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The Problems Of Meaning. Essay

5292 words - 21 pages

INTRODUCTION.Difficulties about the meanings of words are often central to many philosophical problems and disagreements. We can reduce these difficulties by clarifying and specifying the meanings of the words we use.But some words can be hard to define - especially words of particular interest to philosophers, like "Truth", "Reality", "Consciousness" and "Justice". Indeed, it's often said that these words are indefinable in principle. We'll see why this view is mistaken and discuss how to deal with these problems of definition.We'll also consider whether some philosophical disagreements are really about facts or whether they're merely about the way the facts should best be described.THE MEANING OF A WORD OR PHRASE.When you use a word, it's associated in your mind with fragments of memories of your experiences, with other words, and with various ideas and feelings. These mental associations may be precise or vague, many or few. The word "meaning" refers to this cloudy network of associations.WORDS ARE SYMBOLS.Many of the simple everyday words are really names given to the elements of our experience, such as the things around us and their characteristics. When we talk and think, words are used as symbols for these elements of our experience. And of course they're also used as symbols for more complex ideas like "intelligence" and "history".THE EMOTIONAL ASSOCIATIONS OF WORDS.Many of the mental associations with a word relate to attitudes and feelings. It's important to be aware of and to distinguish these associations from those which correspond to observable external things.Of course, it's desirable to try to eliminate emotion-laden words from a rational discussion. We can more effectively discuss controversial subjects like pornography, capital punishment and drug addiction, if we can concern ourselves with observable facts, without the distortions arising from strong personal feelings.Unfortunately, it's not always practicable to eliminate words with emotional meanings from our discussions. But if we fail to recognise and accept the emotional associations of the words we do use, we may confuse ourselves and others.THE VARIABILITY OF MEANING.There are great variations between the associations which many words have for different people, arising from the differences between their experiences. For example, "marriage" has different meanings to a romantic young girl in love and the middle-aged wife of a violent alcoholic.The meanings of words change with time and they vary from place to place and between different social groups. (This mainly depends on the amount of communication taking place; the more people talk to each other, the more they use words in the same way.)And some words have different meanings for the same person on different occasions, depending on the situation and the context. "Rear" means different things when you're thinking about bringing up a child, walking round a house, or breaking in a wild horse. "Love" means different things...

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