In this essay, I shall argue that meanings, as expressed in language and thought, are timeless, immaterial and extra-mental entities. I will defend the views of Bernard Bolzano, Frege and some of the early phenomenologists, and argue for a rather Platonistic view of meaning.
We express a wide number of meanings in our everyday use of language and thoughts. We cannot describe the world around us without reference to meanings or contents. It is self-evident that meanings, as expressed by language, do indeed exist. Without the existence of these abstract or ideal entities, truth, logic (and even human language itself) would be non-existent or, at very least, meaningless. In order for truth to exist, there have to be truth bearers—entities that bear truth and falsity. In order for logic to exist, there have to exist syllogisms, that is, lines of meanings that bear logical validity or invalidity. Take for instance, the statements and syllogisms below:
“2+2=4” is true
“2+2=7” is false
“3+3=6” is true
All frogs are green colored
Gus is a frog
Therefore, Gus is green colored (Valid)
All frogs are green colored
Jim is green
Therefore, Jim is a frog (Invalid)
What is it that is true or false about those mathematical statements? It is nothing physical that is true or false. Atoms out in space just “are,” there’s nothing true or false about them. It is not the written or spoken symbols that are true or false. The physical symbol itself just “is”. There is nothing magical about their physicality. It is rather the meanings or contents that are expressed by those mathematical statements that are true or false. The same is true of the syllogisms. What is logically valid or invalid about those statements is not the outward symbols or anything going on in our brain chemistry but rather it is the understood meaning or content that is logically valid or invalid.
Now the existence of these meanings that are expressed by our language are clearly immaterial objects and not material things. It makes sense to say that the meaning of “2+2=7” is false. But it makes no sense to say that the chair before my eyes is “false”. There are no false physical objects but there are meanings that are false. Similarly, there are logically valid and invalid meanings or syllogisms but there are no valid or invalid material objects. It may make sense to say that a coconut weighs three pounds but it makes no sense to say that the meaning of “2+2=4” weighs three pounds. So clearly the meanings that are perceived or understood by the mind exist and these meanings exist immaterially, in some form or another.
One of the problems with physicalism or any rigid materialism (which says that only material beings exist) is that it cannot account for ‘things’ like truth and logic. For truth and logic require that there be entities that bear truth and falsity and logical validity and invalidity. Physical objects cannot be those types of entities that bear truth and validity. Physical beings just exist; they are not about anything like the meaning of the statement “2+2=4”.
The problem of meaning or content puts the physicalist into a kind of dilemma. It’s easily illustrated by this simple question: does the concept of a physical being exist? If the physicalist says “yes” then he contradicts himself. Once it is admitted that the meaning of a material being exists then not everything is physical. If he says “no” and rejects the existence of concepts, including the concept of a physical being, then he undermines his view that only physical beings exist.
How can the physicalist assert that only material beings exist if he has no constant and unified concept or meaning of what a material entity is (as distinguished from something that would be immaterial)? Anyway, these are only some of the problems if one is a rigid materialist.
So it is evident that meanings or contents perceived by the mind and expressed by our language all exist. Now we have two possible interpretations of the existence of content. Either meanings are temporal, mental entities inside our minds or they are timeless, extra-mental entities that are simply discovered by our minds. I shall present some fairly common arguments for the view that understood meanings are a-temporal non-mental entities.
But let’s first take the idea that meanings are mental entities that are inside our minds. This idea would have several odd implications. For one, if meaning is mental, then there would be as many meanings as there are minds. For example, take the meaning of “2”. If there are, say, 20 people in a room that are thinking of the number 2, then by implication there would be up to 20 different meanings of the number 2. Or consider the situation where the people in the room are thinking about the proposition “2+2=4”. If that is the case, then likewise there would be up to 20 different meanings of the statement “2+2=4” that are possessed by the 20 minds in the room.
As one can see, if meaning or content is mental then there could be as many meanings as the number of minds that perceive the given “meanings”. But this cannot be the case, because if it is true, then language would be a failure in communicating the “same meanings”. When we perceive the meaning of the number “2”, we do not perceive a multitude of different meanings, we are only perceiving one distinct meaning of the number “2”. The case is the same when we think about the proposition “2+2=4”. There is only one unified meaning of “2+2=4” that is being understood, not several different meanings of the same statement. So, the meaning or content that is understood or perceived by our minds has to be extra-mental and not mental.
The other alternative is that meaning or content is extra-mental and timeless. This alternative enables there be singular, unified meanings that are equally perceived by everyone. On top of that, the Platonistic idea of meaning avoids violating Ockham’s razor in needlessly duplicating these abstract entities. Instead of needlessly duplicating the meaning of a “triangle” into multiple meanings that are possessed by multiple minds, it’s rather the case that there exists only one eternal meaning of a “triangle” that is equally understood by multiple and different minds. And the same holds true of every meaning expressed by various definitions, statements, stories and arguments in our language.
Moreover, the idea that meaning is mental does not account for the existence of an infinite number of concepts and truths in mathematics. The human mind cannot contain an infinite number of truths and concepts but we have good reason to believe that there are an infinite number of concepts and truths in mathematics. Take for example, truths of addition, where a person adds the number 1 onto 1, then adds 1 onto 2 and adds 1 onto 3, and this addition goes on ad infinitum.
If one accepts the traditional view, rooted in Aristotle, that judgments are truth bearers then it would be impossible for one account for an infinite number of truths in the addition of number 1 onto other numbers because it is impossible for a person to make an infinite number of judgments about mathematics.
So what accounts for there being an infinite number of truths in this simple addition table where one is added endlessly onto higher and higher numbers? The meanings of these mathematical truths cannot simply be mental entities, like judgments or thoughts in the human mind. The different meanings in mathematical statements have to be extra-mental, ideal entities. So, it is not judgments that are truth bearers but rather it is propositions or timeless meanings of declarative statements that are the bearers of truth and falsity. Judgments may be either correct or incorrect depending on the degree of knowledge in the person. But judgments are not the entities that bear timeless, changeless truths before us. And that’s the truth.
Finally, the idea that meaning or content is extra-mental and timeless is the only alternative that can account for the eternity and immutability of truth. Identifying content with the mental would automatically entail that the human mind automatically creates meanings shortly after it comes into being and matures in intelligence, which is absurd.
The human mind does not create content by understanding content; it does not create the meaning of “1+1=2′ or the meaning of a circle. The human mind rather discovers or arrives at these timeless contents in her understanding of things. Furthermore, if there are to be eternal, changeless truths – truths that have always remained true and always will remain true—then the different meanings of these eternal truths have to be eternal themselves. If, for instance, it’s always been true (and will be true) that “3+3=6” then the meaning of “3+3=6” also has to be eternal. Otherwise, if the meaning of “3+3=6” is not eternal then how can “3+3=6” be eternally true? We also know that meaning or content cannot change. The meaning of a circle cannot change; nor can the meaning of a unicorn change for that matter.
People can change the language in the sense that they can assign different meanings to the same words, or come up with different words for different meanings, but they cannot change the meanings themselves. The idea that meaning is extra-mental and eternal would explain why meanings are necessarily immutable. Many consider the mind to be changeable in contrast to understood content. So, if meaning were something mental then would that entail that meaning could change like the mind itself? The immutability of content is better supported by a Platonistic approach to meaning.
In addition, the notion that meaning is something mental also tends to create room for pyschologism—the idea that meaning and logical laws are simply descriptions of how the mind thinks and operates as such. Psychologism says that meaning and logical laws are not necessarily descriptions of reality. Hence, a mentalistic interpretation of meaning gives the psychologicalist ammunition to argue that meaning and logic are only descriptions about the structure of the mind and are not descriptions of the world. By denying that content is something mental, the Platonistic view of meaning avoids supplying the psychologicalist a basis for thinking that logical laws are only statements about how the mind works.
This is one of the major reasons why Bernard Bolzano advocated a kind of Platonic approach to meaning because of how it better avoids the problem of psychologism. It avoids the tendency to think that meaning and logic are only descriptions of the mind and not of external reality. Of course, it’s nonsense to argue against the basic principles of logic like the Law of Non-Contradiction. People that absurdly argue against the Principle of Non-Contradiction, as Aristotle points out, are only presupposing it in some form or another.
Nonetheless, the understanding that content is something timeless and outside the mind enables meanings to be part of the fabric of external reality. It is only in this external reality where everything can be described in terms of these intelligible concepts and propositions. Why? Because those contents are not something that are just trapped inside the individual mind.
In conclusion, the meaning or content that is expressed by our language and thoughts must be something timeless and extra-mental. If we are to make sense of things like concepts, truth and logic then the meanings of our words, statements and arguments must be timeless, extra-mental, immaterial entities. This all may sound like an admission of the Platonic theory of forms or some version or variation of it, but I do not see any way out of it.
It seems that the only way to account for the existence of meaning or content is that there be definite, indivisible meanings of things. Only this can allow for an infinite number of truths (like in mathematics), and that these truths are eternal and immutable. It is these meanings and logical principles that allow us to accurately describe the world, and to construct a society where men can gainfully interact. Thus, we must contend that meanings are intelligible, eternal, non-mental entities. Only these abstract entities can explain our use of language and provide a common understanding of the world.