Relationship of meaning with reality
2001 01 234
Reality as a paradigm and its meaning has been deliberated umpteen times by prominent thinker’s right from Aristotle, Descartes in the west to Shankara and Lao-tzu in east. Post modern philosophers like Foucault and Derrida and Wittgenstein have composed treatises in quest of understanding reality and its relationship with human being.
Descartes said that he could doubt the existence of the external world and even be skeptical of the existence of his own body. For Descartes, the only fact he could be certain of was the fact that he was doing the doubting. In order to doubt the existence of the world, he must exist as a thinking entity. Descartes mind could exist even in the absence of external influences. Descartes famous statement: "I think, therefore I am", was the result of such thinking.
Even philosophers in east have debated the issues concerning reality with great fervor. Sankaracharya established advaita movement in which he postulated the non-dualistic nature of the world. The anti multiplicity advaitic viewpoint proposed that Brahman alone is truth.
Reality can be looked at from two angels first is to consider reality as it appears the other is to use reason to deduce reality from the surrounding. Whichever approach we take the inference would not be possible until we bear in mind the relation of mind with reality. For it is the mind which interprets, deciphers the reality and thus brings out the meaning.
So if reality is looked at as a factual data which our senses perceive then it is possible to interpret reality as nothing but an electromechanical sensation which is sense comprehendible. The pertinent question is, that if reality is to be assumed as an electromechanical sensation than is there any other reality beyond the sensation?
This leads us to the ancient Indian view
“brahmam stayam jagat mithya”
(There is only one eternal truth everything else is false)
But to talk of things that fall outside reality is to engage in meaningless discourse, because there is nothing for such thoughts to picture.
Linguistically meaning is defined as the semantic essence of a sentence or dictum. Meaning is not words or sentences but it is the intention of words. The purpose of any exchange of words is to convey meaning. Since words are arbitrary empty tokens they can contain no meaning therefore the meaning is concealed in the arrangement of the words rather than the words themselves (GN Devy Lectures). Thus meaning has to be interpreted and the act of interpretation has to be done by mind. To treat 'meaning' as in some way an operation or relation of 'mind' leads one into the swamp of philosophical debate about mind and leaves one as puzzled as before about the most suitable philosophical approach to 'meaning'. Thus for meaning to exist mind has to be assumed as a reality. Thus meaning exits at much deeper level than words. Since human communication suffers from loss of information there is a loss of information which leads to difference between intended and interpreted meaning. So if the difference between intended and interpreted meaning is large then the communication loses its meaning.
Meaning henceforth becomes the central concept of information exchange in philosophy, and in everyday life.
Meaning, Reality and Language:
The central theme in understanding language is how it relates to the world we observe (reality). If we try to reduce the world and language to its basic components we will observe that components of language have one to one mapping to the world. Thus it is possible to assign one word for every real object (GN Devy Lectures). If this approach is followed than the world is reduced a set of discreet atomic facts
In words of Wittgenstein:
Language is also reduced in this fashion and each level of the structure of language matches a level of structure in the world. So, language can be reduced to a collection of propositions, which match facts in the world. These propositions can be broken down into elementary propositions (or atomic propositions), which correspond to states of affairs in the world.
This provides us with a view of language that mirrors all aspects of the real world (GN Devy Lectures). If this approach is followed then words gain their meaning by naming objects in the world. The crucial fact is that language is the only way by which we can picture the world. Thus the object being pointed at literally is the meaning of its name
The simple signs employed in propositions are called names"1
If this view is accepted then words, which have more than one meaning, will be difficult to account for using the theory mentioned. Furthermore words like god and symbols
like ∏ or Om have no reality counterpart. These words have a meaning, yet the meaning does not seem to exist as an object in reality.
Thus we conclude that meaning of a word cannot be determined by the real object its points to and to determine meaning we have to delve deeper.
It turns out that to meaning has one to one relation with the understanding and since understanding is a phase of conceptualization, which is mentally experienced, it is impossible to ascribe a real object. Instead, the meaning of words should be understood by the way in which they are used within their social context (Chomsky). In other words, the meaning of a word is nothing more than the role it plays in language. A word's meaning simply is the word's role in our grammatical calculus, and its use in language.
In the words of Wittgenstein:
"Point to a piece of paper. - And now point to its shape - now to its colour - now to its number (that sounds queer). - How did you do it? - You will say that you `meant' a different thing each time you pointed. And if I ask how that is done, you will say you concentrated your attention on the colour, the shape, etc. But I ask again: how is that done?"7
The above mentioned emphasizes the importance of meaning as a mental act. So even though the object is the same i.e. paper when referring to its different attributes we mean different things. This further establishes the relationship between language as representative of reality and meaning. Thus to determine meaning we need to examine the complete social context. At this point it is also worth noticing that same reality can have different meanings since meaning is both language dependent and context dependent. In the above example of paper the same reality will have different meanings depending on the intention. Thus it is the context, which will decide whether it means paper or color.
Here is short story depicting the relationship of reality and meaning:
On one such occasion Ribhu, who had put on the disguise of a village rustic, found Nidagha intently watching a royal procession. Unrecognized by the town-dweller Nidagha, the village rustic enquired what the bustle was all about, and was told that the king was going in procession.
"Oh! it is the king. He goes in procession! But where is he?" asked the rustic. "There, on the elephant," said Nidagha. "You say the king is on the elephant. Yes, I see the two," said the rustic, "but which is the king and which is the elephant?" "What!" exclaimed Nidagha. "You see the two, but do not know that the man above is the king and the animal below is the elephant? What is the use of talking to a man like you?" "Pray, be not impatient with an ignorant man like me," begged the rustic. "But 'you said 'above' and 'below' -- what do they mean?"
Nidagha could stand it no more. "You see the king and the elephant, the one above and the other below. Yet ' you want to know what is meant by 'above' and 'below''' burst out Nidagha. "If things seen and words spoken can convey so little to you, action alone can teach you. Bend forward, and ' you will know it all ' too well". The rustic did as he was told. Nidagha got on his shoulders and said: "Know it now. I am above as the king, you are below as the elephant. Is that clear enough?" "No, not yet," was the rustic's quiet reply. "You say you are above like the king, and I am below like the elephant. The 'king', the 'elephant', 'above' and 'below' -- so far it is clear. But pray, tell me what you mean by 'I' and 'you'?"
When Nidagha was thus confronted all of a sudden with. the mighty problem of defining a 'you' apart from an 'I', light dawned on his mind. At once he jumped down and fell at his Master's feet saying: "Who else but . My venerable Master, .Ribhu, could have thus drawn my mind from the superficialities of physical existence to the true Being of the Self? Oh! Benign Master, I crave thy blessings
It is almost impossible to conclude whether language does or does not reflect reality and whether meaning is a real or an imaginary postulate. But nevertheless we all have notions in which we regard diction as meaning-full or meaning less (sense or non sense). But the vital point lies in deciding what is meaning? So defining meaning in tangible terms would be perhaps a futile effort because meaning if it exits, exits at a plane different from that of words thus its would be tricky to describe meaning using words. Similarly questions like whether reality has any meaning? Or whether meaning exits (is real)? are questions where we will have no complete answer. These questions by their nature are open ended but it is crucial understand that such questions are the most pertinent questions in any discipline where exhaustive thinking is a requirement.
Meaning and reality thus are inseparable twins, which form the basis of communication, language and maybe our existence.