What Do We Mean by "Meaning"?

That is, what makes something meaningful; in what does meaning consist, whether in an artwork, a text, factual or other data, a life, etc.? I believe meaning resides in or arises from relatedness. I arrived at that hypothesis in 1975 through study of John Milton’s Samson Agonistes. My formulation may sound almost banal, but I’ve never found a better one.

When we first encounter anything new, it is at least partially meaningless or unintelligible to us. Think about the first time you heard a foreign language, or try to imagine the first time you saw the stars. Your senses presented you with a wealth of raw data, but the data seemed meaningless and chaotic. If immediately afterward, you’d been asked to repeat one of the sentences spoken in the foreign language (let alone interpret it), or to draw part of the starry sky (let alone explain that each point of light was in fact a sun), you probably wouldn’t have done very well. It was only as you became aware of many interconnections within the raw data or between parts of it and other contexts, that the data became both meaningful and memorable (for example, when you learned to see the relationships among the positions of the stars in terms of a "Big Dipper," etc.).

It’s human nature to try to make sense of things, so even if there’s no one around to explain the unfamiliar to us, we usually notice things about it, relationships among its components or between it and the rest of our experience. Even if these relationships don’t seem terribly meaningful to us at first, with repeated encounters, patterns emerge and start to seem more familiar and more meaningful. Most mnemonic devices consist in creating artificial relationships that lend meaning to data that, at least at the time the mnemonic is needed, otherwise seem more or less arbitrary and not to have any necessary relationship to anything. The things that seem most meaningful to us seem to me to be those in which the greatest volume or intensity of relationships to other things interconnect.

A dictionary is a giant tautology
: every word in it is defined through reference to other words. But if the meanings of words consist entirely in their connections to other words, which themselves have meaning only because of their connections to other words, how do we ever come to understand our first word? And is “meaning” a meaningful concept at all?

People commonly believe that words refer to things, and are defined through reference to those things, not just through reference to other words. This belief seems quite correct as far as it goes; but the same logical difficulty then arises as to things: what is involved in becoming able to “read” or interpret things? When individuals blind from birth first become able to see, I understand the field of view seems completely chaotic and unintelligible to them. They must learn how to interpret it. Such a person may be helped by referring to other kinds of contexts that they already understand--words, touch, etc.

But the same logical problem that we found with respect to words again arises with respect to vision or any of our other senses. If we make sense of the unfamiliar by relating it to the familiar, was there some first, “a priori” knowledge that gave us a starting-point, to which we directly or indirectly relate all our subsequent experiences? Or are all our understandings of our sensory impressions, like words in a dictionary, a giant tautology? It seems that all cognition is to some extent recognition; or could it be some kind of boot-strap operation without any ultimate antecedent or ground?

One possible solution is to posit something like Platonic “Ideas,” or perhaps Chomskian deep structures; some kind of innate set of ideas or linguistic or other structure through reference to which we relate our subsequent experiences in life and that provides the ground upon which we are able to build new connections. (I have no first-hand knowledge of Chomsky’s theories, which I understand are in any event evolving, so please do not rely on my characterization of them.) Another, somewhat different possibility is to suppose that what’s innate is not any particular set of ideas, but rather a capacity to carry out certain processes or algorithms to identify (or fabricate) certain basic kinds of relationships, such as, for example, two such relationships brilliantly analyzed by the philosopher, David Hume, those of perceptual resemblance (i.e., this looks similar to that) and of contiguity in space or time (i.e., this generally follows shortly after that). See Hume’s "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding," at http://www.etext.leeds.ac.uk/hume/ehu/ehupbsb.htm#index-div2-N970891263 (if you remain unconvinced that simply saying words refer to things fails to fully explain how we learn to interpret words, things, or, for that matter, anything else, please read Hume’s essay; if that does not convince you, nothing I can add here will).

When I was in college ca. 1975, I read about research on brain hemisphericity. As you may know, the brain is divided into two hemispheres. The hemispheres are usually in active communication with one another through a thick rope of nerve fibers called the corpus callosum. In some people, that connection has through one cause or another been severed. Studies involving such persons helped to show a division of labor between the two hemispheres. (As many of us now know, language and math seem usually to be handled by the left hemisphere, while visual cognition is handled by the right hemisphere.)

Because of the way our eyes are connected to the brain, it’s possible to show objects to such a person in such a way that the person can “see” the objects with only one hemisphere at a time. In one such study that caught my attention, each subject was shown a collection of objects which, as I recall, included a cigarette, matches, and a piece of chalk, among other things. The subjects were asked to group the objects that belonged together. When the subjects saw the objects with their left hemispheres, they put together the cigarette and matches—grouped by function. When the subjects saw the objects with their right hemispheres, they put together the cigarette and chalk—grouped by likeness in appearance.

It would be a leap to conclude that human minds recognize no other kinds of relatedness, but it does seem that two important types are: (1) relatedness based on function, use, purpose, causation, or more fundamentally, a close or at least predictable contiguity or conjunction in space or time, or (2) relatedness based on similarity or contrast in appearance or other perceptible attributes, regardless of location in space or time (this characterization of course begs another big question, of how we determine similarity; that’s one digression I’ll resist for now).

Perhaps there need be no ultimate ground upon which we build our understandings of things; perhaps, rather, all meaning is tautological but just doesn’t feel that way because we’ve become comfortable within the webs of connections we’ve built. Maybe a concept such as causation consists entirely in our accumulated associations to the word, and our experience of causation is derived merely from our capacity to notice contiguity. When we were in the womb, we had no idea where we were or even of our own ignorance. Most of us have no recollection of what that was like. Perhaps in a similar way, we’ve forgotten that there IS no ultimate ground for everything that now seems intelligible and meaningful to us. There was a time when almost everything seemed strange, but now it doesn’t.

I think all languages and other systems of symbols or forms of expression are ultimately tautological--but that that's ok, because somehow, to at least a large degree, they seem to work.

An important correlative to the idea that meaning resides in relatedness is that, theoretically, the meaning of any word or thing can be fully understood only if and when all of its connections and relationships to other words and things are understood. These relationships include those embedded in the precise, actual context in which the word or thing appears. For example, the full meaning of any particular word as used in any particular instance could be understood only if one had not only read its O.E.D. definition as well as any encyclopedia entries on it, but one had also considered, among other things, every linguistic, psychological, physical, historical and other detail of the context in which the word was used. We should soon realize that it must in fact be impossible ever to fully exhaust the meaning of anything--that since everything is connected to everything else, to state the whole meaning of anything could be done only by a god re-speaking the entire universe.

Similarly, I think when we talk about the meaning of an art work, we can acknowledge that the work always refers to things outside itself in various ways and degrees, even if those relationships are tenuous or disguised, and that at the same time, the work can also be meaningful partly or even primarily based on relationships contained within the work itself.

Why does it matter how meaning is derived at all? I think it matters because it is helpful to understand the extent to which meaning is not determined and fixed, for all time and in all contexts. To realize that there is no one meaning that is always and completely the correct, “right” meaning. (As discussed further in the essay on this website entitled, "What Can We Know," that doesn’t mean that we should throw up our hands and declare all interpretations to be of equal value for all purposes.) (And it is helpful at the same time to realize that, within any particular context, each particular articulation carries a distinct meaning, which may be more useful or true, or less so, than that of another particular articulation.)

An area of inquiry also interesting to consider in connection with the subject of meaning is information theory. According to this theory, information consists in those symbols that are uncertain in the sense that they could not be interpolated or predicted by the recipient. For example, the old ad along the lines of, “if u cn rd ths, u cd b a secr’y” shows that the omitted letters are relatively unimportant in order for the reader to decipher the writer’s intended meaning. According to this theory, uncertainty is the essence of information. In the world of telecommunications, theorists say, “[t]he amount of information, or uncertainty, [expressed] by an information source is a measure of its entropy. In turn, a source's entropy determines the amount of bits per symbol required to encode the source's information”, and “[t]he complexity of the code chosen is determined by the number of possible symbols needed to transmit the information” (see http://www.lucent.com/minds/infotheory/what1.html ). See the essay on this site entitled The Arts and Literature for my thoughts on how this theory might weigh in attempting to judge the relative merit of artworks.

Stated another way, it takes more data to describe a more chaotic system, less data to describe a more ordered system. There is an inverse relation between information and syntropy.

(Proceed to the next Essay, The Meaning of Life, or . . .