Words, Meanings, and Intentions

5 May 2010

When some party attempts to communicate, there are conceptual differences amongst

  • what symbols were transmitted
  • what conceptual content is appropriately associated with those symbols
  • what conceptual content the party desired to convey
Put more colloquially,
  • what someone literally said is one thing
  • what the words mean is another
  • what someone intended to say is still another
though, ideally, a sort of perfect agreement would obtain amongst them.

People who won't distinguish amongst these are a bane. They'll claim that they said something that they didn't; that you said something that you didn't, that their words meant something that they couldn't; that your words meant something that they couldn't. They expect a declaration That's not what I meant! to shift all responsibility for misstatement to the other person. They expect to be able to declare That's not what you said! when it's exactly what you said but not what they had thought you intended or not what they had wanted you to say.

It's of course perfectly fair to admit that one misspoke with That's not what I meant!, so long as one is not thus disavowing the responsibility for one's actual words. I'm writing of those who avoid responsibility by the device of refusing to acknowledge anything but intentions or supposèd intentions.

Some of them are even more abusive, attempting to use That's not what I meant! to smuggle ad hoc revisions into their positions. By keeping obscured the difference between what was actually said and what was intended, they can implicitly invoke the fact that intent is less knowable than actual words, while keeping misstatement unthinkable, so that the plausibility that there was a misstatement cannot be examined.

One thing that I certainly like about the 'Net (and about recording equipment) is that it has made it more difficult for people to refuse to acknowledge what they have or another party has actually said. They'll still try, though. I've repeatedly participated in threads where someone has denied saying something when it's still in the display of the thread. (And, oddly enough, it seems that I'm often the only person who catches this point. I don't presently have much of a theory as to why others so frequently do not.)

Setting aside those who won't distinguish amongst these three, there are people who more innocently often don't distinguish amongst them. I was provoked here to note the differences as they will be relevant to a later entry.

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5 Responses to Words, Meanings, and Intentions

  • Mykal Banta says:

    I find that most people say exactly what the mean, feel, and think when under pressure. Most of us, with the exception of born politicians, simply don't have the discipline to say one thing but mean another when experiencing stress (severe anger, fear, love). That's why extreme emotion is so valuable - everyone tells the truth. The problem is that most of us - all right, all of us - have ugly thoughts. Once the heat is off and the room cools, everyone wishes they were a better person, thus the "That's not what I meant!" phenomenon. When I have blubbered that, what I really meant was "I wish I were a better human being and don't want you to think poorly of me!"

    • Daniel says:

      I agree that people basically intend to say and often, further, believe what they say in times of strong emotion. But those beliefs might be genuinely rejected at other times. Emotions are states of mind in which it is easy to engage in some sorts of thought and difficult to engage in others, and our beliefs are affected by our ability to think.

      Perhaps, then, That's not what I meant! could often be honestly replaced with I only thought that because I was upset, and I don't think it now.

      • Mykal Banta says:

        The situation is the same for the affluent with regards to generosity. We are generous and kind when we can afford to be. Our true selves are revealed in hard times. At such times we lock our doors, deny the starving. In poverty, we are not so generous. If we were truly generous, kind, warm, charitable, we would give always. In stress, our words are seldom kind. They are our true words - what we are when circumstances have stripped us naked of false refinements. "That's not what I meant" has no meaning. If we say a thing when the blood is pumping, it is in our hearts to say it, thus - it is us.

        • Daniel says:

          One does get an interesting measure of a person in times of crisis. But sometimes what it measured is simply the ability of the person to think clearly, rather than other sorts of merit. Now, I plainly prefer that people think clearly in times of stress — and especially in times of stress — but I don't want to confuse one sort of deficiency for another nor one sort of merit for another.

          By way of analogy, consider dogs. As a dog's brain loses consciousness, its self-defense responses are typically amongst the last things to shut down; as it regains consciousness, its defense systems are amongst the first things to reäctivate. Hence, the expression Let sleeping dogs lie. But if your dog is struck by a car, and bites you as you lift it up and rush it to the veterinarian, it's at best misleading to say simply that it is a vicious dog. If the dog is saved, and could talk, one could well imagine it saying I didn't mean it!

          In crisis, people may fail too. Sometimes that failure shouldn't be excused. But, still, what seems a failure of one sort may be one of another.

          • Mykal Banta says:

            You bring up an interesting consideration: Do we judge men (or dogs) from their weakest or strongest moments? I remember a play or book I read once (can't remember which) wherein a soldier was about to be executed for cowardice. The specifics of the day of his act of cowardice were discussed. A fellow soldier asked the question, "Don't all the days he was brave count?"

            I think of the folks I see, or used to see, on Jerry Springer, losing their shit completely under horrible stress. Surely, like the dog snapping at the helpful human, there was more to these beings than the disgrace of the day. All worthwhile things to consider! Hmmm.

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