"Proper Meaning Superstition"
I. A. Richards
University of Colorado at Boulder
Ivor Armstrong Richards, co-author of The Meaning of Meaning, a great communication theorist and rhetorician, could not effectively communicate. Richards never completely understood and he was never completely understood by others. I. A. Richards believed that there was a "proper meaning superstition," or a false belief that there was one, precise meaning for each word (Craig, 1998, internet). He argued that meaning did not exist in words, but in people as a result of their past experiences. He sought to explain his ideas through concepts such as the Semantic Triangle, Comparison Fields, and the terms "signs" and "symbols", which distinguished meaning. Richards even felt that people were so misunderstood, that he developed remedies to conquer these communicative misunderstandings. His remedies included the usage of: Definition, Metaphor, Feedforward, and Basic English. These remedies can effectively decrease, if not eliminate, various interpersonal communicative misunderstandings, primarily those resulting in conflict, that occur in today's society. Unfortunately, as a result of his liberal viewpoints, I. A. Richards received and currently receives challenges and critique.
Throughout I. A. Richards' career, he focused his attention on meaning within communication. Richards was intrigued by meaning and how it was created and presented in communicative interactions. Richards primarily studied language and how its usage often leads to misunderstandings between sender and receiver. Richards had several notions as to the causes of misunderstandings within communication. He primarily believed that misunderstandings were due to what he termed the "proper meaning superstition." Richards' proper meaning superstition was a direct attack to the theorists of the time. These theorists held the firm belief that words held meaning and that when people use these words they were effectively communicating. Richards strongly disagreed. In fact, Richards' proper meaning superstition stated the exact opposite. The proper meaning superstition states that there is a false belief that each word holds a specific, concise meaning that is generally understood by all. Richards maintained that meaning was created in each individual and it was a result and a collection of that individual's past experiences. As a result of the idea that no two individuals are alike, no two meanings can be the for any given word. (Fordham, 1996, internet).
Richards stated that meanings could be categorized in terms of "signs" and "symbols." I. A. Richards utilized these distinctions to emphasize his idea of meaning within individuals not in words. Signs are natural representations of something beyond themselves. An example of a sign would be a barking sound. When one hears this, they immediately associate the sound with a dog. This natural association draws meaning between signs and actual objects. On the other hand, there are symbols. Symbols are a specialized, limited type of sign. They are different because symbols are conventional, rather than natural, representations of an object beyond themselves. They hold absolutely no meaning because they do not directly link to the object they represent. Words are symbols. An illustration of a symbol is the word "dog." The word "dog" has absolutely no resemblance to a dog in its appearance, nor in its sound. The distinction between symbols and signs aids in the depiction of Richard's statement that words do not carry meaning, people create meaning and hold it in themselves (Craig, 1998, internet).
The Semantic Triangle further illustrates the ideas of signs and symbols by expanding its focus to include the component of thought. Within the Semantic Triangle, signs are labeled as "thing" or "referent." Symbols are entitled "word," or simply "Symbol." Finally, the new component of thought, which exists in the communicator's mind, is called "reference." This new component of reference plays the most crucial role within the Semantic Triangle. The reference is the meaning that an individual assigns to a word. This meaning, then, presents a mental image or a referent. When the individual is sending a message, they develop a referent, assign meaning, reference, and then they communicate a word. Within the Semantic Triangle, the symbol and the referent do not have a direct link. The absence of a link provides room for misunderstanding between the sender and the receiver. The Semantic Triangle explains Richards' concept that meaning is only assigned by people in that no two people will ever picture the same as their referent. Essentially, misunderstandings are due to differences in referents between the sender and the receiver, which were created by contrasting personal experiences. (Augustine & Richards, 1998, internet).
I. A. Richards believed that due to differing, past experiences, individuals have developed limited "comparison fields." These limited fields lead to even more communicative misunderstandings between sender and receiver. Comparison fields are collections of statements made in the past which create understanding between individuals. Comparison fields are structured somewhat like a funnel. At the widest point, are all of the past statements and conversations. As one moves down the funnel and it decreases in capacity, the statements decrease as well due to the lack of similar experiences between communicators. By the bottom of the funnel, there is a very limited selection of statements that can be exchanged that will actually be understood by both sender and receiver. Richards stated that the only way that two individuals could completely understand one another would be if they lived their entire lives in the exact same manner and all shared all of the same experiences. Obviously, this is impossible, so Richards developed remedies to decrease communicative misunderstandings between sender and receiver.
I. A. Richards' remedies for communicative misunderstandings play the most crucial role in combating the proper meaning superstition. To refresh, the proper meaning superstition refers to the belief that every word has one, precise meaning that everyone accepts and understands. Since this is impossible due to Richards' ideology that meanings originate within individuals, Richards compiled four strategies to at least decrease misunderstanding between communicators. These remedies include: definition, metaphor, feedforward, and Basic English.
The purpose of "definition" is to define words that the communicator believes that others might be unfamiliar with. Definition includes techniques such as: symbolization, similar spatial relations, temporal relations, causation, object of a mental state, and legal relations. All of these techniques are simply different ways to define terms so that the recover will better understand the sender's message.
The technique of "metaphor" in decreasing misunderstandings is "the use of one reference to a group of things that are related in a particular way in order to discover a similar relation in another group" ("Richards on Metaphor", 1998, internet). Richards stated that humans think metaphorically, so it would only make sense to communicate metaphorically. ("Richards on Metaphor", 1998, internet). The purpose of a metaphor is to clarify a statement, belief, or thought for one's receiver. One crucial aspect of metaphors is that the receiver must understand the connection between the two objects of comparison, otherwise the metaphor is ineffective and possibly detrimental to the interaction.
"Feedforward" demands calm, critical thinking in the mind of the sender in order to be effective in eliminating communicative misunderstandings. Feedforward requires that the sender anticipate the response of their receiver in order to adapt their message before release to the receiver. The object of Richards' feedforward method is to eliminate misunderstandings by consciously analyzing and clarifying their message in terms of the receiver's knowledge and past experiences.
"Basic English" is a collection of 850 words that Richards believed were the only words necessary to communicate effectively in society. Basic English was utilized in teaching English as a second language (Fordham, 1996, internet). Richards believed that if individuals shared a common language, they would share a common experience and ultimately, they would produce common meaning and basic understanding. This concept was highly effective, but never officially accepted as a method to teach English or decrease the number of communicative misunderstandings.
A communicative misunderstanding that could have been avoided by the acknowledgment of the proper meaning superstition and the application of Richards' remedies is a reoccurring conflict that my boyfriend, Brad, and I experienced. The conflict consisted of nightly disputes on the telephone over a week long period. The arguments were essentially based on differing meanings assigned to the phrase "hurt feelings." An example of a typical conversation is as follows ("A" represents my continents, while "B" represents Brad's comments):
B: Hi sweetie, I was just calling to talk for a little while, but I have to go in about 10 minutes because I have some work to finish. Do you want to talk about what we were talking about last night?
A: Sure, but I don't know if now is a good time since you have to go soon.
B: Well, I don't have a lot of time for this right now, with tax season I am very busy - you know that.
A: I know, but it hurts my feelings that this can't come first even just one of these nights. If things would just get solved, I would feel a lot better about us and I wouldn't feel as uncomfortable as I do right now.
B: I just can't ever do it right, can I? I either don't give enough time or I don't give enough of this. Or I give too much. What do you want from me?
A: I want for us to get along. I am not that upset. I was simply stating that what you said hurt my feelings. I am not expecting an apology, I was just throwing up a red flag so that you realize that you hurt my feelings. I think that you feet that "hurt feelings" are a bigger deal than I do. I just don't want it to happen again. I don't need any huge reformation.
B: I just know that when my feelings are hurt it IS a big deal and I do want something to be done about it. So, every time you say that your feelings are hurt, I fell like shit and I feel like I need to fix them perfectly and I don't have the energy to do that right now.
A: Well if you thought about what you were going to say before you said it, you wouldn't hurt them, and then you wouldn't have to fix them.
This conversation would continue night after night until finally a resolution was agreed upon. This communicative misunderstanding could have been decreased in magnitude, if not eliminated completely, by the acknowledgment of Richards' concept of the proper meaning superstition and the application of Richards' remedies for misunderstandings.
The conflict previously presented was essentially that of a misunderstanding due to contrasting meanings assigned to particular words. Each of us assumed that we were understood and that we understood the messages that we were receiving. This detrimental assumption could have been avoided if we had recognized the proper meaning superstition and then applied Richards' remedies to alleviate misunderstandings. Under the proper meaning superstition, Brad and I would have been able to recognize that we had each assigned different meanings to the phrase "hurt feelings." I view hurt feelings as "little irks" that hurt while they occur and then they are of little concern, I believe that it should be brought to the other's attention, but that there is no need to cause a disagreement over them. Brad has a different meaning for the phrase "hurt feelings." Brad usually ignores these "little irks." In Brad's eyes, hurt feelings are major issues of concern. They are actions that are painful and they demand attention. This is why he responds so emotionally to my accusations. Brad is confused that I am so hurt over such small comments, while I can not begin to understand why my "red flags" are such an issue to Brad. Richards' remedies can be applied to this communicative misunderstanding to either increase understanding or they could have been applied during the conversation in order to possibly eliminate conflict.
Some strategies that should be applied to decrease misunderstanding are those termed "definition," "metaphor," and "Basic English." Richards' definition technique would be useful in defining each of our meanings of the phrase "hurt feelings." To implement this technique, I could use examples of times that my feelings were hurt that Brad remembers, thus utilizing our similar comparison fields. I could also contrast these examples with those of incidences that I feel are more significant than just "hurt feelings." Brad could define what he views as "hurt feelings" and he could explain that he does not draw attention to smaller issues. Intertwining with Richards' definition technique would be the metaphor remedy. At this stage, I would relate one of my experiences to one of Brad's to illustrate for him how insignificant the act would have to be for me to categorize it as "hurt feelings." In turn, Brad could ask me to think of a time when I was very upset and he could explain that is what he considers "hurt feelings." After we both recognized that we do not share a meaning for the phrase in question, we could develop our own word for me to use when these instances occurred. This idea is loosely associated with Richards' Basic English concept in that we created an experience, a language to describe it, a shared meaning, and ultimately - an understanding of one another. We could use the term "ouchies" to describe what I previously viewed as "hurt feelings." It is a compromise in that it does not hold the intensity that Brad associated with the previous phrase, but it does allow for me to "throw up a red flag."
A remedy that should be applied to possibly eliminate the communicative misunderstanding is that of feedforward. I could have utilized the concept of feedforward at the start of the conversation. I could have recognized that Brad was tired, stressed, and sincerely trying. With this in mind, I could have let my feelings play a smaller role and I would have presented my opinion in a more considerate, less emotionally charged manner. On Brad's part, he could have used feedforward before he made the comment about how he was busy and did not have a lot of time. Brad would have been able to reformat his ideas and state that the issue was important to him and that he wanted to work things out, but that he was very busy and exhausted.
This conflict has a completely new realm when you consider Richards' concept of proper meaning superstition in that Brad and I were not understanding each other basically because of the meaning behind one simple phrase. Due to this misunderstanding, the conversation escalated into a conflict that could have easily been avoided by the application of Richards' remedies. First, we would have recognized the contrasting meanings assigned to the phrase, then we would have defined each of our meanings and utilized metaphors to clarify our interpretations. Finally, we would have developed our own term which would represent a shared meaning. We could have also eliminated the conflict by utilizing Richards' feedforward technique and adapting our messages for our receiver.
Within Em Griffin's text entitled A First Look at Communication Theory, there are two major critiques to I. A. Richards' ideologies concerning the proper meaning superstition and his other explanations of communicative interaction, such as his descriptions of signs and symbols, the Semantic Triangle, and Comparison Fields. Richards' remedies for communicative misunderstandings are also challenged in Griffin's text.
The first challenge to Richards' beliefs is the idea that "Focus on individual word meanings can't explain the systematic nature of language (Craig, l998, internet). Basically, Richards is so focused on word meaning that he fails to recognize syntactics. Syntactics "investigates the relationship between words" (Griffin,1997, p. 46). Richard neglected the fact that most words mean very little on their own. He also ignored the concept that the meanings of words are greatly enhanced by their location in a sentence and the meanings of the words surrounding it. Finally, very little communication consists of using solitary words - that in it of itself - would decrease understanding drastically more than what Richards is attacking.
The second critique of I. A. Richards primarily attacks his Semantic Triangle model that includes such components as the referent, the reference, and the symbol. The main component in this model is reference, it is the component that Richards' believed assigned meaning to either the referent or the symbol. Griffin challenges that reference is only one aspect of meaning and that the pragmatic, meaning of a message was equally important. For the pragmatic meaning determined why the message was sent. (Craig, 1998, internet). It would defeat the purpose of communication if people did not have a reason for the messages that they sent. I believe that there is always a motivation behind communication, whether we are communicating verbally or nonverbally, or consciously versus unconsciously. Richards touched on the concept of pragmatics when he encouraged individuals to his remedy entitled "feedforward." He recommended that the person consider what they were about to say and then adapt it to their receiver. Unfortunately, this was not enough, in Griffin's eyes, to completely explain interpersonal communication.
I. A. Richards contemplated meaning, its origins, and its presentation. Through the study and the application of his unique theories, a society can better understand interpersonal communication. Unfortunately, in his eyes, we will never fully understand or be understood by each other. Richards attributes this to the "proper meaning superstition" which is the false belief that there is one specific, unique meaning for each word. He believed that meaning existed within the individual, as the result of their past experiences. Richards presented his beliefs through the Semantic Triangle, the categorization of meaning into "signs" and "symbols,"as well as his explanation of Comparison Fields. Ivor Armstrong Richards was so troubled by communicative misunderstandings that he developed a set of four remedies (Definition, Metaphor, Feedforward, and Basic English) to increase understanding. I am sure that the most depressing aspect of all of Richards' research and dedication is the fact that right now, we cannot understand him.
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(1998, April 6). Richards on metaphor [On line]. Available: http://bradley.bradley.edu/~ell/students/kentucky/Richards.html