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  • Encoding of Meaning: Deconstructing the Meaning/Causality Distinction
  • Derek Bolton (bio)

The distinction between meaningful and causal connections has had a formative influence on psychiatry. It is deflated, however, by the idea that semantic states, encoded in the brain, regulate behavior. Some objections to this idea, from postmodern semiotics and from physicalism, are considered and resolved. Biology and developmental psychology turn out to be crucial to bridging the traditional divide between the physical and the moral sciences. Insofar as meaning is within the proper domain of cognitive science, there is a need for a new research program, cognitive-behavioral semantics, to join and interact with those already in the paradigm, particularly AI and neuroscience. The idea that meaningful states encoded in the brain are causal has far-reaching implications for the theory of psychopathology; approaches which have traditionally been split off from one another can be brought together in unified though highly complex models of interacting causal pathways.


hermeneutics, Jaspers, mental causation, meaning, physicalism, semiotics

Philosophical Foundations

The distinction between meaningful and causal connections, and the related distinction between understanding and explaining, was built into the foundations of modern psychiatry by Jaspers (1923). These dichotomies had already been worked out in the new Geisteswissenschaften, history and the social sciences, and they signified the problem of tackling the meaning which pervades human behavior and society using scientific method, specifically in terms of the definitive requirements of generality, objectivity, and causality (von Wright 1971). Jaspers distinguished between the science of psychopathology, which aims to find generalizations about objectively defined behaviors and their causal basis in the brain, and the understanding of the meaning of symptoms, a quite distinct task, hermeneutic as opposed to scientific, concerned with individual cases not generalities, and requiring subjective empathy as opposed to objective knowledge (Jaspers 1923; Bolton 1984).

Jaspers spelt out a deep split which was to dominate theory and practice in psychiatry. On the one side appeared medical psychiatry, along with scientific behavioral psychology, and on the other was psychoanalysis, championing meaning on behalf of all its many offspring.

In the middle of this century, two main battles were fought over this ground. Psychiatry was criticized for invalidating, medicalizing, and brutalizing the meaning in mental disorder (Foucault 1963; Szasz 1961; Laing 1960). [End Page 255] At the same time psychiatry, joined by scientific psychology and spurred on by the death rattle of empiricist philosophy of science, rounded fiercely on psychoanalysis for being pseudo-science. Psychoanalysis responded to this assault by going hermeneutic—the other option given the rift between meaning and science—by admitting more or less reluctantly that it was in the business of understanding persons, not finding the causes of behavior (Habermas 1971; Klein 1976; Ricoeur 1981; Schafer 1976; Storr 1987; see also Grünbaum 1984; 1986). These battles of the 1960s were inevitable, highly charged, and highly symmetrical. The split between science and meaning was bound to lead to assault by the one side against the other for excluding it: sympathy with meaning led to outrage against scientific psychiatry, and adherence to science led to contempt for speculations about meaning. This mutual hatred—if that is not too strong a word—was a sign that the split had become intolerable; dialectical synthesis was already in the making.

Broadly speaking, the reworking of the foundations of psychology and psychiatry come under the general heading of the “cognitive revolution” (Gardner 1985; Baars 1986). Key, interlocking components of the cognitive paradigm are the assumptions that behavior is regulated by cognitive states, that these states carry information, and that they are encoded in the brain. While these working assumptions pervade current behavioral science, they can appear highly problematic philosophically, because it looks like they go against long-standing assumptions. Questions arise as to whether the role of cognitive states is really causal. If so, there is pressure to say that the cognitive states are really physical brain states, since only these could be the fundamental causes of behavior. The proposal that cognitive states carry information can now look problematic, however, at least insofar as there is any hint that information might be something like meaning. Meaningful connections are unlike causal connections in various ways. For...

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pp. 255-267
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