How We Think

Chapter 9: Meaning: or Conceptions and Understanding

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I. The Place of Meanings in Mental Life

Meaning is central

As in our discussion of judgment we were making more explicit what is involved in inference, so in the discussion of meaning we are only recurring to the central function of all reflection. For one thing to mean, signify, betoken, indicate, or point to, another we saw at the outset to be the essential mark of thinking (see p. 8). To find out what facts, just as they stand, mean, is the object of all discovery; to find out what facts will carry out, substantiate, support a given meaning, is the object of all testing. When an inference reaches a satisfactory conclusion, we attain a goal of meaning. The act of judging involves both the growth and the application of meanings. In short, in this chapter we are not introducing a new topic; we are only coming to closer quarters with what hitherto has been constantly assumed. In the first section, we shall consider the equivalence of meaning and understanding, and the two types of understanding, direct and indirect.


To understand is to grasp meaning

If a person comes suddenly into your room and calls out " Paper," various alternatives are possible. If you do not understand the English language, there is simply a noise which may or may not act as a physical stimulus

(117) and irritant. But the noise is not an intellectual object; it does not have intellectual value. (Compare above, p. 15.) To say that you do not understand it and that it has no meaning are equivalents. If the cry is the usual accompaniment of the delivery of the morning paper, the sound will have meaning, intellectual content; you will understand it. Or if you are eagerly awaiting the receipt of some important document, you may assume that the cry means an announcement of its arrival. If (in the third place) you understand the English language, but no context suggests itself from your habits and expectations, the word has meaning, but not the whole event. You are then perplexed and incited to think out, to hunt for, some explanation of the apparently meaningless occurrence. If you find something that accounts for the performance, it gets meaning; you come to understand it. As intelligent beings, we presume the existence of meaning, and its absence is an anomaly. Hence, if it should turn out that the person merely meant to inform you that there was a scrap of paper on the sidewalk, or that paper existed somewhere in the universe, you would think him crazy or yourself the victim of a poor joke. To grasp a meaning, to understand, to identify a thing in a situation in which it is important, are thus equivalent terms; they express the nerves of our intellectual life. Without them ,there is (a) lack of intellectual content, or (b) intellectual confusion and perplexity, or else (c) intellectual perversion nonsense, insanity.

Knowledge and meaning

All knowledge, all science, thus aims to grasp the meaning of objects and events, and this process always consists in taking them out of their apparent brute isolation as events, and finding them to be parts of some

(118)larger whole suggested by them, which, in turn, accounts for, explains, interprets them; i.e. renders them significant. (Compare above, P. 75.) Suppose that a stone with peculiar markings has been found. What do these scratches mean ? So far as the object forces the raising of this question, it is not understood; while so far as the color and form that we see mean to us a stone, the object is understood. It is such peculiar combinations of the understood and the nonunderstood that provoke thought. If at the end of the inquiry, the markings are decided to mean glacial scratches, obscure and perplexing traits have been translated into meanings already understood: namely, the moving and grinding power of large bodies of ice and the friction thus induced of one rock upon another. Something already understood in one situation has been transferred and applied to what is strange and perplexing in another, and thereby the latter has become plain and familiar, i.e. understood. This summary illustration discloses that our power to think effectively depends upon possession of a capital fund of meanings which may be applied when desired. (Compare what was said about deduction, p. 94.)


Direct and circuitous understanding

In the above illustrations two types of grasping of meaning are exemplified. When the English language is understood, the person grasps at once the meaning of cc paper." He may not, however, see any meaning or sense in the performance as a whole. Similarly, the person identifies the object on sight as a stone; there is no secret, no mystery, no perplexity about that. But he does not understand the markings on it. They have

(119) some meaning, but what is it? In one case, owing to familiar acquaintance, the thing and its meaning, up to a certain point, are one. In the other, the thing and its meaning are, temporarily at least, sundered, and meaning has to be sought in order to understand the thing. In one case understanding is direct, prompt, immediate; in the other, it is roundabout and delayed.

Interaction of the two types

Most languages have two sets of words to express these two modes of understanding; one for the direct taking in or grasp of meaning, the other for its circuitous apprehension, thus: yvCovat and 618evat in Greek; noscere and scire in Latin; kennen and wissen in German ; connaitre and savoir in French; while in English to be acquainted with and to know of or about have been suggested as equivalents.[1] Now our intellectual life consists of a peculiar interaction between these two types of understanding. All judgment, all reflective inference, presupposes some lack of understanding, a partial absence of meaning. We reflect in order that we may get hold of the full and adequate significance of what happens. Nevertheless, something must be already understood, the mind must be in possession of some meaning which it has mastered, or else thinking is impossible. We think in order to grasp meaning, but none the less every extension of knowledge makes us aware of blind and opaque spots, where with less knowledge all had seemed obvious and natural. A scientist brought into a new district will find many things that he does not understand, where the native savage or

(120) rustic will be wholly oblivious to any meanings beyond those directly apparent. Some Indians brought to a large city remained stolid at the sight of mechanical wonders of bridge, trolley, and telephone, but were held spellbound by the sight of workmen climbing poles to repair wires. Increase of the store of meanings makes us conscious of new problems, while only through translation of the new perplexities into what is already familiar and plain do we understand or solve these problems. This is the constant spiral movement of knowledge.

Intellectual progress a rhythm

Our progress in genuine knowledge always consists in part in the discovery of something not understood in what had previously been taken for granted as plain, obvious, -matter-of-course, and in part in the use of meanings that are directly grasped without question, as instruments for getting hold of obscure, doubtful, and perplexing meanings. No object is so familiar, so obvious, so commonplace that it may not unexpectedly present, in a novel situation, some problem, and thus arouse reflection in order to understand it. No object or principle is so strange, peculiar, or remote that it may not be dwelt upon till its meaning becomes familiar-taken in on sight without reflection. We may come to see, perceive, recognize, grasp, seize, lay hold of principles, laws, abstract truths -ie. to understand their meaning in very immediate fashion. Our intellectual progress consists, as has been said, in a rhythm of direct understanding technically called apprehension with indirect, mediated understanding technically called comprehension.

2. The Process of Acquiring Meanings


The first problem that comes up in connection with direct understanding is how a store of directly apprehensible meanings is built up. How do we learn to view things on sight as significant members of a situation, or as having, as a matter of course, specific meanings ? Our chief difficulty in answering this question lies in the thoroughness with which the lesson of familiar things has been learnt. Thought can more easily traverse an unexplored region than it can undo what has been so thoroughly done as to be ingrained in unconscious habit. We apprehend chairs, tables, books, trees, horses, clouds, stars, rain, so promptly and directly that it is hard to realize that as meanings they had once to be acquired, the meanings are now so much parts of the things themselves.

Confusion is prior to familiarity

In an often quoted passage, Mr. James has said: "The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion."[2] Mr. James is speaking of a baby's world taken as a whole; the description, however, is equally applicable to the way any new thing strikes an adult, so far as the thing is really new and strange. To the traditional " cat in a strange garret," everything is blurred and confused; the wonted marks that label things so as to separate them from one another are lacking. Foreign languages that we do not understand always seem jabberings, babblings, in which it is impossible to fix a definite, clear-cut, individualized group of sounds. The countryman in the crowded city street, the landlubber at sea, the ignoramus in sport at a contest between experts in a complicated game, are further instances. Put an unexperienced man in a factory, and at first the work seems to him a meaningless medley. All strangers of another race proverbially look alike to the visiting

(122) foreigner. Only gross differences of size or color are perceived by an outsider in a flock of sheep, each of which is perfectly individualized to the shepherd. A diffusive blur and an indiscriminately shifting suction characterize what we do not understand. The problem of the acquisition of meaning by things, or (stated in another way) of forming habits of simple apprehension, is thus the problem of introducing (i) definiteness and distinction and (ii) consistency or stability of meaning into what is otherwise vague and wavering.

Practical responses clarify confusion

The acquisition of definiteness and of coherency (or constancy) of meanings is derived primarily from practical activities. By rolling an object, the child makes its roundness appreciable; by bouncing it, he singles out its elasticity; by throwing it, be makes weight its conspicuous distinctive factor. Not through the senses, but by means of the reaction, the responsive adjustment, is the impression made distinctive, and given a character marked off from other qualities that call out unlike reactions. Children, for example, are usually quite slow in apprehending differences of color. Differences from the standpoint of the adult so glaring that it is impossible not to note them are recognized and recalled with great difficulty. Doubtless they do not all feel alike, but there is no intellectual recognition of what makes the difference. The redness or greenness or blueness of the object does not tend to call out a reaction that is sufficiently peculiar to give prominence or distinction to the color trait. Gradually, however, certain characteristic habitual responses associate themselves with certain things; the white becomes the sign, say, of milk and sugar, to which the child reacts favorably; blue becomes the sign of a dress that the child likes to wear, and so on; and the

(123) distinctive reactions tend to single out color qualities from other things in which they had been submerged.

Take another example. We have little difficulty in distinguishing from one another rakes, hoes, plows and harrows, shovels and spades. Each has its own associated characteristic use and function. We may have, however, great difficulty in recalling the difference between serrate and dentate, ovoid and obovoid, in the shapes and edges of leaves, or between acids in ic and in ous. There is some difference; but just what? Or, we know what the difference is; but which is which? Variations in form, size, color, and arrangement of parts have much less to do, and the uses, purposes, and functions of things and of their parts much more to do, with distinctness of character and meaning than we should be likely to think. What misleads us is the fact that the qualities of form, size, color, and so on, are now so distinct that we fail to see that the problem is precisely to account for the way in which they originally obtained their definiteness and conspicuousness. So far as we sit passive before objects, they are not distinguished out of a vague blur which swallows them all. Differences in the pitch and intensity of sounds leave behind a different feeling, but until we assume different attitudes toward them, or do something special in reference to them, their vague difference cannot be intellectually gripped and retained.

Children's drawings illustrate domination by value

Children's drawings afford a further exemplification Of the same principle, Perspective does not exist, for the child's interest is not in pictorial representation, but in the things represented; and while perspective is essential to the former, it is no part of the characteristic uses and values of the things themselves. The house

(124) is drawn with transparent walls, because the rooms, chairs, beds, people inside, are the important things in the house-meaning; smoke always comes out of the chimney otherwise, why have a chimney at all? At Christmas time, the stockings may be drawn almost as large as the house or even so large that they have to be put outside of it: in any case, it is the scale of values in use that furnishes the scale for their qualities, the pictures being diagrammatic reminders of these values, not impartial records of physical and sensory qualities. One of the chief difficulties felt by most persons in learning the art of pictorial representation is that habitual uses and results of use have become so intimately read into the character of things that it is practically impossible to shut them out at will.

As do sounds used as language signs

The acquiring of meaning by sounds, in virtue of which they become words, is perhaps the most striking illustration that can be found of the way in which mere sensory stimuli acquire definiteness and constancy of meaning and are thereby themselves defined and interconnected for purposes of recognition. Language is a specially good example because there are hundreds or even thousands of words in which meaning is now so thoroughly consolidated with physical qualities as to be directly apprehended, while in the case of words it is easier to recognize that this connection has been gradually and laboriously acquired than in the case of physical objects such as chairs, tables, buttons, trees, stones, hills, flowers, and so on, where it seems as if the union of intellectual character and meaning with the physical fact were aboriginal, and thrust upon us passively rather than acquired through active explorations. And in the case of the meaning of words, we see readily that it is by making

(125) sounds and noting the results which follow, by listening to the sounds of others and watching the activities which accompany them, that a given sound finally becomes the stable bearer of a meaning.


Familiar acquaintance with meanings thus signifies that we have acquired in the presence of objects definite attitudes of response which lead us, without reflection, to anticipate certain possible consequences. The definiteness of the expectation defines the meaning or takes it out of the vague and pulpy; its habitual, recurrent character gives the meaning constancy, stability, consistency, or takes it out of the fluctuating and wavering.

3. Conceptions and Meaning

A conception is a definite meaning

The word meaning is a familiar everyday term; the words conception, notion, are both popular and technical terms. Strictly speaking, they involve, however, nothing new; any meaning sufficiently individualized to be directly grasped and readily used, and thus fixed by a word, is a conception or notion. Linguistically, every common noun is the carrier of a meaning, while proper nouns and common nouns with the word this or that prefixed, refer to the things in which the meanings are exemplified. That thinking both employs and expands notions, conceptions, is then simply saying that in inference and judgment we use meanings, and that this use also corrects and widens them.

which is standardized

Various persons talk about an object not physically present, and yet all get the same material of belief . The same person in different moments often refers to the same object or kind of objects. The sense experience, the physical conditions, the psychological conditions, vary, but the same meaning is conserved. If pounds

(126) arbitrarily changed their weight, and foot rules their length, while we were using them, obviously we could not weigh nor measure. This would be our intellectual position if meanings could not be maintained with a certain stability and constancy through a variety of physical and personal changes.

By it we identify the unknown

and supplement the sensibly present

To insist upon the fundamental importance of conceptions would, accordingly, only repeat what has been said. We shall merely summarize, saying that conceptions, or standard meanings, are instruments (i) of identification, (ii) of supplementation, and (iii) of placing in a system. Suppose a little speck of light hitherto unseen is detected in the heavens. Unless there is a store of meanings to fall back upon as tools of inquiry and reasoning, that speck of light will remain just what it is to the senses a mere speck of light. For all that it leads to, it might as well be a mere irritation of the optic nerve Given the stock of meanings acquired in prior experience, this speck of light is mentally attacked by means of appropriate concepts. Does it indicate asteroid, or comet, or a new-forming sun, or a nebula resulting from some cosmic collision or disintegration ? Each of these conceptions has its own specific and differentiating characters, which are then sought for by minute and persistent inquiry. As a result, then, the speck is identified, we will say, as a comet. Through a standard meaning, it gets identity and stability of character. Supplementation then takes place. All the known qualities of comets are read into this particular thing, even though they have not been as yet observed. All that the astronomers of the past have learned about the paths and structure of comets becomes available capital with which to interpret the speck

and also systematize things

(127) of light. Finally, this comet-meaning is itself not isolated; it is a related portion of the whole system of astronomic knowledge. Suns, planets, satellites, nebulae, comets, meteors, star dust-all these conceptions have a certain mutuality of reference and interaction, and when the speck of light is identified as meaning a comet, it is at once adopted as a full member in this vast kingdom of beliefs.

Importance of system to knowledge

Darwin, in an autobiographical sketch, says that when a youth he told the geologist, Sidgwick, of finding a tropical shell in a certain gravel pit. Thereupon Sidgwick said it must have been thrown there by some person, adding: " But if it were really embedded there, it would be the greatest misfortune to geology, because it would overthrow all that we know about the superficial deposits of the Midland Counties " since they were glacial. And then Darwin adds: " I was then utterly astonished at Sidgwick not being delighted at so wonderful a fact as a tropical shell being found near the surface in the middle of England. Nothing before had made me thoroughly realize that science consists in grouping facts so that general laws or conclusions may be drawn from them." This instance (which might, of course, be duplicated from any branch of science) indicates how scientific notions make explicit the systematizing tendency involved in all use of concepts.

4. What Conceptions are Not

The idea that a conception is a meaning that supplies a standard rule for the identification and placing of particulars may be contrasted with some current misapprehensions of its nature.

I. Conceptions are not derived from a multitude of

A concept is not a bare residue

(128) different definite objects by leaving out the qualities in which they differ and retaining those in which they agree. The origin of concepts is sometimes described to be as if a child began with a lot of different particular things, say particular dogs; his own Fido, his neighbor's Carlo, his cousin's Tray. Having all these different objects before him, he analyzes them into a lot of different qualities, say (a) color, (b) size, (c) shape, (d) number of legs, (e) quantity and quality of hair, (f) digestive organs, and so on; and then strikes out all the unlike qualities (such as color, size, shape, hair), retaining traits such as quadruped and domesticated, which they all have in general.

but an active attitude

As a matter of fact, the child begins with whatever significance he has got out of the one dog he has seen, heard, and handled. He has found that he can carry over from one experience of this object to subsequent experience certain expectations of certain characteristic modes of behavior may expect these even before they show themselves. He tends to assume this attitude of anticipation whenever any clue or stimulus presents itself; whenever the object gives him any excuse for it. Thus he might call cats little dogs, or horses big dogs. But finding that other expected traits and modes of behavior are not fulfilled, he is forced to throw out certain traits from the dog-meaning, while by contrast (see p. 90) certain other traits are selected and emphasized. As he further applies the meaning to other dogs, the dog-meaning gets still further defined and refined. He does not begin with a lot of ready-made objects from which he extracts a common meaning ; he tries to apply to every new experience whatever from his old experience will help him understand it,

(129) and as this process of constant assumption and experimentation is fulfilled and refuted by results, his conceptions get body and clearness.

It is general because of its application

2. Similarly, conceptions are general because of their I use and application, not because of their ingredients. The view of the origin of conception in an impossible sort of analysis has as its counterpart the idea that the conception is made up out of all the like elements that remain after dissection of a number of individuals. Not so; the moment a meaning is gained, it is a working tool of further apprehensions, an instrument of understanding other things. Thereby the meaning is extended to cover them. Generality resides in application to the comprehension of new cases, not in constituent parts. A collection of traits left as the common residuum, the caput mortuum, of a million objects, would be merely a collection, an inventory or aggregate, not a general idea ; a striking trait emphasized in any one experience which then served to help understand some one other experience, would become, in virtue of that service of application, in so far general. Synthesis is not a matter of mechanical addition, but of application of something discovered in one case to bring other cases into line.

5. Definition and Organization of Meanings

Definiteness versus vagueness

A being that cannot understand at all is at least protected from mis-understandings. But beings that get knowledge by means of inferring and interpreting, by judging what things signify in relation to one another, are constantly exposed to the danger of mis-apprehension, mis-understanding, mis-taking -taking a thing amiss. A constant source of misunderstanding and mistake is indefiniteness of meaning. Through vagueness of

In the abstract meaning is intension


In its application it is extension

(130) meaning we misunderstand other people, things, and ourselves ; through its ambiguity we distort and pervert conscious distortion of meaning may be enjoyed as nonsense; erroneous meanings, if clear-cut, may be followed up and got rid of. But vague meanings are too gelatinous to offer matter for analysis, and too pulpy to afford support to other beliefs. They evade testing and responsibility. Vagueness disguises the unconscious mixing together of different meanings, and facilitates the substitution of one meaning for another, and covers up the failure to have any precise meaning at all. It is the aboriginal logical sin the source from which flow most bad intellectual consequences. Totally to eliminate indefiniteness is impossible; to reduce it in extent and in force requires sincerity and vigor. To be clear or perspicuous a meaning must be detached, single, self-contained, homogeneous as it were, throughout. The technical name for any meaning which is thus individualized is intension. The process of arriving at such units of meaning (and of stating them when reached) is definition. The intension of the terms man, river, seed, honesty, capital, supreme court, is the meaning that exclusively and characteristically attaches to those terms. This meaning is set forth in the definitions of those words. The test of the distinctness of a meaning is that it shall successfully mark off a group of things that exemplify the meaning from other groups, especially of those objects that convey nearly allied meanings. The river-meaning (or character) must serve- to designate the Rhone, the Rhine, the Mississippi, the Hudson, the Wabash, in spite of their varieties of place, length, quality of water; and must be such as -not to suggest ocean currents, ponds, or brooks. This use of a mean-

(131)-ing to mark off and group together a variety of distinct existences constitutes its extension.

Definition and division

As definition sets forth intension, so division (or the reverse process, classification) expounds extension. Intension and extension, definition and division, are clearly correlative; in language previously used, intension is meaning as a principle of identifying particulars; extension is the group of particulars identified and distinguished. Meaning, as extension, would be wholly in the air or unreal, did it not point to some object or group of objects; while objects would be as isolated and independent intellectually as they seem to be spatially, were they not bound into groups or classes on the basis of characteristic meanings which they constantly suggest and exemplify. Taken together, definition and division put us in possession of individualized or definite meanings and indicate to what group of objects meanings refer. They typify the fixation and the organization of meanings. In the degree in which the meanings of any set of experiences are so cleared up as to serve as principles for grouping those experiences in relation to one another, that set of particulars becomes a science; i.e. definition and classification are the marks of a science, as distinct from both unrelated heaps of miscellaneous information and from the habits that introduce coherence into our experience without our being aware of their operation.

Definitions are of three types, denotative, expository, scientific. Of these, the first and third are logically important, while the expository type is socially and pedagogically important as an intervening step.

We define by picking out

I. Denotative. A blind man can never have an adequate understanding of the meaning of color and red ;  a seeing person can acquire the knowledge only by hav-

(132) ing certain things designated in such a way as to fix attention upon some of their qualities. This method of delimiting a meaning by calling out a certain attitude toward objects may be called denotative or indicative. It is required for all sense qualities -sounds, tastes, colors-and equally for all emotional and moral qualities. The meanings of honesty, sympathy, hatred, fear, must be grasped by having them presented in an individual's first-hand experience. The reaction of educational reformers against linguistic and bookish training has always taken the form of demanding recourse to personal experience. However advanced the person is in knowledge and in scientific training, understanding of a new subject, or a new aspect of an old subject, must always be through these acts of experiencing directly the existence or quality in question.

and also by combining what is already more definite,

2. Expository. Given a certain store of meanings which have been directly or denotatively marked out, language becomes a resource by which imaginative combinations and variations may be built up. A color may be defined to one who has not experienced it as lying between green and blue; a tiger may be defined (i.e. the idea of it made more definite) by selecting some qualities from known members of the cat tribe and combining them with qualities of size and weight derived from other objects. Illustrations are of the nature of expository definitions; so are the accounts of meanings given in a dictionary. By taking better-known meanings and associating them, the attained store of meanings of the community in which one resides is put at one's disposal. But in themselves these definitions are secondhand and conventional; there is danger that instead of inciting one to effort after personal experiences that

(133) will exemplify and verify them, they will be accepted on authority as substitutes.

and by discovering method of production

3. Scientific. Even popular definitions serve as rules for identifying and classifying individuals, but the purpose of such identifications and classifications is mainly practical and social, not intellectual. To conceive the whale as a fish does not interfere with the success of whalers, nor does it prevent recognition of a whale when seen, while to conceive it not as fish but as mammal serves the practical end equally well, and also furnishes a much more valuable principle for scientific identification and classification. Popular definitions select certain fairly obvious traits as keys to classification. Scientific definitions select conditions of causation, production, and generation as their characteristic material. The traits used by the popular definition do not help us to understand why an object has its common meanings and qualities; they simply state the fact that it does have them. Causal and genetic definitions fix upon the way an object is constructed as the key to its being a certain kind of object, and thereby explain why it has its class or common traits.

Contrast of causal and descriptive definitions

If, for example, a layman of considerable practical experience were asked what he meant or understood by metal, be would probably reply in terms of the qualities useful (i) in recognizing any given metal and (ii) in the arts. Smoothness, hardness, glossiness, and brilliancy, heavy weight for its size, would probably be included in his definition, because such traits enable us to identify specific things when we see and touch them; the serviceable properties of capacity for being hammered and Pulled without breaking, of being softened by heat and hardened by cold, of retaining the shape and form

Science is the most perfect type of knowledge because it uses causal definitions

(134) given, of resistance to pressure and decay, would probably be included whether or not such terms as malleable or fusible were used. Now a scientific conception, instead of using, even with additions, traits of this kind, determines meaning on a different basis. The present definition of metal is about like this: Metal means any chemical element that enters into combination with oxygen so as to form a base, i.e. a compound that combines with an acid to form a salt. This scientific definition is founded, not on directly perceived qualities nor on directly useful properties, but on the way in which certain things are causally related to other things; i.e. it denotes a relation. As chemical concepts become more and more those of relationships of interaction in constituting other substances, so physical concepts express more and more relations of operation: mathematical, as expressing functions of dependence and order of grouping; biological, relations of differentiation of descent, effected through adjustment of various environments; and so on through the sphere of the sciences. In short, our conceptions attain a maximum of definite individuality and of generality (or applicability) in the degree to which they show how things depend upon one another or influence one another, instead of expressing the qualities that objects possess statically. The ideal of a system of scientific conceptions is to attain continuity, freedom, and flexibility of transition in passing from any fact and meaning to any other; this demand is met in the degree in which we lay hold of the dynamic ties that hold things together in a continuously changing process a principle that states insight into mode of production or growth.


  1. James, Principles of Psychology, Vol. 1, P. 221. To know and to know that are perhaps more precise equivalents; compare " I know him " and " I know that he has gone home." The former expresses a fact simply ; for the latter, evidence might be demanded and supplied.
  2. Principles of Psychology, VOL I p. 488.

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