The Meaning Problem & Academic Lexicons

Sometimes I spend days trying to figure out what someone means when they use an otherwise common word. I spend even more time trying to the difference between two authors’ use of the same word. It’s a problem. We can call this the meaning problem. In this post I talk about the meaning problem and some solutions. I think the best solutions would be open-source academic lexicons — i.e., lexicons for every academic field edited by academics from the corresponding field. But that’s a big ask, so I will also mention a couple other (partial) solutions as well.

1.  The Meaning Problem

Why care about the meaning of a word? I’ll answer that with an example.

A couple weeks ago I was trying to figure out what Christopher Peacocke means by ‘reflective’. Regular readers will realize that Peacocke’s meaning of ‘reflective’ is different from mine. Very different. Peacocke (2014) uses ‘reflective’ to describe some kind of awareness: immediate and first-personal awareness of one’s mind. Following Frederick 2005, I use ‘reflective’ to describe a certain kind of reasoning: conscious and deliberate reasoning. Unfortunately, these notions of ‘reflective’ might contradict one another. I use ‘reflective’ to describe reasoning. But Peacocke’s uses ‘reflective’ to describe an immediate process — i.e., a process that lacks reasoning. So if you projected Peacocke’s meaning of ‘reflective’ onto my use of the word, then you would think that I was contradicting myself or making some sort of category error. It would be like saying, “‘reflective’ describes a kind of reasoning that lacks reasoning.” 😕

That is an example of the meaning problem: prior to learning how an author uses a word, we might attribute our own meaning to the word. And we might not mean what the author means by that word. So if we don’t do the hard work of discerning an author’s (implied or explicit) meaning of a word, then we might end up with non-sensical interpretations like the one I mentioned above.

To minimize the meaning problem, philosophers often ask questions like, “What do you mean by ‘__________’?” It may be an annoying question, but we are wise to ask it. It can save us from a lot of confusion.

2.  One (Partial) Solution

Of course, people often use a word to mean something other than what others mean by it. And sometimes one person uses the same word in multiple ways without realizing it.

This is why we should be grateful that some people (like Peacocke) try to define key words. Alas, not everyone defines key words for their audience. And sometimes people try to define their terms, but they do not define them exhaustively. For example, I recently explained what I mean by ‘reflective’, but I have yet to give an exhaustive definition of the word.

So while defining our terms helps, it does not fully solve the meaning problem.

3.  Another (Partial) Solution

Since not everyone defines their terms (or defines them well), it is difficult to know if the meaning of a word is the same across authors. And even if we know that the meaning of a word is different across authors, it is still very difficult to determine how the meaning is different. So what can we do about this?

Recall the example involving ‘reflective’. One of my ongoing projects is a catalogue of the various meanings associated with philosophers and scientists use of ‘reflective’. The hope is that the resulting lexicon entries will save us from (i) being gratuitously confused about terms and from (ii) having to determine each author’s use of ‘reflective’ from scratch. With this lexicon, we could look up the various meanings of ‘reflective’ (and, ideally, which authors tend to use each meaning). Further, if we can agree on the lexicon, then we can be more explicit about how we are using ‘reflective’ as we are writing. E.g., we might write, “When we reflect — in Frederick’s sense of the term — we find that…” and then cite the lexicon.

Obviously, this solution only helps people who are wondering about one word (or root word — e.g., ‘reflect’). That’s not so useful to most people. So what about solutions for most people?

4.  Contemporary Academic Lexicons?

When I studied the Bible, there were a few lexicons I used to interpret the meanings of ancient, foreign words. These lexicons were great! They listed the various meanings of words, explained how each meaning of each word might be determined by context, and often gave a couple examples of the word in biblical (and sometimes extra-biblical) excerpts.

A picture of the cover of a lexicon for the Old Testament.

It seems like we might need such lexicons for contemporary philosophy and cognitive science. We already have some dictionaries — e.g., Oxford’s Dictionary of PhilosophyDictionary of Psychology, and their amazing English Dictionary. But these dictionaries are not nearly as helpful as the biblical lexicons I once used. They often don’t have entries for the terms that I am looking for — e.g., ‘reflective’; They rarely itemize the various meanings of terms; And they never (as far as I have found) explain how the meaning of the term might be inferred from context (e.g., from the identity of the author, from the other words in the sentence, etc.).

So I find myself wondering if there are proper lexicons for academic fields like philosophy and psychology. (I found this one, but I’m not sure it works). If you know of such dictionaries, then please mention it in the comments.

5.  Open-source Lexicons?

I also find myself wondering how hard it would be to put together an open-source academic lexicon. I’m imagining something like Wiktionary, but it would be a proper lexicon (rather than just a dictionary) and it would focus on the meaning of academic words (since that sometimes differs from lay meaning).

And maybe Quora’s model would work.† You could ask, “What does [So-and-so] mean by ‘_________’?” Then academics could weigh in. Academics’ answers could then be ranked based on their expertise, their content, their upvotes/downvotes, etc.

Or are there already open-source lexicons out there? Is anyone thinking about making one? PhilPapers?

6.  Hilarious Lexicons

Maybe all of this lexicon stuff sounds boring and now you’re hankering for something more fun. Well here it is: The Philosophical Lexicon.

The Philosophical Lexicon is a mock lexicon that takes philosophers names and philosophical words and turns them into new words with meanings that mock their namesakes. Here are some of my favorite entries:

carnap

n. (1) A formally defined symbol, operator, special bit of notation. “His prose is peppered with carnaps” or “the argument will proceed more efficiently if we introduce a few carnaps.” n. (2) Loss of consciousness while being taken for a ride.

churchland

n., (1) Two-ring traveling circus, a cross between a chautauqua and Disneyland, at which philosophers are given entertaining religious instruction in Science and nothing to eat but “phase space sandwiches”. Hence churchlandish, adj. Doubly outlandish. (2) n. A theocracy whose official religion is eliminative materialism.

chomsky

adj. Said of a theory that draws extravagant metaphysical implications from scientifically established facts. “Essentially, Hume’s criticism of the Argument from Design is that it leads in all its forms to blatantly chomsky conclusions.” “The conclusions drawn from Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle are not only on average chomskier than those drawn from Godel’s theorem; most of them are downright merleau-ponty.”

korsgaard

v.  To apply a patina of subtle distinctions so that troublesome objections no longer adhere.  “I always thought Hume was in trouble over that matter but then I korsgaarded his argument and the objections came right out.”

planting

v. To use twentieth-century fertilizer to encourage new shoots from eleventh -century ideas which everyone thought had gone to seed; hence, plantinger, n. one who plantings.

 


† Thanks to Matt Jernberg for pointing out this possibility.

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog