Words are Meaningless

There are a few different uses for the word “meaning”. One use of the word pertains to something important, such as a child’s first day of school or birthday; in that manner of use, the word “meaning” tends to hint at something psychologically important to a person. A second way in which we can use the word “meaning” relates to implication or intention; for example, when a person says, “that is not what I meant,” the person is stating that their utterance and intended meaning differed; or, when a person says, “you don’t look so good,” the implication is that you appear to be either ill or injured. Another, and third, use for the word “meaning” is about words having some property that gives them their meaning; that is, the word “fire” has a fixed reference to the environment. Although there is much to be said about all these different uses, the 3rd use, the notion that words have fixed reference, is what this essay will explore.

The idea that words have a fixed reference to the environment has a few problems. In particular, the idea of fixed reference ignores how the brain interacts with the environment, the idea of fixed reference allows meaning to be a non-biological phenomenon, and the idea of fixed reference cannot explain the plastic nature of word usage. In general, many of these problems arise because the idea of words having a fixed reference seems to attribute an emergent property to words rather than brains; that is, when the letters of a word are appropriately put together, the meaning emerges; whereas, by the view offered in this paper, meaning emerges within the brain.

When we consider how the brain perceives the environment, it becomes evident that all perceptual information coming from the environment arrives through a sensory organ; for example, perceptual information about food can arrive through the olfactory system, perceptual information about texture can arrive through the sensory nerves in our limbs, and perceptual information about colour can arrive through the photo-receptors in our eyes; even the perceptual information of hallucinations, to some extent, comes from a sensory organ, as hallucinations are a matter of both top-down and bottom-up cognition (1).

Succeeding initial contact with a sensory organ, at some level of processing, the brain must determine what information is meaningful and what can be ignored; and, when the brain’s capacity to efficiently assess information for meaningfulness becomes impaired, the result is indecision and anxiety (6). So, appraising information for meaning is quite the important function for the brain.

After we obtain perceptual information, we appraise the content for psychological meaning; for instance, one study found that the amygdalae preferentially increase in activity: blood oxygen level dependent signal, when exposed to fearful facial expressions, and that the activity of the amygdalae, when exposed to fearful facial expressions, is also influenced by the presence of other stimuli: masking (2). Furthermore, when confronted with ambiguous situations, factors like personality influence how an individual interprets the situation; more specifically, (Beck, 1967) observed that those with major depression have a negative bias and those with mania have a positive bias when interpreting ambiguous situations; the tendency for trait-like features to influence interpretation has also been replicated in healthy populations as well (3). With both previously mentioned examples of facial expressions and ambiguous situations, the brain assigns meaning to stimuli and the environment.

For further evidence of the brain ascribing meaning, consider social-emotional agnosia and hallucinations. People with social-emotional agnosia cannot perceive emotion in facial expression even though they have all the perceptual tools necessary, nor can they pick up emotion in stories or social situations (7). The reason individuals with social-emotional agnosia cannot perceive emotional expressions is due to damage in their amygdalae, which inhibits their ability to ascribe meaningfulness to certain perceptual stimuli (7). And furthermore, hallucinations are a phenomenon that, from a phenomenological perspective, go beyond inter-subjective observation; which means, hallucinations belong to an individual’s perceptual experience, and the characteristic-content of a hallucination cannot be found in the environment. The important feature to note is that those who experience hallucinations ascribe meaning to their hallucinations; and, since the hallucination cannot be found in the environment, it follows that individuals experiencing hallucinations are ascribing meaning to something that is being represented in their brains. This further supports the idea that meaning is a matter of the brain finding perceptual content meaningful rather than meaning being out in the environment.

So, with the idea that the brain assigns meaning to stimuli in the environment, let us consider the implications for how to think about words and word meaning.

Words, reductively speaking, are a series of lines and shapes that have no inherent meaning. For symbols to become meaningful, the brain must be conditioned; that is, the brain must pair meaning to words. More specifically, on one hand, the symbols “C-H-A-I-R” denote a concept, and that concept derives meaning from an experience of a thing: paired meaning (8). And on another hand, the symbols “C-E-N-T-A-U-R” derive meaning from humans projecting imagination onto symbols: a blend of ideas paired with symbols. The pairing of experiences and meaningless symbols is how words acquire their meaningfulness.

By the same understanding, someone who claims they are feeling “up” has spoken with the same meaning as someone who says they are feeling happy; only because up is conditioned with success in western culture (4). Consider, when someone receives a promotion, he or she have gone up the social ladder; when someone feels unstoppable, he or she feels on top of the world; to have a high social status is better than having a low social status: up is good. As well, consider religious experience, heaven is up and hell is down. In these examples, experience is the basis of word meaning, hence why “up” and “happy” can be equivalent in meaning. Moreover, another instance where up is conditioned with some experiential meaning is the metaphor more is up. For example, “the crime rate is at an all-time high,” or, “the interest rate is incredibly high”. So, our understanding of “up” takes multiple experiential meanings, and this is because our brains acquire meaning through conditioning and experience, as opposed to words having a fixed reference.

Now, if we entertain the idea of words having a reference, then it entails that meaning is non-biological; that is, meaning is not in the head, the words already have their meaning. This is a form of Platonism, wherein which words have mind-independent meaning; but, as I argue, words lack mind-independent meaning.

On one front, the notion of words possessing mind-independent meaning is completely opposite of how the brain works, it entails that the environment has meaning that the brain processes rather than the brain processing the environment and ascribing meaning; on another front, however, there are some entailments of the logic that words have mind-independent meaning which leads to empirical falsehoods. That is, if words have mind-independent meaning, then it follows that words ought to mean the same thing in all cultures because the reference is fixed; for instance, the word “fire” ought to mean the same thing amongst adults as it does with teenagers, because the word’s reference is fixed onto something in the environment. However, precisely the opposite is true.

Teenagers often use the word “fire” to denote something that they found likable or intense rather than to denote a chemical-reaction; for instance, “that beat was straight fire,” or, “that was lit”. The reason for these usages is because an increase in intensity is experientially associated with fire, and affection is experientially associated with warmth; furthermore, the word “intensity” is experientially associated with an increase in central nervous system activity, hence the phrase, “that was intense”. So, the word “fire,” as used in the previous examples, is a conceptual blend of two metaphors.

Original metaphors:

Fire is an Increase in Intensity

Just warming up

Suppressive/Covering fire

Light em’ up

The fire is out of control (the less intense fire is in control)

He’s on fire (an athlete on a scoring streak)

There was a fire in her eye (Intense determination)

Affection/liking is Warmth

The warmth of her body

That warms my heart

They greeted me warmly

What a heart warming story

Our use of language is often culturally conditioned as result of the perception-environment interaction, and this also results in words adopting a meaning based on image, smell, etc.., rather than a formal objective mind-independent meaning. And to support this subjectivity of meaning even further, bear in mind that some of these metaphors, such as affection is warmth, also have an entirely different meaning in other cultures as well; for example, warmth is anger in certain cultures due to the extreme heat of the environment (5); and furthermore, cultures that lack hourly wages also lack the “time is money” metaphor (5). Some expressions are far more relative than others.

Of course, we must be careful, for, though foreseeable in the minds eye, an increase in relativity fails to entail that all expressions are so subjective that we cannot have effective communication; or, rather, that somehow the notion of relativism completely negates our capacity for communication, when quite evidently, we can communicate regardless of the relativism. Indeed, one could propose that relativism is a necessity for communication; however, that is another discussion.

Thus, we may conclude that the brain ascribes meaning to words through either paired meaning or projection; that what a teenager means by “fire” can vary greatly from what an adult means by “fire” because the culture and experiences of both groups differ; and, that the idea of words having a fixed reference leads to an empirically false Platonism.


(1) Aleman, A., & Larøi, F. (2008). Hallucinations: The science of idiosyncratic perception. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association

(2) Kim, M. J., Solomon, K. M., Neta, M., Davis, F. C., Oler, J. A., Mazzulla, E. C., & Whalen, P. J. (2016). A face versus non-face context influences amygdala responses to masked fearful eye whites. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. doi:10.1093/scan/nsw110

(3) Mattek, A. M., Whalen, P. J., Berkowitz, J. L., & Freeman, J. B. (2016). Differential effects of cognitive load on subjective versus motor responses to ambiguously valenced facial expressions. Emotion,16(6), 929-936. doi:10.1037/emo0000148

(4) Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

(5) Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought. New York: Basic Books

(6) Damasio, A. R. (2000). Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York: Quil

(7) Joseph, Rhawn. “Agnosia.” Brain-Mind. Academic Press, 2000. Web. 28 Nov 201

(8) Fodor, J., & Pylyshyn, Z. (2015). Minds without Meanings: An Essay on the Content of Concepts. MIT Press. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1287hw


Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

Leave a Reply