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Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history.

Aug 3, 2015

Today, as promised, the sequel to last week’s episode on I.A. Richards. Last week we learned about Richards’s The Philosophy of Rhetoric, where he sought to redeem rhetoric from a pejorative by recognizing that every word is intimately tied to its social context. Today we get to talk about his other major work, the Meaning of Meaning. Some initial thoughts: first off, this is a somewhat cheekier title. Second, The Meaning of Meaning is always filed under the works of I.A. Richards, but actually it’s a joint effort by Richards and CK Ogden. Ogden was a bit of an eccentric linguist. He invented a language called Basic English, which was like English but...Basic. He figured this would lead to world peace because people could communicate more easily. Because a simple English is a better idea than a simple other language? I donno, but he brought a hefty dose of old-school linguistics to Richard’s already linguistically inclined bent. The Meaning of Meaning  was a fundamental text for much of the 20th century’s obsession with the connection between words and their referents.


At the heart of the text is a three-part semiotics. There are symbols, thoughts and referents. Symbols are things like words and images. Or as Ogden and Richards put it, Symbols are “those signs which men use to communicate one with another and as instruments of thought, occupy a peculiar place” (23).  Referents are things that exist in the “external world,” things like teacups and tanks, Churchill and Lady Gaga and Switzerland. Thoughts represent the third point of the triangle, what happens in the brain to connect these referents and symbols. If there’s a good relationship between the thought and the symbol, it is “correct”; if there’s a good relationship between the thought and the reference, it is “adequate” and if the sign to referent connection is good, it is “true.” So do you have a clear image of what this looks like? A triangle with three points and three sides of symbols, thoughts and referents. For Ogden and Richards, “Words and Things are connected “through their occurrence together with things, their linkage with them in a ‘context’ that Symbols come to play that important part in our life [even] the source of all our power over the external world” (47).


The source of all our power! That’s some heavy stuff. But here’s the tricky stuff, the fly in the ointment of all this--”Signs,” the authors point out “are not pictures of reality” (79). And appealing to the dictionary does no good: As Ogden and Richards say, “When we define words we take another set of words” (110). A dictionary is only a complication of internal references.


Even the pictures aren’t pictures of reality. Here’s an example. Imagine a dog for me. Go ahead. When you have a good image in your brain of “dog,” imagine how you would paint it. What does it look like?  How did you do that? Well, you had some series of experiences with what we’re calling dogs here and your specific dog may be determined by that experience. Maybe you thought of your own dog, or maybe you imagined something with a long tail, even though there are some dogs with docked tails.  Ogden and Richards put it like this”the effects upon the organism […] depend upon the past history of the organism, but generally and in a more precise fashion” (52).


Wait, it gets worse: Further, “speech on almost all occasions presents a multiple, not a single sign situation” (230), whole sentences of referents, grammatical markers, prepositions that complicate and befuddle the philosopher looking for clear linguistic meaning.  So for symbols to be understood “requires that it form a context with further experiences” (210). The “weaving together of contexts into higher contexts (220) of all of these meanings spiral out irresolvably. Our individual experiences with these different symbols are irreducible.


This isn’t to say it’s time to give up on language. Without language, we can’t understand the world around us: “we can only identify referents through the references made to them” As Ogden and Richards tell us (127). So they give us Symbolism, which they define as the study of “the influence of language upon Thought” (243), and they tell is us a “science” (242).


In order to develop this science of symbolism, Ogden and Richards propose the five canons of symbolism [canon sound]


Sigh. Okay. the first point is that there should be one symbol for one and only one referent (88)


Second, interchangable symbols must refer to the same referent (92)


third, “referent of a contracted symbol is the referent of that symbol expanded” (93),


fourth, symbols should be descriptive rather than prescriptive (103),


“no complex symbol may contain constituent symbols which claim the same ‘place’” (105).


When you go through these tenets, you begin to see how Ogden could be the kind of guy who wants to invent a new, universal language. These seem like difficult, even impossible, conditions to meet.Think about the dog you imagined earlier. It’s likely that your dog looks very different from my dog, because we have different experiences. Our symbol to referent correlation is based on our experience and that’s a sticky thing. But that’s less of something for me to dig into than what Derrida dives into in Limited Inc. In fact, a lot of these ideas will get bandied around for a century as people argue about signs, symbols and referents.  And that’s not a bad influence for a guy who doesn’t get a lot of press time in rhetorical history.


If you know of a rhetorican who could use a little more love, why not send us an email recommended them for a future episode of Mere Rhetoric? send your email to and I’ll see what I can do. But now it’s time to go walk a dog. Whatever that means.