Re: Meaning generation

Mark Mills (mmmills@OnRamp.NET)
Tue, 22 Jul 1997 19:16:46 +0000

Date: Tue, 22 Jul 1997 19:16:46 +0000
From: Mark Mills <mmmills@OnRamp.NET>
Subject: Re: Meaning generation

Martti Nyman wrote:

>I doubt that you mean that Helen, like us all, had a
>genetically ready-made concept for 'water'. Do you mean
>that humans, as well as those animals having a more or
>less instinctive attitude to water, have some kind of
>pre-linguistic primordial 'knowledge' of the water element?

There are a couple of ways to approach this.

For example, there have been linguistic studies of how people name
colors. For instance, every culture seems to have a term for 'red.'
One can go around from culture to culture with color charts and ask for
names, thus determining how similar color 'classification' schemes
happen to be.

systems. In most languages, the end of 'red' and the start of 'orange'
is in about the same place. The Hopi have an intermediate term between
orange and red.

I suspect the similarity of linguistic structure to color reflects
inherent biology, both in the eye and in the brain. 'Red' has meaning
outside its experiential impact.

One might be tempted to call this 'emotional' response and there are a
lot of them, but the same mechanism was demonstrated by the Helen Keller
story. I'm proposing that we are born with an apriori understanding of
our experiences, one that constantly builds upon itself at least to
adulthood in all mammals and past adulthood in humans.

In the case of Helen Keller, it is clear that she relied upon her
experiences as a seeing and hearing child prior to the age of 2. No
child born deaf and blind has made the symbolic leap made by Helen
Keller. On the other hand, I believe that most of us identify with the
Helen Keller story because moments of 'epiphany' are experienced by
almost everyone, and we know they represent an experience of self or
apriori knowledge. Many find these moments very valuable, but I may be
appealing to the intuitives on the list here and intuitives are a
minority in the population.

Developmental psychology tells us that children learn in a specific set
of stages. My point is that these stages are a reflection of our
inherent knowledge structure and this inherent structure is memetic.

Do we have an apriori knowledge of the 'water element?' I suspect we
do. It would be something like our apriori knowledge of 'red.' We
inherently respond to it as a distinct aspect of our experiences.

>'understanding' (qua meaning generation) also includes

No problem. In evolutionary terms, the problem of fidelity is
ubiquitous. There is no blue print, only balance. I find the reports
from people who have experienced autism instructive. Many have a world
of meaning much like us. Their experiences are much different, though.
Some describe a world with high visual impact, others describe a chaotic
flux and over stimulation. Those that report back on autism find
language a means of structuring and stabilizing the 'meaning' of
experience. They have plenty of meaning, it overwhelms them. I suspect
many of us use language in a similar, though more subdued, way.

Thanks for the bead example. Wonderful story. Clearly we all have to
make choices about what aspect of meaning to associate with a word. Just
as in genetics, one chunk of code can play a variety of roles. Over
time, a secondary role may overwhelm an initial role.


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