There are two conventional definitions of the word “meaning” in English. One definition has to do with the symbolic qualities of things. It poses questions like “what does this object represent?” and “how does the meaning of certain language change in different contexts?” Fields like semantics and semiology study this aspect of meaning. The other definition has to do with the significance of things; their value, meaningful-ness, or meaningless-ness. It poses questions like “why is this symbol important to many people?” and “how do we make things meaningful for others?” Some philosophical fields, like existential and moral philosophy, are concerned with this aspect, and vocations like identity design and education are concerned with its practice.
Although the two types of meaning are related, it is this second understanding of meaning that I will address here. Meaning is intangible, but not incomprehensible. I believe that meaning is not mysterious—that it is a basic feature of human cognition which works in fairly predictable ways. In this text I begin to outline some of these mechanics. As I discover and understand better how meaning works, I’ll update and clarify them.
It is my opinion that understanding how meaning works is the important humanities project of this century. The last 200 years saw the erosion and dissolution of great systems that provided stable meaning: religions, the nation state, unions, extended family units, and even corporations. Existentialism as popularized in the West asks us to be personally responsible for creating our own meaning, a monumentally difficult and draining task. Our romantic partners, under their own existential pressures, are increasingly expected to provide missing meaning for us. We are desperate for meaning and turning to toxic sources like consumer goods to get it.
Developing agency, maintaining an artistic practice, cross-cultural communication, community organization, memetic warfare, building brands, starting companies, self-care, and cultivating loving relationships all have to do with meaning. In 2016 I ran Mondays, an occasional learning group on my roof, to discuss those topics. Though Mondays is retired for now, the research continues. If we can learn how meaning works and how to create it, perhaps we can design new, healthy meaning-generating systems. To start, we need to be able to talk about meaning in simple and immediately understandable terms. Below is a first attempt. If you have thoughts, ideas, readings, or discourse to contribute, please get in touch on Twitter or over email!
Basic Rules and Mechanics
The word “meaning” can refer to the semantic meaning of a thing (the information that it affords) and to the value of a thing (its level of meaningfulness or meaninglessness). Unless otherwise specified, when I talk about meaning, I am referring to its value sense.
Meaning is an evolutionarily evolved mechanic in our brains that helps us to decide what’s important, to negotiate and cooperate, and to motivate to get things done.
Dispense with all questions about the “meaning of life.” They are unhelpful, and they conflate meaning with purpose.
We all know that there’s no single source of meaning in life and in the universe. There are many ways to obtain meaning. To “get” meaning from something is to feel and experience the feeling of meaningfulness.
Meaning is not fixed, it’s fluid. Meaning is subject to changes over time, changes due to new information, and changes within ourselves. For instance, we often assign limited importance to events in our lives; but later, they seem very meaningful and portentous in retrospect.
Meaning is context-dependent and subjective—at least partially. Different cultures have different value (meaning) systems. Even within our own culture, you and I may disagree on something like the meaningfulness of getting married in a church. And internally, we have different ways of evaluating meaningfulness. The way we assign meaning in competitive games is different than the way we assign meaning in relationship-building.
However, there are generally agreed-upon meanings. It’s nearly universally thought to be meaningful when a friend or family member dies.
Meaning is not an intrinsic characteristic of objects, but of our perception. Meaning is created in the interacation between things we encounter and the contexts, associations, narratives, and symbolism we project on them. Meaning, therefore, is subject to human intervention.
Let’s call the combination of your culture, past experiences, ideas, and knowledge your way of “meaning-making.” When we talk about “getting” meaning, we’re talking about meaning being produced or generated by this meaning-making filter as you interact with the world.
Let’s call the meaning-making of a group, subculture, or society a “system of meaning.”
Meaning has nothing to do with “goodness” or “badness”. It is simply the set of mechanics by which value is assigned and interpreted.
Similarly, meaning cannot be “true” nor “false.” You can have feelings of meaningfulness or meaninglessness about something that differ from someone else’s, and you might judge their meaning-making, but that doesn’t make their meaning any less real. Meaning simply is.
There are certain tactics that can be used to manipulate meaning—to generate, amplify, and even destroy meaning. These tactics seem to be pretty universal.
A cult is a demographically targeted system of meaning that uses these tactics to create and control meaning.
Meaning: Advanced Mechanics
Meaning vs Purpose: Meaning is something that “just happens” when we interact with the world. Purposes, on the other hand, are categorically different. Purposes are declared intentions that make a definitive statement about where meaning can come from for whomever is making the declaration of purpose. By nature, all purposes are false, because there are no universal purposes, and no universal meanings.
Narratives: Purposes are a variety of narrative. Narratives are a soft technology that generate meaning and help assign semantic meanings to events, objects, and people. Humans invented narratives to make our lives easier; narratives eliminate complexity by telling us how meaningful we should think things are. Narratives also help justify goals. Most narratives are relatively self-contained, but purposes are more expansive and all-encompassing. They are narratives on steroids.
Trajectory: Narratives imply a movement from start to finish. When an object, event, person, brand, or idea is considered as part of this trajectory, it becomes more meaningful. Additionally, people like associating themselves with things that have the appearance of progress.
Framing: Meaning can be amplified by making things seem bigger or realer than they are. The same piece of artwork by itself, in a frame, and in a gallery context usually produces different levels of meaning. We rely on our senses to evaluate meaning, and our senses can be manipulated. For instance, if you get a very well-designed event invitation, you may assign the event a high value. Of course, after attending, you might realize that it is actually a boring and meaningless startup networking event. But again, the meaning itself is not true or false; the event’s level of meaningfulness, in your evaluation, simply dropped.
Meaning vs Value: I have been using the word “meaning” interchangeably with the word “value.” The former has connotations of some sort of mystical importance, while the latter has connotations of money and economics. Although their associations are very different, many of the dynamics of meaning are identical to the way markets work. This is not a neoliberal marketization or “dehumanization” of something sacred. In fact, it would be most accurate to say that markets only work because they are based on the very mechanics of meaning that I have laid out in this piece.
Rarity / Exclusivity: Things that are constrained in supply or hard to get tend to be more meaningful. This is one of numerous ways in which meaning acts like a market.
Interactions Create Meaning: The more interaction around a thing, the more meaningful it is. Creating a discourse around a subject is thus one way to make that subject more meaningful. The more people know about a rare item, the more meaningful it is.
Deep and Shallow Meaning: However, there are people to which a thing is deeply meaningful, and others to which the same thing is less meaningful. This can lead to bubbles in the meaning economy, to inflations and crashes. We call these “trends.” However, though the meaning of a thing can grow and shrink, it’s impossible to determine the intrinsic meaning of anything. Meaning is a co-property of the people for whom something is meaningful or meaningless.
Symbols and Metaphors: Creating symbols, analogies, and metaphors for a thing add meaning to the thing. They add another layer of semantic meaning with which people can interact, creating more opportunities for meaning generation.
Systems of Meaning: People, groups, societies, and entire cultures generate meaning through all of the above methods. We tell each other stories to make sense of the world. We create discourses and specialty language that deepen our appreciation of topics (topics as wide-ranging as art and coffee flavors). We develop series of symbols that become meaningful to us. All of these features of meaning combine to create systems of meaning. Meaning systems play a part in our understanding of semantic meanings as well.
Meaning systems are like “ontologies;” they define our entire worldview in that they define how we relate to the world. Religions are a familiar example of meaning systems, but are by no means the only one. Even if you are not part of a religion, you have almost certainly adopted some other meaning system. Nationalism, for instance, is a system of meaning as well. Things are valued in very specific ways within the discourse of American nationalism, producing certain symbols and on the other hand certain taboos. In the system of meaning we call “the art world,” things are valued very differently. And so they are again in systems of meaning as diverse as small casual social circles and widely distributed ideas like the post-modern approach to looking at the world. Importantly, our own meaning-making should be thought of as a personal system of meaning.
Absolutism, Totalism, and Meaning Binaries (EVIL): Feelings of meaningfulness are heightened in meaning systems characterized by absolutism. When an absolute philosophical principle has been established, the meaning of everything else can be asserted in relation to it. This is known as psychological totalism. Totalism is extremely damaging to healthy thinking, emotions, and meaning-making processes. It makes people do crazy and irrational things because their meaning-making is polarized, forced to conform to an arbitrary system that determines what is and isn’t meaningful. There is no more subversive and despicable method of manipulating meaning than absolutism.
Examples of absolute philosophical principles may include “God,” “enlightenment,” “goodness,” and “our relationship.” Not every one of these necessarily implies totalism is at work, but they and similar concepts are commonly observed in totalizing meaning systems such as doomsday cults, aggressively evangelical religious sects, cults of personality, and abusive relationships.
Importantly, we may have developed our own absolutist meaning systems without knowing it! For example, the similarly vague but important-seeming notion of “career success” is an ultimate meaning for many people, causing them to unnecessarily devalue other valid sources of meaning, such as relationships and experiences. Less consciously recognizable absolutist principles such as “others must like me” or “I must never allow myself to be vulnerable” also distort healthy meaning-making processes. Personal growth is the process of identifying and coping with one’s previously unconscious personal absolutisms.
Meaningness – David Chapman is one of the only authors able to talk about meaning in a clear and understandable way. His book Meaningness has influenced my thinking significantly; it also revealed the possibility of discussing meaning and its dynamics concretely and simply. I cannot recommend it enough to anyone who considers themself a nihilist or who is struggling with nihilism and personal change.
Ida C. Benedetto – Ida’s experimental ritual design practice exemplifies how a practical application of meaning-generating tactics can be positive, healthy, and transformative way. Her work is among the most inspiring I have encountered.
Sarah Perry (mostly on Ribbonfarm) – Sarah’s main areas of interest are human meaning systems, ritual, and social behavior. Her incisive writing style and insight lays open extremely complex topics in a logical yet witty and entertaining fashion. Sarah’s book on childbirth and suicide, Every Cradle Is A Grave, and her writing on Ribbonfarm are the best places to explore her body of work. The only essayist whose work has brought me to tears.
Joe Edelman – Joe thinks over vast historical timescales and summarizes important themes in the history of meaning in an evocative and clarifying way. His ability to put these human-scale ideas into practice through his work is inspiring.
Meaning-Making on Are.na – I’m collecting resources on meaning on Are.na, in a network of channels centered around the Meaning-Making channel. I’m exploring other related and important topics in my channels Symbol Manipulation, Identity Formation, and Histories of Meaning. Of course, my research intersects with and is indebted to the good people of Are.na whose connected channels are also fantastic resources. I recommend Nicholas Perry’s channel on this topic.