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Meaning is contextual.
The case against my least favorite question of all time.
"Life isn’t about the answers you give. It’s about the questions you ask."—my mother
This is a claim my mother makes from time to time, about the supremacy of inquiry over conviction. I’m not sure she’s entirely right. I think some answers are pretty important. But there’s no doubt that the kind of answers you reach depend a lot on the kind of questions you ask. And among the most unhelpful, most misleading questions that we humans are inclined to ask is: "What is the meaning of it all?"
This question is often posed in a way that juxtaposes the smallness of our own actions against the largeness of the grand void of space. It is usually paired with an illustrative metaphor. We are but an atom in a mote of dust on desk of God’s rarely-used home office in the guest annex of his vacation universe etc... So how could any of this thing we call existence have any meaning?!
But this kind of bottoming-out of meaning—a definition of meaning in the ultimate context of material existence—represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how meaning works. It’s a valid question about human meaning in the same way Noam Chomsky’s famous “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” is a valid sentence in the English language. Sure, you’re allowed to put those words together in that order. But doing so isn’t going to get you very far in the way of conveying anything especially worthwhile to yourself or anyone around you.
What this question misses is the fact that meaning is contextual. When you leave the context, the meaning dissipates. There is no legitimate definition of meaning where this is not the case. Therefore, when the premise of your question is about meaning in a scope where, by definition, you’ve transcended the context of everything that exists... of course there’s no meaning there!! You might as well be surprised there’s no oxygen for you to breathe out there, either. Both would be a really big problem, if you ever found yourself on the outer reaches of our galaxy.
And let me be clear. This doesn’t imply the meaning is an illusion. It’s not a nihilistic argument. It’s a fact about the way meaning is constructed. Meaning isn’t something you can put in a bag and weigh up, like all the atoms in the dust on God’s guest-room desk. It is something that is created in the mind. Specifically, it is something that requires both a figure and ground, an object and backdrop. Changing the background changes the object in fundamental ways. Let me give you a few examples.
Exhibit A: Language
I already invoked the name of Noam Chomsky. I recently did a podcast episode with one of my favorite cognitive science of language researchers, Gary Lupyan, and the title of that episode was “How words get their meaning.” If you were going to put the answer in a single word, what would it be? Context!
As Michael Tomasello notes in the opening passage of Constructing a Language, among the simplest utterances we have in human language are the partial phrases used by children, such as “more juice” or “doggie gone.” And yet it is an astounding fact that even these phrases cannot be understood by 80% of our conspecifics. Most people don’t speak English. These words, simple and expressive though they may be to us, don’t mean anything to them. The most basic fact we have about language is that there are different ones. And it’s clear to anyone who has ever traveled abroad that there is no way to import meaning from your own language into someone else’s if you don’t share the same linguistic background.
More than that, a shocking amount of meaning in language—complex meaning, not just more doggie and juice gone—can be understood in terms of context. Specifically, which words appear in close proximity to other words. This is literally how ChatGPT works (at a super basic, overly but usefully simplistic level; for a non-specialist’s overview, see the second half of this Ezra Klein interview). It processes a huge amount of text, and learns which words tend to show up next to which other ones. It turns out that if you do that really, really well for a hugeee amount of data, then you get a system that really seems like it understands language.
And this doesn’t just go for natural languages as well! It’s the same thing for computer languages. If you have a line of code that does something useful in one language, then simply copying and pasting in an effort to recruit its algorithmic utility in another language is almost certain to fail.
Exhibit B: Religion
Okay, you might say, all that linguistic stuff is fine. But mostly when people talk about “the meaning of it all” they’re talking about God. Religion is what, for many people, defines the ultimate context of all meaningful endeavor. In a universe with God, you get a grounded, unwavering definition of the meaningful (that which contributes to or is in accord with God’s plan). In a universe without God, you don’t have that. You have just atoms and dust—and it’s all just a haphazard, inert arrangement of matter. Right?
Wrong. The thing that no one ever talks about is what happens when you ask about what makes God meaningful? Like, what happens when you take a step back and ask what the point of God’s plan in an even grander scheme? Why does the whim of one deity—allegedly omniscient though he may be in our physical universe—suddenly suffuse everything with value? The answer is that when you begin to go down this line of questioning, you’re back to meaninglessness. God only provides you ultimate meaning if you define Him as the arbiter of ultimate meaning. If you continue to play the “But what does it really mean in the grander scheme?!” game, you’ve still got the same problem on your hands. Meaning is contextual, even when the context is God.
Exhibit C: Poetry
My favorite poetry book is a work called Love, an Index by Rebecca Lindenberg. It’s hard to convey just how fantastic, accessible (even to someone, like me, who knows nothing of poetry), and perfectly crafted this collection of poems is. It’s meant to be read front to back, like a book but in verse rather than prose. The first thing you learn is that it’s dedicated to someone—presumably a lover; you don’t have to be Sylvia Plath to notice the word ‘love’ is in the book’s title—who has died. From there, the poems seek to capture the texture of falling in love, from the first moments of attraction to the well-worn grooves of an entrenched relationship, where the form of the poem is meant to match the form of the feeling. Soon, you begin to get glimpses of what happened to this lover and the circumstances of his death. You can get through it in about a two, or two-and-a-half hour sitting. It’s perfect. Anyway, the reason I mention it now is that one of the poems (specifically the ‘index’ of the title) gives Lindenberg’s definition of poetry. Poetry is “how thought feels.”
All of this is to say, poetry is about as densely meaningful as any human endeavor can be. And how does meaning work in poetry? Well, in one of the most famous critical essays of all time, Tradition and the Individual Talent, T.S. Eliot gives an answer. Poetry is meaningful only in the context of other poems. “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone,” writes Eliot. “His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.”
So, based on that theory: is poetry meaningful because there’s something intrinsically meaningful about that particular arrangement of those particular words? No. It’s really just that the more “meaningful” a poem is—i.e., the more it’s able to convey, if you know what you’re looking for—the more it needs to be considered in the context of what’s preceded it. That’s why, for most of us, poetry is so hard to understand. We don’t know anything about poetry! And according to T.S. Eliot, what’s the one thing you need to know about in order to “get” a poem? Other poems!!
It’s context, all the way down.
Exhibit D: Music
For our final example let’s turn to music. There’s a book from the 1950s called Emotion and Meaning in Music by an author named Leonard B. Meyer. I returned to it recently, and it wasn’t great as a book because pretty much all of the details in it feel a little antiquated now. But it’s one of the main sources that psychologically-inclined musicologists cite when trying to make a connection between music theory (the structural study of how notes fit together, like pieces in a puzzle) and the perception of meaning (how those theoretical structures manifest in feelings and reactions from individual listeners). But the main argument, I think, still holds quite well: no individual note has meaning in and of itself. A note is only meaningful in the context of other notes.
In a way, this is just a rephrasing of the definition of harmony. Harmony is the sonic context of a song. In short, it’s the chords that are being played underneath the melody. And the reason the melody sounds a certain way—happy, sad, exciting, etc—is because the series of notes being played or sung as the melody has a particular relationship to the underlying harmony.
There’s no doubt that in another strand of the multiverse I became an ethnomusicologist/music cognition researcher. I studied this sort of thing a lot in undergrad, and even wrote my thesis on “computational models of jazz improvisation inspired by language.” So I could get really nerdy here. But just to take a (relatively) simple example: If you the melody is playing a C, and the harmony is playing a C major chord. Then that note is going to sound really stable, perhaps even have a certain finality to it depending on the chord that proceeded it. But if you play the same note, a C, and move the chord up a half step, to a C# major chord—that same note now plays a completely different role in harmony. It’s now the major seventh of the underlying chord: it’s dissonant, but in (potentially) a very pretty way. In general, it’s a musical signal that something nice, but not final, is happening. The way meaning works in music is not exactly the same as how it works in language. (That’s why we use words instead of music notes to communicate; but if you’ve ever read the book Hail Mary Project, which I keep recommending over and over again, then you know that there’s no principled reason why that has to be the case.) But nonetheless—where do musical notes get whatever kind of meaning they do have? Context.
The general principle here is that meaning is what you might think of as a problem of “local knowledge.” There are no universal, scientific principles that can tell you what something means in the way that you can discover principles about, say, the motion of planetary bodies. The concept of local knowledge was introduced by the economist Friedrich Hayek in his super interesting 1945 essay The Use of Knowledge in Society. He writes:
Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowledge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place.
Hayek goes on to argue that some things just don’t admit to scientific scrutiny. For example, which of the nearby groceries sells the best produce? Or which one has the largest selection of imported foodstuffs? That’s just something you kinda have to live on that street or in that area to know.
Hayek says that “practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made”. It’s an essay about economics, and specifically the economics of central planning, which has a hard time making use of local knowledge. It’s not explicitly about meaning. But I think meaning works in the same way. (Not just my opinion: see Local Knowledge by my favorite anthropologist Clifford Geertz for a full theory of meaning.) No one can look from the outside, from some God’s-eye-view central planning agency in the sky, and say what about your life and your activities makes them meaningful. Only you can do that.
And more specifically, you can only do that… if you get the context right.
To put it concretely: One of the mistakes we make is to look at too big a picture when evaluating questions of meaning. We ask what makes our work meaningful or impactful on a “global” level. But more global you go, the less meaning you’re going to find. Meaning, in this sense, is about an activity or endeavor’s impact within a system. (That’s not the only way to define it, but it is a useful one.) The more impactful something is, the more meaningful it is. But when you look beyond that system and continue to ask about impact—of course you’re not going to find it!
The smaller our circle of meaning, the more likely we are to feel our actions are impactful.
One of my core life mottos is Bertrand Russell’s statement: “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” It is through love that we are driven to want certain outcomes in the world. And it is through knowledge we discover how best to achieve them. This also gives us an idea of what it means to ask the right questions, and how to begin looking for answers. Love, in the best case, is what motivates us to ask the questions that we do. It helps us to define our context. Knowledge is what helps us answer them.
When the scope of our question exceeds that which we truly care about then we’re no longer inspired by love. We’ve lost the thread of meaning. Love is what defines our context of meaningful engagement. Knowledge is what tells us how best to act within it.
The boundedness of meaning to a particular context is not something to shy away from, or to be disappointed by. It is something to embrace. It is also something to be cognizant of when evaluating how meaningful you feel your current activities are. Meaningful in what context? Get the context right. The meaning will follow.