Posts Tagged ‘semiotics’

Words, Meanings, and Intentions

Wednesday, 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.