"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.
--* New 30 March 2015: Are Meaning and Law Related? *--
"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." [it came from a participant on Melvyn Bragg's discussions on U.K. Radio 4, 8 September 1997; apologies: cannot remember the speaker, and this is approximate wording]
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.
Meaning is like an ocean in which fish swim and which enables fish to swim. In a similar way, meaning is thus something within which we live and exist, and which enables that living and existing.
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.)
But what is attribution of meaning? What is it we attribute to things? Try to get hold of this, and it is difficult.
Dooyeweerd suggests that what we attribute to things is a profile of meaningfulness, the meaningfulness within which, and by reference to which, we exist, live, occur and know. This is partly because meaning has the characteristic of referring [Dooyeweerd, 1955, I, 4].
It is useful to use the word meaningfulness for the deep meaning that Dooyeweerd discussed, and signification for lingual or subjective attribution.
In the natural sciences, it is easy to assume they are separate, because the Humanist ground-motive within which today we think presupposes that meaning originates in human beings, and so the non-human world by definition cannot have meaning in itself. It has laws (e.g. of gravity or evolution) but no meaningfulness. Dooyeweerd contends with this, and offers a ground-motive that allows the physical and biotic worlds to be meaningful without recourse to humanity. The law of gravity is itself meaningful, as physical meaningfulness. Meaningfulness enables something to Be.
Aristotle discussed two guises of meaning. One was what he called 'meaningfulness' of objects [Mansueto 2012], which he held to be bound up with the essence of the object 'in itself'. Aristotle's 'meaningfulness' was similar to an attribute along with length and weight, and of interest only alongside other kinds of attribute. The other was Aristotle's notion of final cause, which is the end or destiny towards which things are heading and being drawn; for example the final cause of a seed is the adult plant. There are problems with this. Aristotle [On the Parts of Animals] wrote that "everything that Nature makes is means to an end", and he located that end in humanity. Dooyeweerd, by contrast, while linking all to humanity, allows nature the dignity of its own ends. To Aristotle, both kinds of meaning are located in the entity 'in itself'.
Aristotle's view also presupposes something deeper, because his idea can get into a circularity. Biology in recent decades has put this the other way round, that the end of the adult plant is reproduction, i.e. the seed, so the idea of final cause is circular. This is reminiscent of Heidegger's  discussion of poetry: a poet is someone who writes poetry, poetry is something written by a poet; there must be something behind both. Dooyeweerd provides an account of both these circularities in his oceanic notion of meaningfulness. 'Underneath' the seed-plant circularity lies biotic functioning and possibility; 'underneath' the poet-poetry circularity lies aesthetic functioning and possibility. (These are two aspects Dooyeweerd delineated; see Chapter §asp.) This suggests, as Dooyeweerd argued, that meaning lies not in an entity 'in itself', not in its essence.
Heidegger is one of the few philosophers who explicitly tried to address meaning and meaningfulness philosophically. The index of Heidegger's [1962/1927] Being and Time contains nine page entries, covering 'meaning of Being', 'meaningful', 'meaningless', 'unmeanign', 'have meaning', and 'give meaning', while in his [====] Phenomenological Interpretation of Aristotle he discussed meaningfulness. Though he had a strong understanding of what I have called ocean, in his discussion of Being, he treated meaning as something inherent in entities, not as essences as in Aristotle, but in their relation with the world.
His key passage on meaning is on his pages 192-194 in Heidegger [1962/1927]. When we come to understand entities in the world and their possibility, the entities "have meaning" [p.192], but this 'having', he later points out [p.193] is not located in the entity itself but in the act of understanding. However, in between, we find "Meaning is that wherein the intelligibility of something maintains itself." The entity "maintains itself" by its Being-in-the-world, and as this is disclosed by the understander its meaning is "filled in" (presumably for that understander). For Heidegger, meaning is not located in the essence of the entity, but in how it maintains itself (or is maintained) by its Being-in-the-world. We could approximate this to say that the meaning of a thing emerges from the relationships a thing has with all around it, but that would give too static an idea; Heidegger recognised the dynamicity involved in meaning.
Notice how both Aristotle and Heidegger sought to understand meaning by reference to Being (whether in essence or in its Being-in-the-world). Meaning is presupposed to be an ephemerality, even though our lifeworld and everyday experience tells us otherwise. As seen later (in §§dsp-immphil), many of these philosophers separated meaning from reality because they took an immanence standpoint.
Let us delve: "maintains itself" [Heidegger 1962/1927, 193] raises another question, "Maintains itself as what?" As 'itself'? But what is 'itself'? The answer must, I think, lie in reference to a kind or type (whether in Aristotelian essentialist terms or Heideggerian existentialist terms). For example, while a plant is alive, it maintains itself as a living-thing rather than as a lump of organic matter, because when it dies we can no longer speak of it as maintaining itself in any meaningful way, even when the lump of matter continues largely intact. Whence come these types or kinds, such as living-thing or lump-of-matter? Likewise, a book can be said to maintain itself as a book despite its pages becoming torn and losing its covers, but when burned in a fire it ceases to do so; this example may be found in Dooyeweerd [1955,III, 3]. As a living-thing, as a lump-of-matter and as a book are all in which things can be meaningful, and such ways seem prior to all things of those types. Ways of being meaningful seem presuppositionally prior to kinds, and thus of being.
One cogent account of this is offered by Dooyeweerd's starting-point in meaningfulness (oceanic). While Heidegger was familiar with this oceanic idea, in his existentiale and Being-in-the-world, it was Dooyeweerd who was to take it further to apply to meaningfulness rather than just Being. Philosophically, both Heidegger's and Aristotle's ideas are able to be grounded in Dooyeweerd as special cases. However, Dooyeweerd can also be ground for other insights into meaning, which will be discussed in less detail.
The idea that 'all life is text' (arising perhaps from Gadamer), and Ricoeur's discussion of the meaning of being, try to locate meaningfulness in the interpreter (which follows from Kant's 'Copernical revolution' discussed later). Interpretation is about meaning, and understanding that meaning. Their view began with the challenge of understanding ancient manuscripts or artefacts, given that they were written in a culture very different from ours in which things were meaningful in different ways. They made use of the well-known insight of the hermeneutic circle, in which our understanding of detail (the phrases or design) is informed by our understanding of the whole (the culture, or the entire work), which in turn has been built up from an understanding of detail over a period of time. That this was then extended from the field of textual analysis and archaeology to the whole of life ("all life is text"), as something that needs constant interpretation, evinces the idea that meaningfulness pervades everything. The presupposition is that such meaningfulness is generated by the community (by operation of hermeneutic circles), and it is this that Dooyeweerd enables us to question. It is not the hernemeutic circle itself that is questioned, but the presumption that it is the only generator of meaningfulness. Most circles begin somewhere and allow input; might not the hermeneutic circle allow external input? The view arose during a time of reaction against the presumption that we could understand ancient things from the perspective of our own culture, swinging to the opposing idea that emphasised the difficulties of cross-cultural sharing of meaningfulness. It cannot, however, account for the understanding that does in fact occur across cultures at a very basic level; for example, though different cultures disagree about what is just or right, all seem to possess, live within, the idea of justice of some kind; though humour differs across cultures, all seem to enjoy some kind of humour; all seem to live within some idea of frugality and plenty; and so on. Dooyeweerd's account of prior (oceanic) meaningfulness can account for this, and also for the hermeneutic circle.
In sociology, Geertz  stated "Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative one in search of meaning." Like Dooyeweerd, Geertz recognises the importance of meaningfulness that transcends us in our functioning in that "suspended in webs of significance" is similar to an ocean of meaningfulness, but while Geertz presupposes that all meaningfulness emerges from human activity ('spun'), as most do, Dooyeweerd holds that meaningfulness ultimately transcends us, even though signification and attribution of meaning is human activity. Whereas Geertz separates law from meaningfulness (echoing the gap between positivist and interpretivist research approaches), Dooyeweerd believed they cannot be separated (and later this motivates us to integrate the two approaches).
Reaching for this oceanic view can be discerned in Giddens [1984,2] wrote
"What is at issue is how the concepts of action, meaning and subjectivity should be specified and how they might relate to notions of structure and constraint. ... Human activities ... are not brought into being by social actors but continually recreated by them via the very means whereby they express themselves as actors." (italics in original)
Here he is explaining the fundamental motivation and idea behind his famous structuration theory, and the idea that human social activities are not brought into being but are "continually recreated" speaks of something given which enables the occurrence and being of those activities and actorships. What is it that enables the continual recreation? Giddens rejected the naturalistic explanations, and was reaching for something he calls "reflexive" and "recursive". However, Giddens did not allow himself an oceanic form of meaningfulness, so still sought the enabler in concrete reality of societal structures. We will see in Chapter §soc how his structuration theory provides great insight into the entity-side relationship between agency and society, but there is evidence in this passage that he was reaching for something like a law side too. The use of "express themselves as" cannot refer to societal structures but to what is means to be a social actor. He is reaching for a notion of (social) meaningfulness, within which (social) actors function. In §§soc-struct, we will find that allowing for the idea of law side removes some of the confusions found in Giddens' structuration theory.
In the field of psychology, J.J. Gibson was curious about the meaningfulness of physical things to animals, formulating the notion of affordance [Gibson 1979]. As Chapter §ft shows, this became an important cross-disciplinary notion, of relevance in ICT and information systems. Features of an environment afford certain capabilities that are meaningful to its denizens; for example, a flat-topped, horizontal, non-slippery rock affords an animal climbing and a vantage point, a door handle affords door-opening, social media affords relating, and so on (see §§ft-affordances). This is an issue of meaningfulness: the rock is in some way meaningful to the animal, the social media to relaters. Indeed, Gibson had recognised this and had written  an article on Meaning, but the field of psychology was not in a state to take any interest therein, so Gibson turned away from using that word. Yet how can affordance be explained? The rock's property of climbability is located, not in the subjective attribution by the animal but in the rock itself; all that is meaningful in the rock's own terms are physico-spatial properties of shape, hardness and friction.
Some have tried to resolve the conundrum of affordance by claiming that either the subjective or the objective sides should dominate, while others ground this in Heidegger's Being-in-the-world, but as we have seen that 'smuggles in' prior ways of being meaningful. As will be seen in Chapter §ft, Dooyeweerd's oceanic notion however can account for this more naturally than do these other attempts.
Thomas Kuhn  introduced the idea of paradigm, to account for why periods of 'normal science' are punctuated by events of 'revolutionary science'. He tries to account for this but, as Mastermann [1970, 61-65] pointed out, his notion of paradigm is confused, he using the word in 21 different ways (as "universally recognised scientific achievement, constellation of questions, textbook, a whole tradition, an analogy, ... an epistemological viewpoint, a new way of seeing, something which defines a whole sweep of reality"). Though a few have referred to this confusion, it has not so far been resolved, indeed not even seriously discussed. Despite the confusion, however, Masterman [1970, 66-69] detects several things that run as a thread together through Kuhn's writing: a paradigm is prior to theory, especially in an ideological way, it is rooted in history rather than philosophical speculation, can be extended, and it is positive against Feyerabend's negativity, addressing the rise as well as the fall of ideas. Kuhn, she says, tried to go to the roots of what scientific work is all about; we shall see in Chapter §§tt that Dooyeweerd also tried to go to roots. She finds three kinds of use among the 21, philosophical (e.g. set of beliefs, new way of seeing), sociological (paradigm as set of political insstitutions) and technical (paradigm as textbook or a generator of tools). She does not discuss how these relate to each other, but develops her own notion of paradigm on the basis on anomaly and analogy.
What is interesting is the preponderance of concepts in this discussion of paradigms that denote meaningfulness. The nine uses of 'paradigm' above all presuppose meaningfulness. For example "way of seeing" and "viewpoint", which also occur throughout Masterman's essay, are distinguishable from other viewpoints primarily by what is deemed meaningful by the see-ers, while "universal recognition" presupposes agreement on what is to be taken into account.
Drawing on the work of my student, Sina Joneidy, I tentatively propose that at the core of paradigms is meaningfulness. Briefly, if the world is meaningful in a certain way then a paradigm revolves around that. The way-of-being-meaningful offers a viewpoint, from which the world is examined by a group of researchers, and appropriate tools are developed to assist that research. Exemplars as discovered or created that epitomise that way-of-being-meaningful. The set of questions raised for research are those that are meaningful and exclude those not meaningful in this way, and these are discussed. Institutions are formed for exchange and furtherance of relevant (i.e. meaningful views). And so on. In this way, all 21 of what Kuhn meant by 'paradigm' may be grounded in meaningfulness, and in this way they can also be integrated into a whole picture.
The book entitled simply Meaning by Polanyi & Prosch  is a collection of Polanyi's ideas published shortly before his death and may represent his position as a whole. Meaning figures large in it, and he argues that much of it is brought to light by art and creativity. What interests us is his rather different slant on meaning and meaningfulness than most of the above. Meaning, to Polanyi, is "dwelt in" [p.73] and the meaning of a class is an aspect of reality that points to the as-yet-unrevealed. This places meaningfulness as prior to our discovery or explication of it. Polanyi  is well-known for his idea of tacit knowing, which, he says [Polanyi & Prosch 1970, 72] is what integrates groups of particulars into joint meaning. This kind of meaning results in a 'gradient' in the historical development of a science (Polanyi illustrates this with the idea of biological evolution [p.173]. He links this with the idea of final cause [p.174] (see above) but not fully. Meaning provides a range of possibilities [p.176].
Thus outlined are several attempts to understand meaning.
|Thinker||Their position||Problematic||How Dooyeweerd's ideas might help|
|Ariistotle||Meaning in philosophy; Meaning of things: Meaning located in the essence of entity as a property or as a final cause||Final cause circularity||Meaningfulness as ground of all else in temporal reality provides an account of both sides of the circle (e.g. seed and plant)|
|Heidegger||Meaning in philosophy; Meaning of things-in-world: Meaning located in how a thing 'maintains itself' in the world: dynamic relating||But presupposes prior meaningfulness for 'itself'||Meaningfulness as starting point easily accounts for the prior meaningfulness by which we can say that something is 'itself'.|
|Gadamer, Ricoeur||Meaning in archaeology and across cultures; Meaning as interpretation: The whole of life is meaningful, just like a text, and may be interpreted by operating an hermeneutic circle||But cross-cultural understanding of meaningfulness suggests something deeper, 'oceanic'||Life is meaningful by virtue of the oceanic form of meaningfulness, which enables us to be and occur. Basic cross-cultural understanding available because all cultures arise within the same 'ocean' of meaningfulness.|
|Geertz, Giddens||Meaning in society: "webs of significance" that we spin ourselves; structuration theory||Reaching for Dooyeweerdian notion of meaningfulness that transcends us, but not going all the way. Again, what about cross-cultural understanding?||Oceanic meaningfulness allows for structuration, but does not try to reduce all sociological phenomena to it.|
|Gibson||Meaning in psychology; Meaningfulness of environment to animal or other agent. e.g. rock as climbable.||How to account for agent-meaningfulness located in the environment itself?||If various kinds of meaningfulness are already there, then the environmental feature is meaningful both to the environment itself and to the agent.|
|Kuhn||Meaning in philosophy of science; What science finds meaningful: Paradigms are described and discussed in meaning-concepts, but not explicitly so||A confusing picture with little understanding of how the various meanings of 'paradigm' interrelate||Paradigms as meaningfulness: All science as the disclosure of prior ways of being meaningful; paradigms as centring on one sphere of meaningfulness; this can account for most other things discussed by Kuhn.|
|Polanyi||Meaning as dwelt within, as providing a 'gradient' that moves scholarly discourse in a certain direction; meaning as potentiality; meaning as diverse||Very like Dooyeweerd's ideas, but not so clearly worked out philosophically||Starting with meaningfulness as an 'ocean', we dwell within it, and it is the basis of potentiality. It nevertheless exerts a directional pressure on historical development.|
Whereas most of these thinkers presuppose that meaningfulness requires explanation from other starting points, and come up with disparate ideas that are problematic. They separate meaningfulness from reality. Dooyeweerd's idea of meaningfulness as a starting point, as the very core of reality, can embrace them all and account for their place in a wider picture of meaningfulness.
Gibson, J.J. 1979. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Giddens, A. (1993). New rules of sociological method. Cambridge, England: Polity Press.
Heidegger M (1962/1927) Being and Time. tr. Macquarrie J, Robinson E. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.
Heidegger M (1971) Poetry, Language and Thought, tr. Hofstadter A. Harper Collins.
Kuhn T S, (1970), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Univ. Chicago Press.
Masterman M. 1970. The nature of a paradigm. pp. 59-89 in I. Lakatos, A. Musgrace (eds.), Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, Cambridge University Press.
Mansueto A.E. 2012. Ultimate Meaningfulness of the Universe: Knowing God Volume 2. Pickwick Publishers, Eugene Oregon, USA.
Polanyi M, (1967), The Tacit Dimension, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London U.K.
Polanyi M, Prosch H. 1975. Meaning. University of Chicago Press.
Winch, P. 1958. The Idea of a Social Science.
This is part of The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Questions or comments are very welcome.
Compiled by Andrew Basden. You may use this material subject to conditions.
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. 4 February 2014 added para on meaning as ocean, and section on attribution of meaning, and did a bit of tidying to Intro, 'Think about this'. 30 March 2015 section added: meaning and law. 29 September 2015 Some philosophers ideas about meaningfulness; new .end, .nav. 21 September 2016 label ocean.