A Question of... Meaning

In the fitth part of a series for young people, Steven Campbell-Harris looks at how words get their meaning.

To have a conversation with anyone, we need to speak in a shared language. So far, so simple. However, what’s just as important- and often neglected- is that even when we say the same words, the way we understand and apply them can differ. Consider the questions:

Is a hotdog a sandwich?

Is chess a sport?

Is Bob Dylan’s work literature?

Ask any group of people these questions and witness the debate that ensues. I have seen students passionately thrashing out belief in God and the nature of justice before, but a special level of controversy is reserved for the question, “is a hotdog a sandwich?”

So, why is it that we are divided about these questions?

Put simply, we don’t agree on what things belong in what categories. Take “is chess a sport?”. Everyone recognises that cleaning windows is not a sport. Similarly, everyone agrees that football is a sport. Window cleaning has few features shared by sports, while football has several (e. g. athletic prowess, competition, a high level of skill). We usually get into debates when an activity shares some features of a category but not others. Those who claim chess is not a sport say that it doesn’t involve most of the body. Those who say it is a sport, by contrast, focus on the high level of skill and cognitive effort it demands.

Ultimately, to determine if chess is a sport, we need to consider what a sport is. Unless we have a shared understanding of the word, we will talk at cross purposes. So, what is a sport? What is a sandwich? What is literature? To answer these questions, we need to think about how words get their meaning.

How do we know what words mean?

Consider a word you’ve come across before that you don’t know the meaning of (e. g. supercilious). How do you usually find out what it means?

One common way we find the meaning of a word is by inferring it from the context. We look at the rest of the sentence and we make an educated guess. If this effort fails, a likely next step is to reach for the dictionary. We, subconsciously or not, follow the rule: If you understand the definition of a word, you know its meaning.

There are good reasons to take this approach. A definition gives conditions for what makes something what it is. For example, to be a “bachelor” someone must fulfil two conditions: they must be unmarried, and they must be a man. With these conditions we can identify who is and who is not a bachelor; we can include and exclude.

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates used a similar approach to find meaning. He would invite his fellow Athenians into philosophical discussions in the marketplace and public squares, enquiring about the true nature of things. In those conversations he would ask: what are the conditions of justice, of knowledge, of courage? If you could identify those ingredients, he thought, you could find the essence of the thing. You would know what it was and what it meant. For Socrates, the question we should ask then is: what is the essence of a sandwich?

One answer is given by the Merriam-Webster dictionary. The definition for a sandwich given there is “two or more slices of bread, or a split roll, having a filling in-between.” Since a hotdog is a split roll with a filling (i.e. a sausage) in-between, a hotdog is a sandwich. Case closed.

Or is it? There are a couple of ways we can object. Some reject the Merriam-Webster definition. A sandwich can only be two or more slices of bread, never a split roll, they might say. This objection takes the importance of definitions as given. The problem is not with definitions in general, only with this one.

However, a more interesting objection asks whether definitions really matter that much. For the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “the meaning of a word is its use in a language.” To find out whether a hotdog is a sandwich, we ought to see if people ordinarily use it in that way. Imagine that your friend was going out to get some lunch and you asked them if they could pick something up for you. “What would you like?”, they ask. “A sandwich”, you reply. “What kind of sandwich?” “Any sandwich will do”, you say. A short while later, your friend comes back with a hotdog for you. Do you have good reason to be surprised, or even a bit annoyed? If you do, then presumably this is because you think that “sandwich” doesn’t generally mean “hotdog”, regardless of the definition. You will not find hotdogs in a sandwich shop, and you don’t normally refer to hotdogs as sandwiches. Therefore, a hotdog is not a sandwich.

This is quite a different method to finding meaning; instead of looking up the definition, we just observe how people use the word. The meaning of “sandwich” emerges organically out of the various contexts in which we do and don’t use the word, not out of a fixed list of conditions that make something a sandwich.

Which comes first, the meaning of a word or its use?

You have likely heard the question, “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” On its surface the answer seems impossible. Every chicken is hatched from an egg, yet every egg is produced by a chicken. Since both come from one another, we can’t find a beginning.

A similar problem occurs with the question, “which comes first, the meaning of a word, or its use?”

Suppose we start with the meaning of a word. As social creatures, we figure out the meanings of words by copying how others use them. Without prior use, we wouldn’t be able to participate in the shared meaning. Those who interject, “but what about dictionaries?” should be reminded that dictionaries are only filled with reports of how people use words. They are reactive, not creative. The use of a word, then, must come before its meaning.

However, if we start with the use of a given word, we face other problems. To use a given word, we must follow some rules. We cannot apply a word like “candle” to absolutely anything. A policy of “anything goes” for a word would be meaningless, we are always applying words to some things and not others. Therefore, the meaning of words- in the form of unspoken or spoken rules- must come before their use.

It seems we are left with another chicken and egg problem. The meaning of a word depends on its use, and its use depends upon its meaning. Is there any way to end this circularity?

Perhaps we are wrong to assume that meaning must come from some fixed point. Maybe it is circular rather than static. The meaning of words is forever being negotiated between the precision of rules and the inconsistency of our everyday use.

Since meaning is forever shifting and evolving, unconfined by rigid rules, historically some have found the best way to exert more control over it is by creating their own words. For the philosopher Martin Heidegger, standard German words were not fit for purpose to describe the concepts of his innovative thinking so he made new ones: “in-der-Welt-sein” (being-in-the-world), “sein-zum-tolde” (being-toward-death) and many more.

How can we resolve disagreements about meaning?

As we’ve seen, the meaning of words is often contested. What should we do when we’re confronted with a difference of opinion?

When we consider this question we should consider another: why do we need to know? Some debates around meaning are inconsequential, a trivial intellectual game. Whether a hotdog is or isn’t a sandwich is of little significance. We may have our fun and agree to disagree, or simply agree that it doesn’t matter.

However, not all disagreements about meaning are trivial. Some have serious practical implications. After the 2016 presidential election in the United States, intelligence agencies discovered evidence showing that Russia had interfered in the contest with the aim of electing Donald Trump. Important questions followed. Had Donald Trump known about this? Had he sought out Russian assistance with his campaign? Had he welcomed it? Ultimately, these questions coalesced into one: had Trump colluded with the Russians?

The dictionary definition of collusion is “secret or illegal cooperation or conspiracy in order to deceive others.” Such a broad definition allows room for different interpretations. What kind of cooperation is needed? What counts as intent to deceive?

In this kind of case, where the stakes really do matter, we can resolve disagreements by appealing to official standards. Our laws are filled with these; specific criteria that help us determine if something counts. There are specific legal criteria for “collusion” that we can use to help us move forward, though we should also remember that they don’t capture everything important.

Official standards need not always come from the law. Others are dictated by different authorities. For example, in 1999 the International Olympic Committee officially recognised chess as a sport (though it is yet to be included in the Olympic Games). Here the IOC wasn’t only responsible for locating the meaning of a sport, they were also in the business of shaping it. Official standards are often somewhat arbitrary; they draw a clear line somewhere fuzzy. However, for the practical purposes of figuring out what should be included in the Olympics the IOC needed to take a stance. Official standards are often necessary to resolve some disagreements around meaning.

Another way to solve disagreements of meaning elegantly avoids the need to reach consensus altogether. Take the question “Is a tomato a fruit?” Here we don’t need some official standard to adjudicate what is correct. “Fruit” has not one but two meanings: a specialised, technical meaning from botany and one from common use. Any botanist would tell you that a tomato is a fruit because it has seeds and grows from the flower of the plant. Yet ask a supermarket worker where the tomatoes are, and she will guide you to the vegetable section. As the Irish rugby player Brian O’Driscoll once put it, “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.” The way we answer, “is a tomato a fruit?” depends on the context for asking. A tomato is not a fruit for the purposes of making a fruit salad, it is for the purposes of botanical classification.

We can also use this split approach to the question: Is Bob Dylan’s work literature? In 2016 the Nobel Prize committee awarded Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Taking a two-pronged approach might save us the hassle of needlessly contentious debate. In everyday use, song lyrics aren’t considered literature. Yet by a more technical, specialised understanding of literature as concerned with “poetic expression”, Bob Dylan’s music might qualify. By splitting the meaning in two, we sidestep the need for disagreement.


If you want to explore these ideas further:

Ludwig Wittgenstein - Philosophical Investigations

Benjamin Bergen - Louder Than Words

Guy Deutscher - The Unfolding of Language


"A Question of…” is a new series for young adult readers brought to you by The Philosophy Foundation. Commissioning editors for the series are Emma Worley MBE and Peter Worley.

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Steven Campbell-Harris is a Senior Specialist and Trainer with The Philosophy Foundation. In these roles he facilitates philosophical conversations with children of all ages, gives talks on philosophy in schools, and trains philosophy graduates in philosophical enquiry. He has published articles on philosophy and education in Philosophy Now, Teaching Times, and Innovate My School.