Games, the very idea

Where does meaning lie?  A lot of people believe that meaning is the product of a mind-internal conceptual system; meaning, on this view, is a private psychological property of individuals.  Communication would be the coded transmission of these private states over a channel.

In other words, I would enter a private mental state—believing, say, that my dog has the power of teleportation.  I would encode this private state into a sentence via a grammar:

My dog can teleportate.

I would then translate the sentence into a series of articulatory gestures.  That is, I would flap my tongue and beat my lips in such a way as to make a speech signal.  The sounds would go out through the air, hit your ears and you would have the opportunity to decode the sentence.

My mental state would be translated to your mental state via our shared language.

This is a sad and lonely view of language; it conjures up the isolated individual, tragically alone, the only contact between individuals being the thin thread of language.  Language itself, on this view, is a kind of code, that allows us—however weakly—to share our private mental states.  In fact, I think this view of language has become empirically moribund; it is part and parcel of the computer metaphor that has stalled cognitive science in general.

Happily, we don’t have to take meaning to be a private mental property.  A different view, the one that I want to explore in this blog, is that meaning is, at heart, a public property.

As an example, suppose I want to signal something to you.  I have to choose some way of getting you to see what I mean.  I have to make a choice between a variety of methods to accomplish this task and I base my choice on my estimation of its effect on you.

Equally, when you receive a signal from me you have to decide what I could have intended by it.   There could be a number of things that influence your decision—facts about the situation, our mutual knowledge and so on.  In any event, your inference about what I mean is not simply a matter of decoding a message.

Our joint linguistic activity is an example of strategic decision-making; the outcome of the activity is contingent on the decisions made by the various participants.  This means that linguistic meaning has the properties of a game in the sense of game theory.  The question is whether we treat the participants in terms of full rationality, as in classical game theory, or in terms of bounded rationality, as in behavioral game theory.  In any event, meaning arises as part of a coordination game between a speaker and a hearer (or an audience).  The coordination games make meaning intersubjective—something we can share publicly—and mean that we are all of us engaged in the constant construction of meaning.

This is richer view of language implies that meaning is an emergent of a social system.  We use grammar to mean things, but grammar is really only a small part of the story.  Meaning is not a property of grammar; it’s a property of social systems.


About robinlclark

I am Professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. My interests include a microeconomic approach to linguistic meaning, game theory as applied to linguistic pragmatics, language and strategic interaction, and a neuroeconomic approach to linguistic decision-making.
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