Q&A: Meaning Symbol Sign and Mind (Part 1)

On one of my recent posts, a commentor named “psycho” asked me some very good questions. I decided I needed to respond in more detail than just a single comment reply. I respond in pieces below, so just for context, here is psycho’s entire original comment.

But if you take more meanings, and put them together to get yet another meaning. Don’t you feel like those meanings were again like symbols creating a new meaning?

In my understanding, every bit of information is a symbol – what is represented by the invididual neurons in the brain. And if you take all related bits (that is neurons, symbols), and look at it as a whole, what you get is meaning.

The sentence is a symbol, and it is made of word-symbols. And the list of word-symbols makes a meaning. Which, when given a name (or feeling), becomes a symbol, that can be further involved in other meanings.

I’ll respond to each paragraph in a separate post, in order to get all of my thoughts down in a reasonably readable fashion. Here is part one.

Construction of Symbols

But if you take more meanings, and put them together to get yet another meaning. Don’t you feel like those meanings were again like symbols creating a new meaning?

I try to make a very strong statement of the difference between symbols, signs and their “meanings”. Perhaps I’m being too analytical, but it allows my to think about certain types of information events in a way I find useful in my profession as a data modeller. So let me try to summarize here the distinctions I make, then I’ll try to answer this question.

First, in my writings, I separate the thing represented by a symbol from the thing used as the representation. The thing represented I call the “concept” or “meaning”. The thing which is used to represent the concept I have termed “the sign”.  A symbol is the combination of the two. In fact, a specific symbol is a discrete object (or other physical manifestation) built for the express purpose of representing something else. That specific symbol has a specific meaning to someone who acts as the interpreter of that symbol.

As I have come to learn as I continue reading in this subject area, this is a somewhat ideosyncratic terminology compared to the formal terms that have grown out of semiology and linguistics. To that I say, “so be it!” as I would have  a lot of re-writing to do to make my notions conform. I think my notions are comparable, in any case, and don’t feel I need to be bogged down by the earlier vocabulary, if I can make myself clear. You can get a feel for some of my basic premises by poking around some of my permanent pages, such as the one on Syntactic Media and the Structure of Meaning.

There is obviously a lot of nuance to describing a specific symbol, and divining its specific meaning can be a difficult thing, as my recurring theme concerning “context” should indicate. However, within my descriptive scheme, whatever the meaning is, it is not a symbol. Can a symbol have several meanings? Certainly. But within a specific context at a specific time, a specific symbol will tend to have a single specific meaning, and the meaning is not so fluid.

How do you express a more complex or different idea, then? It is through the combination of SIGNS which each may represent individual POTENTIAL concepts that I am able to express my thoughts to you. By agreement (and education) we are both aware of the potential meanings that a specific word might carry. Take for example this word (sign):

blue

When I show you that word in this context, what I want you to recognize is that by itself, I am merely describing its “sign”-ness. Those four letters in that combination form a word. That word when placed into context with other words may represent several different and distinct ideas. But by itself, it is all just potential. When you read that word above, you cannot tell if I’m going to mean one of the colors we both might be able to see, or if I might be about to tell you about an emotional state, or if I might describe the nature of the content of a comedian’s act I just saw…

While I can use that sign when I describe to you any of those specific meanings, in and of itself, absent of other symbols or context, it is just a sign with all of those ambiguous, potential meanings, but in the context of our discussion, it has no specific meaning.

It has a form, obviously, and it has been constructed following rules which

Photo of an Actual Stop Sign In Its Normal Context

you and I now tacitly understand. Just as a stop sign has been constructed following rules we have been trained to recognize.

Imagine now a warehouse at the Department of Transportation where a pile of new stop signs has been delivered. Imagine they are laid flat and stacked on a pallet, just waiting to be installed on a corner near you.

While they lay in that stack, they certainly have substance, and they each have the potential to mean something, but until they are placed into a proper context (at a corner by a road) their meaning is just as ambiguous as the word sign above. If you were driving a fork lift through the warehouse and came upon the pallet, would you interpret the sign right then as applying to you? Probably not! Could you say, just be looking at an individual instance of a sign, exactly which cars on which road it is intended to stop? No, of course not.

So this is the distinction between the sign and the meaning of a symbol. The sign is a physical construct. When placed into a recognized context, it represents a specific meaning. In that context, the sign will only carry that one specific meaning. If I make another instance of the sign and put it in a different context, while the signs may look the same, they will not mean the same, and hence I will have made two different symbols.

Just to be perfectly clear on the metaphor I’m presenting, here is a “pile” of signs (words) which I could use in a context to express meaning:

blue

blue blue

blue blue blue blue

Now let me use some of them and you will see that given a context (which in this case consists of other word signs and some typcal interpretations) I express different meanings (the thoughts in your head when you read them together):

once in a blue moon

blue mood

blue sky project

blue eyes crying in the rain

But make no mistake, while i have now expressed several different ideas to you using the same sign in different contexts, they are each, technically, NOT THE SAME SIGN AT ALL! Rather they are four examples of a type of sign, just as each of the stop signs on that pallet at the DoT are examples of a type of sign, but each is uniquely, physically its own sign! This subtlety is I think where a lot of people’s thinking goes awry, leading to conflation and confusion of the set of all instances of a sign with all of the concepts which the SET of signs represents.

To make this easier to see, consider the instance of the word (sign) “blue” above which I have colored red. That is a specific example of the “blue” sign, and it has a specific, concrete meaning which is entirely different from the word (sign) “blue” above which I have colored green.  The fact that both phrases have included a word (sign) of “blue” is almost coincidental, and does not actually change or alter the individual meanings of the two phrases on their own.

Finally, since I have belabored my nit-picking a bit, if I were to re-word your initial statement slightly to use the terminology I prefer on this site, It would change to:

But if you take more [signs], and put them together to get yet another meaning. Don’t you feel like those [signs] were again like symbols creating a new meaning?

And to this question, it should be clear, that my answer is “Yes, precisely: when you put other signs together, you create new meaning”.

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Just What Is Meaning? A Lay Perspective

7/20/2005

The Origin of Symbols, Code and Meaning

Memories are NOT CODED. They are ANALOG recordings, not unlike phonograph records and the old photographs before the invention of digital cameras. There is some evidence that memories are stored in a manner similar to holographs within the medium of the brain. Memories may include recordings of coded information, this would be how symbols are recognized.

 Only when communication between brains is needed does CODE come into play. One brain must create appropriate SYMBOLS which represent the information. These symbols must be physicalized in some manner because the only input mechanism available to the other brain are the five senses of the body. Information is packaged and lumped, nuances and unimportant details are necessarily removed, symbols are selected and generated. If the other brain is receptive, then the symbols are sensed by the body, evoking the memory centers of the second brain. Communication is completed if the second brain understands the code and “remembers” the meaning in its own analog memory.

The Origin of Language

The brain records sensory inputs as memory. The mind constructs an internal symbol system describing the sensory information in ways the human body can communicate or relate the information. Details of the input which the mind cannot put a name to may be remembered or memorable, but cannot be communicated. Have you ever experienced something that you were unable to describe to someone else who had not experienced it?

Two people who have experienced the same or similar types of events can have a conversation about it and begin to form a language. Language is a shortcut to memory. It is the human capacity for the invention of vocabulary that sets them apart from other creatures (and from computers). If two people share a new experience, they’ll be able to talk about it by recognizing the same features in the sensory record and describing it in terms that evoke the same memory in the other person. Eventually, they’ll form a unique vocabulary of short hand symbolic terms and phrases to permit efficient communications. This is how strangers who meet at 12-Step Meetings are able to express and understand each other.

 But if only one of the two persons has experienced the events, there is no referent memory in one of the two. Think of the old saw “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Have you ever heard a new musical piece and tried to explain it to someone who hasn’t heard it? It takes a lot of explanation and yet is ultimately a failure.

 Consider another example: Wine tasting connoisseurs

 These people have an intense sensitivity to subtle features of taste and smell making their experience of wine very rich with information. More importantly, they have been able to attach vocabulary to these differences in unique ways that allows them to communicate with other wine experts. Of course, their success at communicating is predicated on the existence of other individuals with similar talents and experiences. When they try to explain to someone without the sensitivity of taste, their words merely confuse or sound hilariously out of place.

 This is one example of how “context” arises in human communication.

 What does this suggest for our major theme? 

  1. The features that are recognized in the sensory record are dependent first on the individuals whose senses recorded them
  2. The features that are chosen for communication are dependent on the interests and needs of the individuals doing the communicating. Other features that at first do not seem to contribute to the remembrance of the experience are often ignored or discounted.
  3. The vocabulary describing and naming these features is dependent on both the individual who sensed and on the people to whom they try to explain the sensation. Thru trial and error, the person who is trying to communicate will hit upon terms that find resonance in their audience.
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