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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American Philosophy
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Table of Contents vii
  • List of Contributors ix
  • Introduction - Orientation of Thought xi
  • Suggested Readings xviii
  • Part I - Fields and Problems of American Philosophy 1
  • The Philosophy of Science: The Problem of Factual Truth 3
  • Suggested Readings 19
  • Axiology: the Problem Of Human Values 21
  • Suggested Readings 33
  • Aesthetics: the Problem of Art And Beauty 34
  • Suggested Readings 47
  • Ethics: the Problem of Morality 49
  • Suggested Readings 63
  • Semantics: the Problem Of Meaning 64
  • Suggested Readings 82
  • Logic: the Problem of Reasoning 84
  • Suggested Readings 97
  • Metaphysics: the Problems Of Knowledge and Existence 98
  • Suggested Readings 113
  • Philosophy of Religion: The Problem of Faith 114
  • Suggested Readings 127
  • Part II - Sources and Choices of Philosophy 129
  • Transcendentalism 131
  • Suggested Readings 137
  • Idealism 138
  • Suggested Readings 146
  • Thomism 147
  • Suggested Readings 154
  • Personalism 155
  • Suggested Readings 161
  • Pragmatism 162
  • Suggested Readings 171
  • Humanism 172
  • Suggested Readings 182
  • Logical Positivism 183
  • Suggested Readings 191
  • Realism 193
  • Suggested Readings 202
  • Naturalism 203
  • Suggested Readings 210
  • Oriental Philosophy in America 211
  • Part III - American Thinkers 221
  • American Thought: A Chart 223
  • William Penn 227
  • Samuel Johnson 230
  • Jonathan Edwards 233
  • Benjamin Franklin 235
  • Thomas Paine 238
  • Thomas Jefferson 241
  • Benjamin Rush 244
  • William Ellery Channing 247
  • John Caldwell Calhoun 250
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson 253
  • Abraham Lincoln 256
  • Henry David Thoreau 259
  • Walt Whitman 262
  • Robert Green Ingersoll 265
  • Charles Sanders Peirce 268
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. 271
  • John Fiske 274
  • William James 277
  • Ambrose Bierce 280
  • Borden Parker Bowne 283
  • Josiah Royce 285
  • John Dewey 288
  • George Santayana 291
  • Morris Raphael Cohen 294
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt 297
  • Suggested Readings 300
  • Conclusion 303
  • Index 311
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