The meaning of “meant to”

Having neglected my blog for a few months, I’m going to be devoting some time to it every Friday – basically, taking Fridays as a “work-for-myself” kind of day.

This next post has been a toughie to get out, as well. In contrast to the first two, which were very applied, this is a bit of a philosophical one. I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, but bear with me: any reactions of any form are welcome!

Some years ago, when I first got into cognitive science, I became interested in the work of the philosopher of language, H. P. Grice. Grice was hugely influential on the development of pragmatics – the study of the little rules and procedures (both linguistic and non-linguistic) that help embed language in a social context and allow speakers to engage in meaningful discourse. Perhaps his biggest contribution was his theory of conversational implicature: a set of unspoken maxims that govern our participation in discourse. Before developing that theory, though – and in some ways in preparation for it – he wrote a famous article called “Meaning“, in which he distinguished between two types of meaning: natural and non-natural.

An example of natural meaning would be the sentence Those spots mean that he has measles. An example of non-natural meaning, That red light means “stop”. In other words, with natural meaning one thing necessarily follows from the thing that means or implies it – it is a fact of life; whereas with non-natural meaning there is a conventional linkage between them – though Grice denies that this linkage is always conventional “in any ordinary sense”, citing “certain gestures”  as counter-examples (without stating which ones! – a rather odd omission, since many gestures are pretty clearly conventional, and many others are equally clearly examples of natural meaning).

Noting the inadequacy of the behaviourist approach of modelling “timeless” non-natural meaning – of the form “(a word) x means (a definition) y” – in terms of a general tendency to produce a certain attitude in an audience, and to be produced by a certain attitude in a speaker, Grice proposes that one promising way to elucidate such timeless meanings is to analyse the meaning of statements like “x meant something (on a particular occasion)”. He ends up with the famous formulation that “‘A meantNN something by x’ is (roughly) equivalent to ‘A intended the utterance of x to produce some effect in an audience by means of the recognition of this intention’.”

I found this article very influential when I first read it at the age of 22, and I especially liked (and still like) his parting shot that “to show that the criteria for judging linguistic intentions are very like the criteria for judging nonlinguistic intentions is to show that linguistic intentions are very like nonlinguistic intentions.” But I am now much more sceptical about whether modelling meaning in terms of intention actually gets us any closer to an understanding of “timeless” meaning. For a developmental psychologist like myself, one obvious problem is that children start using language (and therefore meaning) correctly well before they are capable of doing something like modelling (at least explicitly) whether an audience has recognised their intention. Grice himself recognises that people cannot be doing this kind of computation of intentions (at least explicitly) every time they hear a word. He tries to square this circle by arguing that “an utterer is held to intend to convey what is normally conveyed (or normally intended to be conveyed), and we require a good reason for accepting that a particular use diverges from the general usage”. But since he also writes that the timeless meaning of x (presumably = “the general usage”) might “as a first shot” be equated with what people in general intend to mean by x, this line of argument is not merely circular so much as completely evasive – it just does not seem to get near the nature of timeless meaning at all. Surely the normativeness of “what is normally conveyed” is what is actually at the heart of meaning.

This rather long preamble brings me to the real point of my post, which is to record how I was struck, a couple of months ago, by the point that there is another sense of “meaning” which is not covered by either pole of Grice’s natural/non-natural dichotomy. Namely, the expression “meant to”, as in “He was meant to be here by five o’clock”, “You are meant to put it in neutral before you pull the handbrake”, “That window was meant to go in the east wall of the house, not the west wall”, etc. This is not an example of natural meaning, because as Grice himself points out, natural meanings cannot be put in the passive: you can’t say, “Measles was meant by those spots”, or “Fire was meant by that smoke”. But nor is it an example of non-natural meaning, despite the fact that it has  very close relationship with intentionality (indeed the active form, e.g. “I meant him to be here by five o’clock”, is almost exactly synonymous with “intended”, though for some reason “intended” cannot easily be put in the passive either). One symptom of this is that the meaning cannot be put in scare quotes, as with “A red light means ‘stop'”. Nor is it possible to say something like “That window was meant to be in the top window, but actually it’s this window”.

When I noticed this usage of meant, I was struck by how it chimed with some of the ideas of my former PhD supervisor, Jesse Bering, about how humans are predisposed to think of their lives as having meaning and purpose. This may be a special case of teleological reasoning: the idea (similar to Intelligent Design) that various features of the universe are there for a purpose. Deborah Kelemen and others have argued that teleological reasoning is a natural feature of children’s cognition, and that they have to basically unlearn this way of thinking and realise that some things just happen, without any apparent purpose. I was thinking along these lines because I had in mind the expression You’re meant to …, as in, “You’re meant to wear black tie to this sort of occasion.” (Who is doing the meaning here – society?) It is certainly reminiscent of expressions like “It was meant to be.” (Who is doing the meaning there – God?) But then I started thinking of more tightly focused expressions like “He was meant to be here by now,” and that’s when the comparison with Grice’s argument really hit home.

What hit me was that Grice’s distinction between “personal” meaning (He meant x by this utterance) and “timeless” meaning (this utterance means x) seems to be exactly paralleled by the distinction between “I meant him to be here by five o’clock” and “He was meant to be here by five o’clock”. Who is doing the meaning in the latter case – me? Not necessarily: it could be me, me and you, me and him, me and you and him, or me and any number of other people. Arguably it may not even include me (if other people were entirely responsible for getting him here, and I had no control over them, in what sense did I really “intend” him to be here?) The reference of the agent seems to be always left very vague. And what is really intriguing is that one can’t even clarify it by saying “He was meant to here by someone” – this is actually ungrammatical. I don’t know why, but it is. (Nor can one say, as I mentioned earlier, “He was intended to be here”.) No, this little usage of meant to is actually a micro-example of timeless meaning – of a convention shared by a social group.

This casts some doubt, I think, on Grice’s wisdom in attempting to analyse timeless meaning in terms of personal meaning. If even a small case of two people being meant to be somewhere at the same time does not reduce to the intentions of the individuals involved, then why should we think that the meaning of a linguistic sign reduces to the intentions of speaker and listener? It is far more fruitful, it seems to me, to think of the meaning of any sign as containing a huge element of common ground: an intuitive, unstated understanding of what the sign is referring to. The speaker’s intention interacts with this, sure, but it functions much like a point: this aspect of the thing is what I am talking about. The thing itself is presupposed.

What I am saying probably fits in with what more recent philosophers of collective intentionality (or we-intentionality) such as John Searle, who to some extent has followed in Grice’s footsteps, have been saying. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about their work to be sure, but I will check them out soon.

One last point to finish off with … coming back to teleological reasoning. We can use meant to with an artefact, as in, “This part is meant to go there.” In such cases, it might be natural to assume that the agent behind the meaning is the designer of the artefact. But if we don’t know the agent for the cases of people being meant to do something, why do we need to know it for artefacts? It seems more plausible to me that, again, this is a statement about how some group of people generally use (or ought to use) the artefact, just as a statement about people being meant to do something is a statement about how some group of people generally behave (or ought to behave). The designer’s original intentions are irrelevant. Hence, the prevalence of teleological reasoning is no argument for the naturalness of belief in some sort of Creator (though it may tempt people into inventing such a figure).

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