SIGNIFICS. The term " Signifies " may be defined as the science of meaning or the study of significance, provided sufficient recognition is given to its practical aspect as a method of mind, one which is involved in all forms of mental activity, including that of logic.
In Baldwin's Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology (1901- 1905) the following definition is given:
" I. Signifies implies a careful distinction between (a) sense or signification, (6) meaning or intention and (c) significance or ideal worth. It will be seen that the reference of the first is mainly verbal (or rather sensal), of the second volitional, and of the third moral (e.g. we speak of some event ' the significance of which cannot be overrated,' and it would be impossible in such a case to substitute the ' sense ' or the ' meaning ' of such event, without serious loss).
Signifies treats of the relation of the sign in the widest sense to each of these.
2. A proposed method of mental training aiming at the concentration of intellectual activities on that which is implicitly assumed to constitute the primary and ultimate value of every form of study, i.e. what is at present indifferently called its meaning or sense, its import or significance. . . . Signifies as a science would centralise and co-ordinate, interpret, inter-relate and concentrate the efforts to bring out meanings in every form, and in so doing to classify the various applications of the signifying property clearly and distinctly."
Since this dictionary was published, however, the subject has undergone further consideration and some development, which necessitate modifications in the definition given. It is clear that stress needs to be laid upon the application of the principles and method involved, not merely, though notably, to language, but to all other types of human function. There is need to insist on the rectification of mental attitude and increase of interpretative power which must follow on the adoption of the significal view-point and method, throughout all stages and forms of mental training, and in the demands and contingencies of life.
In so far as it deals with linguistic forms, Signifies includes " Semantics," a branch of study which was formally introduced and expounded in 1807 by Michel Breal, the distinguished French philologist, in his Essai de semantique. In 1900 this book was translated into English by Mrs Henry Cust, with a preface by Professor Postgate. M. Breal gives no more precise definition than the following:
" Extraire de la linguistique ce qui en ressort comme aliment pour la reflexion et je ne crains pas de 1'ajouter comme regie pour notre propre langage, puisque chacun de nous collabore pour sa part a revolution de la parole humaine, voila ce qui merite d'etre mis en lumiere, voila ce qui j'ai essaye de faire en ce volume."
In the Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology Semantics is defined as " the doctrine of historical word-meanings; the systematic discussion of the history and development of changes in the meanings of words." It may thus be regarded as a reform and extension of the etymological method, which applies to contemporary as well as to traditional or historical derivation. As human interests grow in constantly specialized directions, the vocabulary thus enriched is unthinkingly borrowed and reborrowed on many sides, at first in definite quotation, but soon in unconscious or deliberate adoption. Semantics may thus, for present purposes, be described as the application of Signifies within strictly philological limits; but it does not include the study and classification of the " Meaning " terms themselves, nor the attainment of a clear recognition of their radical importance as rendering, well or ill, the expressive value not only of sound and script but also of all fact or occurrence which demands and may arouse profitable attention.
The first duty of the Significian is, Uierefore, to deprecate the demand for mere linguistic reform, which is indispensable on its own proper ground, but cannot be considered as the satisfaction of a radical need such as that now suggested. To t>e content with mere reform of articulate expression would be fatal to the prospect of a significantly adequate language; one characterized by a development only to be compared to that of the life and mind of which it is or should be naturally the delicate, flexible, fitting, creative, as also controlling and ordering, Expression.
The classified use of the terms of expression-value suggests three main levels or classes of that value those of Sense, Meaning and Significance.
(a) The first of these at the outset would naturally be associated with Sense in its most primitive reference; that is, with the organic response to environment, and with the essentially expressive element in all experience. We ostracize the senseless in speech, and also ask " in what sense " a word is used or a statement may be justified.
(6) But " Sense" is not in itself purposive; whereas that is the main character of the word " Meaning," which is properly reserved for the specific sense which it is intended to convey.
(c) As including sense and meaning but transcending them in range, and covering the far-reaching consequence, implication, ultimate result or outcome of some event or experience, the term " Significance " is usefully applied.
These are not, of course, the only significal terms in common use, though perhaps sense and significance are on the whole the most consistently employed. We have also signification, purport, import, bearing, reference, indication, application, implication, denotation and connotation, the weight, the drift, the tenour, the lie, the trend, the range, the tendency, of given statements. We say that this fact suggests, that one portends, another carries, involves or entails certain consequences, or justifies given inferences. And finally we have the value of all forms of expression; that which makes worth while any assertion or proposition, concept, doctrine or theory; the definition of scientific fact, the use of symbolic method, the construction of mathematical formulae, the playing of an actor's part, or even art itself, like literature in all its forms.
The distinctive instead of haphazard use, then, of these and like terms would soon, both as clearing and enriching it, tell for good on our thinking. If we considered that any one of them were senseless, unmeaning, insignificant, we should at once in ordinary usage and in education disavow and disallow it. As it is, accepted idiom may unconsciously either illuminate or contradict experience. We speak, for instance, of going through trouble or trial; we never speak of going through well-being. That illuminates. But also we speak of the Inner or Internal as alternative to the spatial reducing the spatial to the External. The very note of the value to the philosopher of the " Inner " as opposed to the " Outer " experience is that a certain example or analogue of enclosed space a specified inside is thus not measurable. That obscures. Such a usage, in fact, implies that, within enclosing limits, space sometimes ceases to exist. Comment is surely needless.
The most urgent reference and the most promising field for Signifies lie in the direction of education. The normal child, with his inborn exploring, significating and comparing tendencies is so far the natural Significian. At once to enrich and simplify language would for him be a fascinating endeavour. Even his crudeness would often be suggestive. It is for his elders to supply the lacking criticism out of the storehouse of racial experience, acquired knowledge and ordered economy of means; and to educate him also by showing the dangers and drawbacks of uncontrolled linguistic, as other, adventure. Now the evidence that this last has virtually been hitherto left undone and even reversed, is found on careful examination to be overwhelming. 1 Unhappily what we have so far called education Ijas, anyhow for centuries past, ignored indeed in most cases even balked the instinct to scrutinise and appraise the value of all that exists . or happens within our ken, actual or possible, and fittingly to express this.
Concerning the linguistic bearing of Signifies, abundant evidence has been collected, often in quarters where it would least be expected 1. Of general unconsciousness of confusion, defeat, antiquation and inadequacy in language.
2. A. Of admission of the fact in given cases, but plea of helplessness to set things right. B. Of protest in sucfe-fases and suggestions for improvement.
3. Of direct or implied denial that the evil exists or is serious, and of prejudice against any attempt at concerted control and direction of the most developed group of languages.
4. Of the loss and danger of now unworthy of .misfitting imagery and of symbolic assertion, observance or rite, once both worthy and fitting.
5. Of the entire lack, in education, of emphasis on the indispensable means of healthy mental development, i.e. the removal of linguistic hindrances and the full exploitation and expansion of available resources in language.
6. Of the central importance of acquiring a clear and orderly use of the terms of what we vaguely call " Meaning "; and also of the active modes, by gesture, signal or otherwise, of conveying intention, desire, impression and rational or emotional thought.
1 It would be impossible of course in a short space to prove this contention. But the proof exists, and it is at the service of those who quite reasonably may deny its possible existence.
7. Finally and notably, of the wide-spread and all-pervading havoc at present wrought by the persistent neglect, in modern civilization, of the factor on which depends so much of our practical and intellectual welfare and advance.
As the value of this evidence is emphatically cumulative, the few and brief examples necessarily torn from their context for which alone room could here be found would only be misleading. A selection, however, from the endless confusions and logical absurdities which are not only tolerated but taught without correction or warning to children may be given.
We speak of beginning and end as complementary, and then of " both ends "; but never of both beginnings. We talk of truth when we mean accuracy: of the literal (" it is written ") when we mean the actual (" it is done "). Some of us talk of the mystic and his mysticism, meaning by this, enlightenment, dawn heralding a day; others (more justly) mean by it the mystifying twilight, darkening into night. We talk of the unknowable when what that is or whether it exists is precisely what we cannot know the idea presupposes what it denies; we affirm or deny immortality, ignoring its correlative innatality; we talk of solid foundations for life, for mind, for thought, when we mean the starting-points, foci. We speak of an eternal sleep when the very raison d'etre of sleep is to end in awaking it is not sleep unless it does; we appeal to a root as to an origin, and also figuratively give roots to the locomotive animal. We speak of natural " law " taking no count of the sub-attentive working in the civilized mind of the associations of the legal system (and the law court) with its decreed and enforced, but also revocable or modifiable enactments. Nature, again, is indifferently spoken of as the norm of all order and fitness, the desecration of which is reprobated as the worst form of vice and is even motherly in bountiful provision; but also as a monster of reckless cruelty and tyrannous mockery. Again, we use the word " passion " for the highest activity of desire or craving, while we keep " passive " for its very negation.
These instances might be indefinitely multiplied. But it must of course be borne in mind that we are throughout dealing only with the idioms and habits of the English language. Each civilized language must obviously be dealt with on its own merits.
The very fact that the significating and interpretative function is the actual, though as yet little recognized and quite unstudied condition of mental advance and human achievement, accounts for such a function being taken for granted and left to take care of itself. This indeed, in pre-civilized ages (since it was then the very condition of safety and practically of survival), it was well able to do. But the innumerable forms of protection, precaution, artificial aid and special facilities which modern civilization implies and provides and to which it is always adding, have entirely and dangerously changed the situation. It has become imperative to realize the fact that through disuse we have partly lost the greatest as the most universal of human prerogatives. Hence arises the special difficulty of clearly showing at this stage that man has now of set purpose to recover and develop on a higher than the primitive plane the sovereign power of unerring and productive interpretation of a world which even to a living, much more to an intelligent, being, is essentially significant. These conditions apply not only to the linguistic but to all forms of human energy and expression, which before all else must be significant in the most active, as the highest, sense and degree. Man has from the outset been organizing his experience; and he is bound correspondingly to organize the expression of that experience in all phases of his purposive activity, but more especially in that of articulate speech and linguistic symbol. This at once introduces the volitional element ; one which has been strangely eliminated from the very function which most of all needs and would repay it.
One point must here, however, be emphasised. In attempting to inaugurate any new departure from habitual thinking, history witnesses that the demand at its initial stage for unmistakably clear exposition must be not only unreasonable but futile. This of course must be typically so in the case of an appeal for the vital regeneration of all modes of Expression and especially of Language, by the practical recognition of an ignored but governing factor working at its very inception and source. In fact, for many centuries at least, the leading civilizations of the world have been content to perpetuate modes of speech once entirely fitting but now often grotesquely inappropriate, while also remaining content with casual changes often for the worse and always liable to inconsistency with context. This inevitably makes for the creation of a false standard both of lucidity and style in linguistic expression.
Still, though we must be prepared to make an effort in assuming what is virtually a new mental attitude, the effort will assuredly be found fully worth making. For there is here from the very first a special compensation. If, to those whose education has followed the customary lines, nowhere is the initial difficulty of moving in a new direction greater than in the one termed Signifies, nowhere, correspondingly, is the harvest of advantage more immediate, greater, or of wider range and effort.
It ought surely to be evident that the hope of such a language; of a speech which shall worthily express human need and gain in its every possible development in the most efficient possible way, depends on the awakening and stimulation of a sense which it is our common and foremost interest to cultivate to the utmost on true and healthy lines. This may be described as the immediate and insistent sense of the pregnancy of things, of the actual bearings of experience, of the pressing and cardinal importance, as warning or guide, of that experience considered as indicative; a Sense realized as belonging to a world of what for us must always be the Sign of somewhat to be inferred, acted upon, used as a mine of pertinent and productive symbol, and as the normal incitant to profitable action. When this germinal or primal sense as also the practical starting-point, of language has become a reality for us, reforms and acquisitions really needed will naturally follow as the expression of such a recovered command of fitness, of boundless capacity and of perfect coherence in all modes of expression.
One objection, however, which before this will have suggested itself to the critical reader, is that if we are here really dealing with a function which must claim an importance of the very first rank and affect our whole view of life, practical and theoretical, the need could not have failed long ago to be recognised and acted upon. And indeed it is not easy in a few words to dispose of such an objection and to justify so venturesome an apparent paradox as that with which we are now concerned. But it may be pointed out that the special development of one faculty always entails at least the partial atrophy of another. In a case like this the principle typically applies. For the main human acquirement has been almost entirely one of logical power, subtle analysis, and co-ordination of artificial means. In modern civilization the application of these functions to an enormous growth of invention of every kind has contributed not a little to the loss of the swift and direct sense of point : the sensitiveness as it were of the compass-needle to the direction in which experience was moving. Attention has been forcibly drawn elsewhere; and moreover, as already pointed out, the natural insight of children, which might have saved the situation, has been methodically silenced by a discipline called educative, but mainly suppressive and distortive.
The biological history of Man has been, indeed, a long series of transmutations of form to subserve higher functions. In language he has so far failed to accomplish this. There has even in some directions been loss of advantage already gained. While his nature has been plastic and adaptive, language, the most centrally important of his acquirements, has remained relatively rigid, or what is just as calamitous, fortuitously elastic. There have been notable examples the classical languages of the converse process. In Greek and Latin, Man admirably controlled, enriched, varied, significated his expressions to serve his mental needs. But we forbear ourselves to follow and better this example. All human energies have come under orderly direction and control except the one in which in a true sense they all depend. This fatal omission, for which defective methods of education are mainly responsible, has disastrously told upon the mental advance of the race. But after all, we have here a comparatively modern neglect and helplessness. Kant, for instance, complained bitterly of the defeating tendency of language in his day, as compared with the intelligent freedom of the vocabulary and idiom of the " classical " Greek, who was always creating expression, moulding it to his needs and finding an equally intelligent response to his efforts, in his listeners and readers in short, in his public.
Students, who are prepared seriously to take up this urgent question of the application of Signifies in education and throughout all human spheres of interest, will soon better any instruction that could be given by the few who so far have tentatively striven to call attention to and bring to bear a practically ignored and unused method. But by the nature of the case they must be prepared to find that accepted language, at least in modern European forms, is far more needlessly defeating than they have supposed possible: that they themselves in fact are continually drawn back, or compelled so to write as to draw back their readers, into what is practically a hotbed of confusion, a prison of senseless formalism and therefore of barren controversy.
It can hardly be denied that this state of things is intolerable and demands effectual remedy. The study and systematic and practical adoption of the natural method of Signifies can alone lead to and supply this. Signifies is in fact the natural response to a general sense of need which daily becomes more undeniably evident. It founds no school of thought and advocates no technical specialism. Its immediate and most pressing application is, as already urged, to elementary, secondary and specialised education. In recent generations the healthy sense of discontent and the natural ideals of interpretation and expression have been discouraged instead of fostered by a training which has not only tolerated but perpetuated the existing chaos. Signs, however, are daily increasing that Signifies, as implying the practical recognition of, and emphasising the true line of advance in, a recovered and enhanced power to interpret experience and adequately to express and apply that power, is destined, in the right hands, to become a socially operative factor of the first importance.
LITERATURE. Lady Welby, "Sense, Meaning and Interpretation," in Mind (January and April 1896), Grains of Sense (1897), What is Meaning? (1903); Professor F. Tonnies, " Philosophical Terminology " (Welby Prize Essay), Mind (July and October 1899 and January 1900), also article in Jahrbuch, etc., and supplements to Philosophische Terminologie (December 1906) ; Professor G. F. Stout, Manual of Psychology (1898) ; Sir T. Clifford Allbutt's Address on " Words and Things " to the Students' Physical Society of Guy's Hospital (October 1906); Mr W. J. Greenstreet's " Recent Science " articles in the Westminster Gazette (November 15, 1906, and January 10, 1907). (V. W.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)