Landscapes Mean? | Ambiguous Words and Their Context

In his essay ‘Must Landscapes Mean?’, Marc Treib examines attempts at bringing meaning into landscape design.  Treib points out several techniques and limitations for the use of meaning in the landscape as well as questioning the significance of meaning.  Trieb argues that meaning is derived not completely by any one dimension inscribed within the place but by an awareness of the user as a part of a greater societal whole.  According to Treib, a symbolic system of understanding ‘place’ exists inherently within the human make-up; significance and meaning exists not as an accessory to design but is ultimately created by the recipient.  This way of thinking shifts control to the user and infers restraint and a cognizant approach to design.  Treib lays out Six approaches currently employed by designers: the Neoarchaic, the Genius of the Place, the Zeitgeist, the Vernacular Landscape, the Didactic and the Theme Garden.  In the title of his essay, Trieb asks must landscapes mean?  My question is does landscapes mean?  In this essay, I will examine the the word meaning as it applies to landscapes by framing it within an argument for meaningless words and their context, presented by American Philosopher John Hospers.  Hospers is addressing the question “What does this piece of music mean?” but I will substitute this question for “what does landscape mean” or “do landscapes mean”?

John Hospers (in Meaning and Truth in the Arts (University of North Carolina Press, 1946) p.76) wrote:

“No word has meaning ... in itself; it has no meaning until it is given meaning by someone; lacking this, it is simply a row of marks on paper or uttered sounds. Most of the words in our language have been given meanings long ago, and this meaning has been agreed upon by the users of our language, so that the words have come by convention to stand for the things they now stand for, and all we have to do is learn them. Many words have several meanings ... and are called ambiguous words--in these cases we learn their multiple meanings; this is true of the word "meaning" along with thousands of other words. This word has a meaning when applied in such situations as "meaning of a word," "meaning of his behavior," etc. But just as words do not always have the same meaning in different contexts (as we have just seen in. the case of the word "meaning" itself), there are contexts in which it has no meaning until it is given a meaning for that context. Thus, as we now use the word "on," the statement "The glass is on the table" has meaning but "The glass is on the universe" does not; the word "on" has been given meaning only within a certain physical context, and when it is not applied within that context it becomes simply a sound or mark on paper. The same is true for the word "meaning." It has a definite meaning ... in the ordinary situations referred to above, but when applied to a situation such as "What does this piece of music mean? it does not, since the word "meaning" has been given no meaning in that context.”

In this passage, Hospers is ultimately addressing the question ‘what does this piece of music mean?’  I am using the word ‘address’ here rather than ‘reply’ or ‘answer’ because I believe Hospers is arguing that this question is inherently uninformed and cannot be answered without more context being provided to the word ‘meaning’.  For the  sake of my own thoughts, I will replace music with landscape.  Although the application is different, the premises stay the same.  I believe that by understanding the root of the word itself, I can look at the conversation about meaning in landscape through a new lense.  Hospers argues that all ambiguous words have a context in which they mean nothing.  The word meaning, itself, is an ambiguous word.  Therefore, there is a context in which it has no meaning.  I will go on to explain how Hospers uses history, convention, ambiguity, and context play a role in clarifying this argument. 

A word is a type of agent that acts to catalyze phenomenon and communication.  Words are symbols for phenomenon that allow us to communicate and describe things. These symbols cannot exist in isolation. By definition, a symbol is used as a conventional representation for some object, process, idea, etc...  Symbols must be given a framework in which to exist.  From this, we can understand that words do not inherently contain meaning on their own.  Every word has an origin.  Words originate when a person represents a phenomenon with a spoken or written symbol. This description becomes agreed upon over time by a matter of convention by other people. 

Hospers points out that many words are ambiguous because they have been given multiple meanings.  We know that all words originated with some person at a point in time.  People are flawed so it is understandable to me that over time, the same word may evolve to have multiple meanings. I can think of a few possible explanations for how the same word may have come to represent different phenomenon.  Perhaps the same word evolved, in isolation within multiple cultures simultaneously until it eventually merged as communication became more advanced?  This may be the case sometimes but ultimately, I believe in a more deliberate explanation. It is my opinion that words evolved to have multiple meanings through convention, as people intentionally expanded on their symbolism and applied them to multiple contexts, thus creating a more efficient form of communication.  Like a Swiss Army Knife, multifaceted words can be used in a greater variety of situations.  However, remember that Hospers is arguing that ambiguity leads to the capacity for a word to mean nothing at all. 

The key here is context.  People attach words to various contexts in order to communicate.  When words are paired with context, they have the opportunity to become complex and expand their capacity for dynamism.  If two people are experiencing the same physical context, there is already a basis of shared information.  With this basis, words can represent multiple phenomenon because they are describing something known.  This allows for a less tedious and more efficient form of communication in which every phenomenon does not require a direct symbol but can be described using an ambiguous symbol pared with context.  However, if the basis is not known, the word actually lacks meaning all together.  If a words meaning is derived from context, and context is something that we must understand, if we do not understand the context, the word is meaningless.

Hospers uses a Categorical Specification to argue his point.  Every A is a B.  c is an A, therefore c is a B. The word ‘meaning’ is being used her as an example of an ambiguous word.  Harper says that all ambiguous words have a context in which they mean nothing.  As discussed earlier, words are agents that have a dynamic capacity to describe both anything or nothing, depending on the context they are tied to and our understanding of that context.  Because of this, we understand that words can and are often ambiguous. The word ‘meaning’, is an ambiguous word.  Therefore, as in the case of ‘what does landscape mean?’, it has no meaning.

to answer the question “do landscapes mean?” the answer is; sometimes.  Landscapes do not have acquire any meaning through design.  Trieb compares meaning in landscape to the oxidation process on the surface of certain metals as they whether overtime saying:

“Significance, I believe is not a designers construct that benignly accompanies the completion of construction.  It is not the product of the maker, but is, instead, created by the receivers.  Like a patina, significance is acquired only with time.  And like a patina, it emerges only if the conditions are right.”