On Meaning

Where has all the meaning gone? It runs, wherever there is context . . . context is what gives conceptual shape to our amorphous “stuff.”


Outside of the context of construction and repair, the hammer remains profoundly un-tool-like, and practically useless…it is not until an incidental context—some attack, the need to scavenge, or, if we’re lucky, the witnessing of its designed application by somebody “in the know”—provides it (and us) with a meaningful identity: the Bludgeoner, the Pryer-Opener, the House-Builder, etc. Within the given context, the hammer takes on practical value because it bears a conceivable purpose. When realized, the hammer’s existence within these identities fundamentally changes our lives: not only do we now know what “it” does, we can engage with the world keeping its utility in mind; obstacles will now and forever be filtered through the meaning of the hammer. Yes, certain situations will not be directly influenced by this new-found meaning, but others will profoundly transform—even appear as if to have always depended on what in actuality might be a recent discovery. Any future negotiations with life’s conflicts will depend on the meaning of the hammer to provide flexibility and productivity while ultimately working toward the betterment of both oneself and one’s community.

This is silly, you might say. This is a somewhat bloated characterization of the concept, you might reason. Come on. Hammers are hammers. The weight of civilization does not depend on grasping the profundity of a tool you can pick up at your local hardware store for $10.

Okay, I might say back. Thank you for the interruption, I might add. Perhaps, I might suggest, the meaning of your response might be better understood in the context of a comment section—a glorified public manifestation of what might have better been reserved for a diary entry, an unfinished email draft, or, in always the most dignified of forums, the inner sanctum of your plucky head, a place where thoughts like this one may and should have traversed across your neurotic plain ad infinitum. You come on. I’m obviously employing the classic rhetorical strategy of using a basic example to illustrate a larger point, a point of which I will elaborate on after establishing its simple premise. You need to be patient. No more interruptions.


So, meaning influences how we negotiate our problems, but, more than that, it provides previously unimagined solutions to these problems. But meaning in small things, like hammers, is not the issue. Our knowledge of them is socially abundant. No, when we speak of the profound lack of meaning in our lives, it has little to do with frivolous or utilitarian objects…it is deeper, existential, and the context necessary for us to apply it to our lives remains scarce or, possibly, as some have argued, fundamentally absent, and so the search for existential meaning appears exhaustive, wasteful, and, when characterized at its cruelest, naïve. You know the task: the pursuit of God, of purpose, of morality, of good and evil, the quest for cosmic comprehension in which chaos may be ordered and aimlessness vaporized; it is admittedly a daunting prospect. After all, the context of the hammer is far more accessible and yet, on close inspection, complicated enough as it is: the understanding of what goes into the building of something, and the simple relationships between those mechanics, the concept of “shelter,” the concept of “building,” the physics, the sense of weight, support, structure, even the social positioning—understanding size as an indicator of resource—all of these angles fit into a constellation of context, their shape pointing to the symbolic meaning and practical value of the hammer. While we do absorb many of these components subconsciously, their great number still reveals quite a complicated underlying structure at play in naming their context.

In comparison, finding a context to discern some grandiose, existential meaning—essentially putting the universe inside a frame—appears a task monumental, even impossible. How can we check for every possible point of constellation? This question draws us more deeply into the focus of constructing context: how do these clusters of framework really come about?


We may hastily point to propositional knowledge, or “whatness” (that which is provable or accountable), as the basis for the birth of context…we understand the meaning of the hammer because its context—construction and repair—is itself conceptual (we conceive of it, its relationships—or constellation points—are intellectually accessible, and therefore we give its framework life through its comprehensibility) but this gives far too much credit to the conscious mind. As was previously stated, much of what constructs the context of the hammer (physics, shape, symbolic applications) is put together subconsciously. We don’t literally write out a list of every conceptual quality for every meaningful object we engage with—these connections are made quietly, through experience, and mostly without our direct acknowledgment at all. We gather a sense of the hammer’s value, and, when pressed to prove our intuitions in a parsed and philosophical debate, that is when we are able to work backward and isolate core concepts consciously, using our propositional knowledge to back up what we already keenly understand. But if that knowledge already previously existed, it must be non-propositional, or of a “suchness” (that which is sensed or felt, outside of the realm of provableness) which works to found or establish our contexts.

It is difficult to speak of suchness concretely, as it is fundamentally abstract, but I will try to posit a clearer example to assert its very real presence in our lives—and by “clearer,” I really mean the opposite, but nonetheless, a historically pervasive force. I would like to look now at love. Those of us who operate under the assumption that love is, whether practically or pragmatically speaking, real, those of us who hold certain that we have felt love and are capable of loving, would have to agree that love’s presence in our lives is fundamentally meaningful. This belief flourishes, not simply in documented surveys, but in our traditional and cultural testaments—human history is profoundly saturated in the shape-shifty meaningful cloud that is love. And yet, according to my own premise, upon this consideration we immediately run into a problem: where is the context? If love is so widespread, and love’s course depends on a perceived sense of meaningfulness, what is the framework which provides for this meaning? When challenged to point out its fixtures, can we work backward using propositional knowledge to trace its conceptual web? A man looks at his partner and asks himself: “how do I know I love you?” And for many, this question wields a burning, intellectual fury: what evidence can be proven, what facts can be put forward? But, for this man, the question may be satiated with a simple understanding of the role of feeling: he looks at his lover, briefly marvels the incomprehensibility of his feelings, and ultimately resigns to it, assuredly. For, though it cannot be explained, it can be known. It may appear absurd and unsophisticated, but it is not perceived with uncertainty, and this makes it knowledge all the same.

This discrepancy between love’s meaningfulness and its unrealized context, which daily floats above our heads undisturbed, points to an essential and culturally un-clarified dichotomy that succinctly outlines the existential problem. There is both propositional and non-propositional knowledge, and yet the former has the sole claim to credibility. There is certainly and necessarily a validity to its placement in socio-structural prioritizing—founding anything based on unprovable premises is grossly irresponsible. But the widespread ignorance of non-propositional knowledge as a profoundly influential and meaningful impetus is just as reckless. The question of meaning, then, must shift. It cannot simply be about what can be proven, what can be made explicit…we must reposition our values in light of the acknowledgment of two very active and very real methods for acquiring information. They both have their place, and humanity’s profound sense of its intellectually ungraspable concepts—love, purpose, perhaps even God—need space to be accessed and considered patiently and sensitively by each individual, outside of the realm of a rigid and anxious court. We limit ourselves severely when we operate using only a portion of our knowledge while acting as if it is an entirety, and the consequences—ennui, apathy, the spiritual death of a culture—are too great to ignore.