Meaning – Holism, Externalism, Derrida

If minds exist at all, it would seem that thoughts have to mean something. But what does it mean to mean something, and how does that meaning come about? Central to the debate on what meaning is, is the fight over whether meaning is an internal phenomena to the mind, or whether it’s external.  One intuition says that how thoughts appear to us are all that matter. Another intuition suggests that what things are in the real outside world must also play a part in what a thought means. Among those outside world, external theories, there is the idea that the external relation incorporates space, in an abstract sense, how the ideas mean something over a fixed period of time. More radical theories include time, the history of the thought and perhaps even its future.

Key to how meaning comes about is found in the debates on atomism and various forms of holism. Can a thought mean something in and of itself? Or does it only have meaning in the context of other thoughts – holism?

There is a spectrum of positions incorporating both of these aspects. To the extreme left, pulling for orthodoxy to straightforward  representational metaphysics is Jerry Fodor’s account which holds thoughts to be both internal and atomistic. On the extreme right, thoroughly rejection representationalism would be Jacques Derrida who holds a convoluted holism that is both spacially and temporally external while at the same time entangling those two axis. In the middle somewhere, would be externalists on the analytic side who followed the linguistic turn while trying to avoid driving over the edge of the cliff, Quine and Davidson, and the key continental being Saussure. Holistically committed, but synchronically externalists only.

Internal and atomistic representation are strightforward to grasp in essence, a key advantage. They are also lower maintenance, needing less exotic theory to maintain. But the complicated world might demand more. Sort of like, believing in absolute moral standards is nice and clean, but then you visit Africa and feel like maybe it’s a bit naive.

Holism has a couple of problems. First, with regard to meaning holism, many articulations have been put forward which don’t clearly capture the ‘meaning’ part. One clear conception that seems common to Fodor and Saussure, is that the meaning of one word is a product of the contrast, or difference between it and all other words. But on the face of it, it’s possible to give meaning holism as an output of a related non-meaning holism so that while meaning holism might follow, it remains unexplained. Another problem with holism is keeping the entire system from collapsing when one word changes since all others are related to it. Or keeping two people on the same page when they have different vocabularies. 

In Sassure’s semiotics, meaning is tied to the community, but synchronically so. Externalists on the analytic side seem to analyse the situation in a similar way, looking for spacially represented ways to relate concepts to each other holistically. Derrida thought meaning couldn’t be fixed so easily, and a synchronic snapshot sufficiently articulated whould leave clues behind as to how it acheived its apparent victory. He aped Heidegger’s temporal externalism and showed that meanings are unstable and that can all be borne out by relating snapshots to other snapshots. The snapshots are a spacialization of time, and their interrelated history is a temporalization of space.  He went beyond Heidegger by arguing that no concept – including Being or difference – could sum up the situation adequately as a metatheory, being parts of the mix themselves.

Fodor’s atomism even though on a superficial level pretty straightforward,  in the details, is certainly beyond the time I have to try and understand it. Semantic holism just as a general formulation is excruciatingly difficult if not impossible. What the details would be like worked out? But semantic holism combined with Derrida’s externalism would be pure hell. Out of the five people who have ever lived that understand Heidegger and Derrida, only God would be able to understand a detailed semantic Holism in their world.


2 Responses to Meaning – Holism, Externalism, Derrida

  1. Clark says:

    Wasn’t Heidegger both an social and (although this is debatable) temporal externalist?

    Likewise in Analytic thought, isn’t say Davidson’s externalism a bit more far ranging?

  2. A.G. says:


    I’m unfortunately not one of the five. I just try to know enough to get a broad overview. I’ve summarized a huge range of stuff and I’m sure i’ve done some big injustices.

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