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Meaning and Intention

September 13th, 2006 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

My brother's recent puzzle spawned this response and subsequent discussion. The discussion continued that weekend for me--I spent a three hour car ride working through the issues with another member of this blog.

To be brief, I'll point out four things:

1) Meanings are something that texts have and authors intend. In other words, they are a textual property, not an authorial property. When I say something like, "I am writing on Mere Orthodoxy," the statement itself has a meaning apart from what I intend it to mean, a meaning that inheres in it because of its adherance to the rules of syntax and speech. In other words, if I say "I am writing on Mere Orthodoxy" and intend it to mean "I am riding a purple tricycle," it won't have that meaning. I will simply have failed to properly perform my intention.

2) With respect to Jim's puzzle, he intended that it would have no meaning. If Jason had found one, it's quite possible Jim had created something with a deep underlying structure that he hadn't noticed--which means Jim, the author, would in fact be wrong about his meaning. When authors create texts, they release them into the world to be interpreted. The interpreter doesn't make the meaning--he discovers it, or not. Either way, the locus of meaning and the criterion for meaning is the text itself, and not the author's or reader's interpretation of the text. To claim so is to confuse the epistemology and metaphysics of meaning.
3) This doesn't mean we should do away with authorial intent, however. Rather, the author's interpretation of their own text is in a priviliged position. Not because he is the author, but because as author it seems likely he is most familiar with the matter, the idea, the meaning of his text. This familiarity allows him to have a helpful and guiding voice, though again it is the text itself that is the criterion for truthful interpretations.

4) "Meaning" seems to hinge upon the "form/matter" relationship. If I typed gibberish--apsodinfapsioerhasperhzdv; nzpdifjapeorija opifjaopfnseprq--it has the matter (letters) without form. But this sentence is meaningful because the letters and words are arranged in such a way that they convey information. If a wave washed up stones that spelled, "Everyone should read Mere O all the time," they would convey meaning, but only in a context where the governing laws for that sentence were understood, that is, where people understand the syntax. In other words, the rules that govern meaning are prior to, and determinitive of meaningful statements, and meaningful statements only occur within certain rules.

There are more thoughts to be had, of course, but these are what come to mind right now.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.