An Interactive Theory of Meaning
Theories of meaning are apt to emphasize one or other aspect of what is conceived as a polarity: either meaning is constituted by features of the mind (the subject, the brain) or it is constituted by features of mind-independent reality (objects, the environment). Thus we have internalist theories of meaning and externalist theories. Some theorists seek to conjoin these elements, holding that meaning is the combination of an internal factor and an external factor (“dual component” theories). But what about the idea that meaning might be a kind of melding or merging of the two factors—a third factor that involves the internal and external but doesn’t reduce to them? Could it be the nexus of mind and world—their manner of connection? Let’s see if we can make anything intelligible of this idea: could meaning consist in the process or procedure of mind-world conjoining?
The suggestion I want to consider is that meaning results from the interaction of mind and world; it is an interactive property. Crudely, meaning is syntax interacting with the environment: it isn’t syntax alone or the environment alone, or the conjunction of the two, but rather the activity (process, procedure) of one interacting with the other. It isn’t sense and it isn’t reference; it’s the manner in which these two interact (interface, mesh). It’s the way language use and reality play off each other. It’s not the dancers but the dance. To make the idea concrete, let’s consider proper names: this will give us a feel for the interactive theory. Objects can elicit states of mind and accompanying linguistic actions, as when the appearance of someone elicits an act of recognition and an associated utterance of that person’s name: this is world-to-mind interaction. It happens all the time (sometimes the interaction breaks down, as when you can’t remember a person’s name). The environment is acting on your mind and producing a certain result (or failing to). Evidently this has something to do with what the name means. Equally, the name can operate to bring about a change in the condition of the environment, as when you call for someone by name: here the denoted individual acts in accordance with the speaker’s use of the name and his accompanying intentions. This is mind-to-world interaction. The process is two-way—it is an interaction. The world acts on you and you act on it. Evidently both types of action reflect the meaning of the name: maybe the name means what it does because of these interactions. The meaning of the name isn’t, according to this theory, an image or a description or a concept located in the mind of the speaker; nor is it the object spoken about: rather, it is the pattern of interactions characteristic of the name. It’s the dance not the dancers, the process not the particulars. The same can be said of other types of word: the word “table” is used in multiple interactions with tables, and its meaning is a function of these interactions. You can invite someone to sit down at table or request that someone bring you a table, and you can utter the word “table” in making statements about tables (“That’s a handsome table”). Think of the whole history of such word-world interactions along with their psychological background—the myriad interactions between tables and table talk (and table thought). The idea of the interactive theory is that this is where meaning resides—this is where it takes its rise. It isn’t what the interaction is between that constitutes meaning but the interacting nexus—the fact of one thing acting on another in a reciprocal manner.
Here we might think of Wittgenstein. In the Tractatus Wittgenstein identified meaning with an isomorphism between propositions and facts (thought and world), thus locating it in the relation between mind and world, not in mental or worldly elements alone (or even together). In this respect his picture theory resembles the interactive theory—it’s all about relations not relata—but his chosen relation is geometric in inspiration and obtains at a specific moment of history. By contrast, the interactive theory adopts a dynamic and causal type of relation that runs in both directions (do facts also depict propositions in Wittgenstein’s scheme?). In the Investigations we find a theory that treats meaning as temporally extended use (as a “practice” or “custom”). This is rather in the spirit of the interactive theory except that that theory stresses a two-way relation of reciprocal action and brings the environment in directly (so it’s not a simple use theory). The interactive relation is what does the work in creating meaning. In Wittgenstein’s lingo we could say that our “form of life” is an ongoing interaction between self and world, organism and environment; and meaning is embedded within the broader range of interactive relations. So the theory has elements in common with both the Tractatus theory and the Investigations theory, while having its own distinctive character: meaning is both relational and dynamic, according to this theory, because interaction is an active relation.
Can we say more about what an interactive relation is? Consider the friendship relation: it consists of a pattern of interactions spread out in time. This pattern is distinctive to friendship and involves a whole complex of interactions—meetings, sentiments, obligations, conversations, etc. It isn’t like a spatial relation or a genetic relation or a pictorial relation: it is formed and maintained by a temporally extended series of personal interactions (the same goes for the relation denoted by “lover of”). Many social relations work like this—they are essentially interactive. Or take the relation expressed by “plays” (as in “Roger plays tennis”): this is also an interactive relation, involving many types of interaction with equipment, places, and other people. Meaning (we could also say reference) is likewise constituted by interactive relations of the same general category, though obviously of a different type. The important point is that meaning arises from interaction not from the interacting elements considered in themselves. In paradigm cases the interaction is causal (though also psychologically grounded), as with words for material things in the environment; but it need not be restricted to causal interactions, as in the case of words for numbers and other abstract entities. Here we have interplay between mathematical reality and our minds (and brains), though the relation is not causal: we call numbers by names, and numbers may elicit from us an appropriate utterance (“I see that the number five is featuring a lot in this series”). The same may be said for moral values whether conceived as mere emotions or as robust platonic entities. Words can differ in all sorts of ways, and the nature of the interactions that define them will also differ.
It might be said that the interactive theory, as so far formulated, isn’t a theory at all, because it hasn’t explained how interactions give rise to meaning, or even what meaning is. This is perfectly true: the theory says nothing about the choice between truth conditions and assertibility conditions theories, say, and it is silent on the process whereby temporally extended interactions “give rise” to meanings (is this a simple identity or something more transformative?). But the theory as outlined here isn’t intended to answer such questions: it simply offers a proposal about what kind of thing meaning is—its ontological category. It is aptly seen as a kind of process theory, as opposed to a substance theory: meaning consists of an interactive process not of some sort of substance-like item (a mental image or a physical object in the environment). Compare process theories of the self: the self isn’t some kind of substance, mental or physical, but is more like a series of events spread out in time. Indeed, it might be argued that the troubles faced by standard theories of meaning arise because they mistake the ontological category of meaning, failing to see that it is a matter of reciprocal actions over time not of locatable items existing at specific times. As to the question of how interactions coalesce into meanings, we can remain studiedly neutral, even postulating a locus of mystery if we are so inclined: that is, we don’t know how interactions become meanings, and we may never know. That question is above our pay grade; we are happy if we can at least find the general ontological category to which meanings belong. We are offering a “picture” of the kind of thing that meaning is not attempting to a give a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for meaning or something of the kind. Nothing stops us from invoking the causal-historical chain conception of names, say, and recruiting it as part of a more inclusive interactive account of how names function. What matters is that the phenomenon of meaning is subject to an interactive mode of description, even though many questions and puzzles are thereby raised. We start to see in general terms how mind and world together cooperate in producing meaning.
It is a consequence of this picture that meaning is not possible without mind-world interactions, so that brain-in-vat meaning looks impossible. But we must remember that minds can interact with themselves thereby producing meaning; what is precluded is the kind of meaning our words have when we are not brains in a vat, specifically words for material objects in the environment. This is notoriously disputed territory, but there is certainly a respectable tradition that requires that without an environment with which a speaker interacts there can be no meaning concerning such an environment. And it is surely reasonable to think that our vocabulary for the environment requires the existence of such an environment: we mean what we do about the external world precisely because we interact with it on a daily basis—whatever may be said about hypothetical brains in vats. The external world plays a role equivalent to the internal world in making human language as we have it possible. A normal child’s language has the meaning it does partly in virtue of living in a world with which it interacts, verbally and otherwise. This is the kernel of truth in externalist theories of meaning.
Obviously a lot more needs to be said to make the interactive theory into a full-blooded theory of meaning, but the general shape of it looks clear enough. It is surprising that the theory has so little visibility in the philosophical landscape. We mean what we do in virtue of the fact that we interact mentally with the world around us. Doesn’t this have the sound of truism?