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Ogden, Charles. The Meaning of Meaning – T04

To the First Edition

The following pages, some of which were written as
long ago as 1910, have appeared for the most part in
periodical form during 1920-22, and arise out of an
attempt to deal directly with difficulties raised by the
influence of Language upon Thought.

It is claimed that in the science of Symbolism, 1 the
study of that influence, a new avenue of approach to
traditional problems hitherto regarded as reserved for
the philosopher and the metaphysician, has been found.
And further that such an investigation of these problems
is in accordance with the methods of the special sciences
whose contributions have enabled the new study to be
vdifferentiated from vaguer speculations with which it
might appear to be associated.

Amongst grammarians in particular a sense of
uneasiness has prevailed. It has been felt that the
study of language as hitherto conducted by traditional
methods has failed to face fundamental issues in spite
of its central position as regards all human intercourse.
Efforts to make good the omission have been frequent
throughout the present century, but volumes by painstaking
philologists bearing such titles as The Philosophy
of Language
, Principes de Linguistique Theorique and
Voraussetzungen zur Grundlegung einer Kritik der allgemeinen
Grammatik und Sprachphilosophie
have, as a rule,
been devoid of fruitful suggestion. They have neither
discovered the essential problems nor, with few exceptions,
such as Bréal's Semantics, opened up interesting
though subordinate fields of investigation. “Breadth
of vision is not conspicuous in modern linguistics,”
says so well-informed an authority as Jespersen in his
latest work ; and he attributes this narrow outlook to
“the fact that linguists have neglected all problems
connected with the valuation of language.” Unfortunately,
Jespersen's own recommendations for a normative
approach, the three questions which he urges philologists
to consider—

What is the criterion by which one word or one
form should be preferred to another ?

Are the changes that we see gradually taking place
in languages to be considered as on the whole beneficial,
or the opposite ?

Would it be possible to construct an international
language ?—

hardly touch the central problem of meaning, or the
relations of thought and language ; nor can they be
profitably discussed by philologists without a thorough
examination of this neglected preliminary. And, as we
shall see in our ninth chapter, philosophers and psychologists,
viwho are often supposed to be occupied with
such researches, have done regrettably little to help

There are some who find difficulty in considering any
matter unless they can recognize it as belonging to
what is called ‘a subject’ and who recognize a subject
as something in which, somewhere at least, Professors
give instruction and perhaps Examinations are undergone.
These need only be reminded that at one time
there were no subjects and until recently only five. But
the discomfort experienced in entering the less familiar
fields of inquiry is genuine. In more frequented topics
the main roads, whether in the right places or not, are
well marked, the mental traveller is fairly well assured
of arriving at some well-known spot, whether worth
visiting or not, and will usually find himself in respectable
and accredited company. But with a new or
border-line subject he is required to be more self-dependent ;
to decide for himself where the greater
interest and importance lies and as to the results to be
expected. He is in the position of a prospector. If
the venture here recorded should be found to assist any
others in the study of symbols, the authors will consider
it justified. Needless to say they believe it to be of
greater importance than this.

In order at least not to fail in the more modest aim of
calling attention to a neglected group of problems,
they have added as an Appendix a number of selected
passages indicative of the main features of similar
undertakings by other writers in the past.

Of their own contributions towards the foundations
of a science of Symbolism the following seem to them
to have most value :

(1) An account of interpretation in causal terms by
which the treatment of language as a system of signs
becomes capable of results, among which may be
noticed the beginning of a division between what
cannot be intelligibly talked of and what can. vii

(2) A division of the functions of language into
two groups, the symbolic and the emotive. Many
notorious controversies in the sciences it is believed
can be shown to derive from confusion between these
functions, the same words being used at once to make
statements and to excite attitudes. No escape from the
fictitious differences so produced is possible without an
understanding of the language functions. With this
understanding it is believed that such controversies
as those between Vitalism and Mechanism, Materialism
and Idealism, Religion and Science, etc., would lapse,
and further the conditions would be restored under
which a general revival of poetry would be possible.

(3) A dissection and ventilation of ‘meaning’ the
centre of obscurantism both in the theory of knowledge
and in all discussion.

(4) An examination of what are confusedly known as
‘verbal questions.’ Nothing is commoner in discussion
than to hear some point of difference described as
purely or largely ‘verbal.’ Sometimes the disputants
are using the same words for different things, sometimes
different words for the same things. So far as either
is the case a freely mobilizable technique of definition
meets the difficulty. But frequently the disputants are
using the same (or different) words for nothing, and
here greater modesty due to a livelier realization of the
language situation is recommendable.

Hitherto no science has been able to deal directly
with the issue, since what is fundamentally involved
is the theory of Signs in general and their interpretation.
The subject is one peculiarly suitable for collaboration,
and in this way only is there reasonable hope
of bringing to a practical issue an undertaking which
has been abandoned in despair by so many enterprising
but isolated inquirers, and of dispelling the suspicion
of eccentricity which the subject has so often evoked.
Historical research shows that since the lost work of
Antisthenes and Plato's Cratylus there have been seven
viiichief methods of attack—the Grammatical (Aristotle,
Dionysius Thrax), the Metaphysical (The Nominalists,
Meinong), the Philological (Horne Tooke, Max Müller),
the Psychological (Locke, Stout), the Logical (Leibnitz,
Russell) the Sociological (Steinthal, Wundt) and the
Terminological (Baldwin, Husserl). From all these,
as well as such independent studies as those of Lady
Welby, Marty, and C. S. Peirce, from Mauthner's Kritic
der Sprache
, Erdmann's Die Bedeutung des Wortes, and
Taine's De l'Intelligence, the writers have derived instruction
and occasionally amusement.

To Dr Malinowski the authors owe a very special
debt. His return to England as their work was passing
through the press enabled them to enjoy the advantage
of his many years of reflection as a field-worker in
Ethnology on the peculiarly difficult border-lands of
linguistics and psychology. His unique combination
of practical experience with a thorough grasp of
theoretical principles renders his agreement on so
many of the more heterodox conclusions here reached
particularly encouraging. The contribution from his
pen dealing with the study of primitive languages,
which appears as a Supplement, will, the writers feel
sure, be of value not only to ethnologists but to all who
take a living interest in words and their ways.

The practical importance of a science of Symbolism
even in its present undeveloped form needs little
emphasis. All the more elaborate forms of social and
intellectual life are affected by changes in our attitude
towards, and our use of, words. How words work is
commonly regarded as a purely theoretical matter, of
little interest to practical persons. It is true that the
investigation must at times touch upon somewhat
abstruse questions, but its disregard by practical
persons is nevertheless short-sighted. The view that
language works well enough as it is, can only be held
by those who use it merely in such affairs as could be
conducted without it—the business of the paper-boy
ixor the butcher, for instance, where all that needs to be
referred to can equally well be pointed at. None but
those who shut their eyes to the hasty re-adaptation
to totally new circumstances which the human race has
during the last century been blindly endeavouring to
achieve, can pretend that there is no need to examine
critically the most important of all the instruments of
civilization. New millions of participants in the control
of general affairs must now attempt to form personal
opinions upon matters which were once left to a few.
At the same time the complexity of these matters has
immensely increased. The old view that the only
access to a subject is through prolonged study of it,
has, if it be true, consequences for the immediate future
which have not yet been faced. The alternative is to
raise the level of communication through a direct
study of its conditions, its dangers and its difficulties.
The practical side of this undertaking is, if communication
be taken in its widest sense, Education.

Convinced as they are of the urgency of a stricter
examination of language from a point of view which
is at present receiving no attention, the authors have
preferred to publish this essay in its present form
rather than to wait, perhaps indefinitely, until, in lives
otherwise sufficiently occupied, enough moments of
leisure had accumulated for it to be rewritten in a more
complete and more systematized form. They are, they
believe, better aware of its failings than most critics
will suppose, and especially of those due to the
peculiar difficulties which a fundamental criticism of
language inevitably raises for the expositors thereof.

For two reasons the moment seems to have arrived
when an effort to draw attention to Meaning may meet
with support. In the first place there is a growing
readiness amongst psychologists to admit the importance
of the problem. “If the discovery of the psychological
nature of Meaning were completely successful,”
writes Professor Pear (Remembering and Forgetting, 1923,
xp. 59), “it might put an end to psychology altogether.”
Secondly, the realization that men of learning and sincerity
are lamentably at the mercy of forms of speech
cannot long be delayed, when we find for instance
Lord Hugh Cecil concluding a reasoned statement
of his attitude to Divorce with the words “The one
thing, as it seems to me, that Christians are bound,
as Christians, to resist, is any proposal to call that
marriage which, according to the revelation of Christ,
is adultery” (The Times, Jan. 2, 1923). The italics are

It is inevitable in such a work that emphasis should
be laid on what to some may appear to be obvious,
and on the other hand that terms should be employed
which will render portions of the inquiry less easy
than others, owing to the alteration of the angle from
which the subject is to be viewed. At the same time
it is hoped that even those who have no previous
acquaintance with the topics covered may, with a
little patience, be able to follow the whole discussion,
condensed though it has occasionally been in order
to keep the exposition within reasonable compass. A
full list of Contents, designed to be read as part of the
book, has therefore been provided.

A Summary, a few Appendices on special problems,
and many Cross-references have been added for the
benefit of readers who have not the opportunity of
devoting equal attention to every part of the field, or
who desire to pursue the study further.

C. K. O.
I. A. R.

Magdalene College,
January 1923.xi

1 The word Symbolism has certain historical associations through
the various dictionary meanings of ‘symbol,’ which are worth noting.
In addition to its constant underlying sense of a sign or token (something
‘put together’) the term has already enjoyed two distinct floruits.
The first, traceable to Cyprian, applies to the Creed regarded as the
‘sign’ of a Christian as distinguished from a heathen, as when Henry
VIII talks about “the three Creeds or Symbols.” A mythological
perversion of the derivation (1450-1550, Myrr. our Ladye III, 312)
states that “Thys crede ys called Simbolum, that ys to say a gatherynge
of morselles, for eche of the xii. apostles put therto a morsel.” Other
historical details will be found in Schlesinger's Geschichte des Symbols

Secondly, there is the widespread use of the adjective Symbolist in
the nineties to characterize those French poets who were in revolt
against all forms of literal and descriptive writing, and who attached
symbolic or esoteric meanings to particular objects, words and sounds.
Similarly, art critics loosely refer to painters whose object is ‘suggestion’
rather than ‘representation’ or ‘construction,’ as symbolists.

In the following pages, however, a standpoint is indicated from which
both these vague captions can be allotted their place in the system of
signs and symbols ; and stress is laid upon those aspects of symbolism
whose neglect has given rise to so many false problems, both in æsthetics
and in philosophy.