Monday, December 5, 2011

Notes on Meaning

In a sense, there's no such thing as a romantic relationship -- there is no such thing as a relationship. You have two people, their memories of each other, their behavioural dispositions, their environment, their social and legal contracts, etc. But it's not as if the relationship has reality in itself; this is merely a convenient way of speaking.

Well, the same is true, I'd suggest, of "meaning". It's not as if meanings exist -- this is merely a (very) convenient way of speaking. We seem to have an idea that words are containers that carry meaning; words travel from one brain to another and offload their cargo. But do words contain anything? Isn't the more realistic way of thinking to say that words are sounds and images -- physical things -- and they have physical effects that might or might not match my desires?

Is there non-physical "meaning" in addition to words? -- I am caused to produce the words, I produce them, they have effects on you -- is there anything more?

Do people have to have a single intention when they speak? Do they have to have a clear intention?

Judges will sometimes use the "intention" of parliament when interpreting a statute. But the whole thing is legal fiction: that law was drafted by many people, was voted on by many people, was worked through many committees. So, how could there be a single "intention"? It's not as if a parliament is a person.

But is a person a person? Don't people "contain multitudes" in the same way that parliaments do? Don't people have many and contradictory thoughts, and don't they change over time?

Do people have a meaning at all?


  1. Wow Ivonne,

    You've asked a ton of questions here! The ones concerning the material vs. the immaterial and personal identity, in particular, have concerned philosophers for thousands of years.

    I suppose I'll address your questions about materialism and meaning. I think that what your questions all get at is the fact that even the simplest seeming topics become quite complicated when we scrutinize them. However, I don't think that it is the case that materialism, or the belief that all of reality is material, precludes the reality of abstract ideas like "relationships" or "meaning." I think the idea that words do have meaning is entirely consistent with the physical ways in which we communicate. The key here is the brain, which, with the help of the rest of the body takes in information from the world (such as sounds, or images of words) and processes it, compares it with memory, and organizes this sensory data into meaningful information. I'm no neuroscientist, but I believe that that is a relatively correct (albeit quite simplistic) illustration of how we process physical information.

    Now, the debate over whether or not we are more than our individual brains, i.e. whether there is an immaterial mind that exists as something distinct from the purely physical brain, is still quite controversial in modern philosophy, although my interpretation of the scientific evidence leads me to believe firmly that we simply are our brains.

    So yes, meaning can very much exist even if materialism is true.

  2. With your questions "Is a person a person? Don't people have many and contradictory thoughts, and don't they change over time?" I would argue that these "many and contradictory thoughts" are precisely what make people, people. Animals focus on one thing at a time, and these "thoughts" are typically instinctual. If we were to form them like human thoughts, they would probably sound as simplistic as "Where can I find food?" or "Should I fight or flee that other animal?" But unlike animals, humans are constantly barraged with a multitude of thoughts--we can simultaneously lament failing an exam while wondering whether a friend has texted us back while focusing on driving a car. The fact that these thoughts are often conflicting demonstrates that human beings cannot simply be reduced to one train of thought and the we are constantly redefining our values--which should make them all the more important to us.


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