What do you mean?

What do we mean by meaning? Whoaa. I love questions like that: an autological wrestling match, perhaps, and yet an important one, I think. Does everything have meaning, or does that happen only when there is an intention that it should? Meaning, after all, is not necessarily inherent in everything -a rock lying on the ground, for example, is unlikely to have meaning unless it was placed there for some reason. And even then unless it were obvious, or explained, it would be hard to ascribe the appropriate meaning to it.

On the other hand, a coin would carry its own meaning with it: it would be recognizable as a fungible article if it were found in a midden, or an ancient archeological dig, without requiring much further explanation.

So, something has meaning only if the intention was obvious -or made obvious…? Or am I becoming entangled in a web of largely my own weaving? It sounded like such an intriguing question to ask when I saw the title in Psyche.co, but I suppose non-academics like myself should walk carefully in a labyrinth. The title suggested merely that ‘Archaeology excavates the layers of meaning we leave behind’ and I became enmeshed in the ramifications of one of its words. https://psyche.co/ideas/archaeology-excavates-the-layers-of-meaning-we-leave-behind

It was written by Marilynn Johnson who was an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego at the time, so I quickly realized I was in good hands. She apparently has an interest in the philosophy of archaeology, and so began her essay with an explanation of meaning in stratigraphy -the ability of the layers in which things are laid down in archaeological digs to suggest meaning. ‘Of course, this isn’t to say that anybody meant anything by these layers… there is an important difference between things that have meaning on their own – like the position of papers in a pile – and those things that have meaning because somebody meant something by them.’

She goes on to mention that ‘The philosopher of language H P Grice drew attention to this difference… Grice describes things that have meaning, as it were, on their own as having natural meaning, and those that need a specific type of ‘meaning-maker’ as examples of non-natural meaning… Words in a language require meaning-makers… for Grice it’s the speaker’s intention that’s paramount.’

She transfers this to an archaeological site where ‘Everything that is dug up – be it shell, piece of charcoal, bit of soil, or unpromising-looking rock – has some natural meaning and, depending on the scientific tools available, can be a source of information. Those things that were made or modified with a human intention to serve some purpose are classified as artifacts. They carry natural meaning too. But they can also embody intentions – both in the kind of objects they are, and in how they have been used or discarded. But communicative intentions are hard to glean from shells and stone.’ Fascinating.

I suppose if they found a stone that had been intentionally sharpened, it might be easy enough to say it served a purpose, but as Johnson points out, ‘to find non-natural meaning we first need to identify an intention, construed broadly (classifying the item as an artifact) and then identify that it was meant to communicate something, and then identify that it had the sort of complex Gricean communicative intention needed for non-natural meaning – namely, that there was a communicative intention that was meant to be recognised.’

And Johnson even describes a kind of prospective communicative trick that current archaeologist employ for those who might come after them in future years: ‘after archaeologists excavate a site, they include in the backfill a few modern items such as cans and coins… the intention is that future archaeologists would recognise that in these ‘subsurface markers’ there is an intention to communicate that the site has already been dug, and the coins can even suggest roughly when this was done. Recognising this would save future archaeologists the trouble of unwittingly digging the site again.’ Like one layer of a matryoshka doll, explaining something about its deeper iterations…

Sometimes there is something of an archeological dig in old drawers, I think -especially if the drawers have remained intact from previous occupants. Previous relationships.

I have seldom had the motivation, let alone the need, to free up all the drawers in my house -after all, there is now only one of me. I have only so many socks, and I can justify storing only a limited number of other items; so long as at least some remain available between washings, any more would be profligate. Wasteful. Unnecessary.

It’s the same, I think, for cutlery. I mean, how many knives, spoons, or forks do I really need? I wash them after each use, much as I wash the dirty plates, and scrub the crusted pots and pans before whatever layers on them harden and lengthen my after-dinner chores.

But, I suppose that history resides in the unplumbed depths of the things long unused. Items acquire archival significance not so much in purposeful neglect, as in presumed nonessentiality. Why would I hunt for a dusty fork at the bottom of a pile, when perfectly clean utensils present themselves within easy reach on top?

And yet, that’s what I did -admittedly because the ancient wooden drawer escaped its primordial restraints in the equally primitive cabinet, and liberated its contents in a joyous clatter upon the warping linoleum floor. There are many aspects of the house I have not thought about repairing, let alone replacing; I am retired now -my needs are spartan, and no longer subject to the invigilation of strangers bearing wine or casseroles.

Still, the mess on the floor reminded me of the game I used to play with my father when I was young: pickup sticks. And in the same way that I could never untangle one piece without disrupting another, I had a hard time with the forks -especially one that had an incredibly malformed tine that was bent unnaturally, like a broken finger pointing the wrong direction. And suddenly, as I stared at it, a memory startled me like the news on my clock radio that jars me awake each morning.

I remembered my wife bending the fork in a fit of -what?- frustration at something I said? Some throw-away comment about my not caring about some current issue? An issue I now regret, although cannot recall?

The fork, I realized, had a natural meaning -it was an object suggesting shared dinners now buried under the weight of Time; but it was also freighted with intentional meaning –non-natural meaning. Its communicative intention was all too obvious even after all these years, and I, the unwitting archeologist, can read it as if it had a label attached. While it may be true that history is written by the victors, middens share no such necessity.

Did she intend me to find it, intend that I eventually reflect on its meaning? I doubt that she could see that far ahead in our shared stratigraphy -or even contemplate the merit of whatever of our middens I had neglected to clean. Still, there is value in reviewing the past from time to time -there is value when it helps to explain the present. And why there are no further broken forks…

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