Asking Basic Questions

“Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” This message, written by Michael Pollan, encapsulates in a simple form his recommendations for eating well. It also accurately summarizes the contents of one of Pollan’s books, In Defense of Food. Christopher Johnson, similarly, offers a “micromanifesto” that resonates with the purpose of this class. “Pay attention to the language around you in the spirit of appreciation and curiosity” (28).

Attention and curiosity take on many forms, and in this case it is basic questions about language and meaning. You will remember, for example, the exciting but somewhat disarming question by Stanley Fish we considered at length. “So,” he asks, What is a sentence, anyway?” Johnson helps focus on the basic questions as well. How do words summon such complex ideas and feelings? Why do some phrases sound right and stick in our minds? How can we be creative when we follow linguistic convention? How do our forms of speech relate to the way we live? Johnson calls these kinds of queries “thinking like a linguist.” He goes on to explain that that such thinking really begins with asking “questions about things that seem obvious.”

Johnson’s third chapter, “Meaning,” offers a layperson micro-history of how people have thought about words and language. Gottlob Frege, Charles Sanders Peirce (whose work happens to be at the center of my own doctoral dissertation), Ferdinand de Saussure, Roman Jakobson, Paul Grice, Michael Reddy, George Lakoff—these are a few of the people he mentions who have shaped how we think about language. From these philosophers and linguists we can think about “connotation” and “denotation,” describe our own thinking about language with the “conduit metaphor,” or explore the conceptual basis of language use through “conceptual metaphor.” We can ask, with Peirce, “How can one thing stand for another?” We can describe signification in functional terms using the terms iconic (similarity), indexical (correlation), and symbolic (codes or conventions).

So here is the basic question we will be thinking about this week: “What is meaning?” You will remember that we have already talked about in class. I called attention to the ways we talk about reading using the phrases “reading deeper” or “reading between the lines.” You will remember that I suggested how these metaphors express a way of thinking about language that determines how we think about meaning. And my point was that these ways of thinking do not take us very far in answering the basic question about meaning. Here is how Johnson asks you think about the question of meaning. “Word meanings are made out of concepts, and concepts aren’t discrete entities. They exist in networks of interrelatedness” (35). So, as Johnson will go on to say, in the case of the meaning of a word, we are talking about concepts associated with verbal forms. “To put it simply,” Johnson says about concepts, “they’re not things, they’re occurrences” (36). Simple, for sure. But a place to move from as well.