"I suspect, however, that the idea of 'meaning' will eventually be seen to be as important as 'energy' and 'information'. It may even herald a revolution in social thinking as significant as the two Industrial Revolutions." [Systems Thinking, Systems Practice, 1981, Wiley, p.284]
This page is an early one I wrote, and - I apologise - I have left it incomplete in some places.
We can conceive of light because of darkness, and of death because of life. These things have their opposites, that give them meaning. But Meaning itself seems to have no opposite that we can conceive of. Even when we say something is 'meaningless', we are giving it some meaning. Meaning just seems to be different.
Our understanding of Meaning, it seems, must be different from our understanding of other things. We can grasp it intuitively, but not, it seems, theoretically. But that has not stopped us trying, down through 2,500 years.
More to write here.
Likewise it is obvious, at least to me, that I exist. And I am told that inside my head is a brain composed of brain cells that fire electrically and chemically rather like a computer. That explains the activity I call my thinking and reasoning. But it doesn't explain what I experience as Meaning, including my consciousness and self-awareness.
In my own field of artificial intelligence, this kind of thinking has led us to endless circular conundrums. Likening the computer and its programs to brain and mind, whence do we find Meaning?
We have assumed that Meaning has emerged, and will emerge, from Existence. That things that Exist will operate in a certain way, and that will somehow produce Meaning. (Elsewhere we outline a number of problems with an Existence-oriented presupposition.)
Some then say that emergent Meaning is not real. It is only:
But this somehow does not satisfy. It might satisfy the academics (who after all are not fully human?) And it might be the prevailing view among them all. And it might be that ordinary people can argue against their apparently steel-hard logic. But it still doesn't satisfy.
We know that there is more to Meaning. ==== lot more to write there!
But is that all there is to meaning? Dooyeweerd - along with others - suggested a different way of understanding meaning, as something we live within. The entire life and existence of cosmos including humanity is lived within Meaning - 'cosmic meaning'.
This is why it is not nonsense to speak of 'the meaning of life' or 'what is the meaning of my career?'. In this sense, we intuitively understand that meaning is not just something socially or individually constructed.
It seems that Meaning is better grasped intuitively, not theoretically. The ordinary person can understand it in the full, holistic sense of the word, even while we academics argue about it. No, they cannot 'understand' it in the way we have assumed they must, namely theoretically. And, it seems from 2,500 years' failure, that neither can we. We cannot take Meaning apart. We cannot break it down to organs, cells, molecules, atoms, electrons, quarks, grand unified theories, mathematics. We can only experience it in all its richness, and bask in its beauty and peace and wholeness - its shalom.
But does that mean we can say nothing about it? Of course we can. Poets communicate it, some extremely well. And even our reasoning abilities can be applied to it, as long as they do not get above their station.
The Dutch philosopher, Dooyeweerd, went back 2,500 years and questioned the starting point of all Western thinking, namely the Greek assumption that the prior property of all is Existence. (He showed, in his magnum opus, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, (1955), how starting with this assumption can explain all or most of the intellectual problems and antinomies that had been experienced up to the mid twentieth century. But that is for another discussion.)
He started with Meaning as the fundamental property. Existence emerges from Meaning (as discussed elsewhere). It is the bedrock on which all our thinking and acting and even living stand:
"Meaning is the being of all that has been created and the nature even of our selfhood."
While the Greeks, and famously the Atomists, liked to split things up, break things down, Dooyeweerd emphasized coherence. This was consistent with his idea of Meaning being the ground or being of all. If Meaning is the ground, then all coheres and there are no intrinsic discontinuities.
However, he also recognised the variety we see around us. He did not take an Eastern (Hindu) approach, which holds that we are all just drops in the ocean, pure coherence without distinction. He saw a number of aspects of reality operating. Unlike today's thinkers who like to reduce things to a single aspect (like reducing all to atoms, cells, mathematics or even social processes or 'language games'), he maintained there was an essential irreducibility between them. No aspect could be reduced to another. And he saw the aspects, and their laws, as an expression of Meaning.
And the kernel meaning of each aspect, he maintained, could only be grasped intuitively, never theoretically.
This was because theoretical thinking was merely one of the aspects (or, rather, was centred on one of the aspects). That is, it did not stand outside all other reality, over against it ('gegenstand'), as a judge of it. Rather, theoretical thinking was part of the reality to which it was applied. Therefore, though it has an important role, it does not have any special status.
He thus recognised the importance of theoretical thinking, but did not elevate it to be the supreme mode of thinking. It was merely one among other aspects. It seemed that he held a high view of the intuitive (jargon term: pre-theoretical) understanding. Unlike today's academics, he did not see scientific thinking, centred on theoretical thought, as better than ordinary, everyday, thinking, but saw it as a process of abstraction by which individual aspects are isolated from each other. Everyday thinking, on the other hand, embraces all the aspects in a holistic way - and is therefore richer than theoretical thinking. If any kind of thinking is to be elevated, it is this pre-theoretic, everyday, intuitive thinking.
(Note: By 'intuition' he did not mean 'instinct'. As Strijbos (1996) pointed out, there are three types of thinking, all beginning with letter 'I' in English: Intellectual, Intuitive and Instinct.)
Compiled by Andrew Basden. You may use this material subject to conditions.
Number of visitors to these pages: . Written on the Amiga with Protext.
Created: 1997. Last updated: 2 August 2002 links to new existence.html. 14 March 2004 .nav and a link corrected. 21 November 2005 .nav,.end. 5 October 2009 importance of meaning; apology; dwelling. 15 June 2010 checkland quote.