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Meaning (psychology)

Meaning is a concept used in psychology as well as in other fields such as philosophy, linguistics, semiotics and sociology.

These multidisciplinary uses of the term are not independent and can more or less overlap. Within each of these fields, there are different ways in which the term meaning is constructed and used; each construction can match related constructions in other fields. At the deepest level, each construction is associated with an epistemological position. The concept of "meaning" is thus used differently in different epistemological traditions in each field. The logical positivists, for example, associated meaning with scientific verification.[1] The meaning of meaning is therefore understood differently in different schools of psychology (as well as in different schools overall).


According to Skinner, meaning is the modern version of "idea". Like an idea, a meaning is said to be expressed or communicated by an utterance. A meaning explains the occurrence of a particular word in the sense that if there had been a different meaning to be expressed, a different word would probably have appeared. Meaning has certain advantages over ideas because they have the possibility to be located outside the skin, and thus, according to Skinner, meanings can be observed directly.[2] (Verbal Behavior. Chapter One. B.F. SKINNER. 1947

Cognitive psychologyEdit

Jerome Bruner, one of the founding fathers of cognitive psychology, wrote: "Very early on, ... emphasis began shifting from 'meaning' to 'information', from the construction of meaning to the processing of information. These are profoundly different matters. The key factor in the shift was the introduction of computation as the ruling metaphor and of computability as a necessary criterion of a good theoretical model. Information is indifferent with respect to meaning..." (Bruner, 1990, p. 4).[3]

German critical psychologyEdit

German critical psychology provides a metatheoretical framework for research on both psychological and computational tasks. One important part of this is the logical-historical development of the meaning category. It is shown that meaning is nothing absolute but subjective. Meaning is neither a property of things nor only present as an imagination of cognition. Thus, meanings cannot be "defined" or "assigned" as commonly thought. Meanings arise from societal production of use-value." (Meretz, 1999, p. 126)[4]

A similar understanding developed in cultural studies of science: "Cultural studies thereby articulate dynamic, expressive conceptions of meaning, knowledge, and power, which contrast sharply with the standard approaches to these phenomena within philosophy and social theory (Rouse 1996,[5] 1999[6]). On such accounts, meaning is not a property of utterances or actions; the term `meaning' instead articulates the ways in which such performances inferentially draw upon and transform the field of prior performances in which they are situated." (Rouse, 2001, p. 3126)[7]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ See also The verifiability theory of meaning.
  2. ^ Sellars, Wilfrid (1980). Behaviorism, language and meaning. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 61, 3-30.
  3. ^ Bruner, Jerome (1990). Acts of meaning. Harvard University Press.
  4. ^ Meretz, Stefan (1999). Meaning concepts used in psychology and computer sciences. In: Maiers, Wolfgang et al. Challenges to theoretical psychology North York, Ontario: Captus Press, Inc. (pp. 120-128).
  5. ^ Rouse J. (1996). Engaging Science: How to Understand its Practices Philosophically. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY
  6. ^ Rouse J. (1999). Understanding scientific practices. In: Biagioli M (ed.) The Science Studies Reader. Routledge, New York, pp. 442-456.
  7. ^ Rouse, J. (2001). Cultural Studies of Science. In: Smelser, N. J. & Baltes, P. B. (eds.) International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Amsterdam: Elsevier. (Pp. 3125-3127).


  • Sinha, C. (1988). Language and Representation. A socio-naturalistic approach to human development. New York: Harvester.