What is Meaning?
Thesis on meaning in the context of Husserl's Phenomenology written as my final essay for my Fall 2017 Phenomenology class at UC Irvine.
What is meaning? There are many angles from which one might attempt to tackle this question. It may well be impossible to truly and completely answer as stated. This is because the question is actually in some sense self-reflexive; as I will attempt to explain, the question of “what is x?” is itself at least in part a question of x's meaning, therefore to even ask it presupposes at least some rudimentary idea (or perhaps, ideally, some intuitive grasp) of the concept it seeks knowledge of in the first place. There are many senses in which the word “meaning” can be used; depending on the context it may refer to one or more members of a set overlapping, yet distinct concepts, ranging from the mundane and even trivial to the fundamental and the essential.
In the most mundane sense, meaning is the glue which connects elements of our linguistic/symbolic mental models/maps of the world to abstract concepts, and which further connects those abstractions to specific objects or processes in the world itself. For example, in the interrogative sentence “What does the word 'Dictionary' mean?”, the question of meaning asks for the word's definition-- the relation of the conventionally arbitrated symbol (the word “Dictionary”) to the abstract concept or set thereof which it represents (a book containing a comprehensive list of words and their definitions) referring in this case to a concretely existing or potential physical object (millions of actual, physical bound stacks of printed paper in libraries and on bookshelves across the world).
The abstract concepts to which words refer, or which they mean, in this sense of meaning, are themselves composed of a network of further relations to other concepts (in our example, “book,” “list,” “words,” etc.); this network of meanings within meanings contained in each concept is also a part of the meaning of the concept's assigned word or symbol.
In its more profound sense, on the other hand, the question of meaning refers not simply to relations of symbols to concepts or concepts to objects, but rather asks more fundamental and subjective questions about intrinsic purpose and value, either of a given object, entity, process, practice, etc, or, most profoundly, of life and existence itself. When we ask the age-old question, “What is the meaning of life?”, we are not asking for the scientific, biological definition of the term distinguishing physical entities which sustain themselves, grow, and self-replicate from those which do not; we are asking about what, if any, ends this phenomenon of life, and the larger phenomenon of existence in which it is couched, is directed towards, and what, if any, worth it has (and, implicitly or subsequently, how we may attain or experience such worth, and/or contribute most effectively to such ends).
This sense of the word “meaning” refers to a much more subjective experience which is much harder to describe in concrete terms, the experience of meaning as a unification of parts, as coherence, harmony, purpose; the sense that the specific phenomenon or set of phenomena referred to in the experience is “right” or “in the right place,” “doing the right thing,” etc. and the corresponding emotional experiences of satisfaction, gratitude, inspiration, and even bliss.
Do these definitions provide us a satisfactory answer to the question “What is meaning?”, however? No. They only explain how the word is used; they tell us how to define meaning-- how to use the word and how to understand its use by others-- but this is only an answer to one sense of the question, and it is not the most important one. We have only provided meanings of the word “meaning” in the mundane, extrinsic sense described firstly above. The heart of the question, however, is its profound, intrinsic sense which we have most recently described: what is the essence of meaning?
To answer this question is a bit trickier. One formulation which might help us to reach a more profound grasp of meaning's essence would be something like this: How do we access/construct/approximate meaning in our conscious experience? Again, this question might be tackled from many different angles by many different means. For the purposes of this paper we will attempt to address these questions primarily in terms of the science of Phenomenology developed by German philosopher Edmund Husserl.
In Husserlian terms, meaning, as it manifests in our conscious experience, is what is called noema, the content of an instance of what is called noesis, or an act of consciousness. This noema, in contrast to the concrete, objective experience from which the process of noesis (presumably) derives it, is an ideal, abstracted, meaning which according to Husserl is composed of two aspects: a thetic content and a sense content. The sense content of noema is the presentation of the object intended by the noema, and the thetic content is the inherent self-referential aspect of the objective experience (that is, its construction in reference/relation to a “self” who is aware of it).
The noematic sense is a mental “image” (here meant not simply in the sense of a visual image, but rather in a wider sense that may refer to any type of mental manifestation of apparent substance, i.e., “product of imagination,” visual or otherwise) which refers to a hypothetical or assumed object or event in physical reality. In the moment that this sense is experienced, it is distinguished in experience from background (implicit) concepts of other possible manifestations by its thisness, its hereness, its nowness. There is no experience which does not have something, be it an image, a sound, a thought, a feeling, or some other form of experience, as its object. This object, as it manifests in our subjective experience, is the noematic sense. Call it “X”.
The thetic content of the noema describes the relationship of this object or event to the subject; it explains how “I” come to know “X” in the inherent intentional relationship of consciousness to object. Just as there is no experience which does not intend some object “X,” there is likewise no experience of any given “X” without the complementary experience (at least implicitly) of an “I” or awareness which knows or is aware of “X.” The thetic content of noema refers not to the “I” but to the means by which “I” and “X” are (or appear to be) connected or related.
“I” is not itself a part of the noema, as it is universal to all acts of consciousness and therefore has no discernible bearing in itself on the content of any act of consciousness of which it is aware. In Husserl's model, “I” is outside of the noesis and its noema, experiencing both, with the experience of the latter being contained within that of the former. Nonetheless, the two are inextricably bound, as far as we know (and as far as we can discern logically) there can be no experience without the awareness of it, or without the “it” said awareness is aware of.
One might object to this notion (as I myself have erroneously objected in the past) by pointing to reports from certain meditators, mystics, subjects of hypnosis, users of psychedelic drugs, and other such consciousness-hackers of experiences in which this deeply-held sense of an “I” towards which the experience is directed or from which the action of the body and mind proceeds is temporarily-- or even, in the reports of so-called “enlightened masters,” “gurus,” “realized beings,” etc., permanently (or nearly permanently)-- eliminated from conscious experience.
However, upon deeper examination of these reports, it is clear that this “I” or ego which is removed from the experience in a state of “ego-loss” or “ego-death” refers not to the awareness of the experience itself-- in fact most traditions which strive to bring about such experiences emphasize awareness as particularly important or fundamental, and describe the experience as a widening or expansion of awareness, not a disappearance of it-- but to the sense of oneself as a separate, finite being which shares the limitations of the physical body: in Husserlian/phenomenological terms, the embodied “I”.
One may still object, however, to the other side of this claim (that “I” and “X”, or “self” and “other” are inextricably bound to one another and universal to all experience) from similar premises. Elsewhere the mystical experience has been described as an experience of “consciousness-without-an-object”; this might be posited as evidence for the negation of the claim that all conscious experiences are directed towards some object. I think this would be a misinterpretation. In my understanding, “consciousness-without-an-object” refers not to a fundamental alteration of the intentional structure of consciousness described by Husserl, but to a (nonetheless paradigm-shattering) experience of consciousness directed towards consciousness, where consciousness itself comes to fill the role of “object” (i.e. that which the noema intends) in the phenomenological schema. The “directedness” of the conscious experience is still present despite the radical change in the nature of its object.
A final objection that one might raise in response to this argument is as follows: if consciousness is inherently non-objective, how can it possibly serve as an object of itself? I think this is just a semantic issue. There need not be an actual object to fill the role of “object” in the intentional structure of consciousness; in fact, the entire study of phenomenology is founded upon the method of epoché, which fundamentally bypasses the question of whether there are true objects at all. It doesn't matter whether the “object” of a conscious experience is truly objective in nature, only that it may serve as if an object in the context of the experience. Thus, consciousness can indeed appear as its own object; the intentional structure is preserved.
So, returning now to our main thesis, in the terms of the phenomenological model developed by Husserl, every experience involves an “I” awareness which is inherently aware of some act of consciousness (noesis). The content of this noesis is its noema, which is a coherent synthesis of a sense aspect (the presentation of an intended object) and a thetic aspect (the relation of that object to an implicit or explicit concept of self). We will note that there may be some significant alteration of the nature of this thetic aspect in the mystical or non-ordinary conscious experience as described above; nonetheless there must still be some relation of “I” to “X”, even if it is a relation of identity.
The noema comes to us in our experience whole, with no need for our conscious mind to do any work in constructing it from sense data or mental associations; all the data involved in each experience comes pre-assembled in a neat package. Even if the noema intends a chaotic, dissonant, “meaningless” experience, it is whole within itself, not requiring any further work or reference to anything outside of it to present its intended meaning. This is to say that even an experience of meaninglessness is itself a meaning in the sense that it is a self-contained synthesis of various datapoints into an instantly manifest, intuitively grasped reality; however apparently discordant, it is somehow made to fit together, or it could not be contained in a single experience.
Should we choose to reference further data samples from a subsequent or recalled experience or set of experiences in order to supplement or modify the meaning presented in a given noesis (N1) to bring it more in line with our ideal harmony and present a more satisfying or actionable narrative of events or concept of reality in a new noesis (N2), this would not create a “truer” representation of the noema of N1, but a different noema altogether, a new noema which retains or recollects what had been presented in N1 but integrates it into an altogether different presentation of meaning.
It may be a truer representation of the presumed object of the noema, but the provisional object of the noema in N1 is perfect in itself as presented by said noema. Every noema is as true a representation of what it represents as possible, there is no scale of accuracy here because we are not talking about how well the noema represents a real object, but how well it represents the experience it represents, which is always with one hundred percent accuracy, and by definition cannot but be.
Does the meaning that is meant by the noema ever get us to “real” meaning, then, if it can present two totally contradictory realities without conflict? Perhaps it can only approximate it, drawing ever closer but never fully grasping. Or perhaps, in this case, we can say real meaning is the approximation of such, since there is no real that is more real than said approximation. Perhaps a deeper understanding can be reached by a study of the nature of the process of abstraction which is fundamental to the constitution of the noema.
When we abstract an ideal meaning from the ever-changing chaos of our sense data, what we are doing is applying an illusory, non-objective concept of perfect, static essence which is a mentally invented average of many similar but distinct phenomena in the imperfect, non-static material world. This concept is a cultural artifact, a product of an historical process based in mathematics as well as arbitrary conventions borne from the limitations of the animal body and circumstances in the environment over time. Ultimately they all derive from survival and reproductive strategies of the human DNA program and all the various desires stemming from its existential imperative.
Therefore, I argue that what makes meaning is ultimately what we can do with the understanding intuitively grasped in the noema: what experiences we can have of ourselves and objects using it. For example, what makes a eucalyptus tree a eucalyptus tree is that you can use it to experience the beauty of its buds, flowers, and foliage, or you can use it to feed a koala, or you can use its wood to make pulp, or you can use it to make eucalyptus oil which you can use for aromatherapy and other purposes, etc. Enfolded into this meaningful concept “eucalyptus tree” is the historical development of the concept, which itself is also ultimately meaningful as a function of its utility: what we can do with that historical knowledge and how the light of that knowledge can impact or alter our experience of the tree and its products.
Meaning, then, is not something objective, but something which is derived from our volition or will (although this will in all its forms is ultimately grounded in objective genetic realities). Meaning is not a constant, but a tool which can be constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed as necessary to produce any desired experience for “I”. It is ineffable and non-graspable, and yet it is effectively captured in its very pursuit.
This understanding, when it is fully understood and applied by our culture, will revolutionize the human experience and unlock new doorways to experiences previously only accessible to a select few and only in short intervals. Once we have deeply grasped, not on a simply intellectual level but on the level of felt experience, that meaning is not something “out there” to be “found,” but something in our own minds to be constructed and used to create noematic art, and once we have gotten past the immature nihilistic response to the lack of objective meaning that imagines subjectively constructed meanings are somehow less valuable or true than the previously imagined objective meaning would have been, a major paradigm shift will occur.
When this understanding is applied on a large scale, previous cultural models of meaning inculcated in the minds of the masses by the control systems which social and economic elites have developed and refined for the purpose of preserving obsolete and inefficient social and economic hierarchies which they may dominate will be invalidated and overthrown by the indomitable force of the human spirit; worldwide competition will then commence to find and share new kinds of meaning and experience, and this drive will become the new prime incentive for all economic activity.