Wednesday, March 05, 2008

how do I mean?

How do I mean?

George G Clark, 05 March 2008

I see the world as meaningful but so do other people and it may not be meaningful in the same way. So how do I come by my view of what it all means?

Meaning exists in my mind. So how did it get there? An obvious route is through my sense organs which send signals to parts of the brain which are hard wired to interpret them in particular ways. But the meaning is not part of what is sensed: it must be added afterwards.

Since birth I have been exposed to 'culture' with sub-cultural and class-based features. This culture has a predetermined but dynamic world view which finds expression and continuity through rituals and a particular pattern of living language. These conspire to make me, in large part, a creature of my time and place.

The process of enculturation can be viewed as brainwashing. This raises the question of the extent to which I am free to choose 'my' system of meaning. To what extent might this be independent of, and unconditioned by, my time and place? And what might that involve?

Some people (the existentialists) reckon that I am condemned to freely choose my own pattern of meaning. They reckon I am responsible for my own world and that I have to work to realize the potential of my existence in my own terms. But, despite extensive time spent in other cultures, I remain in large part a recognisable creature of my time and place.

Other people (the structuralists) reckon that I am pretty much moulded by my culture  and language. In this view I am a robot most of the time although there is space for chance (?) to spark acts of creativity. This works through metaphor and metonym (see box) : the process works for both intuitive poets and rational scientists, and indeed for anyone at the cutting edge of meaning systems. And this means all of us? But some of us more than others?

So … how do I mean?

It seems that the process may be part hard wired, part due to culture and language, and part due to the chance quirks of my poetic, scientific and day-to-day stirrings. This is good news for the bit of my meaning system that rejoices in people not being total robots.  Nature and nurture can interact in creative ways. There would appear to be a sausage machine: but it leaks.


A metaphor is a thing that is used to represent another thing. For example, if we say, "TV is a thief of time," "thief of time" is a metaphor for TV.

Metonymy is the use of a term to mean something associated with it. For example, if we say, "I love the open road," "open road" is a metonym for the idea of travelling.


[This post was delightfully informed by reading Jay Stevenson (2005) The Complete Idiot's Guide to Philosophy; ISBN 1592573614]

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