1. The meaning of something in and of itself. In relation to the meaning of texts, this notion is encountered within formalism, where it is presumed possible to separate a text from its context and from the codes which it shares with other texts. However, for many contemporary theorists, a text cannot have a meaning in and of itself: it has no meaning unless someone interprets it, which they do in relation to what they know about texts (textual knowledge or textual codes) and what they know about the world (social knowledge or social codes), and in relation to the context. In Saussurean semiotics, the meaning of a sign derives from its relation to other signs, without which it would have no meaning: see also arbitrariness; relational model.
2. (semantics) The propositional content of a statement, abstracted from any particular context of use.
3. It is sometimes used loosely to refer to what is literally denoted (as in the dictionary meaning of a word) or visually depicted: see also denotation.
4. For the German art historian Erwin Panofsky (1892–1968), in relation to artworks it refers to ‘those underlying principles which reveal the basic attitude of a nation, a period, a class, a religious or philosophical persuasion—unconsciously qualified by one personality and condensed into one work’: see also iconography.