What is meaning? Asking such a question causes one to fall into a grammatical regression of thinking that every word must correspond to a substance, that every concept must have an essence. In the context of discussing the nature of meaning itself, these are inherently circular assumptions. In order to circumvent this circularity herein, I will first address the question by exploring the relationships between the individual and meaning in common vernacular, as well as through object recognition.
It can be observed that within conversation that the process of conveying meaning often fails due to a misinterpretation of the communicator by the receiver. In order to explain this disparity two extended questions arise: (1) How is communication of an experience established between the communicator and receiver? (2) How is it that we ‘recognize’ at all? Finally, in addressing the latter part of the question, I will argue that the absence of meaning (on both a cosmic or terrestrial1 scale) can in fact affirm life in an absurdist sense.
How is it possible that an experience can be communicated from a communicator to a receiver? One possible answer is found in Logical Atomism - the view that facts can be formed from independent, clear discrete entities. It argues that the meaning of a sentence is “the way the sentence points to a fact.”2 In his later works, Ludwig Wittgenstein rightly criticizes this view, on the basis that language is not always about stating facts, but that doesn't make language itself meaningless. 3
On the other hand, Søren Kierkegaard wrote in his De Omnibus Dubitandum Est that "Reality I cannot express in speech, for to indicate it I use Ideality, which is a contradiction, an untruth." 4 Here, Kierkegaard indicates his inability to express his actual experience, and that he instead uses ‘symbols’ – in this case, words – with which he attempts to represent the actual experiences. The symbol, once received by the receiver, inspires in them a memory of when they have encountered or used a similar symbol to represent his experiences. Thus, through this, the receiver is able to distinguish the subject matter of the communication through correlating the symbol and that experience. However, this is not always the case, as there at times exists disparities between people’s ‘symbols’ of similar experiences. Clearly, "Ideality" here as intended by Kierkegaard is not a direct correspondence to the actual experience; it is instead, through the form of symbols, an attempted representation of reality communicated through a commonality between the communicator and receiver.
The cognitive philosopher, Douglas Hofstadter, makes a similar remark in his Gödel, Escher, Bach. He writes, "We have used words all our lives in certain patterns, and instead of calling the patterns ‘rules’, we attribute the courses of our thought processes to the meanings’ of words.” 5 The ‘patterns’, or the perceived commonalities between the communicator and receiver, are a type of projection onto experience, rather than a direct correspondence to meaning in itself which Logical Atomism suggests.
Taking a closer inspection of this projection – before being able to correlate the symbol to an experience – how is it that we distinguish the experience from other, similar experiences within our memories? Or in other words, how is it that we are able to recognize?
Upon encountering a strange word, we are able to distinguish it from other words through sensory experience – from patterns in language and tone, syntax and grammar, echoics and intraverbals. A combination of such techniques allows us to establish the word’s ontological independence, that is, its independence from requiring the existence of another entity. However, this obviously cannot be the only criterion for recognizing words, considering the myriad of oddities within language such as homophones and homonyms.
Similarly, the recognition of a physical entity is also partly achieved through first establishing the entity as ontologically independent, at least on a level which is easily observed. However, this property of ontological independency does not demonstrate to the perceiver what the entity actually is, as many other different entities are of similar or identical physical outline. To address this problem, I will argue that besides perceiving the entity’s ontological independence, the acknowledgement and projection of the entity’s utility within a context onto the symbol of the entity is also required within recognition.
We can imagine such an instance, for example, if a person from pre-state society were to encounter a piece of aluminium foil for the first time. Through sensory perception, they are able to establish the material’s ontological independence, yet they are rightly puzzled by what the material actually is. Then they are shown by a camper how to utilize the material as a tool for preserving heat; their ‘symbol’ of aluminium foil – which previously just consisted of its three-dimensional outline – now has an additional, projected property of its utility within a context.
We can see a similar analogy applied in language. When first encountering a foreign word, we are able to distinguish its ontological independence, yet in a semantical sense we cannot say that we know the meaning of the word. It is only when we project onto it a certain utility within its context, or more specifically, how the word is to be used or understood in relation to the context of the communicator’s intention, that we then interpret and attribute the word as having meaning, of it being meaningful.
A Wittgensteinian approach, which defines meaning as its use in language, suggests that ‘God’ is a word which has different meanings in the context of different communities. Within the context of different linguistic communities, people use ‘God’ in different ways to articulate different facets of experience. For example, consider ‘It’s in God’s hands now’ or ‘When the sun rose, I felt the presence of God’. An alternative way of thinking about the meaning of ‘God’, therefore, is to see it as a part of a groups’ vernacular, with specific connotations for members of a community. Perhaps He is who “used beautiful mathematics in creating the world” as argued by Paul Dirac, or perhaps it expresses the sublimity of nature. Thus, using a term does not necessarily directly correspond an entity to this term or exists as some version of “Ideality” within a conceptual space. Instead, the meaning of a word hinges on its contextual utility; in Wittgensteinian terms, meaning of a word is its use in language.
To best address the latter part of the prompt “How much would it matter if we had [no meaning]?” hereinafter, I will extend and diverge into two questions: (1) how and why a meaningful life is often connoted as desirable, and (2) the implications of meaning’s absence within the contexts on both a ‘terrestrial’ and ‘cosmic’ scale.
We can imagine that life has meaning, but only to the extent that words and other symbols have meaning. The ‘context’ of life’s utility is often interpreted as the degree of positive impact the individual has had within their societies. According to this criterion, we can believe that some lives are more ‘meaningful’ than others, due to their larger or more positive impact within communities throughout their lifetime. On a related note, Socrates tells his inquisitors “the unexamined life is not worth living”. While an “examined life” carries the connotation of a life of private introspection, it is important to note that Plato and his mentor Socrates in this context also practice reasonable restraint and civic duty. 6 Such deeds are widely considered virtuous, and lead to a meaningful life we’d call desirable.
Alternatively, a counter argument is then raised that some lives are more meaningful because they have, through faith and piety, achieved spiritual contentment through religious experiences. In this case, despite not directly correlating to utility within a social context, it is still accepted by many that the lives of those achieving this form of contentment are meaningful. A potential explanation may be that because the wellbeing of the individual is arguably the necessary prerequisite for genuine and productive civic contribution, any endeavours towards the end of personal wellbeing is desirable because it potentially leads to social utility. On the other hand, if one had achieved a similar kind of spiritual contentment under the influence of artificial stimuli, such as virtual reality, very few would associate this with meaning. This is because this type of fulfillment in most cases does not contribute to the sustained wellbeing of an individual, and by extension, society.
In his book Existential Psychotherapy, Irvin Yalom, coins the terms “terrestrial meaning” and “cosmic meaning” to acknowledge meaning within the context of different scopes of magnitude.7 ‘Terrestrial meaning’ whittles the question down to a manageable size, concerning the property of having meaning in the context of an individual’s existence. It is somewhat a reasonable deduction, following from the previous argument regarding meaning being associated with certain desirable virtues, that the absence of terrestrial meaning would naturally lead to the absence of the desirable virtues of life on a terrestrial scale. On the other hand, ‘cosmic meaning’ concerns itself with the fitting of life into some overall coherent pattern, the role of life within a larger, universal scheme; the absence of such not only implicates the insignificance and absurdity of life as a phenomenon, but also the potential absence of the certainty in regularity and rationality within nature, and even regularity and rationality in themselves, resulting in a kind of epistemological nihilism.
Though terrestrial and cosmic meaning resemble an antithesis in scale, they also share a commonality – under the premise of having neither, pursuits which aim to fabricate meaning seem inherently absurd. Under this premise, mankind might resort towards some type of existential nihilism. Yet, paradoxically, the absence of meaning within such contexts does not necessitate nihilism in the individual, but rather, can in fact lead to life-affirming conclusions. As Albert Camus puts it, “Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”8
If inherent meaning is indeed absent, one is subsequently released from the task of formulating their understanding around this given meaning, and can instead engage in free play which may lead to the production and application of new concepts that they may deem meaningful. Nietzsche contends that this is what we ought to learn from artists, as they are always devising new invention and artifices, thus giving the inherently unbeautiful a beautiful aesthetic; applying this framework, we can become the “poet of our lives”.9
In a similar, albeit slightly different vein, Schopenhauer thought that, given the aimless, irrational nature of life and its meanings, contemplations of an aesthetic nature may prompt us to realise that the right moral responses to the innate absence of meaning are universal compassion and self-denial through forms of ascetism. Through the practice of these virtues and thus removed from indulgences, an individual may be better equipped in making genuine contributions to society as aforementioned. In turn, these contributions may provide meaning to the individual through their knowledge of their utility in a social context.
Humanity has historically sought meaning and thus built society around reflections of the pursuit of meaning. In the absence of absolute meaning and certainty however, in order to maintain a contented life, one can wholeheartedly engage within this search for meaning despite the seeming absurdity of doing so. Keeping the void and the absurd constantly in mind, may in fact enable both an alleviation of the strictures of daily life, and more significantly, an exploratory, liberated attitude towards existence in general.
Meaning in itself cannot be limited using linguistic terms, and thereby must be understood in relation to its contextual utility. By extension, a critical examination of a linguistic term’s contextual utility may moreover give rise to clarified understanding of its context. Furthermore, the absence of meaning does not necessarily result in an inevitable nihilism. Rather, it has the potential to liberate the individual from the confines of given meanings, and to illuminate new methods of understanding which are fulfilling and socially productive.