Saturday, 5 August 2017


A Roman walks into a bar, holds up two fingers to the bartender, and says “Five beers please.” 
A two-fingered gesture can be used as a stand-in for two objects or (according to a different convention) five, it can symbolise a “V” for victory or be thrust in the air as a symbolic act of defiance. Evidently even the simplest gestures can be interpreted in various ways. But what may not be clear is that the meanings we ascribe to things often have much less to do with their nature than with our “nature” as communicators; with our “form of life” as Wittgenstein helpfully put it. The following discussion is intended to show that symbolic/semantic content—or “meaning” as it is ordinarily known—depends upon the shared conventions of a discursive community and is therefore fundamentally grounded in culture. I also hope to shed some light on one or two of the confusions that can arise when theorists discuss the notion of content.

In ordinary language, we frequently speak of films, books, images etc. in terms of their content, usually in reference to their meaning. At other times we might refer to their content in a different way: in respect of its ethical implications. In this sense, to describe a film say, as having explicit content, need not suggest that it has explicit meaning. Explicit, graphic, adult and other forms of what we might call “ethically sensitive content” are therefore conceptually distinct from the symbolic content (the meaning) of a film, story or picture etc. This is why Picasso's “Guernica” is not censored, because its violence is largely implied. Figurative or abstracted pain, suffering or violence of this sort is generally considered to be of less concern than its more literal, explicit or graphic incarnations. Goya’s depictions of the horrors of war, on the other hand, are unquestionably disturbing because they leave so little to the imagination. 

"Guernica", Pablo Picasso, 1937.
Whilst content is commonly associated with representational media, it is not exclusive to them. To the extent that any object or event can be measured or interpreted, it can also be said to have content. Familiar examples include the nutritional content of foodstuffs, the mineral content of soil deposits or the energy content of chemicals and other substances. Light from distant celestial events also carries content, as do our genes. Even the style and state of our clothes has content that can convey information about our preferences, social position and sometimes even our political tendencies.

Many of the sciences are concerned with the discovery, observation and measurement of quantifiable forms of naturally occurring content. The arts, on the other hand, are much more concerned with the interpretation of content of the cultural sort. Unlike quantifiable forms of content, symbolic meaning (sometimes called “semantic content”) is not an essence that can be extracted, distilled or derived from representations by probing their constituent parts. So a satisfactory answer to the question "What is the meaning of Picasso’s 'Guernica'?" would not be given by describing its depicted features, no matter how exhaustively or precisely. And a detailed appraisal of the materials used in its manufacture would miss the point entirely. Instead, the meaning of representations is largely (perhaps entirely) dependent upon the interpretive and associative abilities that we bring to bear upon them. In other words, we imbue things with meaning, and we do this according to skills that we acquire to a very significant degree through our participation in discursive culture.

It might be helpful to consider the difference between content and contents. I can read the contents-page of a book, and this may give an indication of the book’s content, but if I turn the book upside-down, it would be absurd to suggest that its content has also been turned upside-down. Similarly, I can pour the contents of a packet of nuts into a bowl, but it would be misleading to suggest that I have also tipped their energy content into the bowl. The point here is that content and contents are often liberated, released, extracted or otherwise accessed in very different ways. Where representations are concerned, it makes little sense to say that we can extract, release or liberate their meaning, because, as I have already tried to make clear, the meaning of a representation is not a quantifiable feature. Meanings can be accessed of course, but this relies on a familiarity with the ideas and associations that make things intelligible not on any form of determinable magnitude.

In the visual arts, we commonly distinguish between the form of an image, its pictured subject and it’s meaning. The terms used to describe this triangular relationship may vary, but in general, everybody understands the difference between what a depiction shows, what it is about and it’s material constituents. Interestingly, this relationship is also reflected in ordinary language: in the basic prepositions we use to describe images. We distinguish between what an image is of, what it is about and what it is made from. So even though some of the preferred terminology may vary, this need not suggest any underlying confusion over the conceptual differences involved.

Sometimes theorists use the terms “connotation” and “denotation” to discuss the content of representations. Definitions of these terms typically correlate them with literal and figurative content. So the literal/denotative content of the Jolly Roger sign is a skull and crossed bones, whereas it's figurative/connotative content is piracy. In use though, a problem arises with the notion of denotation as it applies to nonverbal representations. It is commonly claimed that the denotative content of a photograph of an apple say, is an apple and that the photograph thus denotes an apple. Notice first that there is no equivalent usage of the word “literal”. We would not say that the photograph literates an apple or is literative of an apple. Nor in fact do we say that the photograph is literally an apple although we might say that it is literally of an apple.

The denotative content of a poem is its literal or obvious meaning and is necessarily primary, but the meaning of an image is not its primary representational feature; the pictured subject is. In other words, the photograph does not mean an apple, it depicts an apple. So if the denotative subject of an image is simply the pictured subject (the thing it depicts), then there is little need for additional jargon, especially if this misleadingly characterises images as quasi-linguistic artefacts. The same applies to representational sculptures, models, maps and other forms of nonverbal communication.
Denotative communication as it occurs at the human level is only possible after the evolution of a complex set of meta-linguistic (but not verbalised) rules which govern how words and sentences shall be related to objects and events. It is therefore appropriate to look for the evolution of such meta-linguistic and/or meta-communicative rules at the pre-verbal level. (Bateson 1955)
Some philosophers, claim that experience and consciousness have representational content. Strangely, many of these same philosophers make no clear distinction between “contents” and “content” (see here). In fact they seem to take “contents” merely to be the plural form of “content”. This is equivalent to saying that the subversive content of Piero Manzoni’s infamous can of “Artist’s Shit” is the same as its unappealing contents. Something is awry. Furthermore, when philosophers speak in this way of “contents”, they misleadingly imply, and may even mistakenly believe, that it makes sense to regard this as a detectable—and thus measurable—feature of the brain. As should be clear from the “Guernica” and Manzoni examples, the content of a representation is not to be found by prodding around in its contents.

It might be argued that the brain/mind is different in this regard, that it contains our thoughts and that these are therefore rightfully described as content. If “mental content” means anything, surely it refers to our thoughts, and these happen in our heads? It is true that we sometimes talk of thoughts being “in our heads”, but consider the following question: “Where were you having that thought about buying a new phone?” Not “In my head” but “At work”, “On the way to the shops”, “In the car driving along the High Street” etc. Thinking is an activity, and it is carried out wherever we happen to be. The fact that a significant portion of its biological operations occur in the brain, does not mean that its performance can be intelligibly reduced to the neural level, even if it seems scientifically shrewd to do so. Thinking is something whole people do, not their brains, minds or neurons.

Another problem with “the content view,” as it is known in philosophy, is that it confuses the kinds of accounts we give of experiences with the kinds of accounts we give of objects experienced. To describe what an object “is like”, is to make a comparison of some kind, invariably with a familiar object or some feature of it. Interestingly, to do so is to pick out a suitable representational relationship—a likeness in fact. But to describe what an experience is like is entirely different. We don't say that our experience of a lime is like a green lemon or even that it is like a lime. We say that the experience is nice, horrible, disgusting or whatever. As Peter Hacker makes clear (here), the qualities of experiences are given in hedonic terms, not in terms of the qualities of objects.

Charles Travis (here) is also critical of the view that experience has representational content. His arguments are quite lengthy and involved, so for the sake of brevity, I will mention what I think is a decisive point: "If we are going to be represented to in experience, then the relevant representing must be something we can appreciate for what it thus is." In other words, if we fail to recognise that something is a representation, then there is no question of our grasping its intended use. As Wittgenstein famously remarked of an arrow-like “dead line on paper”: “The arrow points only in the application that a living being makes of it.” This is because representations and the symbolic content that we often ascribe to them are cultural contrivances. The representational currency of an object is necessarily secondary to its form; the “dead line on paper”. We first have to recognise the line, before we can appreciate its application.
We can apprehend the representational properties of representations only because we can perceive the non-representational ones. (Hacker 2003 p.193)
It is silly to suppose that the world is representing itself to us or that we must necessarily be representing it to ourselves in order to perceive it. Meaning is attributed to the world; we imbue things with it according to skills we learn as representation-users; as communicators. 
“Anything can be a symbol and, in human life, almost anything is.” (Noble and Davidson 1996)
Angus' "Ant City". Cambridge 1/8/17