When we ask ourselves the question, “what is meaning?”, we often find ourselves in a philosophical labyrinth that has challenged thinkers for centuries. In this blog post, we will explore the myriad ways philosophers have attempted to define meaning and examine a few influential theories on the topic. Our journey will venture from the approaches of linguistics and semiotics to the realms of existentialism and phenomenology. By the end of our exploration, we will confront the idea that meaning is an ever-evolving construct that defies simplistic interpretation.
The Linguistic Approach to Meaning
In the study of language and communication, meaning is often presented in relation to the linguistic signs and symbols we use to convey our thoughts, emotions, and intentions. Semiotics is the discipline that investigates the meaning-making process behind these linguistic signs.
Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist and semiotician, proposed that any linguistic sign comprises two parts: the signifier (the word or sound) and the signified (the concept or idea it represents) 1. The relationship between the signifier and the signified is considered arbitrary and conventional, as the meaning of a word is only established through the context of a given language.
Take the word “dog” as an example. In English, it refers to a four-legged domesticated mammal, but this meaning is not inherent in the combination of the letters d-o-g. In fact, the word “dog” does not convey the same meaning in other languages, which have their own words for the particular animal. The meaning of the word “dog” is established through its use within the context of the English language.
The Existentialist Perspective on Meaning
Existentialist philosophers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, grapple with the human need to find meaning in a seemingly absurd universe. They contend that true meaning is not derived from external sources, like language, but rather from the internal experiences of individuals. “What is meaning?” becomes “What is the meaning of my existence?”
In Sartre’s existentialist framework, we are “condemned to be free” 2. We have no predefined essence or purpose, so we must create our own meaning through our choices and actions. For Sartre, an authentic existence arises from engaging in personal projects that reflect our values and desires, regardless of the societal expectations that may try to shape our lives.
On the other hand, Camus famously employs the myth of Sisyphus to illustrate his existentialist views 3. Sisyphus is condemned to an eternity of rolling a boulder up a hill, only for it to roll back down each time he reaches the top. Despite the inherent absurdity and futility in Sisyphus’ task, Camus concludes that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy” because he has come to terms with the absurdity of his existence and embraces the challenge of seeking meaning in the struggle.
For a deeper understanding of existentialism, you can read our blog post on An Introduction to Existentialism: Finding Meaning in a Seemingly Absurd World. You can also explore the relationship between Camus and Sartre in our comparative analysis, Camus and Sartre: Existentialism’s Odd Couple.
The Phenomenological Approach to Meaning
Phenomenology, founded by Edmund Husserl and developed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, investigates the nature of meaning through our direct experiences and conscious awareness. Meaning-making, in this view, is a process deeply rooted in the human capacity for perception, interpretation, and reflection.
Merleau-Ponty argues that meaning is generated through the enigmatic relationship between the perceiving subject and the perceived world 4. Our perceptions and experiences are inherently intertwined with our personal histories and cultural backgrounds, meaning that our understanding of the world is continually evolving and context-dependent.
For example, a simple object like a pen can hold various meanings depending on our experiences and perspectives. To a writer, it may symbolize the power of creativity and self-expression, while a student might view it as a tool for learning and academic success. The meaning of the pen, then, is not just a static description but a dynamic process shaped by our individual perceptions and interpretations.
As our exploration into the intriguing nature of meaning has shown, there is no single answer to the question, “what is meaning?”. From the linguistic and semiotic approaches to the existential and phenomenological perspectives, our understanding of meaning is revealed to be as complex and multifaceted as the human experience itself. The quest to define and understand meaning invites us to engage in deep reflection and dialogue, recognizing that meaning is an ever-evolving construct that defies simplistic interpretation.
For further reading on the philosophy of language and meaning, check out our blog posts on Semantics: The Study of Meaning in Language and The Philosophy of Language: Exploring Semantics and Pragmatics.