Meaning and Consciousness

                                                Meaning and Consciousness

 

 

Is it possible to mean something unconsciously? Grice’s bus conductor rings the bell three times, meaning that the bus is full: could he do this unconsciously?  [1] That would mean, presumably, that he intentionally rang the bell three times as a result of having an unconscious intention to cause in his audience the belief that the bus was full, by means of their recognition that he has such an intention. He finds himself ringing the bell and yet there is nothing in his consciousness that might explain why he is doing this. He would be puzzled about why he is ringing the bell, possibly filling the explanatory gap by telling himself that he likes the sound of it—yet all the while unconsciously intending to induce a belief in an audience, i.e. meaning something. This scenario sounds grossly implausible, indeed unintelligible: speaker meaning is necessarily conscious. That may be because Gricean intentions themselves are necessarily conscious, given their nature and complexity, or it may be that we need to make it explicit that speaker meaning requires consciously intending to produce an effect in an audience; in either case speaker meaning requires certain conscious intentions, since it cannot occur unconsciously. This implies that we cannot speak to each other unconsciously, unaware of what we mean. We may speak to each other with unconscious aggression or unconscious bias, but we cannot speak to each other with unconscious meaning—we have to be aware of what we mean in order to mean. But we don’t have to be aware of our aggression or bias in order to be aggressive or biased.

            I would say more: not only must we have conscious communicative intentions in order to mean, we must also be conscious of those conscious intentions—that is, we must be self-conscious. The reason for this is that we must know our communicative intentions in order to engage in acts of speaker meaning. When I mean something by an utterance I know what it is that I mean, i.e. I know my intentions—so I must be aware of them. That is not necessarily true of all intentions: I might have intentions and act on them without attending to what I am intentionally doing—I might be quite distracted while intentionally tying my shoelaces, say. But I cannot be thus distracted from my acts of speaker meaning—they cannot be performed “automatically”. I may not attend to my mental acts of looking while driving (I’m thinking of something else), but I cannot in the same way fail to attend to what I am saying (my mind cannot be elsewhere). How could one have intentions of full Gricean complexity without paying attention to them? I cannot tell you to remember to buy milk while at the same time concentrating intently on a chess problem. Speaker meaning requires concentration, focus, and single-mindedness. It’s not like fidgeting or biting one’s nails or humming; it’s more like thinking about a mathematical problem or learning a new tune or looking through a telescope. In order to speak to someone you have to pay attention to what you are doing: it has to be done self-consciously. Thus I am not only (consciously) meaning something by my utterance, I am also aware that I am meaning something. Speaker meaning embeds self-reference. When I mean something by what I say I know that I consciously mean something. My meaning something is a self-conscious act.

            Meaning, then, is invested in consciousness, heavily invested: it needs consciousness as a medium. It takes up conscious space.  A world without consciousness is a world without speaker meaning, and hence without linguistic meaning (if we follow Grice). Zombies cannot mean anything by their words (if indeed we can speak of words here); nor can people incapable of the requisite degree of attentive self-consciousness. But this evident connection finds no acknowledgement in standard discussions of meaning (not even by Grice). You would think that meaning could exist without consciousness to judge from typical theories of meaning. We are told that meaning is use: but could the use be unconscious? There seems no reason why not—can’t zombies “use” words? If we mean conscious use, that needs to be stated explicitly—and then any behaviorist implications are cancelled. What about dispositions to assent? These are avowedly anti-mentalist, but then there could be meaning in the absence of consciousness. Speakers could mean things without doing so consciously—like our unconsciously communicating bus conductor. But speaking is, or essentially involves, an activity of consciousness; it is not just external chattering or unconscious internal processes. Theories that identify meaning with truth conditions or criteria of assertion are also at best partial unless they bring consciousness in explicitly. I must be conscious of the truth conditions of my utterance if I am to mean anything by it—it’s not enough to know these truth conditions unconsciously. Knowledge does not always imply consciousness, since we can have unconscious knowledge, but in the case of meaning the knowledge has to be of the conscious kind. What we mean has to be manifest to us (though there may be unconscious insinuations in what someone consciously means): we cannot mean something while being quite oblivious to what we mean—as we can be oblivious to our unconscious motives or to the processes behind vision. This fact about meaning deserves to be stressed in theories of meaning. Consciousness is not accidental to meaning, something merely tacked on; it is integral to meaning. 

            Grice gives the example of a Cockney uttering the sentence, “I couldn’t do without my trouble and strife”, meaning thereby that he finds his wife indispensable. He couldn’t do this without consciously meaning that he finds his wife indispensable—there is no sense in the idea that he means this unconsciously. It would be absurd for a psychoanalyst to suggest that the man meant something else consciously, while meaning the business about his wife unconsciously. Conscious meaning is the only kind of meaning there is (I am speaking of speaker meaning in the Gricean sense). Since speaker meaning is the foundation of linguistic meaning, the latter is also inextricably bound up with consciousness. No theory of linguistic meaning can dispense with the notion of consciousness. There may well be unconscious grammatical rules at work when we speak, as well as all manner of unconscious Freudian motivations, but what we mean has to belong to the level of consciousness. Semantic reality is a conscious reality.

 

  [1] H.P. Grice, “Meaning”, Philosophical Review, 1957.

Share
4 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Have you considered somewhere what may be the minimal set of faculties required to coexist with conscience experience. Eg could all sense faculties be removed (including internal body awareness and emotional states)? Language capacities? Capacity to signify or intend? Are memories and a sense of identity required (in the sense that there are others, there was a past)? Could one imagine a form of consciousness that only had the capacity to experience recogniition of equality and difference (not of anything else, but just those pure states – if that is possible – a pure semantic difference)? Or could that be done away with too? Some state of undifferentiated feedback that has no structure but is not void. (Is there a way to coherently make sense of the last sentence, even as positing a possibility, or is it a just a play on words?) What about the following question: whatever might be a minimal set of faculties required to instantiate a conscious experience, must it include some minimal form of meaning bearing? Is this question of a form one could hope to make progress on?

    Reply
    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      I have not written about that. I suppose we could say that it is a necessary condition of consciousness that a being has at least one mental state (but not sufficient because mental states can be unconscious).

      Reply
  2. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Let me make an extremely speculative conjecture. Consider Descartes’ discovery that there was one thing he could be certain about, and that was he was in a state of doubt. Let’s conjecture this state, on its own, has a minimal structure (perhaps not uniquely so) required to support a conscious experience. Paradoxically, it simultaneously is a state of doubt and certainty, and involves recognition of this. So a triad. It is not about anything else, but itself. Nothing can be removed from it, it seems. (If we try to remove the doubt, and consider a state of certainty on its own, this seems vacuous.) Meaning I would say is a 2nd order concept ie it comes through reflection upon that state, its implications. So, this hypothetical state could bear meaning, but meaning is not explicitly in it. To justify the conjecture would require proof by insepection.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.