A theory of the workings of the mind
The Meaning Triangle gives us a way to see the connection between symbols (e.g. Words) and thought. It was put on paper by Ogden and Richards1 to give a picture that thoughts of a thing do have a connection to the words said about it, but the words are separate from the thought that comes about.
For the work we are doing, I have made small changes to the words that are used. I have done this to make clearer the discussion that comes after. A symbol is an experience. Such experience may be had by the eye, ear, touch, or may even be an experience of the mind such as a thought.
Symbols come into the the mind and the mind puts them into a structure. This structure we say is a symbolic relationship pattern2. The mind takes the symbolic relationship pattern and makes an attempt to see it in the “mental universe” that had existence before the experience. When it has a match, the structure in the “mental universe” is said to be the Referent3. Through this process, the symbolic relationship pattern has been Defined.
This complex process of Definition is the process that gives “meaning” to “words.”4
I make use of “symbolic relationship pattern” in place of the words used by Ogden and Richards as well as Voelz because it makes clear that the relation among the symbols is the important thing. The words “Thought/Reference” (Ogden) and “Conceptual Signified” (Voelz) give the idea that this is a “thing” that has existence. But, a “thought” or “Conceptual Signified” does not have any material existence. It is only a structure; a complex of relations5.
Frequently we put a new symbol into the structure that makes the process of Referencing/Defining this structure simpler. This may be a label or name for the Referent so that the mind is able to see it with a smaller amount of work when it is Defining things.
You may be saying, “What is the difference between a symbolic relationship pattern and a Referent?” Even though they are complexes of symbols in relation to one another, there are two things that make them different.
First, they are different in respect to the time they came to be. The event of experience makes the division. Referents were in existence before the experience. The symbolic relationship pattern came to be with the experience. For purposes of the current discussion, it may be said that symbolic relationship patterns change and Referents do not.
A Referent, then, is a structure that has been put into the “mental universe” before the symbolic relationship pattern was made. From this we see that a Referent will generally be more complex in comparison to a symbolic relationship pattern. This is true because a Referent has relations to other Referents that may not be important in the current symbolic relationship pattern. We will see this as important when we come to the idea of Context and Communication.
The marks on the page after the word “STATEMENT” will make us ready to go forward:
STATEMENT: Larry schwinked the ronk.
When you first see these marks, you may say, “It gives no meaning!” I will now make you see that these marks give you a great amount of “meaning.”
First, you see the lines and arches on the page and your mind takes note of the relation they have. This is where the physical experience ends. Your mind is able to see that structures of lines and arches like these have been experienced before and you Define these structures as letters and words.
If you have not had much experience reading, you may to take smaller groups of lines and arches and Define them independently then put these Referents together to make a new symbolic relationship pattern in order to Define that structure. If you have had a greater amount of experience, you may be able to take a greater number of lines and arches and Define them at the level of words.
When we get to Definition at the level of words, we see that there is trouble. Two of the words are not able to be Defined (because I made them up). That is to say, you have no Referent for the words “schwinked” and “ronk.”
“Ah,” you say, “See, it does not give meaning!” Again, I say that it gives greater meaning than you may see. You have come to the belief that the lines and arches are words in a statement. With experience in the English language you have the knowledge that in an English statement, the general form is “Subject – Verb – Object.” You come to the belief, then, that “Larry” is the “subject” of this statement, “schwinked” is the verb, and “the ronk” is the “object”. Other symbols that help are the “ed” marks at the end of the second word. You have knowledge that “ed” at the end of a word at times makes the act of the verb “past-tense.” The markings making the symbol “the” frequently occur before a noun. You have a friend or relation named “Larry” and see these markings as denoting a persons name.
With all of this, you are able to come to the belief that the statement means that some person named “Larry” at some point in time before now did “schwink” a “ronk.”
You now see that you have a great amount of meaning. When you come to the knowledge that “to schwink” is like “to walk into” and “ronk” is a word for “wall” you have completed the Definition process by having Referents for all of the symbols and have a complete Relationship Pattern. But if you give some thought to it, you had meaning before you had knowledge of these two words. You were able to get that meaning because of the relation among these symbols and the symbols that you were able to Define.
We see, then, that we get meaning not from symbols but from the relation that symbols have with other symbols. To say it another way, symbols get meaning when they are in a Context.
People frequently use the word Context, but give no thought to the definition of this word. So that we have agreement, we will use the word Context to be the symbols (experience from the senses as well as in the “mental universe” of a person) that occur near a symbol that is the interest of thought6. Note that these may be near in time and/or space.
We will now take up the idea of Learning. Learning is the process of getting new Referents into the “mental universe” or making change to a Referent that is there currently. Learning takes place when new relations are made from Referents that are a part of the “mental universe” and/or experiences from the senses and these relations are lasting. This process frequently makes more than one new Referent.
This Theory of Learning and the earlier Theory of Definition make us able to take a look at Communication.
Communication, the it is the process of making a symbolic relationship pattern in the mind of the Receiver(s) that is the same as the structure of the Referent in the mind of the Sender. In the end, this does not ever completely occur because no two people have the same Context. The nearer the match, the greater the amount of Communication.
For the Sender, the process is the reverse of the Theory of Definition we saw earlier. The Sender has a Referent in mind and makes a symbolic relationship pattern that is not as complex. The Sender then forms symbols (e.g. markings on a page, noises, hand-signs, etc.) to give to the Receiver. From these symbols and his Context, the Receiver makes a symbolic relationship pattern and makes an attempt to see a Referent in his “mental universe” that is a match to that of the Sender.
From this, we see that the nearer the Context of the Sender and Receiver, the nearer the symbolic relationship pattern of the Receiver is going to match the Referent in the mind of the Sender.
There are a number of important things to be said about this process. Senders not make symbols for all of the Referents and relations in their “mental universe” to Communicate. They make a structure with a smaller amount of complexity to Communicate to the Receiver. The things that are not Communicated, the Receiver will get from the Context. This may be from his “mental universe” or by observation of other symbols that were not given by the Sender.
The symbolic relationship pattern made by the Receiver, because it is based on his Context will frequently have relations that were not Communicated by the Sender. This is frequent when the Sender does not give Symbols to the Receiver to not make these relations.
This is one thing that makes Communication hard. At times, the Receiver does not make connections that the Sender has in mind or the Receiver does make connections that the Sender does not have in mind. While this is able to be fixed by changing the Context (for example, by the Sender giving more Symbols), it is clear that the Receiver did not get the meaning being Communicated by the Sender7.
From this we are able to see how Communication that is done by writing is frequently not done well. The Sender and Receiver may be separated by time or space to such a degree that more Symbols are not able to be sent. The Receiver is then made to put Symbols in the symbolic relationship pattern from his Context with no knowledge that these Symbols are to be part of the symbolic relationship pattern that the Sender made an attempt to Communicate.
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Voelz, James W., What Does This Mean? Principles of Biblical Interpretation in the Post-Modern World, Saint Louis, MO: CPH, 1995.
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1Ogden and Richards, The Meaning of Meaning
2Thought/Reference in Ogden and Richards, Conceptual Signified in Voelz.
3The process of building new patterns in the “mental universe” is briefly treated later in this presentation.
4In other words, a Symbol “means” something when a Referent is found in the “mental universe” that matches the symbolic relationship pattern of the constituent symbols..
5EXCURSUS: An interesting corollary to this understanding is that it validates the axiom that theology is the study of prepositions. This is true because the preposition is the language symbol that specifically functions to denote relationship. If you consider “thoughts” and “concepts” to be nothing but points at which relationships intersect then it is easy to admit to the truth of the axiom.
6It should be noted here that the context includes ALL surrounding symbols. That is to say, it includes all sense perceptions acquired (sounds, feelings, hunger pains, temperature sensations, etc.) as well as anything that is “active” in the “mental universe” at the time. If a plane was flying over head when you read the statement discussed earlier, that would be part of the context (although, in this case, it would not have contributed to meaning) even though you may not have included it in your symbolic relationship pattern as you attempted to derive meaning from the statement .
7It should be apparent that the addition of symbols by the sender of a written text is frequently impossible because the sender is separated from the receiver and no context other than what is in the text itself is available.