On meaning Posted by AnaMaria | Jan 23, 2018 | Meaning | 17 On meaning 23 January 2018 What is it, and how do we reach it? Do we ascribe it to things (words or events), does it belong to them, or does it come from somewhere else? Share:
I believe everyone has a different definition of "meaning". It is very subjective. Meaning has something to do with the person having a deep connection with something – it might be a book, a song, a text, another person – it could be anything. For some people money or other status symbols have a meaning; for other people maybe a book or a necklace could have a meaning to them. I believe meaning is universal because we create it. Every person has something or someone in mind when thinking about meaning.
Meaning is something that is very subjective. Things can have meaning for one person and be worthless to another. We can ascribe meaning to pretty much anything, like words, events and even people. Since it is subjective to a person or group of people meaning is brought to life by those who give it that power. For example, a ring that my uncle gave me before he died has meaning to me because of the personal connection that I associate with the object.
Laura, thank you for sharing this – a powerful example of a certain interpretation of ‘meaning’, i.e. the significance we ascribe to things. But there might be other interpretations, too – for one, the allegedly objective significance that a community, a nation, or the whole world ascribes to certain words or symbols (like flags, hymns, mathematical signs or religious symbols).
Or, we can think of historical interpretations (say, of biblical texts) or metaphorical interpretations, scientific or spiritual ones. Each, is a a source of meaning for a particular community – whether professional or social etc.
And again, you can think of meaning in the sense of fulfilment – as we were discussing in class the other day.
So much to explore!
Truthfully, I suppose nothing has absolute meaning. Money, names, numbers etc. do not really ‘mean’ anything, and yet, in a society, they are extremely important. The word arbitrary I guess comes to mind because as humans we need ways to trade and barter. How do we do that? By assigning different raw materials different arbitrary prices. Gold is worth more than silver, but silver is worth more than bronze… but 5 bronze coins are about as good as 1 silver and 10 bronze for 1 gold… and so on. Meaning is also intangible. God, spirituality, meditation etc. they provide our lives with a deeper less explainable meaning, and yet, it exists because we believe in it. Our belief or good faith or goodwill gives it meaning. Economists encounter this question with "fiat money". The idea that a dollar is worth a dollar or a pound is worth a pound because the government says so. All we have to do is accept it’s meaning or create something else with (most likely) a similar meaning.
it’s true — and we were discussing this in class — that certain ‘things’ become important reference points because large numbers of people (indeed, everyone) believes in them, for a while. Money is worth something because enough people agree that it does. Certain people (the Pope, the Prime Minister etc.) and institutions (the Bank of England, government, the law, the police etc.) become famous or well respected because enough people believe in them. Once people stop believing in them, they lose their role in society and the common psyche. But do they lose their meaning altogether? The fact that Egyptians don’t believe in pharaohs any more does not stop anyone from understanding the meaning of the word, and their role in the history of cultures and civilisations. So you would need to discuss this, in your comment — if you intend to use our claims as a premise for a claim about meaning. You could be right, but we don’t know that; your line of reasoning is left unfinished.
The word, to me, is not of relevance as much as the meaning behind it. Though we do not have pharoahs anymore, the majority of us still believe in some form of God. The meaning is there, and it is that need for a person to pray to or give thanks to, which is what I think is where meaning comes from. What we give that worship to has little meaning. We look at ancient societies and they still mirror our societies in the way that they function. Money, religion, hierarchies, art… they still exist today, we just use different forms than they did before. That is why I think that meaning is predetermined and what we give that meaning to is arbitrary.
Meaning is something that we, as humans, create. We can place it where we personally think it belongs or we can be told that something has meaning. Either way, you assume that meaning is, in a way, tangible. It may not be something that can be directly measured, but one would assume that more meaning can be allocated to one thing and less to another. That ability shows that humans ascribe meaning to things based on whatever they decide to base it on- we can also base it on nothing.
For example, two people can visit to the Sistine Chapel. One can ascribe this experience as holding great meaning to them, they may remember the details vividly, it may even influence how they live their lives (perspective change). While the other person may appreciate greatly the art and architecture of the chapel, but they may not find the same meaning in the experience as the first person.
One reaching meaning is being content, fulfilled and having purpose. The pursuit of meaning is arguably as old as man itself, there have been many theories from St Augustine to Friedrich Nietzsche and to the post world war 2 french thinkers, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Satre.
Having welcoming the bleak, futile and arbitrary void of meaning described by Nietzsche in the past I found it neither encouraging nor favourable. Afterwards, I also tried embracing the absurdity of life, which Albert Camus described.
After this, I realized that the pursuit of meaning is futile. It already exists without the clear acknowledgment that it does. Specific, unique meaning exists in every individuals life no matter how trivial it may seem to other people. Loved ones, family, friends, ambition, goals etc are all meaning towards people and these provide meaning.
But they are impossible to see with such a wide perspective
this often happens when we engage in philosophical pursuits. The more we attempt to grasp something, using syllogisms and lines of argumentation, the more it escapes us. But once we let go the ambition to pin it down, as it were, in a single expression of conceptual reasoning, something reveals itself to us — whether in the form of a fleeting understanding, or something more lasting. That is not to say that we should either abandon all intellectual pursuits, or conclude there is NO meaning whatsoever; it may simply be that, as it is often the case, in philosophy (as well as other preoccupations), a grain of humility can bring us more than a ton of wisdom. Keep searching, and reading — not only ‘the essentials’. Try, for instance, Camus’ "The Sea Close By".
Meaning, be it of life or moments therein, varies significantly from person to person. It is dependent on one’s level of consciousness or lucidity, interpretation and background. Experiences of the past can shape one’s outlook on life and world, thus affecting how one interprets meaning. Intelligence and emotional understanding result in profound interpretations of meaning. Individuals with a high level of intellectual and emotional intelligence can find themselves realizing more profound and indeed more complex explanations for meaning. Inversely, individuals of low intelligence, will arrive at far more simplistic explanations for meaning or it may be lost on them altogether. Irrespective of profundity or intelligence, one’s interpretation of meaning can have the same effect on life and outlook. The application of meaning can also go both ways, it can be a moment or event which shapes your interpretation of life’s whole meaning or it may also be life’s meaning that shapes one’s interpretation of one moment or event’s meaning.
So what do you think, Pascal, if the sense of meaning can go both ways, why do we even need to distinguish between simplistic and sophisticated interpretations? Or higher and lower pleasures, to paraphrase John Stuart Mill?
What I would be interested to learn more about is, what is your understanding of the difference between consciousness and lucidity? And equally, that between intelligence and emotional understanding.
I couldn’t agree more with the notion that our history, culture, and general background shape our thinking and understanding — whether conceptual, emotional, or otherwise. Hans-Georg Gadamer spoke about this at length.
Meaning is merely a connection of thoughts, trying to explain everything around us. Everyone learns about the meaning of things through their parents, friends, and environment, but in the end, it ultimately comes down to an individual to decide what meaning they give to a certain aspect. Ultimately what we understand as the meaning is the combination of personal and universal value giving us an idea of how to understand life.
what would you say is ‘universal’ value — and what happens when it clashes with our ‘personal’ one(s)?
Meaning encompasses the thoughts and feelings an individual has toward a word, event, object, action, or anything else. We reach meaning through culture. In this case, culture refers to the shared beliefs, values, attitudes, and understandings of a group of people. Additionally, people do not have culture, they share culture. Culture can be shared with large groups of people (American culture) or few people (familial culture). Certain things have certain meaning to everyone in the world, but that meaning is not universally the same because of the variety and sheer number of cultures that exist. For example, the concept of a free sandwich would have vastly different meanings to a group of homeless people, the royal family, and a tribe of indigenous people who have never before seen processed food. Each of these groups shares an understanding of the world around them and through that understanding, they ascribe meaning to their surroundings in order to make sense of their environment.
Some may believe that everything inherently has meaning. This position reminds me of the question, "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound?" If a rock exists on the ground, and no one is around to give it meaning, does it still have meaning? We may never know for sure the answer to either question, but it is true that a child in an American school, a scientist in India, and a Buddhist monk in Tibet would perceive the meaning of both the tree and the rock a little differently.
thank you for sharing these thoughts. They make a lot of sense to me, which is perhaps surprising given that I come from a European, rather than American culture. Can you imagine a situation where an American might perceive the rock as a Buddhist monk would? Or, an Indonesian who might look at the fallen tree and see exactly the same thing as an American — which is at odds with his/her own culture?
What I am trying to say is, there might be other influences on what kind of meaning we assign to things/words/events etc., other than cultural ones. And sometimes, something just seems to reveal a meaning to us — without us having done anything about it (with all our cultural, intellectual etc. background). And other times, there is just silence. Why do you think that is?
I believe that meaning and value could be considered somewhat synonyms. It is possible for one to claim that there is no meaning in something, just because there is no emotional value, educational aspect, or simply interest to it.
There is no universal concept of meaning, human beings tend to create their own definition of meaning and assign it to things, people, concept, etc.
Meaning can differ according to differences in education, culture, language, religion, character traits and views on life. It is one of the most personal, strictly individual things.
you’ll probably enjoy reading Umberto Eco’s "The Name of the Rose". (Read it before watching the film though).
So you cannot think of any example of an idea, aim, or value, which people from across continents and cultures might embrace, in other words, something we could refer to as ‘universal’? What about human rights?
I am intrigued by your suggestion that meaning and value may be synonymous. What about statements or events charged with negative meaning? We should think this through…