Meaning what?

August 17 2023

Paul Grice’s 1957 paper on meaning is a favorite of mine. His style is an acquired taste, but once you get used to it, it is an absolute delight to read. For instance, his example contrasting the photograph with the drawing, while instructive, took me a long time to fully comprehend:

(1) I show Mr. X a photograph of Mr. Y displaying undue familiarity to Mrs. X.
(2) I draw a picture of Mr. Y behaving in this manner and show it to Mr. X.
I find that I want to deny that in ( I ) the photograph (or my showing it to Mr. X) meant,, anything at all; while I want to assert that in (2) the picture (or my drawing and showing it) meant something

The example, and his explanation that follows, leads him to come up with a succinct definition of non-natural meaning:

A uttered x with the intention of inducing a belief in B by means of the recognition of this intention.

Breaking down the different intentions in the definition is helpful. There are 3 distinct and inter-dependent intentions:

  1. A intends to induce a belief in B.
  2. A intends for B to recognize their intention to induce said belief.
  3. A intends for B to gain this belief by means of recognition of the first intention.

I’ve been thinking a lot of this definition of meaning in the context of ‘AI generated’ art. The usual suspects are confused why ‘AI generated’ art hasn’t taken off. The obvious answer is that it’s because we know it’s not made by a person — if we know something was solely software generated, we lose our ability to connect. But is this the same thing as saying we know that the generated art is meaningless? A work of art is not an utterance, so Grice’s definition will need to be adapted, but what needs to change?

Originally, I was going to go conclude this post nicely by going through the intentions when a person makes art. But I realize now that this would be unsatisfactory without answering the questions I just raised, and answering those would be a much longer post. I’ll come back to this one day, but revisiting the paper, and writing down the definition was fun.