Context, Background, Meaning

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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I. The Meaning-Egg and the Context-chicken

Did the Laws of Nature precede Nature or were they created with it, in the Big Bang? In other words, did they provide Nature with the context in which it unfolded? Some, like Max Tegmark, an MIT cosmologist, go as far as to say that mathematics is not merely the language which we use to describe the Universe - it is the Universe itself. The world is an amalgam of mathematical structures, according to him. The context is the meaning is the context ad infinitum.

By now, it is a trite observation that meaning is context-dependent and, therefore, not invariant or immutable. Contextualists in aesthetics study a work of art's historical and cultural background in order to appreciate it. Philosophers of science have convincingly demonstrated that theoretical constructs (such as the electron or dark matter) derive their meaning from their place in complex deductive systems of empirically-testable theorems. Ethicists repeat that values are rendered instrumental and moral problems solvable by their relationships with a-priori moral principles. In all these cases, context precedes meaning and gives interactive birth to it.

However, the reverse is also true: context emerges from meaning and is preceded by it. This is evident in a surprising array of fields: from language to social norms, from semiotics to computer programming, and from logic to animal behavior.

In 1700, the English empiricist philosopher, John Locke, was the first to describe how meaning is derived from context in a chapter titled "Of the Association of Ideas" in the second edition of his seminal "Essay Concerning Human Understanding". Almost a century later, the philosopher James Mill and his son, John Stuart Mill, came up with a calculus of contexts: mental elements that are habitually proximate, either spatially or temporally, become associated (contiguity law) as do ideas that co-occur frequently (frequency law), or that are similar (similarity law).

But the Mills failed to realize that their laws relied heavily on and derived from two organizing principles: time and space. These meta principles lend meaning to ideas by rendering their associations comprehensible. Thus, the contiguity and frequency laws leverage meaningful spatial and temporal relations to form the context within which ideas associate. Context-effects and Gestalt  and other vision grouping laws, promulgated in the 20th century by the likes of Max Wertheimer, Irvin Rock, and Stephen Palmer, also rely on the pre-existence of space for their operation.

Contexts can have empirical or exegetic properties. In other words: they can act as webs or matrices and merely associate discrete elements; or they can provide an interpretation to these recurrent associations, they can render them meaningful. The principle of causation is an example of such interpretative faculties in action: A is invariably followed by B and a mechanism or process C can be demonstrated that links them both. Thereafter, it is safe to say that A causes B. Space-time provides the backdrop of meaning to the context (the recurrent association of A and B) which, in turn, gives rise to more meaning (causation).

But are space and time "real", objective entities - or are they instruments of the mind, mere conventions, tools it uses to order the world? Surely the latter. It is possible to construct theories to describe the world and yield falsifiable predictions without using space or time or by using counterintuitive and even "counterfactual' variants of space and time.

Another Scottish philosopher, Alexander Bains, observed, in the 19th century, that ideas form close associations also with behaviors and actions. This insight is at the basis for most modern learning and conditioning (behaviorist) theories and for connectionism (the design of neural networks where knowledge items are represented by patterns of activated ensembles of units).

Similarly, memory has been proven to be state-dependent: information learnt in specific mental, physical, or emotional states is most easily recalled in similar states. Conversely, in a process known as redintegration, mental and emotional states are completely invoked and restored when only a single element is encountered and experienced (a smell, a taste, a sight).

It seems that the occult organizing mega-principle is the mind (or "self"). Ideas, concepts, behaviors, actions, memories, and patterns presuppose the existence of minds that render them meaningful. Again, meaning (the mind or the self) breeds context, not the other way around. This does not negate the views expounded by externalist theories: that thoughts and utterances depend on factors external to the mind of the thinker or speaker (factors such as the way language is used by experts or by society). Even avowed externalists, such as Kripke, Burge, and Davidson admit that the perception of objects and events (by an observing mind) is a prerequisite for thinking about or discussing them. Again, the mind takes precedence.

But what is meaning and why is it thought to be determined by or dependent on context?

II. Meaning and Language: it's all in the Mind

Many theories of meaning are contextualist and proffer rules that connect sentence type and context of use to referents of singular terms (such as egocentric particulars), truth-values of sentences and the force of utterances and other linguistic acts. Meaning, in other words, is regarded by most theorists as inextricably intertwined with language. Language is always context-determined: words depend on other words and on the world to which they refer and relate. Inevitably, meaning came to be described as context-dependent, too. The study of meaning was reduced to an exercise in semantics. Few noticed that the context in which words operate depends on the individual meanings of these words.

Gottlob Frege coined the term Bedeutung (reference) to describe the mapping of words, predicates, and sentences onto real-world objects, concepts (or functions, in the mathematical sense) and truth-values, respectively. The truthfulness or falsehood of a sentence are determined by the interactions and relationships between the references of the various components of the sentence. Meaning relies on the overall values of the references involved and on something that Frege called Sinn (sense): the way or "mode" an object or concept is referred to by an expression. The senses of the parts of the sentence combine to form the "thoughts" (senses of whole sentences).

Yet, this is an incomplete and mechanical picture that fails to capture the essence of human communication. It is meaning (the mind of the person composing the sentence) that breeds context and not the other way around. Even J. S. Mill postulated that a term's connotation (its meaning and attributes) determines its denotation (the objects or concepts it applies to, the term's universe of applicability).

As the Oxford Companion to Philosophy puts it (p. 411):

"A context of a form of words is intensional if its truth is dependent on the meaning, and not just the reference, of its component words, or on the meanings, and not just the truth-value, of any of its sub-clauses."

It is the thinker, or the speaker (the user of the expression) that does the referring, not the expression itself!

Moreover, as Kaplan and Kripke have noted, in many cases, Frege's contraption of "sense" is, well, senseless and utterly unnecessary: demonstratives, proper names, and natural-kind terms, for example, refer directly, through the agency of the speaker. Frege intentionally avoided the vexing question of why and how words refer to objects and concepts because he was weary of the intuitive answer, later alluded to by H. P. Grice, that users (minds) determine these linkages and their corresponding truth-values. Speakers use language to manipulate their listeners into believing in the manifest intentions behind their utterances. Cognitive, emotive, and descriptive meanings all emanate from speakers and their minds.

Initially, W. V. Quine put context before meaning: he not only linked meaning to experience, but also to empirically-vetted (non-introspective) world-theories. It is the context of the observed behaviors of speakers and listeners that determines what words mean, he said. Thus, Quine and others attacked Carnpa's meaning postulates (logical connections as postulates governing predicates) by demonstrating that they are not necessary unless one possesses a separate account of the status of logic (i.e., the context).

Yet, this context-driven approach led to so many problems that soon Quine abandoned it and relented: translation - he conceded in his seminal tome, "Word and Object" - is indeterminate and reference is inscrutable. There are no facts when it comes to what words and sentences mean. What subjects say has no single meaning or determinately correct interpretation (when the various interpretations on offer are not equivalent and do not share the same truth value).

As the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy summarily puts it (p. 194):

"Inscrutability (Quine later called it indeterminacy - SV) of reference (is) (t)he doctrine ... that no empirical evidence relevant to interpreting a speaker's utterances can decide among alternative and incompatible ways of assigning referents to the words used; hence there is no fact that the words have one reference or another" - even if all the interpretations are equivalent (have the same truth value).

Meaning comes before context and is not determined by it. Wittgenstein, in his later work, concurred.

Inevitably, such a solipsistic view of meaning led to an attempt to introduce a more rigorous calculus, based on concept of truth rather than on the more nebulous construct of "meaning". Both Donald Davidson and Alfred Tarski suggested that truth exists where sequences of objects satisfy parts of sentences. The meanings of sentences are their truth-conditions: the conditions under which they are true.

But, this reversion to a meaning (truth)-determined-by-context results in bizarre outcomes, bordering on tautologies: (1) every sentence has to be paired with another sentence (or even with itself!) which endows it with meaning and (2) every part of every sentence has to make a systematic semantic contribution to the sentences in which they occur.

Thus, to determine if a sentence is truthful (i.e., meaningful) one has to find another sentence that gives it meaning. Yet, how do we know that the sentence that gives it meaning is, in itself, truthful? This kind of ratiocination leads to infinite regression. And how to we measure the contribution of each part of the sentence to the sentence if we don't know the a-priori meaning of the sentence itself?! Finally, what is this "contribution" if not another name for .... meaning?!

Moreover, in generating a truth-theory based on the specific utterances of a particular speaker, one must assume that the speaker is telling the truth ("the principle of charity"). Thus, belief, language, and meaning appear to be the facets of a single phenomenon. One cannot have either of these three without the others. It, indeed, is all in the mind.

We are back to the minds of the interlocutors as the source of both context and meaning. The mind as a field of potential meanings gives rise to the various contexts in which sentences can and are proven true (i.e., meaningful). Again, meaning precedes context and, in turn, fosters it. Proponents of Epistemic or Attributor Contextualism link the propositions expressed even in knowledge sentences (X knows or doesn't know that Y) to the attributor's psychology (in this case, as the context that endows them with meaning and truth value).

III. The Meaning of Life: Mind or Environment?

On the one hand, to derive meaning in our lives, we frequently resort to social or cosmological contexts: to entities larger than ourselves and in which we can safely feel subsumed, such as God, the state, or our Earth. Religious people believe that God has a plan into which they fit and in which they are destined to play a role; nationalists believe in the permanence that nations and states afford their own transient projects and ideas (they equate permanence with worth, truth, and meaning); environmentalists implicitly regard survival as the fount of meaning that is explicitly dependent on the preservation of a diversified and functioning ecosystem (the context).

Robert Nozick posited that finite beings ("conditions") derive meaning from "larger" meaningful beings (conditions) and so ad infinitum. The buck stops with an infinite and all-encompassing being who is the source of all meaning (God).

On the other hand, Sidgwick and other philosophers pointed out that only conscious beings can appreciate life and its rewards and that, therefore, the mind (consciousness) is the ultimate fount of all values and meaning: minds make value judgments and then proceed to regard certain situations and achievements as desirable, valuable, and meaningful. Of course, this presupposes that happiness is somehow intimately connected with rendering one's life meaningful.

So, which is the ultimate contextual fount of meaning: the subject's mind or his/her (mainly social) environment?

This apparent dichotomy is false. As Richard Rorty and David Annis noted, one can't safely divorce epistemic processes, such as justification, from the social contexts in which they take place. As Sosa, Harman, and, later, John Pollock and Michael Williams remarked, social expectations determine not only the standards of what constitutes knowledge but also what is it that we know (the contents). The mind is a social construct as much as a neurological or psychological one.

To derive meaning from utterances, we need to have asymptotically perfect information about both the subject discussed and the knowledge attributor's psychology and social milieu. This is because the attributor's choice of language and ensuing justification are rooted in and responsive to both his psychology and his environment (including his personal history).

Thomas Nagel suggested that we perceive the world from a series of concentric expanding perspectives (which he divides into internal and external). The ultimate point of view is that of the Universe itself (as Sidgwick put it). Some people find it intimidating - others, exhilarating. Here, too, context, mediated by the mind, determines meaning.

Note on the Concepts of Boundary and Trace


The concepts of boundary and trace are intimately intertwined and are both fuzzy. Physical boundaries are often the measurable manifestations of the operation of boundary conditions. They, therefore, have to do with discernible change which, in turn, is inextricably linked to memory: a changed state or entity are always compared to some things (states or entities) that preceded them or that are coterminous and co-spatial with them but different to them. We deduce change by remembering what went before.


We must distinguish memory from trace, though. In nature, memory is reversible (metals with memories change back to erstwhile forms; people forget; information disappears as entropy increases). Since memory is reversible, we have to rely on traces to reconstruct the past. Traces are (thermodynamically) irreversible. Black holes preserve - in their event horizons - all the information (traces) regarding the characteristics (momentum, spin) of the stars that constituted them or that they have assimilated. Indeed, the holographic principle in string theory postulates that the entire information regarding a volume of space can be fully captured by specifying the data regarding its (lightlike) boundary (e.g., its gravitational horizon).


Thus, boundaries can be defined as the area that delimits one set of traces and separates them from another. The very essence of physical (including biological) bodies is the composite outcome of multiple, cumulative, intricately interacting traces of past processes and events. These interactions are at the core of entropy on both the physical and the informational levels. As Jacob Bekenstein wrote in 2003:

"Thermodynamic entropy and Shannon entropy are conceptually equivalent: the number of arrangements that are counted by Boltzmann entropy reflects the amount of Shannon information one would need to implement any particular arrangement (of matter and energy)." 

Yet, how does one apply these twin concepts - of trace and boundary - to less tangible and more complex situations? What is the meaning of psychological boundaries or political ones? These types of boundaries equally depend on boundary conditions, albeit man-made ones. Akin to their physical-biological brethren, boundaries that pertain to Humankind in its myriad manifestations are rule-based. Where the laws of Nature generate boundaries by retaining traces of physical and biological change, the laws of Man create boundaries by retaining traces (history) of personal, organizational, and political change. These traces are what we mistakenly and colloquially call "memory".


Appendix: Symbol and Essence


Aborigines in Australia believe that the entire universe is regenerated whenever they chant their songlines (Yiri). This is reminiscent of the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, which postulates that particles – and, really, the entire world – are the outcomes of choices made by observers (the “collapse of the wave function”). The ancient Hebrews – and many orthodox Jews to this very day – swear by the miraculous power of their alphabet and its numerical equivalent (gimatria). The real name of God is so potent that it is never to be uttered lest in wreaks havoc and calamity on the world. Christian tradition equates Jesus Christ with the word (logos) that brought our universe into existence. This kind of magical thinking regards symbols not as representations but as handles attached firmly to real-life objects.


There are three types of symbols:


(1)  Symbols that reflect intrinsic (mental) states. As Locke had observed, here the symbol is the essence, though awareness and enlightenment are required as the context in which these symbols can operate and evoke the inner landscape that they represent.

(2)  Symbols that stand in for extrinsic (actual or objective) conditions or objects. Here the symbol is a representation and, as Wittgenstein famously commented, it requires interpretation or mapping before it can resolve appropriately. “Mapping”, therefore, is not merely reference: it relates both to the outside world and to the state of knowledge and experience of the subject (as in psychologism, or logical positivism). We combine representation and interpretation (strong subjective input of secondary qualities) to yield perception and description of the world. Still, the mental representation engendered by the symbol must share (primary) qualities with the object it represents. This correspondence or sharing of qualities has survival value in that it fosters monovalent communication.

(3)  The third class consists of symbols that stand in relation to cultural artefacts, or constructs, or memes. Here the symbol and the object it represents are one and the same. Any distinction between symbol and symbolized is spurious.


Combinations (strings) of symbols produce meaningful statements which really amount to compounded symbols. The same rules and taxonomy apply to them as to their more fundamental and simpler building blocks.


But, if symbols are intrinsically meaningful, how come we fail to immediately and directly comprehend foreign languages (or to the uninitiated, mathematics)? The answer is that we lack the context or the theory that will allow us to translate from one language to another. Symbols refer to reality or stand in for it only within semantic fields. Even then – and contrary to Quine’s dictum – we can always produce a set of workable (albeit inaccurate) translations (functional translation hypotheses).

Appendix: Why Waste?

I. Waste in Nature

Waste is considered to be the by-product of both natural and artificial processes: manufacturing, chemical reactions, and events in biochemical pathways. But how do we distinguish the main products of an activity from its by-products? In industry, we intend to manufacture the former and often get the latter as well. Thus, our intention seems to be the determining factor: main products we want and plan to obtain, by-products are the unfortunate, albeit inevitable outcomes of the process. We strive to maximize the former even as we minimize the latter.

This distinction is not iron-clad. Sometimes, we generate waste on purpose and its fostering becomes our goal. Consider, for instance, diuretics whose sole aim to enhance the output of urine, widely considered to be a waste product. Dogs use urine to mark and demarcate their territory. They secrete it deliberately on trees, shrubs, hedges, and lawns. Is the dog's urine waste? To us, it certainly is. And to the dog?

Additionally, natural processes involve no intention. There, to determine what constitute by-products, we need another differential criterion.

We know that Nature is parsimonious. Yet, all natural systems yield waste. It seems that waste is an integral part of Nature's optimal solution and that, therefore, it is necessary, efficient, and useful.

It is common knowledge that one's waste is another's food or raw materials. This is the principle behind bioremediation and the fertilizers industry. Recycling is, therefore, a misleading and anthropocentric term because it implies that cycles of production and consumptions invariably end and have to somehow be restarted. But, in reality, substances are constantly used, secreted, re-used, expelled, absorbed, and so on, ad infinitum.

Moreover, what is unanimously considered to be waste at one time or in one location or under certain circumstances is frequently regarded to be a precious and much sought-after commodity in a different epoch, elsewhere, and with the advance and advantage of knowledge. It is safe to say that, subject to the right frame of reference, there is no such thing as waste. Perhaps the best examples are an inter-galactic spaceship, a space colony, or a space station, where nothing "goes to waste" and literally every refuse has its re-use.

It is helpful to consider the difference in how waste is perceived in open versus closed systems.

From the self-interested point of view of an open system, waste is wasteful: it requires resources to get rid of, exports energy and raw materials when it is discharged, and endangers the system if it accumulates.

From the point of view of a closed system (e.g., the Universe) all raw materials are inevitable, necessary, and useful. Closed systems produce no such thing as waste. All the subsystems of a closed system merely process and convey to each other the very same substances, over and over again, in an eternal, unbreakable cycle.

But why the need for such transport and the expenditure of energy it entails? Why do systems perpetually trade raw materials among themselves?

In an entropic Universe, all activity will cease and the distinction between waste and "useful" substances and products will no longer exist even for open systems. Luckily, we are far from there. Order and complexity still thrive in isolated pockets (on Earth, for example). As they increase, so does waste.

Indeed, waste can be construed to be the secretion and expulsion from orderly and complex systems of disorder and low-level order. As waste inside an open system decreases, order is enhanced and the system becomes more organized, less chaotic, more functional, and more complex.

II. Waste in Human Society

It behooves us to distinguish between waste and garbage. Waste is the inadvertent and coincidental (though not necessarily random or unpredictable) outcome of processes while garbage is integrated into manufacturing and marketing ab initio. Thus, packing materials end up as garbage as do disposable items.

It would seem that the usability of a substance determines if it is thought of as waste or not. Even then, quantities and qualities matter. Many stuffs are useful in measured amounts but poisonous beyond a certain quantitative threshold. The same substance in one state is raw material and in another it is waste. As long as an object or a substance function, they are not waste, but the minute they stop serving us they are labeled as such (consider defunct e-waste and corpses).

In an alien environment, how would we be able to tell waste from the useful? The short and the long of it is: we wouldn't. To determine is something is waste, we would need to observe it, its interactions with its environment, and the world in which it operates (in order to determine its usefulness and actual uses). Our ability to identify waste is, therefore, the result of accumulated knowledge. The concept of waste is so anthropocentric and dependent on human prejudices that it is very likely spurious, a mere construct, devoid of any objective, ontological content.

This view is further enhanced by the fact that the words "waste" and "wasteful" carry negative moral and social connotations. It is wrong and "bad" to waste money, or time, or food. Waste is, thus, rendered a mere value judgment, specific to its time, place, and purveyors.

Appendix: Original vs. Copy and the Question of Context

Consider these conundrums:

1.     A brilliant geek invents a 3D printer which replicates flawlessly the Mona Lisa. Leonardo’s masterpiece and the copy spewed out by the machine are indistinguishable even under an electron microscope: they cannot be told apart. In which sense, therefore, is the artist’s Mona Lisa superior to or different from its identical clone?

2.     An ancient letter unearthed in the archives of the Church in France proves beyond any doubt that the Mona Lisa was not painted by Leonardo da Vinci, but by an obscure apprentice of his. The painting’s value drops overnight even though it has undergone no physical or chemical transformation.

3.     A world-renowned photographer uses the latest in digital photography equipment to shoot the Mona Lisa in a thought-provoking, fresh manner. The resulting oeuvre becomes a sensation overnight. He then proceeds to attach the photo to 15,000 e-mail messages and sends them to his entire voluminous addressbook. In which sense is the photo that he had shot more worthwhile than its numerous digital replicas?

Intuitively, we feel that Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is not the same as its clones and that its monetary value and intrinsic worth depend crucially on its provenance: its authorship, the historical background, and its proven “biography.” The concepts of originality and authenticity, therefore, have little to do with the work of art itself and everything to do with its context. This realization is thrown into even sharper relief in the third conundrum where the only thing separating one digital copy (the “original”) from another is chronology: the original preceded all others temporally as it was shot first.

Also Read:

Manners of Speech

The Pleasure of Meaning

The Definition of Definitions

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