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Intention and responsibility

Written by Sherwin, published on October 20, 2009

It is entirely possible for the meanings we create to be beyond our intent and within our responsibility. I’ve said  this before, here. You have to read down a ways to get to it, and it’s so fascinating, that I thought I would repeat it.

In the wild of human to human interactions, more meaning is made than can be understood. It’s air and water. It’s simply everywhere. And whether we try to understand and rationally consider the currents of meaning that flow around and through us or not, there is more meaning than we can ever comprehend. The meaning shapes us. It animates us. So when someone says, “that’s not what I meant!” or “that’s doesn’t logically follow from what I said!” it might not matter. It is entirely possible for the meanings we create to be beyond our intent and within our responsibility.

Some of you will find this obvious. Others might find this to be a head scratcher. There are, of course, obvious legal examples. When you enter into a legal or written contract, it doesn’t matter what you intended by saying or writing such-and-such. What matters is what the legal meaning of the words are. These legal meanings are largely out of your hands. We hire lawyers and judges to sort through the words and figure out the meanings. This is not to say that they aren’t interested in intentions. They are. But in the end, you can be found to be legally responsible for meanings you never intended.

There are also obvious non-legal examples. In the context of a WordPress conference, you might intend to be speaking about adding pages, but if you use the language of posts, then you will be misunderstood and/or corrected. The extent to which you are misunderstood and/or change your behaviour is entirely your responsibility. You can’t expect hundreds of thousands of WordPress users to adopt your conventions, no matter how correct they seem to your personal logic.

But it’s not just  WordPress, or Canadian law, or an analytic philosophy lecture on Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell. One might run into these meaning regimes and their pre-existing meanings in any given community. We will encounter meaning regimes in our families and our intimate relationships. We can’t simply ask everyone else to get on board our intended meanings without sometimes being willing to do the same. We share language and we negotiate the conventions and meanings of the terms. The catch is that the more fixed a given community or meaning regime is, the less negotiation there is. Intentions be damned, you will be responsible for your unintended meanings.

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