Semantics: The Problem of Meaning

THE learned Rabbi Ben Hillel, so the story goes, upon being challenged to state the contents of the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) while standing on one leg, quoted the Golden Rule. If a semanticist is challenged to state his business in one word, he can say "meaning." However, the Rabbi had a distinct advantage. The content of the Golden Rule is immediately translatable in terms of everyday experience. We are constantly aware of having certain relations to people around us, and the concepts of "good" and "evil" on this direct interpersonal level are remarkably uniform. Thus the Rabbi's answer is full of "meaning" to most people. Not so with "meaning." The "meaning of meaning" is all but meaningless without further elucidation, and the task of the semanticist (to elucidate it) is enormously complex. To do this within the confines of a chapter is difficult indeed.

If the attempt must be made, perhaps the best way to proceed is to indicate the simplest problems involving the determination of meaning, especially those most intimately connected with the everyday experiences of most people, and then to note the ramifications which arise in the attempts to deal with the problems.


Meaning and Communication

To ask "What is meaning?" is to look for situations in which something called "meaning" is the center of interest. Perhaps the simplest such situation is one where people fail to understand each other because they speak different languages. An awareness of such situations is quite ancient. It is evident, for example, in the story of the Tower of Babel. The next thing to investigate is how such situations are dealt with. To a certain extent they can be dealt with quite simply. One tries to discover a correspondence between the words of one language and those of another. A list of such correspondences is called a dictionary. One might suppose that by means of a word-by-word translation with the help of a

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