What Does It Mean To Mean?

I’ve been agonizing somewhat over what to write as my first post. I am currently delving into the wonderful word of pragmatics via a graduate seminar at the University of Virginia, but I do not yet feel proficient enough to comment on the complex philosophical theories that I am reading. So, I am going to briefly present an overview of what I will be attempting to accomplish in my year-and-a-half long thesis project. Upcoming entries will most likely be related to this topic, similar topics, and research done that bears on the outcome of my investigation.

I recently was watching a debate between Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, on the nature of the human species and its origin. To no one’s surprise, language was brought up when discussing human origins.  Specifically, recursive, productive language as a distinguishing marker of the human species. What may seem obvious to the evolutionary linguists here actually came with some interesting problems, from a biological perspective. As Dawkins discusses in the debate, evolution is rather difficult for the animal kingdom. Whereas for plants, there may be distinct moments at which one can point and say “Here is when a new species emerged!”, this identifiable moment is less overt for animals.  One key problem with determining the exact moment of a new species’ emergence is the question of interbreeding.

If we consider the development of a language (a system of communication with the aforementioned characteristics) to be a marker of the human species, then do we suppose at one point we have a child emerging with the ability to form a language with mute or animalistic parents? To whom would the child speak? If Dawkins is correct and language is partially rooted in a specific gene, we could theorize that the “first” human with the gene would thereby mate with proto-humans lacking the gene. All of this is, of course, very sketchy and difficult to elucidate, as even the theory that language is rooted in a gene can be disputed. The problem remains an integral one, not only for understanding the evolutionary origins, but as the philosophers in my pragmatics class would point out, it would also have significant bearing on ontological and ethical questions regarding human origins.

I do not hope to solve this entire issue in my senior thesis; however, I do hope to show the development of language less as a suddenly produced trait and more as a gradual process from a less developed system of communication to a more developed one. From a pragmatics point of view, the question might be, how do we jump the gap, so to speak, between the lesser developed systems of communication (conventionally, these include animal communication, natural meaning, etc.) and the fully fledged unique system of human language? Paul Grice, as one might discover in my handy dandy Wikipedia link above, proposed a distinction between natural meaning, which he defined as being a cause/effect indication and considered in terms of its factivity, and non-natural meaning, as a communicative action that must be considered in terms of the speaker’s intentions. Yet, as stated above, the question remains: how do we (evolutionarily) progress from natural meaning to non-natural meaning?

Not to overly simplify, but my answer rests in the question of what it means to mean something. I hope to show, in my subsequent posts, that an investigation into semantics, and, more specifically, a natural progression through a hierarchy of types of meaning, might shed light on this problem. In short, taking a look at the development of meaning, intent, and the qualifications for a language proper can shed light on how language developed into the complex, unique phenomenon we study today.  (Oh, and to satisfy the philosophers in my class, I may ramble occasionally about the implications for a philosophical conception of our species!)

 

2 thoughts on “What Does It Mean To Mean?”

  1. Your mention of “hierarchy of types of meaning” makes me think of Closure by Hilary Lawson. It’s philosophy (of an accessible kind) that explains language beginning with sensory “closures” and builds up to meaning.

    Clearly, language was built incrementally in layers. The obstacle (and what I think Dawkins gets wrong) is the dogma that changes to species must be random. On the contrary, it’s reasonable to posit that there’s a biological mechanism by which humans have invented not only language but also the anatomy and intelligence to use it.

  2. Hmm, thanks Rick for the reference. I need as much of those as possible while building my thesis.

    I think Dawkins truly understood that his theory was problematic, but I don’t think it was simply problematic on the basis of randomness. I think that, as you say, language was built in layers, but also that there were more motivations than simply natural selection. Similarly, I think the idea that language spawned from a mutated gene is a bit shaky as well. Whereas an organism might experience a mutation giving it longer legs, no human child popped out of the womb suddenly being able to speak in a complex language. I think evolution gave us the tools, as you say “the anatomy and intelligence” (perhaps we can specify particular kinds of thinking, like positional awareness, relational awareness, association, etc. that could lead to language?), but that language emerged from a communicative need.

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