There's linguistic meaning, and then there's meaning in the sense of purpose. I want to talk about a kind of non-linguistic, non-purposeful meaning. Let me give a few examples.

You see that the lower five feet of a fir tree has been defoliated, with lush green leaves above. What does this mean?

Answer: It means the fir tree has been eaten by deer.

You notice your car is slow to get up to speed, and there's an unpleasant sound as it does so. What does that mean?

Answer: It could mean the car has bad spark plug timing, or maybe it means there's something wrong with the transmission. Which it means, depends on which is actually the case.

You are in the middle of a lake in a canoe and you can see there's a thunderstorm approaching from a distance. What does that mean?

Answer: it means you'd better get to shore, or you might capsize or be struck by lightning.

There was no intentional message passed in these examples, no human-designed symbol. But there was, nonetheless, a meaning. In each of these cases, to ask the meaning of an observation X is to ask, "what information can I usefully infer from X?"

  • It is useful to infer that deer were eating the fir trees, merely because it enhances your understanding of your natural surroundings. If you happen to own any fir trees, it could be more concretely useful because you know you need to put up deterrents against deer.
  • It is useful to infer that the problem with your car is bad spark plug timing, assuming it actually does, because then you know what to fix. On the other hand, if the problem was the transmission, then it is not useful to infer that the problem is bad spark plug timing. So, which car problem it is useful to infer, and therefore the meaning of the observation, depends not only on the observation itself but also on what is actually the case, apart from the observation.
  • It is useful to infer that you need to get to shore. This case is different from the preceding two because the inference is about what the observation implies will happen in the future, as opposed to what events in the past caused the observation.

Let me call this type of meaning, "natural meaning," because it is the meaning of an observation deriving from nature or physics, as opposed to an intentional linguistic message sent by a human.

Note that there are many trivial inferences that could be made from the fir tree observation. For example, we could say that the fir tree is more than five feet high. We could say that the defoliated parts of the fir tree are closer to Thailand than the green parts. But such inferences are not terribly useful; they're either so obvious they don't bear mentioning, or you don't care about them, not even from passing interest. Usefulness may lie on a spectrum, with no clear line demarcating useful inferences from non-useful ones, but when we ask after the meaning we are asking for the most useful few inferences.

Can we understand linguistic meaning as simply a type of natural meaning? If I read a letter, what I can usefully infer from the letter, and the meaning of the letter, are usually the same. It is useful to form the ideas in my mind that the writer of the letter intended to convey, because it grants me insight into the writer's mind, which I must be interested in or I wouldn't be reading the letter.

There may seem to be a difference if the letter contains lies that I can see through. In that case, what I usefully infer from the letter (the natural meaning) may not be the same as the literal meaning. However, we may say that the literal meaning is part of the natural meaning, because it is useful for me to infer what specifically the writer of the letter wanted me to believe, and what he wanted me to believe is the literal meaning. And then also, in addition to that, it is useful for me to infer what is actually the case, seeing past the lies. So the natural meaning contains the literal meaning and also more.

Can we understand linguistic meaning as simply a type of natural meaning?

  • 2
    What you call "natural meaning" sounds like the inferential role, and the theory of meaning based on it is called inferentialism, see IEP and SEP. It is the most popular implementation of Wittgenstein's "meaning is use" maxim, with the use specified as inferential use, Brandom is the most prominent recent proponent. It can be seen as an extension of proof-theoretic semantics beyond mathematics.
    – Conifold
    Oct 14, 2023 at 7:42
  • 1
    I've read this position before. It always stuck me as a confusion of different meanings of the word "meaning" sort of like confusing a "right" angle with being "right" about something the "level" of water in the river with floor being perfectly "level". Oct 14, 2023 at 9:05
  • @Conifold I've read the IEP and SEP articles, and while there is a strong similarity I'm not (yet) convinced it is actually the same specific idea. For one thing, the articles talk exclusively about linguistic meaning, without mention of the meaning of natural signs like the leaves on the tree. Do proponents of inferential role talk about and have a name for such natural signs? Also, I identified the meaning of the leaves with specific inferences, i.e. meaning is a list of propositions rather than a holistic "role." Are there proponents of inferential role who do that?
    – causative
    Oct 14, 2023 at 13:28
  • @DavidGudeman My response to that would be, it depends on whether we can explain linguistic meaning using the same concepts as natural meaning. If we can, then they should be understood as the same type of meaning, because they can be understood by the same principle. If we can't, then you are right and they are different senses of the word "meaning." By the way, where did you read this position before?
    – causative
    Oct 14, 2023 at 13:38
  • 1
    @DavidGudeman A tracker (a person who tracks animals) looks at signs of what has walked there or slept there by how they disturbed the environment. If you make the stack moving rocks out of your sleeping area, then it's a sign in that sense. Whether it is intentional or not, the tracker may read useful information from it. Why should intention be so critical?
    – causative
    Oct 14, 2023 at 14:20

3 Answers 3


It may be tempting to say that anything one senses is capable of conveying meaning, but that suggests that the meaning is inherent in the sensed. Perhaps it would be more generally true to say that it is possible to ascribe meaning to anything one senses, since different recipients of the similar sense information might ascribe different meanings to it. And that, I think, is a challenge for your suggestion that there is a natural meaning, since the meaning I naturally take from some sensory input might well be different from the meaning you take.

You might also want to consider that by lumping linguistic meaning together with other categories of meaning you are likely to overlook important distinctions, rather like, perhaps, taking the view that since cells are made of molecules we should just consider life to be chemicals. It is true that organisms are chemical, but they are chemicals arranged in a way that present a different class of considerations. Likewise, a human utterance can be considered to be just a sensory input to which meanings can be ascribed by the person who overhears it, but that perspective might fail to take in considerations that are uniquely associated with linguistic communication.

  • We may speak of both "the meaning" of an observation, and "the meaning a particular person ascribes" to the observation. "The meaning" is the meaning that would be most useful to ascribe - the meaning a person would normatively ascribe. (And this normative meaning can still be multiple - there can be multiple inferences that it is useful for the person to make.)
    – causative
    Oct 14, 2023 at 23:14

So, this sense of meaning, as in, what does it mean when the tracks in the mud are shaped like this, has a synonym in linguistics and semitotics: signal. What you are pulling apart is a third sense of meaning that exists between a context and a logical structure that has nothing to do with meaning as in the case where an utterance is crafted to communicate a personal experience, and nothing to do with meaning as in an over-arching narrative to align one's experience with.

Google in concert with Oxford supply the definition which encapsulates this sense:

indicate the existence or occurrence of (something) by actions or sounds. "they could signal displeasure by refusing to cooperate"

In this case, a sign, signal, or meaning is taken as a synonym for indication or characteristic of a situation.

In this sense of meaning, which starts with an spontaneous, empirical impression and ends up in a rational conclusion, we see there is the capacity of the mind to useful associations with the world around us and how can read into the state affairs to draw conclusions about how the state of affairs has, does, or will progress. Let's look at some examples:

  • When the air pressure drops very low, and a cold front intersect a warm front in the atmosphere, it means it will rain.
  • When a newborn manifests jaundice, it's probabilistically signals that said patient has a high bilirubin count.
  • When we witness a woman crying over a grave stone, it means that she is in a state of grief over the death of a person.

So, let's just shape some language about what differentiates this third form of meaning from others.

First, this 'meaning', meaning3 has no conscious agent with an intention and an experience behind it, and no language or system of symbols or signals exist or are used. It therefore is a metaphorical use of meaning and not literal as in invoking signals or grammars.

Second, meaning3 requires selecting features out of one's spontaneous, empirical impressions. There are features that are seen as salient before the reasoning occurs. In the movies, for instance, a man will come home to find the toilet seat up and his wife claiming to have been alone. This cinematic trope almost inevitably ends with the wife's boyfriend under the bed or in the closet. The position of the toilet seat is picked out of all of the details in the scene, and is interpreted as a signal of the state of affairs that occurred in the absence of the husband's presence.

Lastly, meaning3 involves the reasoning from observation to conclusion, and functions as a description of what would be perceived as inference to best explanation in the face of defeasibility and defeaters that lurk in the epistemic problem space. As this is the case, one might hear the utterance "I thought that meant..." as an admission that the meaning of the observations was misconstrued. Among cinematic tropes, there are also a host of situations in which comic affect can be achieved or dramatic tension can be realized, for instance, by characters misreading the signs, misunderstanding the meaning, or confusing the signals. For instance, a husband may believe his wife is cheating because he thinks it meaningful his wife is sneaking around and communicating with unknown persons only to find she was planning a surprise birthday party for him.

Okay, references. Pierce is one starting place of semiotics, borrowing the term from the Greek for sign. But Umberto Eco digs deep into history and cites Stoics and their use of semeia. From page 31 from Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language he writes:

When the Stoics speak of the signs... they seem to refer to something immediately evident which leads to some conclusions about the existence of something not immediately evident. The sign can be commemorative in this case it derives from an association, confirmed by preceding experience, between two events. On the basis of past experience I know that, if there is smoke, then there must be fire. But the sign can also be indicative. In this case it points to something that never has been evident and probably will never be...

You asked:

Can we understand linguistic meaning as simply a type of natural meaning?

The best I can do on the terminology front is to borrow Eco's semiotics terminology is to call this non-symbolic semiotics. If you want, I can review my notes on The Meaning of Meaning if you have some specific objective, but the answer to your question is a resounding yes if you follow Umberto Eco and Ogden and Richards' works for the following reason: In the broadest sense, going back to at least the Stoics, as Eco notes, meaning is about moving from an experience to a conclusion about the experience, and that of course doesn't require a sign system, though obviously we exploit this capacity when we craft media to convey meaning.

The overarching idea is that we move to a conclusion from a spontaneous empirical experience. While we tend to associate that with the intentionality of a sign system, what is an often unspoken truth is that the interpretation of the sign occurs through the intermediary of the physical environment. Thus, a message always relies on a medium, if you grant Jakobson's theory from the 70's. Interestingly, cryptography relies on obfuscating the mechanisms of sign systems and tries to hide meaning even if it is apparent that a medium has intent invested into it.

Meaning3 relates to the meaning1 in that meaning1 relies on the same process of empirical content to inference but without a specific semiotics of language or symbols.


Language itself is artificial. It is man made. It is used to spread ideas and was required to communicate a cry of help , to extend a helping hand , to spread happiness, to jointly make strategies to avoid pain and extend pleasure. If language is artificial or man made then the concept of understanding a word and meaning or a situation and its meaning is also artificial or man made.

The most natural language is the conditioning we receive due to pain and pleasure , attractiveness and unattractiveness. We run away from pain and move towards pleasure. Similarly we run away from what is unattractive and move towards what is attractive. This is the most natural language.

All languages are built upon the above mentioned language of pain and pleasure, attractive and unattractive. If someone beats you , you don’t search for its meaning. Pain is immediately felt and it is understood without application of linguistics.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .