Introduction by Umberto Eco
included in the 1989 edition

[...] is not a classic in the sense that the works of Frege are, or those of Saussure or Wittgenstein; for it is often eclectic and popularizing. Rather than develop a theory fully, it broaches problems, anticipates subjects of debate. But it was undoubtedly a seminal book, whose merit was to say certain things very much in advance of its time; and indeed many of its promptings have not yet been completely accepted by scholars.* So specialists, too, could reread it to their advantage.

* For confirmation of the work's importance we need only glance at its five prefaces: a book that has gone through so many editions and updatings has obviously aroused impassioned interest.

To the layman or the student who is just preparing to face the problems of language I would suggest that he bear in mind that the book was conceived in the first decades of this century. Since then many things have happened: the spread of logical positivism, analytic philosophy, structural linguistics, semiotics, hermeneutics, the application of logical models to ordinary language, pragmatics, sociolinguistics, and psycholinguistics, in addition to the central role now played by the problem of meaning in research into artificial intelligence. Ogden and Richards could know none of these things. The reader must therefore remember that this book represents a prelude to these developments. In a way that today's specialists would consider technically inadequate, this book gives us many presentiments of what would later happen, many anticipations of genius.

If the reader keeps this firmly in mind he will understand the fascination of the book, its capacity for opening horizons.

Throughout almost all our life we are treating things as signs. All experience, using the word in the widest possible sense, is either enjoyed or interpreted (i.e., treated as a sign) or both, and very little of it escapes some degree of interpretation. An account of the process of Interpretation is thus the key to the understanding of the Sign-situation, and therefore the beginning of wisdom. It is astonishing that although the need for such an account has long been a commonplace in psychology, those concerned with the criticism and organization of our knowledge have with few exceptions entirely ignored the consequences of its neglect. (pp. 50-51)

This is one of many pages that still seem thoroughly contemporary. In fact, seeing our whole experience as an interaction with signs, and this interaction as an activity of interpretation, is today one of the "hot" issues of the semiotic debate.

But this passage also reveals another aspect of the book that, rightly or wrongly, has been a source of fascination: The Meaning of Meaning is pervaded by an abundant missionary fervor. I will call this attitude, with a certain severity, the "therapeutic fallacy."

The therapeutic fallacy derives from a series of correct and inevitable considerations: (i) we often use words with confused and ambiguous meanings, and from this ambiguity a number of accidents can result; (ii) many of these accidents would be avoided if we fixed with absolute precision the meaning of the terms we used; (iii) this method has proved fruitful in the exact sciences, in the legal world, in the drawing up of contracts, in economy and in military life; and (iv) a science of language that could extend these criteria also into ordinary language would a social life, individual relationships, and ethical problems less ambiguous and more precise.

Unfortunately, where observations (i)-(iii) are exact and irrefutable, observation (iv) is itself ambiguous. It is true that a good linguistic theory can make us more aware of the functioning of the language we use and of the traps it sets for us: one who knows a language well can express himself with greater precision, or can even lie more convincingly--just as a writer who reads classic works with critical attention learns more refined writing techniques. It is also true that, in the course of an everyday conversation, it can be useful to ask one's interlocutor what he really wanted to say and what meaning he was giving to a certain word he used. But it is equally true that ordinary language lives on ambiguity, nuance, and allusion; and people use it nonchalantly, often managing to understand one another despite imprecisions, ellipses, and misreadings. No linguistic therapy can abolish these defects of ordinary language, since they represent also its richness and its strength. They can be abolished only within specific areas under laboratory conditions: the language we use to send a business telegram or the one we use to talk with our personal computer are examples of laboratory language. But a laboratory language functions only in the laboratory for which it was conceived. If, in every communicative interaction of everyday life, we practiced the severity that must characterize a logician or a lexicographer, life would become a hell, or we would turn into something like the inhabitants of the island of Laputa.

The idea of a linguistic therapy is old: Locke had in mind a linguistic therapy in that splendid section of his Essay on Human Understanding that is entitled "On Words." And in the course of the centuries many theories have been developed that aimed either at the construction of a perfect language or at the therapy of ordinary language carried out in terms of a strict semantic theory. After Richards and Ogden, the most striking example in the United States has been the General Semantics enterprise of Korzybski.[1] The authors of The Meaning of Meaning, who later became involved in the dissemination of Basic English, often succumb--though in a tactful and reasonable fashion--to this utopia.

Plainly, in scientific terms, the therapeutic fallacy suffers from utopia. Society cannot be reformed by reforming the language, because the language is a living organism that adapts to the development and the trends of society as a whole. The members of society react to every hardening of the language by having recourse to poetry of by inventing new, imprecise, effective forms of language in slang, in play, or in endearments.

And yet the therapeutic fallacy has a genuine and socially important aspect. I would say that if the therapeutic fallacy proves inadequate in suggesting remedies, it is still dramatically exact in its diagnoses. Perhaps human beings will never be able to speak an "exact" language, but it is important for them to understand to what extent their language can be inexact.

This is the fascination and the strength of The Meaning of Meaning: we need only read the chapter on the meaning of the word beauty and the chapter on the meaning of the term meaning in philosophical discussions to feel attracted and overwhelmed by the stickiness of the language we use, even when we speak in terms that we consider strict. If mechanical therapies do not exist, still a preventive attitude can exist, a watchfulness, severity, and suspicion, which is always--in language, as in everything--a condition of good health.

To read The Meaning of Meaning is not then to learn to speak in a "perfect" way, but rather to learn what it means to speak in an imperfect way.

A book that can still say so many things to the ordinary reader may have some things to say to the specialized reader. I do not believe it is the task of this introduction to evaluate The Meaning of Meaning from the point of view of the philosophy, semiotics, and linguistics of today. But it may be worthwhile to say how the book performed a pioneering function.

It is not unusual today to find books by linguists who know only the linguistics bibliography, by philosophers of language who cite only works of analytic philosophy, by psychologists who know only psychology. The fascinating thing about this book is the broad interdisciplinary awareness of its authors. They knew the semantics of Breal, the linguistics of Saussure, Sapir, and Jespersen. They could also blend problems of linguistics with those of cultural anthropology, as the appendix signed by Malinowski indicates. The fact that there are close ties between the study of language and the study of ethnology is by now, after the structuralism of Prague and Levi-Strauss, almost self-evident. But in 1923 this was a banal idea.

Ogden and Richards do not overlook the history of logical-linguistic-semiotic thought, and they refer to Sextus Empiricus, Locke, Wilkins, and Dalgarno, as well as Husserl, Frege, Russell, and Cassirer. They grasp the fundamental role that research into aphasia can play in a theory of language more than thirty years before Jakobson and Halle. They foreshadow many of the later debates about speech acts, as well as facing the problem of definition according to the analytic-synthetic opposition. And to later scholars they offer the model of the semiotic triangle (symbol-reference-referent) that was to prove so useful to many later on in examining--in their analogies and in their differences--various theories of meaning and truth-conditional semantics, from Aristotle to our own time.

Our authors were among the very first to consider the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus. The work had been published in 1921 in the Annalen der Naturphilosophie and in that same year Ogden became editorial director of the International Library of Psychology, Philosophy, and Scientific Method for the publisher Kegan Paul. And Ogden (with the assistance of Ramsay, Russell, and Wittgenstein himself) was responsible for the first English translation of the Tractatus in 1922.

In The Meaning of Meaning (p. 89) the authors suggest that some assertions of the Tractatus should be freed from a "curtain of mysticism" (and the authors are not entirely wrong); in 1923 Wittgenstein wrote a letter to Ogden in which he does not sound satisfied with The Meaning of Meaning: "I believe you have not quite caught the problem which--for instance--I was at in my book." (Letters to C. K. Ogden, Oxford; Blackwell, 1973). The early Wittgenstein, with his strictly logical attitude, could surely not appreciate the eclectic psychological, linguistic, and sociological interests of our two authors. Perhaps their insistence on linguistic traps would have found a more sympathetic reader in the Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations. But the important thing to note here is the promptness with which The Meaning of Meaning dealt with the most heated and original issues of the debate on language.

Perhaps the most conspicuous example of this pioneering imagination lied in the way in which Ogden and Richards address Peirce. Peirce was not only the greatest contemporary scholar of semiotics but was also--at least in my opinion--the greatest American philosopher of the turn of the century and beyond doubt one of the greatest thinkers of his time. And yet it is only recently, in the United Stated, that Peirce's thought has been studied outside a very limited group of specialists. In 1923 Ogden and Richards not only devote to Peirce's theory of signs twelve pages that even today could be recommended to a student wishing to approach that thinker; not only do they discern the fruitfulness of Peirce's semiotics fifteen years before Charles Morris wrote his Foundations of a Theory of Signs (foreshadowing Morris's behavioristic approach to the problem of meaning--with all the limitations but also use the category of "interpretation" as it was developed by Peirce as the central concept of their theory of meaning.

This is a really important point, probably the most original in this book, especially if we consider that the theory of interpretation demands of our authors a theory of contexts and leads them also to face the problem--very timely today--of the relationship between linguistic meaning and perceptual meaning. For that matter, the book contains many significant quotations from Lady Victoria Welby, whose correspondence with Peirce was of fundamental importance in the development of the theory of meaning. Now it is documented that Ogden was in close contact with Lady Welby.

These, then, are some reasons for rereading The Meaning of Meaning: not to seek in it what it could not yet say or what it said inadequately, but to perceive in it many promptings, which to some extent have still not been entirely accepted.

August 1988.

Translated from the Italian by William Weaver

  1. Korzybski's dictum "The map is not the territory" is to say that the map is not directly related to the mapped or territory, but indirectly, only by way of human interpretation!