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SEHR, volume 4, issue 1: Bridging the Gap
Updated 8 April 1995

Editor's note: Professor Simon's article appears here in 5 parts. This is the third part.


literary criticism: a cognitive approach

part 3

Herbert Simon


Potential and Actual Meaning

It is an important fact that, even when the word is read, not all or even most of these components of meanings are generally evoked. We have seen that which are evoked in any given instance will depend much upon both reader and context. We need to distinguish potential meaning from actual meaning.

The whole store of information indexed by the string D-O-G (as well as other things that can be obtained from it by association--cat, mammal, wolf, pet, and whatnot) constitutes the potential meaning of "dog." The tiny subset of this vast totality that is evoked in a particular reader on seeing the word in a particular context may be regarded as the actual meaning in that context on that occasion. (Here I am counting, dear reader, on evoking in you, as part of your meaning of "actual," a knowledge of its French and Spanish cognates.)

It would be dogwork to repeat this exercise for other concrete nouns, abstract nouns, verbs, and other parts of speech. I will limit myself to a few remarks. In each case, the meaning is that which is evoked by reading the word (if reading is our concern) or that which evokes it (if our concern is writing). In the case of concrete nouns and many verbs, the meaning may include the perceptual tests of presence or absence of the thing or event designated. It is in this sense that the intension of a declarative sentence is synonymous with its truth conditions. This is what Tarski intended in asserting that "Der Schnee ist weiss" means that the snow is white. When the meaning of a declarative sentence is abstract, the truth conditions may be complex and indirect. What are the truth conditions for "that is an illegal act" or "selfishness is the only sound basis for altruism?"

Further Comments on Contexts

Since my immediate goal is to replace the term "meaning" (sometimes thought to be rather mysterious, or at least imprecise) with a more or less operational definition, I must be careful in using a term like "context," for "context" may seem as vague as the terms it helps to explicate. But, although the context in which a stimulus is interpreted may be complex, it also is not mysterious. At any given moment, memory has certain contents. Some of these may be more accessible than others, either because they are temporarily in short-term memory or because they are in a high state of arousal or activation by reason of recent use or of association with something recently accessed. Meaning is shaped by the particular parts of the contents of memory that are accessed; these constitute the context.

The present stimulus may be processed in various ways (may acquire various meanings), depending on some subset of these memory contents and their current accessibility. Thus, if we have been talking about social engagements and the word "ball" is used, it will probably be interpreted to mean a large formal gathering for social dancing, while if we have been talking about America's national sport, the same word will be interpreted to mean a small hide-covered sphere. Anaphora of pronouns provides another simple example of context-dependent interpretation, where the context may extend over sentence boundaries.

As my earlier quotations from Stendhal and Camus demonstrated, contexts may be far more complex than in the examples just mentioned, presenting practical difficulties in determining what they actually are but no difficulties in principle. Generally, in interpreting discourse (a story that is being told, or even my words here), as we listen or read we build up a representation of the scene or situation or events being described, sometimes in the form of a mental image, and this representation forms a major part of the context in which the sequence of words is processed. One sees in the mind's eye the struggle at the bridge in Lodi, or the bar in Amsterdam presided over by the "gorilla."

Roger Schank and his colleagues (1977) have shown one way in which such representations may be constructed in the symbol structures they call SCRIPTS. In a different application known as the ISAAC program, Gordon Novak (1977) has shown how contexts can be developed incrementally while reading the (English) text of a physics problem and can then be used to help interpret the next piece of text. His contexts would be called "schemas" by cognitive scientists. Similarly, Hayes and Simon (1974) have demonstrated in the UNDERSTAND program the use of contexts in the form of schemas to interpret natural-language instructions for puzzles. So we have some actual concrete examples today, in computable form, of what contexts are like. The concept of context can be made wholly operational.

Though its application is to physics rather than to literature, Novak's system makes very clear how contexts work. The mention of "lever" in a physics problem evokes from the system's memory a schema that describes levers: not any particular lever, but the archetypal lever in Plato's heaven. A copy is made of this schema, which can be thought of as a sort of diagram of a lever, and the copy is shaped to the dimensions and other attributes of the particular lever mentioned in the problem. The latter information is, of course, also extracted from the text of the problem statement.

Subsequently, a force that acts on the lever is also represented, and by combining the force schema with the lever schema and these with other information in the problem, an integrated problem schema is gradually built up that unites all of these elements in a single diagram of interrelated components. Thus, the archtypical schemas stored in memory provide one part of the context for understanding the problem statement, while the gradual cumulation of this information in the problem schema provides additional context.

In application to literary texts, the archetypes would correspond to the reader's (or writer's) prior knowledge, while the problem schema would correspond to the local context that grows out of the information found in the text itself: about the characters and their motives, the scene in which they are placed, and so on. Together, these schemas constitute the context in which the meaning of the text is interpreted.

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