"On Meaning", Lecture Notes of the Grand Philosopher, 75.2.724
"It is generally agreed that there are no absolute meanings to words." The Grand Philosopher gestured with his left hand. "For instance, when I was younger, one word in vogue was 'edifised'. A bastardization of the ordinary meaning of the word 'edify', of course, but a popular slang. I would go watch an excellent performance at the Grand Amphitheatre and proclaim that I had been 'edifised' by the show." He ignored the looks of disbelief from the students in the front row. "Such a terrible word immediately fell out of favor, of course, but it serves to illustrate a point. I can make certain noises with my mouth and in of themselves they can mean vastly different things to different people. This should be obvious to anyone who's attempted to convince another to sleep with them." A few scattered smiles. "So, with that basis of knowledge, that the meaning of words and communication and mouth-noises is all relative to the person hearing it - how is communication possible? How can I be sure that any of you are understanding what I intend to say? How is Progress possible, if none can know for sure what it even means?" A hesitant hand from three rows back. "Isn't that the purpose of the Great Etoilean Dictionary, sir?" Actatus shook his head. "Dictionaries map words to other words, so the logic there is inherently circular. Any others?" A young girl in the front. "As children we associate words with objects. Everyone is told what a dog or cat is, as a child, so the words become attached to things." "Better." The Grand Philosopher nodded. "For the realm of concrete objects and demonstrable actions, sounds can be mapped to observable things. Perfectly acceptable for concrete objects, but now let's talk about abstract ideas. You're all presumably here to receive an education, right? What is that?" "A set of things we learn." The same girl in front, but in a more confident voice. "A collection of knowledge that allows us to be considered 'educated' by the majority of society." "Generally acceptable, but fundamentally relative." Actatus gestured with his hand. "What could be considered 'educated' a hundred years ago would be hopelessly retrograde today. Hence the dilemma at hand, and back to the main point. With abstract ideas and concepts being wholly relative, since we don't have a concrete reference point to use to adjudicate disputes, how is communication possible, on any level higher than 'move this thing over there'?" The girl paused. "Just because we don't understand each other perfectly doesn't mean communication would be impossible. It would simply be imperfect, wouldn't it? That's why people ask clarifying questions." "Precisely." The Grand Philosopher gave the girl a look. "Without stable references the best we can do to forward Progress is imperfect and stumbling. Everyone here has a conception of Progress in their heads that may or may not be aligned with the formal definition espoused by the Principality, and when we work together towards that aim we are halting and imprecise. That is a fundamental of 'meaning'. Let nobody tell you in absolute terms what anything 'means', because the imposition of their will on yours is an attempt to redefine Progress in their terms - but the meaning of Progress is composed of each one of us interpreting it in our own way and doing our part. Any other approach saps meaning from the idea, and impedes the forward motion of our great society."
This is a written transcript of a lecture given by Hyberos Actatus, Grand Philosopher of Etoile, recorded in Second Season, 75th day, 724.