came to the conviction that we believe in the existence of material objects, other people, and our own bodies on the basis of instinct and other irrational factors. Accordingly we are unable to know solely on the basis of sensory experience that the word 'cloud' in meteorological language represents the real object—cloud.

But if we include all of practical experience in the criterion of objectivity then the field of objects becomes far broader than the sum of experienced material things. In that case the word 'cloud,' utilized as a metaphor in a lyric poem, does not only serve to express the subjective feelings of the poet and to stimulate similar sentiments on the part of all who become acquainted with the poem, but rather signifies the general form of all such possible sentiments. The association of the word with this form turns the word 'cloud' into a symbol. Accordingly the form per se, is something objective, something that exists relatively independently of the subjective experience of any isolated individual. Each form of feeling, like the form of observation, is a thought, although not a discursive thought or concept. Each form is something general (in the individual), something abstract (in the concrete), and something constant (in the variable). Thus form may be experienced in feeling, in the sensory image, but may be understood only in thought. The interpretation of each symbol involves these two elements: first it expresses a form, something objective, second, this form is conceivable only in thought. 

In the case of the interpretation of scientific, discursive symbols, immediate sensory‑emotive experiences may be omitted. While I read the formula a2 ‑ b2 = (a + b) * (a ‑ b), I experience a sensory perception, but this is not the interpretation of the symbol, but only the perception of the symbol as a material object. Interpretation consists exclusively in understanding a general relation among concepts (the difference between the squares of any two numbers is equal to the product of their sum and their difference). In some cases of scientific symbols the very interpretation may include also sensory and emotional elements. For example the interpretation of the formula a2 + b2 = c2 consists not only in the understanding of a general relation among concepts, but may also include a sensory image—that of a right-angle triangle above each of whose sides a square has been constructed. The interpretation of the symbol 'atom' also may include both elements—the conceptualization of the essential characteristics of a type of material particle and the experience of the sensory image (model) which represents pictorially the structure of this type of particle. One might say that the ideal of scientific knowledge is associating the general with the specific, and the understanding of the general as the concrete, which calls for the association of concepts with images incorporating the greatest abundance of details. Furthermore there can be no question that the interpretation of scientific symbols, and particularly of complex symbols—sentences and sets of sentences constituting a theory—can be accompanied by intense emotional reactions. The theories of Copernicus and Galileo in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, and those of Darwin and Marx in the nineteenth aroused such a storm of sentiment and such vehement reactions that one can hardly think of any work of art to compare with them.

On the other hand a work of art always has an expressive character. By observing or listening to it we have, above all, a visual or acoustic experience of the symbols themselves—letters, tones, movements, shapes, or colors. This is still not interpretation since when a person goes no further than passively perceiving the symbols without troubling himself with their meaning, we say that he has failed to understand the work. Interpretation begins only with a visual or acoustical image of what the symbol means, i.e. with experiencing a more or less powerful emotion which the symbol expresses. But even so we have not yet arrived at what is deepest and most essential in the meaning of the symbol—the object which is designated. As we have seen, the object referred to by the symbol is usually the concept of something general (essential or typical). This is often called an 'idea,' which is, to be precise, always a constant structure of human reflective and affective life. This structure, designated by a symbol, can only be understood in intellectual terms—although at issue here is so‑called nondiscursive thinking, a direct, nonconceptual, simultaneous understanding of the whole. Thus, Urban cites the example of one of Ibsen's symbols in Peer Gynt in order to demonstrate the great cognitive value this nondiscursive understanding may have. When Peer peels the onion to reveal the hidden, inner essence, but winds up with nothing after removing all the layers, there arises in him the painful knowledge that he, Peer, is like that, and this symbol (according to Urban better than any intellectual exposition) points to the social nature of our ego. After we remove all the layers of social ties and relations with other people, nothing remains except emptiness. People who are incapable of forming a firm social bond become as empty as Peer Gynt. One may interpret in this way Engels' famous statement that one may learn more from Balzac's novels about social conditions in France in the early nineteenth century than from all the tomes of the historians, statisticians, and economists of the time.

Thus nondiscursive symbols do much more than merely express and evoke feelings: they also have a cognitive meaning, designating objects which we comprehend by means of nondiscursive thinking.

Accordingly it is in the nature of all symbols—and not just those encountered in science and philosophy—to have a dual relation: toward the objects which they designate and toward the forms of mental life which they express.

Urban termed this dual relation "bi‑representation," which is not the most felicitous term, for different relations are here at issue. The relation of the word 'Mars' to the concept of Mars differs significantly from the relation of that word to the fourth planet with respect to distance from the Sun. Accordingly it is inappropriate to utilize the same word—'representation.' In fact the term is not appropriate to refer to either of the two relations. Even with a symbol such as a landscape, still life, or portrait we could speak of representation only if we took an individual natural scene, a particular person, or group of apples, carrots, or fish literally as the object designated by the symbol. In fact the object of a symbol is always something general and constant, a form, which is not represented pictorially but referred to or designated. It is even less suitable to say that a symbol 'represents' the corresponding form of mental life. It is not clear how the word 'father,' 'pere,' 'Vater,' 'padre,' and 'otac' all represent the same concept. Thus it is much more correct to say that they all express that concept.


Here we arrive at a point where we must provide further explanation of concepts as forms of thought. The best means to do so is by answering the following questions: If the meaning of concepts is comprised of elements of experience (which are social in character, invariant under various conditions) how is it that in time we reject certain concepts even though nothing has changed in the experience upon which the concepts were built? What is rejected in a concept if the experience upon which it is based remains unaltered?

The fact of the matter is that concepts transcend all experience. Human consciousness takes the elements of experience and creates an imaginative whole. In addition to given elements, a concept always contains hypothetical, presumed elements. This idea was implied in the above‑mentioned thesis that the content of a concept is constituted by objective experience that is invariant in the course of the transformation of the given conditions, and that concepts permit us to orient ourselves in new situations. The hypothetical element in a concept is the assumption that in a particular alteration of conditions we will undergo the same or some specific altered experience, with the indirect conclusion that certain experiences are excluded as incompatible with our assumption. For example, our concept of the Moon implies the hypotheses that on one of its hemispheres we would experience terrible heat and on the other terrible cold; that we would suffocate there without oxygen, that all objects—and our own bodies—would be fifty times lighter, that we would find ourselves there beside a sea of stone, without water, and without the slightest sign of life. On the other hand this concept rules out the possibility of the moon appearing like a round coin viewed from the side; the possibility of living beings on its surface, etc. It thus happens that we believe we know things that no one ever experienced, but nevertheless later experience confirms most such beliefs.

Empiricism is incapable of explaining the creativity of human thought. The formation of concepts of a higher order remains a secret if we try to explain the process solely by means of experience. Only the most elementary concepts—pen, house, wall, chair—contain experiential elements and nothing else. Nevertheless, even these involve the assumption that there is a permanent relation between perceptions, that there are real objects to which the structures of perceptions correspond. As far as concepts of a higher order are concerned, such as the categories of the various sciences, there is nearly as great a difference between them and elementary concepts as there is between them and the representations of experience from which they arose.

In the very best of cases empiricists distinguish—in addition to sense‑data—dispositions toward a particular behavior, chiefly toward the utilization of symbols in a particular manner. But we have already seen that these dispositions differ fundamentally from conditioned and unconditioned reflexes, since these are conscious and represent a mechanism for reacting to conditions that we have never actually experienced before. Dispositions to overt behavior are merely the external mechanism of an internal, conscious process. As regards consciousness and its relationship toward behavior, empiricists make an unjustified distinction. With respect to sensory experience, there are genuine differences between external reactions, physiological and other material processes, on the one hand, and internal, conscious experiences—sensations and perceptions, on the other. They acknowledge something that could be called the power of perception, i.e. the power to associate various sensations in an integral sensory experience.

But when it comes to thought, empiricists manifest an extraordinary critical stance, without sufficient justification. They reject not only Descartes' assumption of the "spirit in the machine” but also the very existence of thought as an essential quality of consciousness. Accordingly they do not acknowledge what is analogous to perceptions and sensations—concepts, or something analogous to association—conceptual power and conceptual activity. However, the generality of concepts, and the fact that they imply experience which was never actually lived cannot be explained in any other way but by assuming that at a certain high level of its development consciousness begins to proceed according to its own laws, relatively independently of the laws that prevail in the material world. Its activity consists in the execution of certain operations with experiential contents whose result are certain thoughts which contain not just given elements but hypothetical ones as well.

The assumption of certain mental capacities (conceptual powers) that are manifest in the performance of certain intellectual actions (abstraction, generalization, analysis, synthesis, etc.) is by no means a speculative assumption, as the empiricists assert. As a matter of fact this alone is capable of explaining those forms of successful communication and cooperation among people which cannot be explained by the thesis of the structural similarity of their experience.

For example general agreement reigns in psychiatry today as to the psychoanalytic explanation of the cause of hysteria: virtually all professionals in the field agree that hysteria is caused by the suppression of an unconscious desire, usually sexual in character, which is regarded as immoral or unnatural. Guided by this explanation psychoanalysts utilize the therapy of free association in order to help the patient uncover unconscious feelings and work them through, usually with good results. But what is the experiential basis upon which this theory is based? All that can be observed are certain symptoms of illness and certain facts to be seen in the treatment of the patient—manifestations of a powerful emotional attachment to the therapist ('transfer'), a tendency toward resistance during discussion of events in the patient's past, and cessation of the symptoms after the therapist helps the patient to come up with certain explanations. In themselves these experiential facts explain little as to why psychologists and psychiatrists agree on the existence of unconscious desires, censure of consciousness, repression, etc., and how they understand one another when they utilize the appropriate terms. Similarly experience is quite insufficient to justify their agreement in therapeutic practice. Accordingly we have two orders of facts: (1) the direct experience of individual scientists and (2) mutual understanding and successful cooperation. This agreement of behavior cannot be explained merely by constant elements in experience. Certain other factors of conscious life must be assumed. These are our capacities to derive certain mental actions with constant elements in our experience.

We compare, identify, distinguish, break down, isolate elements given in experience, generalize them (i.e. we expect them even when we notice changes in the external environment), build up new wholes. These actions are not arbitrary—at least insofar as our object is to increase our knowledge and not to fool around. Certain practical goals give us an additional sense of orientation. Among many possible mental creations only those attain and retain the status of concepts that can serve as a means to attain these goals.

The first, rudimentary concepts arise primarily through identifying the invariant elements in our experience and assuming that they will remain invariant even during the transformation of external conditions. Here we still have not removed ourselves too far from experience. The only new factor is the separation of certain experiential elements from their context and the assumption that we will re-experience them on certain occasions. Once we develop a certain basic stock of concepts, we are able to increasingly manifest our freedom and creativity. By means of synthesis we build sets of experiential elements that we never actually experienced. Then we introduce distinctions, and, divide them into subsets, which in turn manifest themselves either as new wholes or as components to integrate into new wholes. In this manner, the more we move away from the concepts encountered in everyday life toward concepts utilized by specialized experts, the less point there is in referring to the content of concepts as a mere reflection. If even the most elementary. given in experience is the result of the action not just of external stimuli but also of our activity by which the quality of the observed object is partially modified, then for higher concepts one may justifiably say that they are in the first place instruments of cognition and of the attainment of certain practical goals and that only a posteriori—after their utilization—one knows whether and to what extent there are elements or reflection in their content.

It is only on the basis of such understanding of concepts that one may explain how a concept may be rejected and what it is in it that is rejected (if not direct experience). What is rejected are the hypothetical elements introduced by our mental action.

If a sociologist suggests that white‑collar employees be considered a special social class, he does so after having identified certain members of society with respect to their capacity as intellectual workers who follow the orders of those who pay them. All the facts of experience he has taken into account are certainly correct, but one may argue whether it is worthwhile to construct the concepts of classes on the basis of the characteristics he has used (instead of others such as: share in the distribution of society's surplus product, property rights with respect to means of production, decision‑making power, the degree of alienation of labor, etc.). One justifies a specific class identification by applying the resulting concept in order to classify social strata in various societies. We may notice that the empirical facts (about people's behavior, joint activities, contact, marriage, mutual conflicts) point to a classification of people different from the classification resulting from the concepts we are utilizing in the given case. This would mean that in concentrating upon one characteristic we have lost sight of essential differences with respect to other characteristics as if we were to classify fish and whales in the same group because they both swim, birds and bats together because they both fly, and men and gorillas in the same category because they walk upright. There are greater differences and contrasts in the various forms of behavior between the lower orders of white‑collar employees (administrative workers, teachers) and the big technical bureaucracy or the heights of the state apparatus, then there are between the former and workers and the latter and capitalists. The hypothetical element in the concept 'white collar employees' is the assumption that the people referred to by the term form a homogenous social grouping (class) because they possess certain identical properties. A revision of the concept does not challenge the empirical facts, but eliminates the adopted criterion of classification.

There are even more hypothetical elements in our synthetic concepts such as the various physical models that serve to illustrate the results of abstract, mathematical thinking. When Rutherford and Bohr derived the first models of the atom, they were unable to explain certain experiential data obtained by spectral analysis of the radiation of certain chemical elements except by analogy with the structure of the solar system. Their models were the result of synthesis, and the hypothetical factor in them—the flight of thought into the unknown in order to explain a known given of experience—was the conception of electrons as a sort of tiny balls revolving around nuclei in orbits, comparable to those of the planets.

The conceptual constancy under various specific conditions is attained by a kind of extrapolation of regularities observed in a series of successive states. When we consider the identical items we have abstracted from previous experiences we assume that they will continue to repeat in the future, without regard to transformations of medium and given conditions. Thus, for example, the history of capitalism from the July Revolution of 1848 to World War II shows that in most societies workers have had to resort to force in order to free themselves from exploitation and implement a classless society. Furthermore, the entire history of class society has shown that never in history have the exploiters voluntarily renounced their privileges. Proceeding from that experience the mind naturally engages in extrapolation. The concept of socialist revolution as exclusively violent and armed is formulated. It is assumed that even under changed conditions in capitalism it would not be realistic to expect capitalists ever to voluntarily renounce their power and profits. This hypothesis was justified with respect to available evidence at the time when it was formulated. But new developments bring about experiences which indicate the lack of the absolute validity of previous extrapolations. Technological development and various economic and political difficulties (depressions and wars) lead to an increasing concentration of power in the hands of a new social stratum—the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy manifests itself as a partial regulator of the conflicts that previously could be resolved only by resort to force. Under the pressure of the working class it makes economic and political concessions that capitalists themselves probably would never have made. A significant portion of the surplus profit that in previous conditions would probably have gone to the bourgeoisie now passes (in the form of increased wages, social insurance, reduced unemployment, etc.) into the hands of the class that created it. The working class also obtains greater political rights, so that in some advanced countries there is the prospect of an evolutionary transformation of capitalist society.

New experience calls for the revision of the hypothetical elements in the previous concept of socialist revolution. What remains essential in it is the qualitative transformation of capitalism toward the construction of classless society.

Such modifications and revisions of the content of concepts are unexplainable if a concept is empirically reduced to mere experience (for new experience did not deny old experience). This is similarly the case if a concept is understood as a mere reflection, for again the negation of a concept does not mean the negation of those elements of it that were truly a reflection of reality.

*   *   *

One may conclude the following on the basis of the foregoing discussion of concepts:

1. Every concept contains certain constant elements of objective, social experience.

2. On the ground of such given elements, which we have abstracted from their immediate experiential context, one builds concepts as more or less permanent forms of consciousness by means of the mental operations of comparison, identification and differentiation, analysis and synthesis, and abstraction and generalization.

3. With such operations we supplement the given empirical elements in concepts with hypothetical elements, by means of which we postulate the constancy of experience in the context of a changing external environment as well as orderly alteration of experience under altered conditions.

4. Accordingly, every concept serves as an instrument to predict experience in the future and to select and classify that experience.

5. In this way all concepts in at least an indirect way, are a means to achieve certain practical goals.


Editorial Preface       vii
Preface to the English Edition ix
Introduction   1


    I. General Logical Problems of Constructing a Theory of Meaning    31
    II. Categories of Objective Reality         43
    III. Symbols    91
    IV. Objective Experience 108
    V. Concepts and Other Categories of Thought     131


  VI. Meaning as a Complex of Relationships  171
  VII. Mental Meaning  179
  VIII. Objective Meaning  188
  IX. Linguistic Meaning  261
  X. Practical Meaning  319


   XI. The Genesis of Signs and Meaning         331
   XII. General Definition of Meaning: The Interrelationships of
          the Individual Dimensions of Meaning         363
   XIII. Conditions of Effective Communication         372

Index of Names

SOURCE: Marković, Mihailo. Dialectical Theory of Meaning [translated by David Rougé and Joan Coddington from the Serbo-Croat], (Dordrecht; Boston: D. Reidel / Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1984), pp. 19-26, 53-58, 99-102, 139-146, v.

Note: Footnotes from original text omitted here.

Volume 81: Dialectical Theory of Meaning

Dialectical Theory of Meaning: Part Two: Linguistic Meaning (Extract) by Mihailo Marković

Dialectical Theory of Meaning: Part Three:
General Definition of Meaning: The Interrelationships of the Individual Dimensions of Meaning

by Mihailo Marković

"The Concept of Critique in Social Science" by Mihailo Marković

“Marx and Critical Scientific Thought” by Mihailo Marković

Human Nature and Present Day Possibilities of Social Development
by Mihailo Marković

“Does Humanism Have an Ethic of Responsibility?”:
Comments by Kai Nielsen & Mihailo Marković, & Responses by Paul Kurtz

Historical Praxis as the Ground of Morality
by Mihailo Marković

Yugoslav Praxis Philosophy Study Guide

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

praxis @ Reason & Society

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