October 29, 2005

Scalia on the meaning of meaning

In the November issue of First Things, Justice Antonin Scalia has a review of Law’s Quandary by Steven D. Smith. One of the review's central issues is the meaning of meaning. Scalia writes that

The portion of Smith’s book I least understand—or most disagree with—is the assertion, upon which a regrettably large portion of the analysis depends, that it is a “basic ontological proposition that persons, not objects, have the property of being able to mean.” “Textual meaning,” Smith says, “must be identified with the semantic intentions of an author—and . . . without an at least tacit reference to an author we would not have a meaningful text at all, but rather a set of meaningless marks or sounds.” “Legal meaning depends on the (semantic) intentions of an author.”

Scalia disagrees: for him, meaning has to do with understanding texts or utterances, not with intending to use them to communicate:

Smith confuses, it seems to me, the question whether words convey a concept from one intelligent mind to another (communication) with the question whether words produce a concept in the person who reads or hears them (meaning).

Even a phonetician like me knows that this issue had an important role in 20th-century philosophy of language. I present it to students in Linguistics 001 as the distinction between speaker meaning and sentence meaning, framed by a quote from Peter Strawson's essay "Logic and Truth" (reprinted in his 1971 collection Logico-Linguistic Papers):

What is it for anything to have a meaning at all, in the way, or in the sense , in which words or sentences or signals have meaning? What is it for a particular sentence to have the meaning or meanings it does have? What is it for a particular phrase, or a particular word, to have the meaning or meanings it does have?
[ . . .]
I am not going to undertake to try to answer these so obviously connected questions. . . I want rather to discuss a certain conflict, or apparent conflict, more or less dimly discernible in current approaches to these questions. For the sake of a label, we might call it the conflict between the theorists of communication-intention and the theorists of formal semantics. According to the former, it is impossible to give an adequate account of the concept of meaning without reference to the possession by speakers of audience-directed intentions of a certain complex kind. . . The opposed view. . . is that this doctrine simply gets things the wrong way round. . . the system of semantic and syntactical rules, in the mastery of which knowledge of a language consists -- the rules which determine the meanings of sentences -- is not a system of rules for communicating at all. The rules can be exploited for this purpose; but this is incidental to their essential character. It would be perfectly possible for someone to understand a language completely -- to have a perfect linguistic competence -- without having even the implicit thought of the function of communication
[. . .]
A struggle on what seems to be such a central issue in philosophy should have something of a Homeric quality; and a Homeric struggle calls for gods and heroes. I can at least, though tentatively, name some living captains and benevolent shades: on the one side, say, Grice, Austin, and the later Wittgenstein; on the other, Chomsky, Frege, and the earlier Wittgenstein.

I'm not sure that Chomsky is accurately classified here, but it's certainly fun to think of him as being on the same virtual debating team as Scalia.

On a more serious note, I'm curious about a different cultural divide -- the apparent separation over the past century or so between philosophy of law and philosophy of language, despite the evident overlap of issues. I haven't read Smith's book, but there is no 20th-century philosophy of language in the "scholarship, from ancient to modern, bearing upon the philosophy of law" that Scalia cites Smith as reviewing -- the list skips from Socrates and Plato to "Holmes to Pound, Llewellyn to Dworkin, Posner to Bork (and Scalia, honored as I am to be condemned in such eminent philosophical company)".

Scalia's specific arguments that meaning is something that (people perceive that) texts have, not something that people do (for the purpose of affecting other people), seem to me to raise some interesting non-linguistic issues. For example, he proposes this parable:

Two persons who speak only English see sculpted in the desert sand the words “LEAVE HERE OR DIE.” It may well be that the words were the fortuitous effect of wind, but the message they convey is clear, and I think our subjects would not gamble on the fortuity.
As my desert example demonstrates, symbols (such as words) can convey meaning even if there is no intelligent author at all.

This is a clear rebuke to William Dembski's information-theoretic approach to Intelligent Design Theory. If Scalia believes that the letters "LEAVE HERE OR DIE" sculpted in the desert sands are a plausible example of symbols with "no intelligent author at all", Dembski's notion of "specified information" (as evidence for an intelligent designer) has surely not impressed him.

When it comes to the meaning of meaning, Scalia not only focuses on the interpreter rather than the creator of a signal, he gives absolute power to semiotic convention:

If the ringing of an alarm bell has been established, in a particular building, as the conventional signal that the building must be evacuated, it will convey that meaning even if it is activated by a monkey.

I question the implication that people who hear a fire alarm interpret its meaning without paying any attention to theories of how it was activated: on Scalia's theory, how can we make sense of the everyday concept "false alarm"? When I'm told that a particular alarm is due to a circuit fault (or a mischievous monkey, though monkeys are thin on the ground in Philadelphia), I don't conclude that the conventional meaning of the fire alarm signal has changed, but I do join everyone else in aborting the evacuation. Back in January, Geoff Pullum told a real-world story that bears on this issue.

(And of course, the genuine human response to Scalia's LEAVE HERE OR DIE example would be to reason, at least briefly, about the author of the message and the intent behind it -- a threat? a prank? an improbable accident? the slogan of a defunct weight-loss camp, missing its last letter? If I'm one of the "persons" seeing the message, and the other one explains to me "Oh, that's just one of my cousin's tasteless jokes", I haven't learned anything new about the conventions of the English language, but the news alters my interpretation of the message profoundly.)

Scalia also argues (or rather asserts) that group exegesis is less ambiguous than group authorship, explaining that multiple authors "may intend to attach various meanings to their composite handiwork", while we can "ordinarily tell without the slightest difficulty" what the meaning of that handiwork was to its multiple contemporary readers:

What is needed for a symbol to convey meaning is not an intelligent author, but a conventional understanding on the part of the readers or hearers that certain signs or certain sounds represent certain concepts. In the case of legal texts, we do not always know the authors, and when we do the authors are often numerous and may intend to attach various meanings to their composite handiwork. But we know when and where the words were promulgated, and thus we can ordinarily tell without the slightest difficulty what they meant to those who read or heard them.

By citing three points where Scalia's arguments didn't convince me, I don't mean to invalidate the review as a whole, which struck me as an intelligent and interesting attempt to address important questions, and which persuaded me to order Smith's (rather expensive) book. However, I wonder whether Scalia has considered and rejected the ideas of the past century of philosophy of language, or whether he's simply never encountered them. It's obvious that the concerns of legislators, lawyers and judges overlap significantly with the subject matter of linguistics and language-related philosophy, and I've always been puzzled about why the real-world interactions between the disciplines and their practitioners seems to be so limited. Reading Scalia's review left me more puzzled than before.

If someone like Scalia were to want a reading list for philosophy of language since Plato, what should be on it? Works by Strawson's heroes and shades would not be at the top of my list of suggestions, but I'm not the one to compose such a list in any case. Send me your nominations, or (better) blog about it and send me the link, and I'll summarize the results in a week or so.

I gather from Scalia's review that Smith's perspective is at least as strongly represented among contemporary legal scholars as Scalia's is. I won't presume to characterize the philosophical state of play on these questions, but let me say that as a practical matter, linguists generally find it necessary to think about both kinds of meaning, in something like the relationship suggested by Wilson and Sperber's "Relevance Theory". This gives ontological houseroom to "linguistic meaning", but considers it one of the factors on the basis of which (a normally more consequential) "speaker's meaning" is inferred:

According to the code model, a communicator encodes her intended message into a signal, which is decoded by the audience using an identical copy of the code. According to the inferential model, a communicator provides evidence of her intention to convey a certain meaning, which is inferred by the audience on the basis of the evidence provided. An utterance is, of course, a linguistically coded piece of evidence, so that verbal comprehension involves an element of decoding. However, the linguistic meaning recovered by decoding is just one of the inputs to a non-demonstrative inference process which yields an interpretation of the speaker's meaning.

And let me add that it's often necessary to consider other aspects of the causal chain as well, such as transmission-channel noise and possible slips of the tongue, pen or ear. Along with the intrinsic ambiguities of the signals involved, this means that "decoding" itself is a non-trivial process, usually seen as a form of Bayesian reasoning that crucially depends on assumptions about the a priori probability of alternative (linguistic) messages as well as on the available evidence about the signal being decoded. I suppose that legal texts are generally carefully composed and proofread, but errors must occasionally creep in -- and do obvious typos or malaprops then have the force of law?

[Update: more here, here and here. And some blawg discussion by Eh Nonymous at Unused and Probably Unusable. And a very relevant Georgetown Law Journal article by Larry Solan, "Private Language, Public Laws: The Central Role of Legislative Intent in Statutory Interpretation", for which a preprint is available here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 29, 2005 11:58 PM