In all our intellectual pursuits, we use concepts like "atoms" for a structure or "ingredients" for a recipe. We all have to use them. For example, consider the concepts 'existence', 'change', and 'form'. According to philosophy, where do the meanings of these concepts come from?

There are many related questions like: are meanings objects in themselves that our experiences have in common and are language organizes? Can any single term just be defined by itself ever? Or is the Buddhist doctrine of sunyata gaining more credibility? What gives marks meaning? Does it all come from experience? Is it just nonsense blabber talk? Symbols used to designate this unknowable “reality”? Are all concepts like this? Do these questions help to answer the primary question of where meaning comes from?

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    This reads more like an essay than a question. Could you make it less rhetorical and more pointed? There are multiple semantic theories that explain meanings in terms of truth conditions, conceptual roles, etc. Too many to discuss them all in one thread. And although "meaning" is notoriously vague, and its mechanics controversial, it is no great mystery where its aspects come from.
    – Conifold
    Nov 5, 2020 at 6:58
  • @Conifold could you clarify the last sentence? I’ll also clean up my question I apologize. But you say that where the aspects of meaning come from? Thank you
    – enrijaja
    Nov 5, 2020 at 7:56
  • See the links for the two major sources.
    – Conifold
    Nov 5, 2020 at 8:30
  • Big question. How concepts are defined, formed, grouped, identified, and related probably constitutes about 90 percent of Western philosophy, from Plato's Forms to Hume's associations to Kant's categories to Saussure's structural linguistics. But perhaps someone can answer with a brief outline of key historical points. Nov 5, 2020 at 17:09
  • @Conifood those theories don’t explain anything. They are still taking things for granted. It does not answer my question.
    – enrijaja
    Nov 5, 2020 at 21:16

4 Answers 4


"foster-mothers and nurses to suckle and bathe and wash the children, but in no ways to prattle or speak with them; for he would have learnt whether they would speak the Hebrew language (which he took to have been the first), or Greek, or Latin, or Arabic, or perchance the tongue of their parents of whom they had been born. But he laboured in vain, for the children could not live without clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and blandishments." - The Chronicles of Salimbeme di Adan written 13thC, about an alleged language deprivation experiment order by the then Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II

I often think of this, what the world of these children would have been like. Helen Keller born blind & deaf, was able to vividly describe her first experience of a word at age 7.

The Dunbar number indicates human's late development of our neocortex where we find most of our language sophistication, is strongly correlated to troupe or social group size, suggesting we evolved our unique human intelligence primarily to deal with our social landscape. But, birds like ravens that are not social, and octopuses/squid which are solitary, show great problem solving intelligence, higher than that of human children at equivalent development. Mirror neurons are higher among creche-rearing apes & monkeys, and is associated with more rapid learning-by-copying even where intelligence is lower - chimpanzees struggle with sharing knowledge intergenerationally, and do most of their learning while young, some monkeys the converse. Mirror neurons point to what I'd say is the core of meaning and language, intersubjectivity. Indra's Net is an ancient metaphor indicating how we can understand reality built like this, through shared subjectivity (so objectivity as only reified intersubjectivity).

Language-learning is an interesting case. We need a Rosetta stone, some amount of shared experience, to translate. We know dolphins have language at least as complex as a 3 year old human from frequency analysis, and their are indications they use a kind of 3D sonogram to communicate which may mean they are communicating more densely - dolphins are the only animal with a higher brain-to-body ration than humans but very different structure (no defined neocortex), though the small brains of highly intelligent birds cast some doubt on this metric. Tool using dolphins that use sponges over their noses while getting shellfish out of rocky sand, pass this skill only between females, in the family line, suggesting their social sttucture might impose limits. To learn dolphin, we would still expect it to need a child with high language flexibility, to experience both human and dolphin life and language, to get really good translations - though this is based on us being able to generate intersubjectivity with them which brain structure differences might prevent. Wittgenstein said "If a lion could speak, we could not understand him", about this need to have shared modes of life. He also said

"In this sort of predicament, always ask yourself: How did we learn the meaning of this word ("good", for instance)? From what sort of examples? In what language-games? Then it will be easier for you to see that the word must have a family of meanings.” ― Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

His later views shifted from a picture model with 'atomic' words analogous to numbers, to this focus on language as use. We learn a game generally better by playing it, than from it's axioms, the rules. And when we try to constrain what 'game', means it proves to have very fuzzy edges. We might look at the role of play in development, to understand games better. "Man's maturity: to have regained the seriousness that he had as a child at play", as Nietzsche put it. This is the mode of growth, development, exploration, attained where safety and resources are not a problem, part of our self-actualising.

Split-brain experiments help us understand how the brain has multiple agents, coordinated normally into a unified salience-landscape. In particular, we seem to have a hemisphere focused on coordinating the self, and one focused on coordinating the environment (I find this interestingly parallel to the sense-gates in Buddhist thought, with sense-gates giving rise to internal-external object-consciousness pairs). We know there are brain routines focused on specific tasks, like finding edges and assigning depth, and that these get meshed into a picture of the world, and that our intentions & learning alter how we do this, and we integrate insights from processing retrospectively into our mental models. The connectome of inchworms seems to point to how very limited subroutines like 'detect body/not-body' get progressively hijacked to serve extended purposes (eg touch).

Strange loops are a very useful tool, to understand how we have feedback loops because we can model ourselves in our thinking, and alter behaviour accordingly. The hallmark of strange loops is tangled hierarchies, and games are again a good example. If the game is not good, we change the rules, the axioms are in a feedback loop, and by approaching them playfully we work through both momentary play, game output or learning, and axioms, and amend with a view to the whole system. A key point to note, is this doesn't progress from axioms alone, but a mixture with feedback, and avoids Munchausens trilemma by simply beginning wherever it starts, and working up and down a hierarchy of nested systems of knowing, in a way that tangles the hierarchy, with feedback and cross-inferences. Thus also avoiding the problems of how we are not like computers enough to avoid Godel Incompleteness issues - we just jump around in the hierarchy and tune the whole system, from awareness/subjectivity moving around like a spider with a web.

Drawing on Buddhism, I would say the core basis of intersubjectivity is that awareness, unencumbered or untaught presence with the moment - this is the strange loop quality of simply beginning wherever you are, to play and use feedback to work from there. From that, mental subroutines (& experience) construct a salience landscape, which for instance imagines alternative outcomes to our choices based on what has happened, to create the illusion of free will. Language comes from intersubjectivity, shared mental projection into each others view, that allows us to draw attention to features that add to and complicate the salience landscape - note the golden rule in morality, and the appeal of Rawl's theory of justice and fairness in general, in relation to this shared viewing predating or undergirding our self-concept (ie no cogito without learning words first, developed in community). Language develops, progressively heightening how abstractly we can conceptualise things, into more useful short-hand, drawing out core dynamics from noise, like a physicist with 'spherical cow' idealisations to identify core mechanisms. When we look at eusociality as the driver of hive-behaviour and intelligence, we have to note this quality of language to improve it's tools and pass them on in the memesphere, is a eusocial quality, it represents a kind of collective intelligence of concepts in our primarily social but also problem solving meme fitness-landscape. Meaning as relating to mental travel, 'if you were me-', 'we do x & it makes the system want to do y', and the process of story narration and narrative-grouping to get us the heristics we call causation (as we know from The Problem Of Induction we can only see patterns, causes are heuristic conceptual groupings of these based on experience, not generally fundamental).

'Atoms' and 'recipes', are part of language games that use high school science and cooking examples, to build salience landscapes in which these terms are useful heuristic narrative-groupings, which we use to narrate prcesses from different subjectivities. They result from a long process of condensing abstractions into more finely honed tools for filtering out noise, and making our world tractable to actions and communications.

Nothing is ever isolated, that is in this universe (possibly though this is why isolated quantum systems extend into Many Worlds), gravity at a point is the sum of all masses, rotational energy is defined in relation to the whole universe (or subsystem). All meaning similarly is relational, and founded in subjectivity. Objectivity is meaningless because there can be no experiencer of it, we can only integrate subjectivities, generalise experience, or views/perspectives.

Does that answer your questions? There are a great deal of views and ideas on this topic, so I just went with a set that makes sense to me. I consider a set like this a kind of snapshot of a strange loop, a kind of cosmology that jumps between modes of knowing and uses them to tune each other up, and situate ourselves, while casting an eye on the integrity of the whole structure. Apologies for not being more concise!

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    @CriglCragl- Certainly hope that with your proficiency as a synthesizer, thinker and explicator, that you are also an author. Regards,
    – user37981
    Nov 6, 2020 at 3:54
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    "ravens ... and octopuses/squid ... show great problem solving intelligence, higher than that of human children at equivalent development" What does "at equivalent development" mean here? Jul 9, 2022 at 2:44
  • Also: "We know dolphins have language at least as complex as a 3 year old human from frequency analysis, and their are indications they use a kind of 3D sonogram to communicate..." No on the first point (you can't prove how complex their language is by frequency analysis), and no on the second. (The claim that I saw about that maybe 5 or 10 years ago about this was simply new age nonsense.) See for example languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=5453, and then think about how three year olds use names. Also languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=43045. Jul 9, 2022 at 2:52
  • @MikeMaxwell: I'll admit the frequency analysis isn't definitive, but it is indicative. Better discussion of papers on dolphins using names science.org/content/article/… The paper on dolphins communicating using holograms researchgate.net/publication/… - I do note no one else has succesfully followed this up, which given a great deal of interest in the work seems very surprising, some years later. But no unsuccessful attempts either..
    – CriglCragl
    Jul 9, 2022 at 17:19

Meanings come from being aware of causal relations. You might walk down a trail and notice nothing of significance. An expert tracker on the same trail might notice all sorts of indications of wildlife which indicated an animal went this way or that, what kind of animal and whether it was hunting prey or was in heat. All the little disturbances, tracks and smells would mean a great deal to them but nothing to you. It is because they are aware of the causal relationships between what they saw and what had happened.

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    – J D
    Nov 8, 2020 at 17:02

For me meaning can only be searched within the realm of philosophy (religion included), it's really a question about ethics. Even in other fields, when you're asking this kind of question, it cannot be answered there alone. In essence, meaning is nothing but the understanding of confused definition. There may be numerously possibly infinite number of conscious qualia formed of one object or concept within one's mind, but there're not much knowledge actually. An elementary understanding of any conceptual definition are not stable and can be easily changed to another kind of pictorial understanding of totally different category. But once you can form reliable and validated knowledge (may not be truth) out of it, you acquire its meaning further.

For example from an introduction of triangles, you may drew or encountered many different shaped triangles, right, obtuse, or acute, big or small, curved or planal, very likely sooner or later you'll get tired and bored, feeling meaningless about triangles. But once you arrived at a certain firm grasp about its internal angles summation theorems and Pythagorean theorems in either planal or elliptic surface, then you acquired a little more meaning about triangles. If you further arrived at a knowledge of an infinitesimal version of above knowledge, then you acquired a little more meaning about the importance of such a infinitesimal metric defined on a continuous differentiable manifold space which is a critical key to understand our real world via modern physics...


Short Answer

It depends on which theory of concept you adhere to.

Long Answer

From SEP Concepts, we can see there are different concepts of 'concept' at play. (See why philosophy is so disputatious?) From the entry:

1. The ontology of concepts

    1.1 Concepts as mental representations
    1.2 Concepts as abilities
    1.3 Concepts as abstract objects
    1.4 Is the issue merely terminological?

2. The structure of concepts

    2.1 The classical theory
    2.2 The prototype theory
    2.3 The theory theory
    2.4 Conceptual atomism
    2.5 Pluralism and eliminativism

So from a neutral point of view, to answer your question requires you to committmit yourself to the answering the question, what is a 'concept'?

With my computer science hat, I tend to view concepts as strings that are essential related to other strings. For instance, 'hat' is defined by a set of essential properties or dispositions such as "worn on head","resembles cowboy hat","resembles bowler", etc. But it's possible to see concepts wearing other hats. Prototype theory allows one to see the concept 'hat' as a neural calculation or a machine learning heuristic, and deeper questions arise give your metaphysics. If you are an eliminative materialist and reject abstraction as an illusion, obviously you might object to defining concepts as strings at all.

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