Skip to main content

How A Word Means

Kenneth Liberman
Department of Sociology
University of Oregon

Of what does verbal communication consist? It consists of words. But words do not possess their meanings in themselves; rather, the occasioned discourse taken as a whole carries the sense and distributes the meanings to its component words. "Meaning" has to be something about the words, but one cannot find it in the words alone. The words institute a shifting system of signification, but they themselves are subject to this very system, which provides for them new traces of possible sense they can take up.

What is discourse? It is not usually a monologue; more commonly, it is a dialogue. Even in cases of a speech, there are always listeners, and these listeners collaborate in the production of the system of communication that establishes the significative forces of the discourse's component parts. Most linguists treat language as if it was a monologue and emphasize speakers while minimizing the role of hearers. Maurice Merleau-Ponty developed a synthesis of semiotic and phenomenological theories to explain how signification works in the actual world where there are both hearers and speakers.

Saussure's semiotics directed our attention to language not as a container or static elements, but as a diacritical, relative, and oppositional system of signs. The phenomenologist Edmund Husserl led us to examine the acts of meaning fulfillment on the part of the person understanding a statement, and hence to the study of understanding itself. Following him, Merleau-Ponty noted the inherent indeterminacy of language use, observing the reflexive character of understanding, described by Martin Heidegger as a hermeneutic circle. Pulling these analytic resources

postmodernists have attempted to develop an appropriate technology for a critical analysis of the dynamic play of signs and the economy of the signifying traces which this play institutes. Each member of the system determines the other, no sign is foundational, and all are derivative of the economy they institute; moreover, their sense is continually shifting.


I. Saussure's Semiotics

The bedrock of Saussure's semiotics is the discovery that within the integrated system of signs the reality of each element is constituted by its relationship with the other elements, and not by anything intrinsic to it. Strictly speaking, there is nothing positive in the meaning of a

sign. For Saussure meaning is distributed among the signifying elements - what he calls the 'syntagma' - by the whole system; hence, meaning is contingent upon the workings of the system, which itself is not something static but is always evolving dynamically. The syntagma acquire their meaning from the system of differences they establish with the other constituents: "In the syntagma a term acquires its value only because it stands in opposition to everything that precedes it or follows it or both." (Saussure 1959: 123); and "The value of each term results solely from the simultaneous presence of the others" (Saussure: 114). Or as Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1973a: 96) has rephrased it, "Words do not carry meaning as much as they separate themselves out from others." The meaning of a word is inseparable from its capacity to integrate the other words. Each syntagma in a series defines the others, as it is defined by them. Meaning is differentiation.

The 'syntagma' is the lexical unit that engages in the work, or play, of signification. It is the what it is, not because of anything that inheres in it positively but because of the system of negations that it participates in founding. It is basic to the notion of "semiotic" that the signifying work inheres in the syntagma and not in the predicative intentions of the speaker. Semiotics is addressed to an analysis of the means of making sense, where these means are recognized to exceed the control of the speakers whose collaboration constructs the system. The system establishes its own aesthetic, ethical, and hermeneutic proscriptions, which the participants discover as one might inherit an estate.

But is there a kernel of meaning somewhere? Is there a positive component, anything like a cognitive base? And where could such a kernel exist? The syntagma, precisely, are nothing. As Hegel has said, every identity is only its difference. On their own the syntagma can bear nothing; hence, there is no support for an unchangeable kernel of meaning. And much as the ancient Buddhist scholar Nagarjuna describes the mutual interdependence of concepts, if there was something permanent, inherent and unchanging in the sign, it would be the end of meaning: once an inherent positivity is established there could be no play of signification, and language would cease, for language is always that pregnant openness upon potential meaning that is never finished with the process of becoming.

But how can there be interdependency without something to support each member's dependence, for what is it that they are depending upon? Or, what is the ground of knowledge? But no sooner do we establish such ground that the question becomes, what grounds are there for this ground, and so on ad infinitum into the abyss of thinking itself (Heidegger 1991: 11), until we must embrace the notion of groundlessness, or else entirely reconceive our idea of what a ground should be. In such reconception it would be best to leave the philosophy for a while and take up a more pragmatic investigation of the social praxis involved in communicating meanings. The acceptance of groundlessness is not a nihilism. Just as European and Christian thought was incorrect in attributing nihilism to Nagarjuna, so here this sociosemiotics of Saussure/ Merleau-Ponty/ Derrida bears no nihilism.

The indeterminacy, or instability, of meaning is not a defect, to be remedied by an authoritative linguistics, but a vital resource for understanding and communicating. One never does finish with understanding a poem, for example, at least a good one. The moment one fully comprehends a poem one renders oneself incapable of learning anything more from it. But there is always this 'more' to understanding, and one is never 'finished' with it. The capacity to learn 'more' is related to one's openness to the transformation of meanings, which is the counterpoint to authoritatively establishing definitions and then policing them. Similarly, in intercultural communication the semantic content of the words slips and slides like oil on grease, and fresh solutions to what is being said appear everywhere at hand. The hermeneutics of understanding a poem or an Eskimo rides upon the materiality of the signs. That is, words to come to mean things - but this is a local, social accomplishment which in turn are dependent upon the system of which, and as which, they are composed (Garfinkel 1991). The ideal element is entirely projected and gains its articulations from the material differences among the signs, from which it learns what it has become. In this sense thinking is not an individual activity so much as a collective one. Thinking, as Garfinkel suggests, takes place in the world. Each syntagma bears an assigned portion of the ideal projection with nothing positive residing within any of them. No kernels.


II. A Sociosemiotic Model

A common model of linguistic communication speaks of meanings being encoded in words by speakers, which are then decoded by listeners. This model, all too common in linguistic science suffers from a notion of speaking that is rationalist - i.e., it is presumed that a speaker knows what s/he is going to say and that a listener is going to hear it in that way. In the actual everyday world (which is the only world there is) neither is the case. "One does not know what one is saying, one knows only after one has said it," (Merleau-Ponty 1973b: 46), and this knowledge is deeply attuned to the interpretive accomplishments of the listener(s). That is to say, meaning is a collaboration, and the ethnomethodology of this collaborative activity must become a central part of linguistic investigation. Words collect their meanings according to their collaborated usages. What an expression has come to mean, at a given local time and place, informs the speaker about what expressive possibilities are available - and just those possibilities, in just the way the listeners and speakers provide for them, and no more. Or if there is 'more', then there has to be the local work of the listeners and speakers providing for that, too.

The mechanism by which such collaboratively produced usages are shared is the public display of meaning in the talk: those displays instruct participants about what can be done. There is not a private language, or even a collision of private languages, but the local establishment of the conventions of a language game whose rules never quite get fully written. "In dialogue a personal and interpersonal tradition is always founded" (Merleau-Ponty 1964: 92).

But "tradition" is too general here, for the interactive work is very specific in its details. Particular words and meanings are displayed by speakers, and in turn by listeners whose interpretations are displayed publicly, and once displayed become available for copy, further invention and elaboration, or adoption as what was meant "all along." As the components of an emerging system are displayed, and these usages are ratified, a competent system of linguistic communication becomes ready at hand for the participants. The system bears the communicative possibilities that are present.

Although speakers and listeners collaborate in the production of the system, it is the emerging system that provides them with what they can accomplish. The system is public and exterior, always unfinished and open to transformation, but in the end beyond their control. Moreover, the syntagma inscribed within it are always available for reinterpretation. Expression is not definitive and interior but indeterminate and exterior. I am speaking here of the real exterior life of hearable words.

Should the semantic domain of one syntagma change, the shift will be felt across the entire system, whose components will face readjustment. Take the expression, "an artistic use of 'vagabond'." The meaning of "vagabond" is dependent upon the meaning of "artistic use." Alter the latter's semantic domain by the addition of a word, as in "an artistic and spurious use of 'vagabond'," and the meanings of "artistic" and "vagabond" must be reconceived. Saussure has said that each word is like the center of a constellation. This constellation finds its form as the limit of other constellations, and the competence of the system rests in its capacity to integrate intelligibly each component of the system.

Having spoken, and being heard in just-that-way, makes available to us a real system of communicative possibilities. This system is publicly available, to one and all (of course, within the constraints of the political economy in force), and must be continually witnessed and monitored because its components, along with their semantic domains, are continually being transformed. Speakers, in the end, witness the meaning of what they have said as if it was the public spectacle that it is.

This spectacle is independent from the participants in the way Durkheim has described, although in each instance it is their own production. The emerging system bears its unique aesthetic order, which perpetuates its own sensibilities, and is a force for conservatism. The aesthetic interests of the spectacle foster consistency and syncopation. Such syncopation and order enhance the ease with which the work of the system may be recognized and reproduced. The validation that this recognition and reproduction accomplishes lends a moral dimension to the system, and social responsibilities require that one conform to the communicative system and its aesthetics.


III. The 'More than' Rational

Understanding is always more than can be put into words. While it may be carried on the backs of the syntagma and their active differentiation, the possibilities for meaning always exceed them. Such significance may be there implicitly, so that when it first becomes articulated it is already familiar to us. Eugene Gendlin (1992: 47-51) has explained that there are understandings that are at once vague and precise, intricate while not yet explicit. There is always work that words have yet to do but which are already experiencable within the field that the words make possible, yet from which they find their efficacy. There is life, but not all life is premeditated.

Some of the understanding that arrives comes unexpectedly, even for the speaker him/herself. The rationalist model would want meaning always to be provided for in advance, and then limited to only what is authorized; but meaning is something that can be collected later on, as gifts, and we are able then to reflexively put those new acquisitions to work in ordering the meanings that have thereby come to be newly resident in the system. Merleau-Ponty (1962: 180) has written, "The orator does not think before speaking, nor even while speaking; his speech is his thought." Thought is not under the strict code of logical intention but is beholden to the public spectacle that it becomes. And as Derrida (1973: 84) has said, "There is no constituting subjectivity" that could be the origin of all order and serve as the basis for a rational regime. Rather, the order outstrips all efforts to contain it.

The notion the encoding and decoding of thought is rendered by rationalist theory as something like thought ----> expression ----> meaning. This needs to be rewritten in order to bear the wisdom that recognizes that speech does not know what it means until the spectacle provides for it. Thought ----> expression must become thought <----> expression. Further, appreciation of the indeterminacy or openness of meaning requires that expression ----> meaning be reconfigured as expression <----> meaning... . Finally, the reflexive character of all understanding, according to which the achievements of understanding are put to work in providing the justification for their own cogency, demands that the formula be redrawn: thought <----> expression <----> meaning... .

In this formula there is no point of origin in consciousness, as a rationalist theory would have it; it is a hermeneutic circle, in which no sovereign subject is in control of affairs. All subjects are subjected to the emerging semiotic system which is itself unstable. But in this instability lies all the openings through which ideas can be communicated. There is no realism here, but no idealism either. A middle way, the activities of semiosis at once material and ideal, renders all possibilities visible and hearable. Meanings that are not rendered hearable do not exist, not even in dictionaries. Meanings are tied to the material expressions, which as a system of signification dictates the communicative possibilities. But this materiality does not found language, or reason or order, in any logocentric sense. It only facilitates the social praxis of communicating. Words are more than the mediators for ideas, but no positive essence inheres in them apart from the social praxis I have outlined.



Derrida, Jacques (1973) Speech and Phenomena. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Garfinkel, Harold, "Respecification: Evidence for the locally produced order, logic, reason, meaning, method, etc. in and of the essential haecceity of immortal ordinary society (I)," in Graham Button (ed.), Ethnomethodology and the Human Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Gendlin, Eugene T., "Thinking Beyond Patterns," in B. denOuden and M. Moen (eds), The Presence of Feeling in Thought, New York: Peter Lang, 1992.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1962), Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge.

____ (1964), Signs. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

____ (1973a), Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

____ (1973b), The Prose of the World. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Saussure, Ferdinand de (1959), Course in General Linguistics. New York: Philosophical Library.

Heidegger, Martin (1991), The Principle of Reason. Bloomington, IN: Indian University Press.


[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1997.]