The Meaning of Meaning

book by Charles Kay Ogden and I. A. Richards

The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism (1923) was authored by C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards, Magdalene College, University of Cambridge. It is accompanied by the two supplementary essays by Bronislaw Malinowski and F. G. Crookshank.

Thoughts, Words and Things

  • Symbolism is the study of the part played in human affairs by language and symbols of all kinds, and especially of their influence upon Thought. It singles out for special inquiry the ways in which symbols help us and hinder us in reflecting on things.
    • p. 9.

The Power of Words

  • Most educated people are quite unconscious of the extent to which these relics survive at their doors, still less do they realize how their own behaviour is moulded by the unseen hand of the past. "Only those whose studies have led them to investigate the subject," adds Dr Frazer, "are aware of the depth to which the ground beneath our feet is thus, as it were, honeycombed by unseen forces."
    • p. 25.


  • 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 the 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.
    • p. 50-51.

Signs in Perception

  • Place a new nickel florin on the palm of the hand with the arm extended horizontally, and note that a truthful person would describe its shape as elliptical. Now look at it vertically from above and agree that it is round. Is the florin circular or elliptical? What an insoluble problem?
    • p. 83.

The Canons of Symbolism

  • No argument about the world is valid if based merely upon the way a symbol system behaves.
    • p. 97.

The Theory of Definition

  • In all discussions we shall find that what is said is only in part determined by the things to which the speaker is referring. Often without a clear consciousness of the fact, people have preoccupations which determine their use of words. Unless we are aware of their purposes and interests at the moment, we shall not know what they are talking about and whether their referents are the same as ours or not.
    • p. 126.

The Meaning of Philosophers

  • It might ... have been supposed that logicians and psychologists would have devoted special attention to meaning, since it is so vital for all the issues with which they are concerned. But that this is not the case will be evident[1] to anyone who studies the Symposium in Mind (October 1920 and following numbers) on "The Meaning of 'Meaning.'"
    • p. 160.

The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages

Supplement I (pp. 296-336) written by Bronislaw Malinowski.
  • Difference in the linguistic perspectives which open up before the Philologist who studies dead, inscribed languages, and before the Ethnographer who has to deal with a primitive living tongue, existing only in actual utterance. The study of an object alive more enlightening than that of its dead remains.
    • p. 296.
    • The next passage reads: "The 'Sign-situation' of the Authors corresponds to the 'Context of Situation' here introduced."


  1. [The following is the original footnote.]
    1 The following passage in Nuces Philosophicoe, by one Edward Johnson, published in 1842, is worth recalling:
    1. I confess I am surprised that all this time you have never yet once asked me what I mean by the word meaning.
    2. What then do you mean by the word meaning?
    3. Be patient. You can only learn the meaning of the word meaning from the consideration of the nature of ideas, and their connection with things.

    Half a century later, Lady Welby quoted from this author in Mind (1896), and complained that "Sense in the meaning sense has never yet been taken as a centre to work out from: attention, perception, memory, judgment, etc., have never been cross-examined from the direction of their common relation to a 'meaning.'" And after the lapse of a further twenty-five years we find Mr Russell admitting ("On Propositions: What they are and how they mean." Proc. Arist. Soc. 1919) with the approval of Dr Schiller in the symposium "that logicians have done very little towards explaining the relation called 'meaning.'"

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