When we speak or write a word we are inclined think that there exists (as well as the sound or the image) something else.
Those that think this way say that if we did not know the meaning of a word then we would not be able to understand it. And since we know the meaning of a word then there must be something called "a meaning" that we know. Others say that behind the plurality of utterances and written words there is a singular meaning which is being expressed. This might be utterances within the same language, such as it could be claimed that all words "think" on this page refer to the same meaning . It is also argued that utterances within different languages such as "dog", "chien" and "inu" or "red", "rouge" and "aka" are different words, but they refer to the same meaning. That meaning is not a particular dog or a particular blob of red, but the meaning of all three words, and that meaning exists. Again it is argued that since we can hear words, such as words in a foreign language, and not understand their meaning, then it must be true that the sound of a word is not all there is to a word and that something else exist seperately from words.
Some people have called this something else "meaning" or "idea" (Platon) or "pure reason" (Kant) or "signified" (Saussure). These things are thought to exists in a world of reason or Langauge (Saussure), which was for Lacan a linguistic Other with a capital "O".
This world of meaning is important for the Book religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Both proponents and critics of these religions agree that God is linked this other world is the world of God. Neo-platonists asserted that the world of ideas is the world of God. The Lacanian "Other" seems to be a interpretation of the Christian God.
Those that are critical of this position (Derrida, Baudrillard, Lacan) do not say that words are meaningless but argue that words and meanings cannot be split. Sure "dog", "inu" and "chien" mean something other than a particular dog. But whatever that is, it will never be present on its own. It will always be attatched to one symbol or another. It may be true that there may be sounds (such as foreign words) that do not have a meaning, but their will never be meanings that do not have at least a remembered sound or image. This non dualist position is, I think, central to the Shinto world view. Meanings are inextricably linked to words. For humans, meaning cannot be split from its embodiment. Icons, images, and words, not to mention sacred mountains and "craven images" are certainly nothing to be ashamed of, they are inevitable. There is no world of (pure) words.
Possibility of Animism
Postmodern proponents of structuralism do not go this far but I think that that a form of animism can be read into what they write. Just as much as signs are dependent upon the world - as argued above - the world is dependent upon signs. This perspective is expressed by Lacan, Derrida, Sapir, Baudrillard and others.
The world as it really is cannot be expressed or (outside of mystic experiences) thought. We experience the world as we we have cut it up, and we have not cut the world along its joints.
How then have we cut up the world? As the developmental psychologist Piaget argues, young children are all animists. He claims that they come to realise that the world "out there" is not populated by other entities like ourselves. What does this tell us? I think it tells us that the basic model for our notions of what it is to be a thing are essentially anthropomorphic, the world has been cut upon human terms, upon an animistic blueprint. I am not sure whether Piaget mentions this or not but it is important to note that children understand themselves partly as a consequence of how they understand things. There is thus a mutuall construction between things in the environment and humans.
If we return to the idea that there
is no separate, "other world", "out there" - no world that
is independent of signs - are left with a world that is essential animistic
in its construction. Unlike Noddy, we stop saying "Hello tree, hello train"
but we continue to see the world populated with these things modelling
and modelled upon our conception of human existance.