"Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself, and then comes to resemble that picture" - Iris Murdoch

Sunday 25 February 2018

The meaning of meaning

Path among Pines by Emily Carr, c. 1930
Path among Pines, c.1930, by Emily Carr (Vancouver Art Gallery) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I once had to write an essay about the meaning of meaning. More precisely, we were asked whether the meaning of a sentence was the same as the conditions in which it would be true. But I thought of it as the meaning of meaning, and decided that I had had just about enough of philosophy, and of studying in general. This "philosophy of language" nonsense was the last straw. I don't think this any more—in fact, I think all social scientists should know some, just as they should know some maths. But that isn't what this post is about. Not yet anyway.

I'm going to write instead about the other meaning of "meaning"—the wishy-washy one we apply to events, actions, situations etc. when we ask whether they are meaningful to us, and how. I'm going to be summarising part of the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor's 1971 article "Interpretation and the Sciences of Man". Taylor is explaining why we need the right-hand column in the matrix I included in my last post:

interested in causes)
interested in meanings)
e.g. classical and Marxian political economy
e.g. Wittgensteinian language games
e.g. rational choice theory, game theory
e.g. dramaturgical models

That matrix was philosopher of science Martin Hollis' window, a set of four approaches in social science he sees as jointly needed to understand society, but difficult to put together.

I hope it's fairly intuitive why the left-hand column matters: one thing we'd like from social scientists is good explanations of what makes things happen the way they do. But it might not be clear what exactly the right-hand column is about, and why it should be roughly equal in importance (or even more fundamental, as Hollis suggests). I think Taylor offers a good starting-point for thinking about this, and I'd be keen to hear from readers whether what I'm presenting here makes sense, what might be missing, and where might be a good place to find it.