It’s getting to that time of year when in England the night seems to start in the middle of the afternoon, and everyone begins to look forward to a holiday. However, for me the prospect of the Christmas period is not one of eating large amounts of food and being bored by seldom-seen relatives. Instead it has become my custom to go off on solitary retreat and spend two weeks writing philosophy. My task for this Christmas is to get going on the third volume of my Middle Way Philosophy series – The Integration of Meaning. There seems to be little in Middle Way Philosophy that causes more bemusement than my ideas about meaning, so I thought I’d try to set down here a brief and accessible account of why I’m interested in it.
In philosophy, you could say that meaning is at the root of everything else. One’s ethics, for example, dependent on one’s epistemology (i.e. how one justifies one’s beliefs) and metaphysics – in my case critical metaphysics. In turn, though, epistemology and metaphysics depend on one’s understanding of meaning. I see the way we live our lives as being justified by our capacity to be genuinely practical and avoid the dogmas of metaphysics. The basic reason why metaphysics blocks moral progress (is evil, in effect) is that it tries to put itself beyond all possible challenge. It is the pretence of infallibility that makes it impossible for us to address conditions. However, it can only attempt to place itself beyond all possible challenge by assuming that it is possible for a claim made out of words to be beyond challenge in the first place. It can only be beyond challenge if it has some kind of hotline to truth (dealing with that is where scepticism comes in) and if it is capable of representing truth.
So, people who believe in metaphysics of one sort or another tend to think of language as having that property – of being capable of representing truth – and of the meaning of language as being equivalent to representation. Alternatively at the other extreme they might think that language expresses a purely subjective truth coming from the self, but the representational extreme is far more common. Without this assumption that meaning is representation – or its opposite – metaphysics would be impossible to sustain coherently. Yet representationalism or its opposite are virtually universal in Western society amongst those who have ever thought about the subject. Representationalism is entrenched in analytic philosophy, implicitly assumed by scientists and many others, and its opposite is only found in cultural studies and postmodernism. Is it any wonder that we keep falling unawares into metaphysical ways of thinking, if our understanding of the very language we are using constantly creates the ready conditions to push us in that direction?
Yet how do we find a Middle Way in our understanding of meaning? My suggestion is that we do not deny either that meaning can involve either a relationship to our picture of the world, or an expression of our feelings about it. We have to hold both of these aspects of meaning in synthesis, difficult though this may seem. Meaning is not merely representation potentially relating to the world in propositions, nor is it merely the expression of feelings about the world – which might come in single words, music, or grunts. Instead, it is both in varying proportions. Instead, we have to constantly avoid the egoistic assumption that we have understood the whole meaning of anything – of a symbol, word, proposition, person, country, or whatever. We cannot claim to have exhausted the whole of any meaning merely by understanding what we think it represents or expresses, for there is always more. Representation links to a whole implied world, and expression to a whole sphere of meaning, which we can understand increasingly but never as a whole. We integrate meaning by bringing together those scraps of representation or expression that we recognise as no longer telling the whole story, merely contributing to it.
So, I think that discussion of meaning is a crucial, but neglected, element of Middle Way Philosophy. It is perhaps easier to understand why rigid beliefs are problematic: we expect beliefs to shape our attitudes. We also expect desires to be troublesome, whether we encounter these in the context of addiction, therapy or guilt. However, meaning plays a crucial intermediary role in transmitting belief and desire to each other. Rigidity of meaning, where we do not understand what another person is talking about, or where we are not prepared to engage with language in new ways, lays down the groundwork for rigidity of belief, and is in many ways harder to shake. How can you incorporate a new concept into your beliefs about the world if you don’t understand it in the first place? The practice of integrating meaning also offers a central role for the arts, which in this way become no longer marginal to a coherent moral understanding.
The integration of meaning to me seems to demand a completely open kind of generosity, an allowance of profusion, which we cannot safely apply to our beliefs. In imagining this I am indebted to an idea of John Heron, who talks of (what I would call) meaning as being allowed to grow freely like his beard, whilst what I would call belief is subject to a sceptical razor. Our beliefs need to be constantly kept in some kind of balanced control, checked against evidence. Meaning, however, is free, the more the better. Any story you may come across, no matter how far-fetched in scientific terms, offers meaning, and may add to your appreciation of what is meaningful. The beard may grow as straggly and unruly as we wish, and, as long as we do not confuse meaning with belief (often described as ‘taking things literally’) that is all to the good. That, for example, is why I find the Bible and Qur’an fascinating documents, whilst rejecting the revelatory claims often associated with them. Both are rich in meaning. Perhaps this artistic attitude is somewhere near the base of my whole attitude to Middle Way Philosophy, and stops scepticism becoming a pinched puritanical reflex. Long may meaning grow!
Links to related pages:
Jung and the meaning of God (blog post)
Picture: Townsend-Harris (public domain)