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Maximal and minimal meanings

Written by Sherwin, published on October 10, 2009

One of the challenges of branding and marketing is working with and relying on the many subtle, implicit and subconscious layers of meanings that are formed in people’s minds. This can be particularly difficult for people who tend toward the more analytic, more pre-defined, or more explicit forms of communication. Let’s call the former maximal and the latter minimal approaches to meaning making.

I get that trying to distinguish between maximal and minimal approaches to meaning making could be controversial for some folks. Especially when I add ideas like implicit, explicit, connotative and denotative to the mix. It’s not a definition. And it’s not a hard and fast distinction. I say that minimal meaning making tends towards certain ways of making meaning. And I say that maximal meaning making includes other kinds of meaning. Maximal meaning making includes minimal meaning making. By way of attempting to illustrate the difference in these kinds of meaning making, please consider the following table.

Minimal Meaning Making tends toward: Maximal Meaning Making includes:
  • more explicit, more direct
  • more denotative
  • more conscious, rational
  • more intellectual, more scientific
  • implicit meaning
  • indirect, associative meaning
  • connotative meaning
  • subtle forms of meaning

Where am I heading with this distinction?

If you’re feeling a little uncertain about getting on board this program, perhaps you’ll feel more at ease if you know what I want to do with it. Partly, I want to make fun of philosophers. More broadly I want to make fun of folks who become insulated in their way of thinking and talking about the world and then forget the impact, or lack of impact, that their words have on people.

But I also want to broach a topic close to my heart surrounding advertising. What happens when someone thinks an ad is inappropriate? Why is hard to explain to other people why it is? Why do people think they’re free to say or write anything? I think at least part of the dynamic at the heart of these questions is helpfully elucidated by considering minimal and maximal approaches to meaning.

More broadly I want to make fun of folks who become insulated in their way of thinking and talking about the world and then forget the impact, or lack of impact, that their words have on people.

Before getting into the issue of assessing, say, ad copy, allow me to illustrate this distinction a little more by looking at two semantic concepts that philosophers love; conjunctions and universal instantiations.

Conjunctions and universal instantiations

Newbie logicians and philosophers 1  have a minimal approach to the meanings of conjunctions. They believe that words like ‘and’ and ‘but’ (even commas sometimes) act to conjoin two propositions such that the larger statement is true if both individual propositions are true. So, for example, the statement, ‘I like bananas and apples’ is true if it’s both true that I like bananas and it’s also true that I like apples.

Same goes for the universal generalizations using ‘all’ or ‘every’. A universal generalization is true if every instance of the assertion is true. So ‘all swans are white’ is true, if every thing that is a swan, is white.

In the strict confines of logic puzzles, computer languages and perhaps contract law, this is just fine. The trouble is that words like ‘and’ and ‘but’, ‘all’ and ‘every’ have many more layers of meaning for English speaking humans. So as soon as the newbie logician or newbie philosopher starts to apply their minimal approach (with respect to conjunctions, etc.) to human meaning making, things go awry. Consider:

  1. I got in my car and drove away.
  2. I went grocery shopping and I didn’t buy cigarettes.
  3. My mom asked me how my marriage was going and I told her that everything was fine.
  4. All of my lovers from Venus were lazy.
  5. Every elephant in my fridge enjoys to dance.

Now from a minimal perspective, each of the first three statements is really about the truth conditions of each conjunct. So, is it true that I got in the car and is it true that I drove away? That’s the meaning of the statement.2 So under this minimal approach to meaning, it’s equally true that: “I drove away and got in my car.” Under this minimal approach, newbie logicians will argue that the meaning of the statement is the same if you switch the order of the conjuncts. ‘A and B’ is the same statement as ‘B and A’ (where A and B stand for simple statements). But in human contexts the statement, ‘I drove away and got in my car’ obviously has a significantly different meaning. 3

Similarly, on the minimal approach, statement #2 means simply that I went to the grocery store and I did not purchase cigarettes. But in the scope of a human conversation, the listener would create gobs of meaning around this statement. It’s a well described facet of conversational implicature, that the choices regarding what we say and don’t say are relevant and important to meaning. I went to the grocery store and didn’t buy a torpedo launcher. I went to the grocery store and didn’t buy a slave. I went to the grocery store and didn’t buy a cake. There are a bazillion facts about what I didn’t buy. The fact that I mention cigarettes makes it reasonable for a reader to make assumptions about my relationship to smoking.

I leave conjuction #3 as an exercise for the reader to grapple with the minimal and maximal meanings. #4 and #5 are both interesting examples of statements that would be considered to be true by many standard logics. It’s very common of universal generalizations that they are made true by an empty set. #4 would be false if one lover that I had from Venus was not lazy. But since I have not had any lovers from Venus, #4 fails to be false!

I’m really just trying to focus on how a more minimal approach to meaning will fail to understand human interactions and human marketplaces.

Of course some more sophisticated logics try to account for and solve these anti-intuitive results (and many others) but this only further aids in distinguishing between the minimal and maximal approaches to meaning. The more artifacts of conversational implicature that you try to save in a given system of logic, the more maximal the system becomes.4 I am not bashing logics here. From from it! I’m a huge fan, even if I fail to be logical enough sometimes. I’m really just trying to focus on how a more minimal approach to meaning will fail to understand human interactions and human marketplaces.

It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear

This basic principle of advertising can be glossed over by people operating in specific contexts like a philosophy department, or within the confines of a programming language, or within the conventions of particular community that polices the meanings of things. And these communities are very important. Let’s call these communities, meaning regimes.

What’s cool about a meaning regime, is that it’s precisely not what people hear. It’s what you say. If someone heard you wrong, that’s their problem. You just point to what you said and let the restrictions and definitions of the meaning regime do the work for you.

In the context of a particular meaning regime, it’s a relief to be able to say what you want without some random person saying that you made some meaning you didn’t. I for one hate-hate-hate being misunderstood. And it’s never my fault. LOL

Of course, meaning regimes aren’t always as clear cut and well defined as we hope. And even when they are to other people, they only work when it’s clear to everyone. A lot of work goes into building meaning regimes so that we better understand each other. It takes a lot of work, a lot of cooperation, and a lot of selflessness. Ever meet someone that is constantly using terms in a different and obstinate way? Ever put an analytic philosopher, an English prof and a Political Scientist in the same room together. Chaos. Unless they each have a high emotional intelligence and a heightened awareness for their different meaning regimes, it’s chaos.

Taking responsibility for meaning making

When you operate outside of a particular meaning regime, when you operate in the wild, you do not have the luxury of not thinking about the way meaning is made. And to some reasonable extent we are responsible for the meaning that we participate in making. “Reasonable extent” is a weaselly phrase of course. I mean, it’s ambiguous. I mean, it leaves lots of wiggle room and I don’t want to have to define it. It can be perfectly meaningful without having to define it.

There are obvious cases where the utterer of a statement, or the writer of an ad, are not responsible for the meaning that someone makes out of it. And there are are clear cases where the writers are responsible for the meanings that are made.

Case #1: An ad reads, “Hungry? Try Galiano apples. They’ll fill you up.” Someone reads the ad and is offended and feels demeaned and becomes rather upset because “apple” is a slang term for prostitute in their community. To make matters worse, their niece has just become street involved, started using drugs, has lost their job and moved to Galiano. This is, I hope, clearly a case where the people who wrote the ad cannot reasonably be held to be responsible for the meaning that was made.

They might even believe that good humans should work to prevent this, out of love for gay men. But that doesn’t stop the ad from being messed up. Case #2: An ad reads, “God hates gay folks. But he hates gay women less.” Okay this might be a weak example – there is something kind of John Stewartesque about it. Suppose the ad actually reads, “God sends fags to hell. With our love, and your support, we can end gayness.” Now the copy writers might actually believe that their God sends gay men to hell. They might even believe that good humans should work to prevent this, out of love for gay men. But that doesn’t stop the ad from being messed up. This is, I think, a clear example of when the copy writers can be held reasonably responsible for the meaning that is made in the minds of readers. The ad is demeaning and derogatory.

Hopefully these thought experiments make it obvious that there are cases where folks aren’t responsible for the meaning they create – and there are some clear cases where folks are responsible for the meaning they create. In between these clear cases, there’s a large class of cases where it’s not so clear. This is the very grey zone.

Meaning oozes

In the wild of human to human interactions,5 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.

The retreat to minimal readings

So what happens if someone suspects an ad or an article is, say, racist. One challenge in assessing utterances, statements, articles and ads is that readers will often retreat to a minimal approach to the meaning of the ad, article, what-have-you. So you have this gooey, oozing, amorphous, multi-layered meaning and then buddy says, “look, I just said that the indians I knew were lazy. You can’t argue with that because it’s true. I’m not saying all indians are lazy.” And then he retreats to this very logical and minimal reading of what he said. This is a really common tactic whether it happens in the context of racism or not. Regrettably, this tactic can be very effective.

This defensive tactic is most effective when the status quo creates a situation where the burden of proof is placed on the accuser (for lack of  a better, less militant term). So if I suggest an ad is racist in a household full of people who don’t see the ad as racist, likely it will become incumbent on me to show how and why. In this context, the retreat to a minimal reading of the ad will be very successful. However, if I suggest an ad is racist to a bunch of people who mostly agree and see the ad as racist, then it would become the duty of the lone defender of the ad to argue for why it’s not. In this case a retreat to a minimal reading would be more readily recognized as simply ignoring or overlooking the issue.

Asymmetry of impact

So in our work as designers, we’re often in the position of telling people that even though people don’t notice the drop cap or color scheme or typeface, people still experience these design elements. And that’s super interesting in the context of inappropriate ad content. Even if you don’t notice them, they’re still impacting you – just in a very different way. Imagine a young boy and a girl, of similar cognitive development, looking at a sexist ad. Neither child may consciously notice the impact that the ad is having on them. And the impact is very different.

On my view, adult humans aren’t so different from children. But I think that one important difference is that for adults, when the felt impacts of the the subtle implications are negative, it’s easier to be more consciously hurt by them. With support and training each of us can become more aware of the way our views of the world are shaped by the ads around us. But for people who are demeaned by an ad, it will be much more obvious that the ad is inappropriate.

In conlusion

Well that all sounds more obvious and less helpful than I thought it was going to be! I will like to return to this issue and perhaps find more and better ways to think about these phenomena. Any ideas?

  1. I implicate newbie logicians here because, in my experience, most logicians eventually move through their love affair with various logics or at least give up their dream of a total logic that captures or indicts all of human meaning.
  2. I’m glossing over quite a number of details in the philosophy of language, but I think it’s worth it in this context. My apologies to Frege and Dummett.
  3. Another great example of this, I owe to a logic prof of mine, David Johnson: ‘I had a shower and got undressed’.
  4. The terms ‘minimal’ and ‘maximal’ actually have well defined meanings in the context of logic studies and set theory – so I just want to make note that I’m using them in a different sense.
  5. maybe I’ll try to address non-human animal meaning making sometime. But not here.
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Archived comments

  1. […] is not normal. To say this, even if you are not cognizant of the impact, is homophobic. Intention is not the issue here. It is, after all, not what you say, but what people […]

  2. dad says:

    Hi, your mother says ” when you are trying to explain your position keep it simple, and then be quiet!’
    3xha! luv yah, gj

  3. […] Maximal and minimal meanings […]