Many theories of speech describe speech acts as being phenomena with both a sign and signified aspect. ( http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/meaning/ etc.)

In another perspective, which is exemplified in Iwenhe Tyerrtye by Margaret Turner who is an Australian Aboriginal elder, there exists only a fundamental identity between the sign and signified elements of speech

p. 45

The story is the land,

the land is the story

The story holds the people

And the people live inside the story

words according to this perspective do not signify, they are the phenomena they illuminate.

Is meaning distinct from language?

Does symbolisation necessarily involve a dual aspect of signs and signifiers? Is it irreducible?

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    The Turner you cite is definitely interesting, but is there any chance I might be able to persuade you to unpack this a little bit? Telling us about the motivations of the question might help specify it a bit; this might include indicating what you might be expecting in an answer
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Aug 20, 2012 at 23:20
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    I don't know about anybody else, but I'm going to need a lot more background on what "the story is the land" means, if we are not to take it metaphorically and assume that the words are the phenomena they illuminate. If I tell the story differently, the land changes? If I forget part of the story, the land disappears? If I stand on the land while I am telling the story, the land is duplicated? Commented Aug 21, 2012 at 16:13
  • cheers @Joseph Weissman i've edited it, i start honors next trimester i know a question like this will never be fully answered but there is some good people here with knowledge off continental work, still looking for thesis ideas.. So where instead of sign-state of affairs/referent etc or the structuralist infuenced sign-sign relations, where meaning is the product of differences in signs, this conception i think again would be a 3rd 'image of meaning, self contained, i think its worth investigating basically looking for anyone who can relate this to work thats problematised this idea.
    – Dr Sister
    Commented Aug 21, 2012 at 16:14
  • @Michael Dorfman no because the story to Aboriginal people is a thing. think about telling the story of Goldilocks, except you add that she had dreadlocks and smoked dmt, the wolf was a tree, etc, its not telling the story of goldilocks.. They are inherited ancestrally through elemental forces, Aboriginal people of Australia are the worlds oldest still living culture, and M. Turner does speak for the Arrente people .. just finding this book i've found something i think is worth looking into, i will find longer sections of how this underpins the books meaning when i have time later. cheers :)
    – Dr Sister
    Commented Aug 21, 2012 at 16:46
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    @Michael Dorfman to complicate things in the book there are often multiple names, all implicating functions, given to single objects, especially to Sacred trees and places, so just thinking it kind of does account for the arbitrary dimension of of the sign and signifier, eg. the morning star is the evening star etc..
    – Dr Sister
    Commented Aug 21, 2012 at 17:01

4 Answers 4


According to Manly p hall in his book the secret teachings of the ages, the answer is yes and no, depending on the point of view or context from where the question is asked. Yes it's distinct in that words are somewhat mechanical and tangible symbolically speaking, and no in that words are the bridge by which meaning is conveyed. In other words, The intangible abstract meaning is often impossible to convey without the language, symbology or some form of illustrative construct which facilitates the transference of an idea or concept from here to there, from my mind to your mind. For example, if you wanted to describe a concept such as morality, integrity or otherwise to someone who had never been introduced to such a concept, you might use a person as the symbolic bridge, who can demonstrate the concept in action, such as Jesus, Buddha, or some other symbolic reference point.

  • In the words of the Philospher Alan Watts, "There can't be knowing without a knower". This is to say, there can't be meaning without language.
    – iamtoc
    Commented Aug 28, 2012 at 17:40

Thanks for the answers guys. the image of meaning i'm looking at is the perspective which is based on thinking about a possible identity of the sign and signified elements of speech. in a way it's similar to the kind of vulgar notion of sex being 'masterbation with a partner', in that the internalised identity of the other is constructed and contained in subjectivity, the physical presence of the other is just the virtual of the act. Blanchot says something very similar in elaborately describing an intimate event with an other and ending by saying of the other 'but what a shame that you will not be present' .. literally it would mean that calling to mind an object would be bringing its actuality to presence, and the object's physical presence from the point of view of a person is only what it is inside the order of sense or meaning . From this perspective a thing can be multiple things, the morning star and the evening star, even p and not p .. i only persevere with this question because thinking about it kind of makes me crazy, if you can see holes in how or what's described please say so, or have advice about relevant philosophers, any info is appreciated :)

  • I'm not sure I completely follow your line of thought, but if you are interested in a philosophy of language that is compatible with Blanchot, I'd suggest you look at Derrida, beginning with Signature, Event, Context. Commented Aug 29, 2012 at 9:31
  • the bit i mentioned is from a Blanchot novel, literature, it was an example..the question was from Iwenhe Tyerrtye which roughly means 'what it means to be an Aboriginal'. the question is about understanding how Aboriginal people understand what means to think, and as in the quote it seems based on this identity. French deconstruction 'the always already' at work in the work, differance, it's not the same. I was just wondering if there was anything that resembled this perspective within philosophy.
    – Dr Sister
    Commented Aug 29, 2012 at 9:51
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    As I mentioned in my comments to the question, I find the description of the aboriginal idea to be very difficult to comprehend from a philosophical perspective. I don't even know what it would mean to say that the word "tree" is the tree. Needless to say, that doesn't sound like any philosophy of language that I have ever come across. But if you are interested in notions of interalized identity and the presence/absence of the other in communication, then I still think Derrida is the best place to start. Commented Aug 29, 2012 at 10:21
  • fair call, indeed it is difficult. always appreciated though :) just reading today i think the essay titled 'desert islands' by Gilles Deleuze, so far is the closest to being comparable to Turner's work that i've found .. it's just i'm getting close to having to submit an honors proposal, i genuinely do value the idea that theses should be original work, i know so far i'm a long way from a systematic interpretation, but i think through this book i've found a niche which, interestingly, i've found very little scholarship on. i do see that without the book it is difficult to the second power..
    – Dr Sister
    Commented Aug 29, 2012 at 11:42
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    @Seldom I'd love to see more Deleuze questions -- please consider sharing any challenges you encounter when working through Desert Islands (by the way, one of my very favorites!)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Aug 29, 2012 at 14:51

Meaning refers to thoughts and feelings. Language is but a way to express them.

Language our main method we use to exchange the intangible thoughts and feelings we experience on a daily basis, but it's a also a very flawed was to achieve that result.

I believe Kim Krizan perfectly captures the flawed yet inevitable nature of language :

Creation seems to come out of imperfection. It seems to come out of a striving and a frustration. And this is where I think language came from.

I mean, it came from our desire to transcend our isolation and have some sort of connection with one another. And it had to be easy when it was just simple survival. Like, you know, "water." We came up with a sound for that. Or "Saber-toothed tiger right behind you." We came up with a sound for that.

But when it gets really interesting, I think, is when we use that same system of symbols to communicate all the abstract and intangible things that we're experiencing.

What is, like, frustration? Or what is anger or love? When I say "love," the sound comes out of my mouth and it hits the other person's ear, travels through this Byzantine conduit in their brain, you know, through their memories of love or lack of love, and they register what I'm saying and they say yes, they understand.

But how do I know they understand? Because words are inert. They're just symbols. They're dead, you know? And so much of our experience is intangible. So much of what we perceive cannot be expressed. It's unspeakable.

And yet, you know, when we communicate with one another, and we feel that we've connected, and we think that we're understood, I think we have a feeling of almost spiritual communion. And that feeling might be transient, but I think it's what we live for.

-- Kim Krizan, screenwriter

For an in depth analysis of the relationship between perception, language and objective reality, I can highly recommend Olga Bogdashina's Autism and the Edges of the Known World: Sensitivities, Language and Constructed Reality. In this impressive study, mss Bogdashina compares the way different languages correlate with different perceptions in different cultures as well as how Autistic people and "neurotypical" people with the same cultural background differ in their application of language to exchange their perception of the objective reality and culture they share.

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    As much as I enjoy Linklater's ''Waking Life'' (which is where that quote's from, by the way), the quote is still a pair of assertions that meaning is (a) distinct from language and (b) mysteriously capable of causing recognizable first-person experiences in other people. Which is kind of an odd claim, that the use of language is alone a solution to the "Other Minds" problem. It also does little to answer Wittgenstein-ish approaches, where the meaning of language is wholly caught up in the use of language, and hence expression and meaning would be essentially the same.
    – Ryder
    Commented May 12, 2015 at 7:59
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    @Ryder : With respect to the relationship between objective reality, subjective perception and language, I can highly recommend Olga Bogdashina's "Autism and the Edges of the Known World: Sensitivities, Language and Constructed Reality" (amazon.com/Autism-Edges-Known-World-Sensitivities/dp/1849050422). I just added a reference to this book in my answer. Commented May 12, 2015 at 10:07
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    It looks like an interesting read, thank you.
    – Ryder
    Commented May 12, 2015 at 12:58
  • Chrysippus taught: “if you say something, it passes through your lips; so, if you say “chariot”, a chariot passes through your lips” (Deleuze 1990, 8). . it is to say that language is composed of the thing it denotes/specifies . a materialistically mystical theory of language . Australian Indigenous culture is exclusively oral, and does not involve symbolic expressions of propositional knowledge . it's a very different orientation toward what it is to think and speak . to bring the name of a thing to mind actually brings a facet of what that object actually is into your awareness
    – Dr Sister
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 10:27
  • it's a beautiful thought . . thanks for the throwback :)
    – Dr Sister
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 10:29

It depends on what you mean by "language". If you mean the letters and symbols, then yes meaning is distinct from language. But if by "language" you mean the cognitive results of hearing sounds, then no. Note that the former is generally (sub)vocalized by your own reading processes into meaning.

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