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Between mush and a hard place: the search for meaning.

In Douglas Adams' humorous novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, some hyper-intelligent beings build a giant computer to resolve their arguments about the meaning of life. This computer ponders for seven and a half million years. It then gives the answer to the ultimate question of Life, the Universe, and Everything:


The film Monty Python's The Meaning of Life rudely explores such serious issues as death, the afterlife, and disgusting eating habits, not taking any of them seriously.

What is the meaning of life? When discussing such a conundrum, we may end up shrugging in frustration or turning the matter into a joke. The question has such vague boundaries it makes it difficult to find a useful answer. As the saying goes, it opens a whole can of worms - in this case more questions: what do I mean by life? by meaning? by is?

If we do attempt to figure out what meaning means, we discover we have to support our position on some unstated assumptions. These may hold that meaning exists in:

1. words 2. things 3. a deity 4. an imperative 5. something else ... ?

1. Meaning exists in words, in a dictionary, in words you speak and write, to name a thing is to know it, etc. To me, this view doesn't hold up; we can find meaning in nonverbal events, in actions, in emotions, in sights, sounds, tastes.

2. Meaning exists in things. Things mean a lot to us, a car, clothes, wages, food, etc. Would the meaning exist if we did not exist to perceive meaning in things?

3. Meaning exists in a deity. This may work for theists, but what about agnostics and atheists? They still find themselves caught up in meaning. No matter what people "believe," they can't seem to avoid meaning.

4. Meaning exists in an imperative. We can take to heart an imperative that says we must or must not do something. But what of those who don't?

5. Meaning exists in something else. I tend to take the view that meaning resides in people, although I must correct myself here, because to say this reifies meaning, turning it into an object that you can put somewhere. Perhaps I could say that people attribute meaning to what they perceive, feel, and think. People "create" and "project" meaning in a variety of ways.

So let's stop looking for meaning as if it equals some thing you can find under the bed along with those balls of fluff you get because you didn't vacuum.

Linguistic Relativity

If you follow the notion of linguistic relativity to certain logical conclusions, you'll just get lost. The idea of linguistic relativity says that people in different cultures will interpret different things and events differently, as a function of the language they use, e.g., if you have 57 different words for ketchup, you'll understand ketchup in more depth than those who have no word for it. Here, we attribute meaning to words, things, and events. Meaning originates in humans. Different cultures attribute different meanings. Within cultures, different individuals attribute different meanings. It follows that, objectively, nothing means anything.

To put it crudely, linguistic relativity sees culture as human dependent, you have cultural relativity, mushy logic, make your own rules, create your own reality. Thus belief systems break down, as you create your own morality, or immorality. Without "standards," you get self-involvement, confusion, people hurting one another and themselves. Disorientation. Despair.

At least, so goes one scenario.

Meaning as an Essence

If you follow the argument that meaning exists outside of us, as an essence, so to speak, in things, events, a deity, or just some vague "out there," where does this lead?

Meaning exists in things or a deity. Meaning doesn't change. There is only one true meaning. Reality exists out there. The word is the thing. Meaning exists in things and events. You seek security in knowing the truth, but get trapped in fixed truths, a hard place of fixed meanings, in flexible attitudes, unattainable ideals, impossible preconceptions, a position that does not coincide with your experience of ever-changing life, and so produces conflict and stress. The result: confusion because you can't find the "real" truth. Disorientation. Despair.

So goes another scenario.

I've sketched a coarse description of matters about which others have constructed sophisticated theories. (You and I may have a hard time relating some such theories to the knocks and surprises of everyday life.) Yes, both of the above scenarios involve extreme logical extensions. Then again, we sometimes tend to think in allness extremes, especially when the going gets tough.

Can we find an idea of meaning that will help us navigate through the confusion of life, and all that bunkum that human linguistic ability has enabled us to cough up and throw at one another? Can we accept some notion of linguistic relativity without going overboard, and still find a method that does not contradict our own perceptions and experience?

Meaning Has Many Meanings

Let's try general semantics.

Using general semantics terminology, we'd call "meaning" a multiordinal word. Multiordinal means that the meaning of a term, word, or phrase depends on its context. The notion of meaning has many different meanings, depending on gosh-knows-what. Thus we open another can of worms, instead of narrowing things down. But not for long ...

The general semantics formulation of non-allness tells us not to carry our ideas to narrowly focused logical extremes. The formulation of extensionality reminds us to compare our map with the territory, to see if our ideas relate to our experience.

Can we abstract a notion of meaning that relates to experience, one that doesn't require hidden metaphysical assumptions?

We'd have to support our idea on some assumptions. These we can declare up front.

Let us assume that most humans:

1. want to survive

2. want to avoid pain, discomfort, and loneliness

3. need others in order to survive physically, and in order to define and express themselves.

If we accept these three assumptions, then that which threatens survival will have negative meaning, and that which supports survival will have positive meaning. And so on. We can build from there. For example, we can construct a system of morals or ethics, founded on the assumption that to harm other members of the group produces a threat to our own survival. Such ethics do not depend on the abstractions of metaphysics. (1)

The Word is Not the Thing

The word is not the thing. Whatever you say about something, fancy theories, or earthy observations, the talk does not equal what you talk about. Words point to, or label, or describe. Whatever you say it is, it is not. What you experience happens in a different manner, realm, or level than the words you later use to describe it. Why does this difference matter so much? Because we can use words to build logically consistent apparently "real" structures. Although these exist in words only, we may confuse verbal structures with experience. We think that because we say it's so, it is so. But in experience, when a falling rock hits you on the head it has an effect, no matter what you say about it.

As a safety check, when we start putting meaning into words we must remember that we began with certain assumptions.

Meaning, a multiordinal term, describes something we do - perhaps we could call it meaning-making, and ourselves meaning-makers. We make, give, attach, perceive meaning in many areas as we go about our daily activities. Such meaning has various levels of importance in terms of our three primary assumptions. Some meaning relates to survival: e.g., the meaning of reckless driving. Some relates to social matters: e.g., the meaning of designer ketchup.

Can we build a hierarchy that would show levels of importance? To do so usefully, we'd relate our assumptions to experience. We must learn which activities mean survival, and which do not.

When making such a hierarchy, once we go beyond basic needs, we'll probably find it difficult to decide just what goes where. We must make some subjective decisions. However, if we find life confusing - and who doesn't at times? - then making our own decisions may prove beneficial.

We have a notion of meaning based on three primary assumptions about basic needs. In daily life, a different sort of meaning influences us far more visibly, in our decisions about what we wear, or eat, or where we live, work, play. Socially constructed meaning has such a loud voice in our consciousness that we may hardly hear the little voice of survival-meaning.

Social-meaning involves people relationships, economic decisions, kinship, self-esteem, prejudice, greed, love ... a great many matters.

When a rock falls on your head it has a different kind of meaning. It hurts. When you go hungry, get sick, etc., you feel pain. But meaning gets mixed up. For example, Western Society generally says pain, sickness, and poverty is wrong, and something is wrong with you if you have it. So not only do you suffer pain and sickness, you also suffer being in the wrong.

Making Sense

How can we make sense of such disorder?

When confusion strikes, remember your primary assumptions. Ask:

Where does this situation belong on my hierarchy of survival- and social-meaning?

Society defines what we call luxuries. Yet we cannot belittle their importance. Nor can we belittle the importance of what other people, "society," think of us. It matters. In certain contexts, designer ketchup, or at least the right wine glass, matters very much. But when life gets too confusing, bring out your hierarchy of meaning, dust it off, and have a look.

It might mean something.


1. For a discussion of ethics arising from a scientific base, see "Education for Survival: Helping Humans to be More Human" by Kenneth G. Johnson in ETC: A Review of General Semantics, vol. 51, no. 1, Spring 1994, pp.23-28.

Paul Dennithorne Johnston serves as Executive Director of ISGS.
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Author:Johnston, Paul Dennithorne
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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