Thursday, February 05, 2009

Meaning is not a Shell Game but a Slot Machine

I'm pre-dating this post behind my Pagan Christianity review for the day. Thanks to Viola for helping me process further how to explain what's wrong with so much of the discussion of the Bible in relation to the church today. To use some of Viola and Barna's own imagery, small deviations at one point can result in massive deviations if that course is followed for long.

And here I refer to the way we conceptualize meaning. The "picture theory of language" is perfectly fine for teaching children words. It works fine for most of us most of the time in ordinary communication. The picture theory of language is the idea that meaning is like the picture in the bubble that appears above your head when you read or hear a word.

In other words, the right meaning is like finding the peanut under the shell in a shell game. The word is the shell, the "signifier," the cue. The meaning is the "thing" underneath, the thing signified.

The problem is that this is not really an accurate understanding of meaning, at least not a precisely accurate one. We don't know the meaning of what a wild-goose-chase is by adding the stuff from the bubbles of these three things up. And the most significant meaning of the word that literally refers to a female dog is not the picture of a female dog. What "thing" is the meaning of that word?

This way of thinking about meaning leads a person to think that the words of the Bible have a meaning, a meaning in them. The entry level reader simply thinks that this is the meaning in the bubbles above their head. Yet, and here is the point, very intelligent scholars of the Bible often function with the same basic model, only made more sophisticated.

For example, there is the notion that we are to try to separate the cultural aspects of the Bible from the timeless ones, arriving at the absolute, universal, timeless meaning that you can then re-clothe in our times and places. This idea still functions with the same basic misunderstanding of language, even if it does so on a more sophisticated level.

Meaning is more like a tumor that has metasthesized. You cannot separate the cancer from the "normal" tissue, because it is thoroughly ensconched, thoroughly intermixed. So it is with language. You cannot remove the absolute meaning from the time-conditioned meaning because any language you use is time-conditioned and ensconched in your context.

The more accurate model is to think of setting two thoroughly, culturally embedded meanings next to each other and finding points of similarity and dissimilarity. Every single word anyone uses is completely cultural. Every paradigm we use to conceptualize is thoroughly embedded in culture as well. And, yes, there are aspects of thought that are found in every culture. What we call "timeless" is thus rather the commonality shared by all human language.

Meaning is thus much more like a slot machine. To be sure, the options are already on the various columns. Each individual combination is a triangulation of factors--the symbol, the broader culture, and the individual context of the speaker speaking. Meaning never occurs without all these factors being in play, whether for the author of a text or for a reader.

Addendum: I should probably have also said that there are more than three columns to the slot machine and you can only see one of them. You can see the word, but the multiple other columns that determine the pay out are more or less unseen. Words thus give you the impression that their meaning is obvious, while the real factors producing their meaning are often less than conscious.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

Now that's an original figure of speech -- meaning is like a slot machine.

That helps, although I've never used a slot machine.