What is the Meaning of This?

What is the Meaning of This?

If we were to dissect the basic elements of the natural physical world (as our scientists endeavour to) what would we find? If we ‘got to the bottom of it’ so to speak? Would what we find be physical? I suppose by definition, if we are still using physical methods, yes. What would it be? Why should it be any more complex than a grain of sand? So far as I know we have found the Higgs Boson, the ‘God Particle’ but it begs the question: ‘can we split that? What is it made of? What is its content?’ Science can’t meet a dead end any more conclusively than the human spirit, nor artistic expression can. Experience is a self-renewing process - and others will bring it to life with originality when ours ends. Experience and perspective are, intuitively, more key to understanding life than scientific endeavour. An emotional twist in the tale is a more powerful influence on a person’s point of view of life’s meaning than a particular scientific endeavour’s intrinsic significance. The experience itself is precedent, and nonetheless subjective. Real life is what you see around you in your immediate vicinity, and that’s what you snap back to when you get to the end of a philosophy about the meaning of life.

The first stage in evaluating the worth of a specific academic question is to study the language used in the phrasing of the question. Find definitions and, if necessary for accuracy, look at historical definitions and etymological roots, but basically understand the meaning of the words, the more deeply the better. Then draw out intuitions about those words in conjunction with one another, see connections, logical relations, the complex structure of the ideas you are describing. Historical theories are often a prudent place to start; you will anyway always be dependent on a historical background to your definitions of the words and ideas associated with those words. ‘Meaning’ itself has a life of its own other than, although not in spite of, and with all due credit to, philosophy (meaning is a branch of philosophical lingo - including but not limited to the philosophy of language (also features in logic (and belongs to academic enquiry in general))). It is worth what it is worth and what it is worth is, well, its worth. The meaning of meaning might also be couched out in terms of ‘value’ or ‘quality’ or ‘significance’ or several other overlapping concepts. ‘Definition’ itself is not the same thing, but perhaps the front line of any enquiry and, since we are ‘evaluating the value of value’ you might say, we should include it. And what kind of word is ‘meaning’? What type of concept? It seems to ‘disappear up its own arse’ as it were. When you try to successfully ‘solve’ it you find instead you are ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps’ (in inverted commas.) The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein led twentieth century thinking on the philosophical structure of language, and pointed us towards context and usage being strongly formative aspects of this complex kind of communication. Hence we tend not to rely solely on theories about logical units of information (atomic statements) being the essence of language (as Wittgenstein attempted to show, and later on in his life more or less rejected.)

The inbuilt tautology of the question of the meaning of meaning brings with it a tautologous element when we inquire as to the meaning of other concepts - if you ask yourself what is the meaning of a dream, the dream itself is the answer. (If you instead ask ‘which of your friends were in the dream?’ you get a different answer.) Meaning is a mirror. It reflects the truth of the subject it is presented with, and exists on the back of that subject, and requires a perspective (an observer) to be meaningful. A mirror is not a mirror without a perceptible mirror image. Meaning is not meaningful without a subject also. It pertains. Meaning applies. It is not a fundamentally physical phenomenon. It is essentially dependent on a perspective. So when we use the word we are always subject to the subjective. Meaning is transient. It changes shape according to the perspective of the inquirer - not because the subject changes, but because the onlooker and the context of the situation does. Science can smash the mirror, all the mirrors, but not the concept of a reflection. So is meaning ‘a faithful reflection’, then? Yes but not this alone. The nature of the question is infinitely regressively inclined to inform the answer. You might ask: what does the colour red look like? It looks red. But if you ask: what is the colour of this colour? The answer is red, in this instance, but not in others. Philosophy is typically an analytical process, and lends itself inevitably well to answering questions like ‘what is the meaning of meaning?’ and ‘what is the meaning of life?’

We might, perhaps, equally well ask: ‘What is the life of life?’ Or, to play us in more gently, ‘what is the nature of nature?’ You need a context, a domain to place your reply in. - Science, then. Nature is physical processes. And life? Scientifically speaking, it’s biological processes, but we’re after the philosophical; life is experience, I might argue. What is the meaning of experience? It’s happening right now. The meaning of life is all around you…

…and you’re back in the room.




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