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Ideas of the 21st Century

Ideas of the century: Meaning grows (20/50)

“An artificial novelty is never as effective as a repetition that manages to suggest a fresh truth.” Marcel Proust.

tpm cover art by Felix Bennett

tpm cover art by Felix Bennett

Have the last ten years really seen the emergence of fifty – fifty? – interesting new philosophical ideas? I doubt it. Some currently-fashionable ideas, I suspect, will turn out to be less interesting, or less novel, than they now seem; or both. And anyway, too much emphasis on “artificial novelty”, besides obscuring the fact that there is no neat way to individuate ideas, tempts us to forget that significant philosophical advance usually requires weaving together a whole congeries of ideas, some more and some less familiar.

The idea I have chosen to write about here, which has been explicit in my work for at least a decade, illustrates this last point nicely. Conceptual innovation, the growth of meaning, is a recurring theme in the “worldly” philosophy of science I developed in Defending Science: Within Reason (2003). The meanings of scientific terms evolve as science advances; but this is not necessarily, as radical proponents of “meaning-variance” supposed, an impediment, but can actually contribute to the rationality of the scientific enterprise. (Think of the evolution of the concept of DNA over the century since Friedrich Miescher discovered “nuclein”.) As we should have learned from “grue”, supportiveness of evidence is not a purely logical matter, but depends on increment of explanatory integration, which in turn depends in part on the fit of scientific vocabulary to real kinds. This is one reason why purely formal models of science (deductivist, inductivist, or probabilistic) don’t work; and why scientists are constantly altering and adapting their vocabulary.

By the time of my paper “On Logic in the Law” (2007) – where I argued that purely formal models of legal reasoning are no more defensible than purely formal models of science – the growth-of-meaning idea had also woven into my legal thinking. Like the meanings of scientific terms, the meanings of legal terms – “insanity”, “causation”, “responsibility”, “privacy”, “marriage”, etc. – evolve: sometimes, as in the sciences, by the accretion of new information, more often by adaptation to new social conditions and values, or to technological advances. But this doesn’t mean that legal decisions are bound to be arbitrary and capricious; on the contrary, conceptual flexibility and growth is just what a legal system needs if it is to adapt appropriately as the world changes.

I was never a big fan of the “necessary and sufficient conditions” style of conceptual analysis; always resisted the idea that philosophical concepts “have no history”; and have long been given to neologisms (think of “foundherentism”). So, at some not-quite conscious level, I must always have known that conceptual innovation matters in philosophy, too. And by the time of “The Legitimacy of Metaphysics” (2007) this idea was weaving itself into an understanding of philosophical inquiry as continuous with scientific inquiry, and as depending on experience – though not, like scientific inquiry, recherché experience obtainable only by means of fancy instruments, etc., but close attention to familiar kinds of experience.

The growth of meaning can advance inquiry; but this is not to say that “change is good”, tout court. Some meaning-change advances inquiry; but some impedes it. So recently, in “The Growth of Meaning and the Limits of Formalism” and “The Meaning of Pragmatism” (2009), I have begun trying to articulate the difference: good, productive meaning-change is the kind we see when old words acquire new information or new words allow us to escape false dichotomies; bad, damaging meaning-change is the kind we see when old words acquire misinformation or are so stretched or fragmented that they lose meaning, or when new terms embody confusions – or are just foam-rubber public-relations words.

Finally: an admission I have deliberately been withholding thus far: the growth-of-meaning idea is not exactly new. “Meaning grows,” C. S. Peirce wrote, more than a century ago; “in use and in experience … . Such words as force, law, wealth, marriage, bear for us a very different meaning than they bore to our barbarous ancestors.” But because this not-so-new idea is so alien to today’s resolutely ahistorical post-Fregean neo-analytic philosophy, its potential to illuminate familiar issues and to cross-fertilise with other ideas has gone largely unnoticed; which, I suppose, is why it was only relatively recently that I began to appreciate the “fresh truths” to which it can contribute.

Further reading
Defending Science: Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism, Susan Haack, (Prometheus, 2003).

Susan Haack is professor of law and professor of philosophy at the University of Miami

Read all fifty ideas and more in the special 50th issue of tpm


7 comments for “Ideas of the century: Meaning grows (20/50)”

  1. A “growth of meaning”?

    But a growth from what? It looks as if the idea of growth or change in meaning can apply itself to a one-word language.

    There’s much more amiss with this idea of a growth or change in meaning. For one, meanings don’t grow or change. They appear and vanish. For another, meanings cannot be summated to assess whether there is a general increase. Like Wittgenstein’s “world” of the “totality of facts” there is no fact or meaning that corresponds to such a summation.

    And again, are there really NEW concepts or meanings in science and philosophy? Science deals with objects and what they get up to. That’s the start and end of any and all scientific meanings and technical terms.

    And philosophy deals with the sense of concepts. It’s never yet invented a new one. It would be impossible in any case for either science or philosophy to bring us NEW concepts. Instead, they bring us ellipses, summaries, short-hand, names of sets, and words that mirror social values.

    Posted by John Jones | September 1, 2010, 10:03 am
  2. Wow, this was difficult to read. I was hoping you’d give us a good example, and I suppose DNA was it. What you call the “meaning” or “concept” of DNA changing doesn’t sit will with me. I think it’s the knowledge of what constitutes DNA and its place in the host organism that has changed not its meaning or concept. I think all science terms describing a substance, in particular, are expected to be beefed up with discovered facts about the substance as time goes on. The “meaning” of the substance doesn’t change.
    The legal terms you cited are clearly quite different than those for scientific terms, at least for the purposes of the idea of this essay.

    Posted by Ralph Sabella | September 2, 2010, 10:51 pm
  3. I think we need to carefully distinguish between connotation and denotation when speaking of both scientific and philosophic lables. Science and philosophy both create labels for denotation; and the connotation of those labels clearly evolve.

    Posted by peter | September 3, 2010, 5:12 am
  4. Has the meaning of, for example, the substance gold not changed? What about blood? What about hydrogen, uranium, H2O? What about the meaning of media? Or the meaning of the word science itself?

    Posted by peter | September 3, 2010, 5:19 am
  5. Of course change happens. Parmenides of Elea was wrong!
    And the hare does reach the finish line before the tortoise.

    Posted by peter | September 3, 2010, 5:24 am
  6. Meanings don’t change.
    Meanings don’t change.
    Give me one example where a meaning has changed.

    As philosophers should we be embarrassing ourselves by saying that “meanings change”?

    Posted by John Jones | September 6, 2010, 9:10 pm
  7. Of course meaning changes. Anyone who knows etymology knows meaning changes. Word meanings constantly change. In a work of literature, as a theme word is repeated, the meaning of that word changes in light of the other themes and meanings within the text. The meaning of the term “evolution” changes, and the meaning of “inheritance” changes. We used to think that we inherited all our traits from our genes. But even “gene” has changed. It’s not just a section of DNA that codes for and RNA that can become a protein. Now we have alternative splicing and RNA editing. Inheritance involves variances in DNA methylation patterns and in gene regulation. Self-organization turns out to have as much to do with an organism’s evolution as does mutation with natural selection. These words’ meanings have all changed over time — they have changed to fit the facts, in the case of scientific terms. Everything changes; there is no stable ground.

    Posted by Troy Camplin | September 10, 2010, 10:02 am