Sunday, April 03, 2011

on meaning

Over the last couple of weeks, a series of questions have been on my mind. In fact, I keep waking up thinking about them, as though I had been wondering about them in my sleep. I think these are really fundamental philosophical questions, and the way I'm thinking about them strikes me as odd.

Let me say what I think is obvious about meaning. Our brains have evolved in a way that makes our conscious lives lives of meaning rather than non-meaning. I don't know if only human brains have evolved this way; I speculate that we're not alone in having meaningful worlds. Meaning is at least correlative to an evolved trait that has not caused us to die out yet. Perhaps meaning does something for us that is advantageous - this seems overwhelmingly likely, in fact.

There are neurological, psychological, biological, and anthropological ways to ask about meaning. The philosophical way to ask is to consider the meaning of meaning, which is what I think Merleau-Ponty was doing in The Visible and the Invisible, to name one.

So, here goes a first attempt to get at it.

Why and how is there meaning? By meaning, I mean (provisionally) a phenomenon of consciousness whereby experiences and the world are intended as such. Meaning takes place when a consciousness intends something. There's a wide range of different ways that happens - I'd guess an indefinitely large range of ways. I don't want to get into that right now, but I'll give a couple examples to try to clarify what I mean by meaning. (There'll be a certain degree of re-hashing of Husserlian phenomenology here.)


(1) I'm looking at a used-up AA battery lying on my work table. In looking at it, its presence there and what it is are evident and actual contents, we might say, of my conscious awareness. My looking at it, and my describing it, or considering it actively, are the forms of meaning taking place. That is to say, if my eyes were to glance over and past it with only the barest recognition - "black and copper short tubular object" - then that would be the meaning of the experience, or what my consciousness intended at the moment. As it happens, I did not merely glance over it, but noticed it was a AA, remembered it to be a dead battery, and so forth - and so those attributes were part of the meaning of my looking and intending.

(2) Having looked at and described the battery, I'm now thinking about what the battery does. That is, what I mean in intending the battery has shifted from a more perceptual to a more pragmatic dimension. A battery provides electric power to some device, most often electronic. This may have been used in a guitar pickup or a remote control. The potential of a still-good battery, and the lack of potential of a dead one, to provide power, is partly what I intend when I intend battery.

(3) Now I'm shifting my attention to a symbolic dimension. Dead batteries make me feel slightly sad and guilty, because I see electric generation and use, especially in the form of the typical chemical disposable battery, as a bad business, environmentally speaking. The dead battery represents our unsustainable lives of excess, so even though I probably enjoyed using the device the battery had been powering, now I wonder if it was worth it.

I take examples to show that meaning really does take place, and if you understand what I meant - what battery meant in each of the three ways I described it - then meaning is something that is shared. Other people experience meaning, and we can communicate meaning to one another. (Not perfectly, which would after all be very boring, but nonetheless with tremendous acuity.)

Now, why and how does any of that happen? (A corollary question I want to get to is: does it only happen for human beings?) Why is there meaning, as distinct from just behaving? "Just behaving" would mean perceiving and responding to things without intending them as such. We do that too: yanking my hand away from scalding water happens faster than meaning, and even if I go back, as it were, and intend hot water, my initial movement is more like behaving than meaning.

A few related questions have been popping up for me recently. How are meaning, perception, expression, ideation, and imagination related? What does meaning do for us? What's the relationship between meaning and truth, or between meaning and belief? Do cats have meaningful worlds? Do cats have truths or beliefs?

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