There is no such thing as inherent meaning within the external world. Facts without interpretation are meaningless. Meaning therefore is subjective and can be expressed through language. Meaning is only made apparent to the external world through communication. Utterances are meaningful only if it transfers something that is reflective of a coherent mental construct to the recipient.
There are those who speak in vacuous terms, devoid of something that is intelligible in any analytical way but this is not to say that they lack a meaning to the very mind that purports it. The one who contests such terms as vacuous must then seek to understand, what is the subjective interpretation of the thing being purported? The proponent must then transfer this meaning. If it is established that meaning cannot be transferred via communicative means from one subject to another then such utterances are in effect useless. There isn’t an intelligible discussion to be had of such things. Discussions of this sort are pointless to continue having once a coherent mental construct cannot be communicated.
Given the rapid exchange of information in this age and the inter-connectivity of the World, a navigation of meaning is way more important than definitions. To simply state it, meaning refers to ‘what it is’ while definition refers to the ‘necessary and sufficient words use to describe it’. Debates of the twenty first century seem to be rife with ambiguity and misunderstanding between polarized viewpoints. What has been called the rabble in antiquity has become the forum in this age. This contemporary forum of social media requires a level of philosophical sophistication to tackle discourses that lack nuance or context, a feature referred to by some as ‘narrowcast’. Since the forum is so diverse and information is so dense, discussions seem to evade meaning. Arguments ensue on grounds of disagreements that are only misunderstandings in expression. If meaning is transferred then arguments dissolve away from fickle disagreements into more fertile grounds for discourse. The philosophical sophistication that is called for in this regard is not one of academic enlightenment but a transition of philosophy from a closed intellectual pursuit to a social discourse. The science of ‘Evolution’ has taken on the realms of the social and likewise philosophy must make this transition. We will begin this is philosophical journey with A Discourse on Meaning.
The twenty first century discourse must immerse itself in meaning. “What do you mean?” should be a question not answered with a mere remark but should be the motivational drive for the understanding of any discourse. Once all parties can express each other’s ideas in a manner where a mutual sense of understanding is clear, disagreements can be debated in a more meaningful manner. (I would like to express that I think disagreements can be resolved in this way but that is just an emotional aspiration; an expression of hope.) In settling disagreements I do not just mean that an argument is resolved by a position being rejected by involved parties as wrong or accepted as right. In settling disagreements, I mean that the exchange in discourse has imparted unto all parties involved, a framework of understanding each other’s principal points. In the light of understanding, disagreements are merely petty issues of context.
Context is the cradle of meaning; it is with establishing context can meaning be truly communicated. Context is the boundaries in which a discourse is bound. Unabated abstraction is not meaningful. Social disagreements cannot be settled abstractly since socializing cannot happen in an abstract manner. Human interactions are concrete and discrete. Abstractions however, can be useful in exercising ones rational capabilities but I caution against it in public discourses. In a diverse and multicultural environment of social exchange, abstractions can be too vague. Only a few will understand. Simple relatable ideas are a better means of exchange.
In the discourse of meaning there is one contention that would be very effective in challenging any position. This is to accuse your opponent in an argument of being ‘meaningless’. It is apparent to many of us that there are things in this world that some people just don’t care about. In this sense, to them these things are ‘meaningless’. However this is not the idea of ‘meaningless’ we are interested in. That variety of using the word is only enlightening in describing personal preferences. When we speak of ‘meaningless’, we are referring to mental states. Unlike your words, your mental state is not fixed. Thus the same words can mean different things, depending on the mental state attributed to such words. Words exist to convey meaning just as traps exist to catch prey. However unlike traps which can be discarded after the prey is caught, you cannot discard words after you’ve captured meaning. Your words are therefore necessary in conveying the mental state of affairs you wish to impart to another. Meaning reflects coherent mental states – ‘what it is’ that’s going on with one’s cognition. Meaninglessness is incoherence. Sometimes this incoherence is reflected in our words. Meaning however, goes beyond words.
Mi a Yardie!
If one was to examine that sentence, the meaning by mere words (content) is saying that ‘I am a Jamaican.’ But what I mean by uttering this sentence is something more than this trivial English equivalence. I mean more than what is expressed by the sentence and persons familiar with the cultural context of Jamaica can understand it in that regard as me sayings: I’m patriotic, I love Jamaica, the people, and I love the culture. When we ask ‘What do you mean?’ we are usually not asking for the definition of the words or sentences uttered. It has become commonplace for persons to take such a question as an opportunity to point you to a dictionary. On the other hand, one should take such a question as a more personal enquiry into one’s own subjective outlook. It is an invitation to connect with someone beyond mere words.
In our utterances we can express things of two different kinds:
1) We can be expressing purely conceptual ideas from our own subjective experience of the world.
2) We can express descriptive events in the social or material world as interpreted by our own analysis.
The latter account is simply compounding social activities or naturally occurring events in the external world into terms (words). These social activities or naturally occurring events happen regardless of our expression of them in words but we need to convey our appraisal of these things in words to another none the less. As an example, our understanding of what we mean by the term ‘Capitalism’ can be viewed as a compounding descriptive process-we group together a list of human activities and call it Capitalism. To be a capitalist then means partaking in a certain set of activities. On the other hand, utterances that express purely conceptual ideas (1) are not merely descriptive but also prescriptive. These utterances propose novel ideas that are beyond mere observations while also suggestive of things that can be observed. It is much easier for one to convey compounded ideas meaningfully in words than it is to convey novel ideas. The meaningfulness of compounded ideas can be expressed in context of things that are already relatable. Novel ideas on the other hand require an appeal to abstraction from which the observable is inferred. For an utterance to therefore be meaningless, it must lack any qualities that are relatable and inferential. To be ‘meaningless’ is to have all mental representation a person might have of an idea closed off from language. Meaninglessness can be framed as a failure in communicating beyond mere words and the words themselves can only be subjected to linguistic analysis which yields nothing.
To communicate anything novel there needs to be clear parameters of distinctions made and one achieve this by using clearly defined terms. In the expression of purely conceptual ideas, definitions become more important in conveying meaning since words might not yet exist to express what one means. Since the thesis of this is that meaning is to drive discourse then a discourse without meaning is empty. It is not empty as if the exchange did not occur but empty in the sense that all parties involved left with only impression of personal preferences. Nothing new was passed on to any party in the discussion concerning the topics at hand; all parties leave the discourse with the same concepts they started with. This is the state of a meaningless discourse.
In closing I will remind you of one thing; words can often be the same but the meaning different. Being meaningful is beyond mere words!