Dialectical Theory of Meaning:
Part Three:

The Interrelationships of the Individual Dimensions of Meaning

Relying upon what we have said thus far, a general definition of meaning may be expressed in the following variations.

(A) When a group of conscious beings, witnessing the appearance of a material object, is disposed to think of an object (or experience any other mental state whose external correlate is an object), and that thought (experience) may be expressed objectively using some means which all the members of the given social group can understand and use, we may say in that case that the given material object is a sign and that it has a definite meaning.

(B) Meaning is a complex of relations of a sign toward

(a) the mental state it expresses,
(b) the object it designates,
(c) other signs of the given system, and
(d) practical operations necessary to the creation, alteration, or identification of the designated object.

(C) The meaning of a sign is a function of the mental state of a subject, other signs by which that state may be described, the object designated by them, and the practical operations by which the object is created, altered or defined.

(D) Definition (C) may be expressed symbolically in the following manner:

          Me (Si) = f(M, S, P, O),
where Me (Si) = meaning of a sign,
          M = the mental state of one or more subjects,
          S = a set of signs or symbols,
         P = a set of relevant practical operations, and
         O = the designated object.

Aside from the last two definitions (in which only the vocabulary has been changed), these definitions are not identical to one another. The differences arise from the fact that our detailed analysis of the dimensions of meaning has not been accompanied by an analysis of their interrelationships, allowing us to enumerate them in varying order and to place varying emphasis upon different aspects of their mutual determination.

The problem of defining the interrelationships of the various elements of meaning may be divided into the following three questions:

1. How do the other elements vary when one of them changes?

2. Can two of the elements be joined (in other words, do all four elements have to stand independently in order for us to say that a sign has a definite meaning)?

3. Can the enumeration of the four elements side by side be replaced by the more precise determination of their structure?

1. Regarding the first question, mental meaning may vary in two basic ways: (a) according to the degree of social involvement, and (b) according to the type of mental experience.

(a) With respect to the degree of social involvement, mental meaning may vary from the purely subjective to the highest possible interpersonal level—universal meaning. In the former case mental meaning cannot be described in terms of the signs of any existing social language. Linguistic meaning exists here only to the extent that the given subject has constructed a personal language in which the given sign occupies particular relationships with respect to other signs. Such a language cannot be translated (otherwise it is not completely personal and the mental states associated with its signs are not completely subjective).

In this case one may speak about objective meaning only to the extent that the designated object is independent of the consciousness of the given subject at a particular point in time, although it is not independent of the consciousness of the given subject generally. Let us say, for example, that 1 have imagined, experienced, and described in terms of personal symbolism love among the Martians. This is an object for me to the extent that it exists even when I am not thinking about it at a particular moment. As soon as I turn my attention once more to my symbols I can re‑experience that object. But since my experience is unique and subjective and my symbolism is incommunicable, with the disappearance of myself and my consciousness, this imagined object similarly disappears. This is not an object in the sense in which we have always defined it: on the subjective‑objective continuum this is something that would fall in the sphere of the subjective. In this instance practical meaning can be only a set of subjective mental operations by means of which an imaginary entity is synthesized of elements of the real world. If there existed even a single physical operation relevant to the given sign that would at least imply that we are dealing with an object for others (since an object measured, produced, or modified by the activity of bodily organs is accessible, at least in principle, to the observation of others).

To the extent that mental meaning has intersubjective character its linguistic meaning is communicable and objective meaning is constant and independent of human consciousness. As a rule real objects are more constant and enduring and more universal in character than ideal and imaginary objects, although there are exceptions. The home of a Belgradian of the nineteenth century could be the objective meaning of a symbol only for a few decades and for a very small number of people. The imaginary personality of Zeus (and God in general) has occupied the conceptual world of millions of people for thousands of years. Such exceptions are possible primarily because there have existed very enduring universal spiritual and emotional needs calling for the construction of certain unreal objects. (This will probably always be true in art.) But in the sphere of cognition, particularly with respect to scientific language, relationships are simpler: the increase in the intersubjective nature of mental meaning is matched be a progression of objective meaning from fictive objects to social objects and from social objects to natural objects that are increasingly widespread, more frequently manifest, and of longer duration.

Along with this, practical meaning, too, varies from exclusively mental operations to increasingly simple bodily operations. Symbols such as 'air,' 'fire,' 'water,' etc. have universal mental meaning, are highly communicable, and refer to natural objects people have encountered every day from their birth; very simple practical operations are associated with them: air is what one breathes, fire is what one cooks with, water is what one drinks, etc.

(b) In accordance with the type of mental experience, mental meaning may vary from representations and concepts to feelings and desires. Accordingly the sign that expresses such meaning may have a cognitive, emotive, or prescriptive character. This sign occupies a particular relationship toward the other signs of the system of which it is part; it may be replaced by them, but they must be of the same character.

We have already seen that the objective meanings of cognitive symbols are known objects. The correlates of representations are chiefly individual objects, while concepts refer to their general relations and structures, and judgments refer to real or imagined (assumed) facts. The designated object of emotive symbols always is a structure of human feelings, whereas prescriptive symbols refer to a desired type of human action.

Various types of practical operations correspond to various types of representations and concepts. Here the following distinction is of essential importance: all representations and concepts which successfully serve some practical activity in the sense that they are associated, at least indirectly, with rules of bodily behavior that lead us successfully to the realization of desired goals are said to have a real content and to refer to real objects. Many commonsense ideas we utilize in everyday life have such a character. The concepts and judgments associated (at least indirectly) with such successful physical operations are said to have a scientific character. Ideas and concepts that lack any even indirect connection with material practice are treated like metaphysical, mythical, religious, artistic concepts and ideas.

The connection between emotive symbols and practice is extremely variable and often indeterminate. Someone's cry of pain may cause people in the immediate environment to react in very different ways in different situations, depending upon the various reasons for the pain. In other words social, practical meaning is greatly dependent upon context. Extremely great theoretical significance is attached to value symbols, whose meaning is largely emotive. The practical meaning of such symbols is comprised of ordinary operations that lead to the satisfaction of a need or the attainment of an ideal that all the members of a particular community wish to attain.

Typically the practical meaning of prescriptive symbols refers to operations which the given subject does not perform spontaneously or voluntarily, but rather at the direction of another. It thus entails an element of coercion.

We thus have outlined the basic functional relations between the variation of the elements of meaning, taking mental meaning as an independent variable. We obtain similar correlations if we take as an independent variable any other element of meaning.

2. With respect to the second question about the elements of meaning, in many cases the meaning of a sign cannot be sharply divided into the four components we have dealt with thus far.

Our entire mental life, and particularly thought, is inescapably linked with various systems of signs and symbols. The elements of experience and thought assume identity and objectivity only after they are linked to the appropriate words or other symbols. Accordingly the mental meaning of a sign becomes effectively formed and identified (so as to be able to be described and analyzed) only when the sign is implicitly correlated with the other signs of the given system (language). And conversely, the definition of use of a sign in a particular context reveals the meaning of the sign only on the condition that there exists at least one conscious subject capable of interpreting the entire process of using signs. Otherwise it remains an ordinary material process, without any particular meaning.

Mental and linguistic meaning differ most distinctly in two types of cases: (1) when the thought (or other mental experience constituting mental meaning) is very specific or personal in character so that it cannot be expressed completely with the stereotypical symbolic apparatus which is available; and (2) when signs are used according to established rules according to custom, without envisaging objects, as if by a conditioned reflex. In the former case there is obviously an element of meaning which more or less transcends the possibility of linguistic expression. In the latter case one clearly may speak of meaning even in the absence of mental processes (envisaging or imagining objects, emotions, etc.) which ordinarily constitute mental meaning. It should nevertheless be pointed out that there must necessarily exist a minimum of consciousness—at least consciousness of the rules for the operation of a symbol and consciousness of the type of situation (context) calling for the application of one rule or another.

The further we travel from such extremes and approach normal situations in the use of signs, and particularly in everyday conversation and professional usage, where we are dealing with great uniformity of meaning, with impersonal, stereotypical thoughts, and conventional sentiments, the more mental meaning coalesces with language in a single entity.

Mental meaning is clearly distinguished from objective meaning when the designated object is a material thing or a fact. But these two components of meaning tend to coincide when the given symbol does not refer to objects in space and time but rather to collective mental states and ideal and imaginary objects. In that case the object is an invariant structure in the experiences of all the subjects of a given social group. Objective meaning then is to mental meaning as a part to the whole, the general to the individual, as the identical to the variable. The two coincide completely in the cases in which mental meaning is a disposition of sufficiently general and schematic character. This occurs with many symbols of abstract meaning in mathematics and symbolic logic. For example the mental meaning of the symbol √-1 is a disposition on the part of all subjects who understand this sign to imagine a number which, when multiplied by itself, yields that same negative number. At the same time this same imaginary number is the objective correlate signified by the symbol √-1.  Here in mental meaning there is no element that is purely individual and subjective, and in objective meaning there is no element that is not mental. In both cases the content is the same, but in the former the accent is upon content as the structure of a disposition of thought, and in the latter the accent is upon the independence of that content from the thought of any individual subject.

But such instances occur exceptionally and only with respect to the meanings of artificial, symbolic languages. Ordinarily the contrast between the world of thought and mental dispositions, on the one hand, and the world of objects, on the other, is so sharp that philosophers treat it as a basic epistemological opposition. The human objective world is so rich, and has expanded and concretized with such speed with the development of science and human practice that the thought of any individual or social group can correspond to it only approximately and transposed in accordance with various subjective prejudices, feelings, desires, and ideals.

One component of meaning that overlaps with all the others, sometimes identifying with them, is practical meaning. Both mental processes and language (or any other system of signs) have their practical side. Ideas and concepts are the results of operations of representation and conceptualization. A linguistic structure always has a potential use in speech and writing. One may distinguish only the act of operation from its result. What we have termed mental meaning is, in effect, the result of certain mental operations and the point of departure for performing new ones. Language is what is established by speech and what will be further modified by future speech.

It is particularly difficult to distinguish object and the practical operations by which it is created, modified and identified. We never become conscious of an object prior to practice and independent of all practice. For precisely that reason the notion of a thing ‘in itself’ is a totally empty abstraction. It is only when we attempt to speak about an object as something independent of a particular, concrete set of practical operations, rather than as independent of human practice generally, that we can distinguish with sufficient clarity what was originally given from what was created in these operations. Of course what was originally given is itself the result of certain previous operations, by either ourselves or other people. But since we always speak about practical meaning in relation to a particular set of operations P (which may be explicitly indicated in an operational definition), in most cases we can distinguish it relatively clearly from objective meaning, which yields us an integral concept of the object (which includes both the originally given and the modifications instituted by the set of operations P).

There are two marginal instances in which the objectively given and practice merge in one so that apparently one dimension of meaning disappears. The first is the case of fictitious "pure objects" independent of practice—objects 'in themselves.' Here, we are only able to talk about objects without specifying the practical operations relevant to them in a given context. The result is that we are no longer able to differentiate the given from the created. Accordingly both dimensions of meaning merge into one. Anyone who asserts that objects 'in themselves' are 'pure objects' has no more right to say so than someone else who says that objects 'in themselves' are purely the product of our (mental or physical) practice.

We encounter the second instance with all imperatives and linguistic expressions whose sole meaning is to stimulate us to activity. Such is the case, for example, with the expression 'open the window.' Its practical meaning is the operation of opening the window. But this is also its objective meaning: the expression refers (for everyone who understands it) to an objectively given type of human behavior. Here it is not the case that a dimension of meaning is simply lacking but that the two dimensions have merged to the extent that they cannot be distinguished.

The merging of the two dimensions of social meaning should be contrasted with instances in which one dimension is genuinely lacking, so as to note the enormous difference. Let us assume that while listening to Mozart's Requiem someone has been deeply moved and taken the music as a sign to give up his job, family and other social obligations and enter a monastery. In this case the music has assumed a practical meaning. But other people do not interpret Mozart's Requiem in this way, and perhaps even our friend will not have the same experience the next time he hears the music. In this instance objective meaning is missing—one cannot say that joining a monastery is the objectively given type of action designated by this music.

It is an interesting question whether there are symbols in which all components of meaning have merged into one. To the extent that one may answer this question in the affirmative, the best prospects for inclusion in this type of symbol are those imperatives which are expressed by sufficiently stereotypical terms and which refer to mental rather than physical practical operations. An example is the expression, "Look!" In this instance mental meaning is consciousness of a type of behavior: this consciousness is formu­lated linguistically by means of other symbols which associate what it means to look and what may be looked at (linguistic meaning). Objective meaning is that type of behavior as something objectively given in society. This might also be understood as practical meaning.

But it appears that each such example may also be interpreted to demon­strate the differences between the individual dimensions of meaning. Such possibilities exist particularly with respect to mental and practical meanings that may include various types of things. Thus for example the mental meaning of the expression ‘Look!' may range from actual looking to imagining this type of mental process; from a readiness to obey to feelings of resistance and even revolt. On the other hand the practical meaning of the expression 'look!' ranges from the act of looking to a set of all possible actions by which one may test whether others are actually looking. Everything depends upon the situation, the type of people doing the interpreting, and their function in the given situation.

On the other hand even if one may imagine the conditions in which the meaning of a symbol represents an entity which cannot be broken down into separate components, the fact remains that in most cases one can easily distinguish various dimensions of meaning: mental, linguistic, objective, practical.

3. Addressing the third question and in conclusion of the analysis of meaning, the enumeration of the basic components of meaning may be replaced by a definition which presents their interrelationships in precise terms.

The symbol Si has the meaning = Df that there is an object O which is the consequence of a set of practical operations P and to which there corresponds a disposition of mental reaction M inherent in a set of subjects (x), and which manifests itself as a consequence of the appearance of the symbol Si and is expressed symbolically by the relation of Si to the set of Symbols Ŝ.

The definition is provided here using the following eight concepts:

1) object= O.
2) the set of subjects of a particular society = x
3) the set of symbols of a particular system = Ŝ
4) the disposition of mental reaction (including the imagining of an object or any other mental experience related to it as well as behavior predicated upon imagining, wishing or feeling) = M
5) the set of practical operations by which the object is defined (created, altered, measured) = P'
6) the relation 'to be a consequence'
7) the relation of correspondence
8) the relation 'to be symbolically expressed'

The first five concepts represent the basic constituents of the complex of relations into which the phenomenon of meaning may be broken down. The remaining three concepts pertain to the most important relations: (1) the determination of an object by means of practice and the determination of consciousness by language (the determination process is in both cases mutual), but in a definition of meaning it has to be stressed that the objects to which symbols refer are always determined by practice, and that the mental dispositions in question are shaped by language); (2) correspondence between mental dispositions and objects, and (3) the set of relations between the given symbol and other symbols by which the given disposition is shaped and by means of which it may be expressed.

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), chapter XII, pp. 363-371.

Volume 81: Dialectical Theory of Meaning

Dialectical Theory of Meaning: Part One (Extracts) by Mihailo Marković

Dialectical Theory of Meaning: Part Two: Linguistic Meaning (Extract) 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

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

praxis @ Reason & Society

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