Just yesterday I saw a lecture by Steven Pinker on shared and common knowledge. Shared knowledge is the kind where we both know something, common knowledge is where, in addition to shared knowledge, we also know that each other knows.
For years now I've been thinking about how best to understand meaning. One of the best answers I was able to come across was from John Searle. He describes meaning as the "imposition of conditions of satisfaction on conditions of satisfaction." He ought to have won a prize for the ugliness of that phrase, but in a weird way, it sticks. He is trying to describe a state of affairs where you try to make your words do something, and what they are supposed to do is to make you understand something. And the only mean something if you understand them. So words in this sense work.
Searle also has this idea of the "background" of knowledge, which he works into his ontology of words. Words come into being because we declare them into being. It has the formula "X counts as Y in context C." Context here is analogous to background.
With these two pieces of ideas, the creation of words and the maintenance of their meaning I set to work trying to understand language in a new way, but I quite couldn't get there on his account. Basically, I was unhappy with the idea of background knowledge. This was a vague term that didn't really do much of the explaining. What did these C ideas contain anyway? But, if one did away with it, all one was left with was a simple identity statement, like A=B, which is not enough. Why? Because then you would not have actually added anything to the language, only made a synonym.
After a long period of thinking, I came to the conclusion that what a background could be, was our semantic memory, a network of facts and words maintained by our brain. As for context, this idea had to be a little richer, but I came to that this could be looked upon as the activated parts of the semantic memory, along with the content of our phenomenal awareness. This is the view of a kind of brainspace where thinking happens. To cut a long story short, I decided that the version of reality that looked best to me, was that the formula for the creation of new language ought to be R(n) -> R(n+1). There is no sense to this logical notation. All it tries to convey is that, all we have is a network of ideas, and from this we can combine ideas to have new ones; which we can then declare as a whole. But this view has ramifications for the theory of meaning.
What happens when you send those pressure waves out of our mouth? To say that they satisfy a condition only sends us on to ask; what conditions? What I actually believes happens, is that our language evokes the memory of that language and it's associations in the brain of our interlocutors, and the grammar of the sentence tells us in which relation these words are to be related in. So, for instance, in the sentence "Me and my friend went for a walk.," you are supposed to bring up ideas of the speaker designated as "me", and the image of this "friend", then form an image of these two together. Then you bring up the activity of walking; and you make a scene that portrays this event in your mind. At least, this is how I experience my own thinking. Talking about things that are not right in front of us, as a conversation, is an exercise of binding together many of these ideas in to a shared fantasy which' content is logically identical.
Alright, so this is already further than I had gotten before. Where I had gotten to before was a simple image; the image of the pressure waves as a key, opening up two rooms in the other persons brain that were to be connected. New evidence, however, has recently implied the existence of space in our brain reserved for the importation of nouns and verbs which are related logically, and then this Pinker talk happened, and now we're off to the races. Yes, and one more thing; I had discovered the power of these imagined rooms for cognition; both through memory training techniques, and literature. Moving on.
The reason we can have discussions of things that are not present, is that we have common knowledge. I know that when I say something, you will remember, and that each following sentence can carry within it the reference to earlier conversation. It becomes part of the context of the conversation, and we can build very complex ideas within this conceptual space. Since I know that you know what we were just talking about; I can build on our conversation and shared knowledge to make our talking much more efficient. With some friends, I feel that I am flying, because the meaning of our conversation is so rich; with every sentence we are living together in the same world, experiencing each other and at each step learning that we are continuing to share a common experience. We explore each other through a supposition of common knowledge, and for each time our assumption is answered we are awarded with the additional knowledge that now i know that you know that I know, and a bond is created of safety and trust.
I think Wittgenstein was knocking at the door of these insights when he talked of language as a tool, and as a game. We was groping for the ideas that there is a context that is colouring the ways in which we use our language. Later we got the ideas of intentionality, the idea that other people are lighting up the world with a searchlight, throwing their mind outside. But that is not it. We must combine the two while still acknowledging that thinking happens in the brain. We are surfing our our minds network, trying to build up and understanding that mimics what we see with our senses; and when we find someone who has traveled the same road, it is a delight. A delight for the common knowledge is a harbinger of truth.
Maybe this is why political rallies can be so effective. When we meet so many people that we feel see the same truth as us, we are highjacking the part of our brain that is supposed to bring sense of the world, and get rewarded for getting it right. Instead of finding joy in the fact that many people have independently come to the same conclusion, we are rejoicing that many people have been told what to believe.
There are so many things I have yet to explore within this new framework of mind, and I'm very much looking forward to it.