Thinking about meaning

Some detached thoughts on meaning:

The verb mean and its derivatives are used in a number of different ways in English, but I think there’s a common thread, a core meaning that is present both in the 26th word of this sentence and in the following examples:

  • Üzüm suyu means “grape juice.” [in Turkish]
  • A handmade gift means more than a check.
  • The ruling means that he could spend the next eight years in prison.
  • It’s just a meaningless coincidence.
  • Of course you realize, this means war!
  • The typhoon means we can’t go to Hualien this weekend. [This happens to be true.]
  • She means everything to me.
  • I didn’t mean to do that.

Though the last two examples are a stretch, I think that in every case here, mean means to convey information about something else. Words have meanings because their whole purpose is to convey information. A handmade gift conveys more information than a check — information about the giver’s understanding of, relationship with, and feelings for the recipient, for example. Knowing the judge’s ruling lets you know that the accused could spend eight years in prison. And so on.

I’m not so sure about the last two, but I think they also fit the pattern. If she means everything to me, it means I use facts about her to draw conclusions about all kinds of things — what I ought to do, whether life is worth living, and so on. And if I say “I didn’t mean to do that,” I mean that there is no causal connection between me, the person, and what I just did — that no amount of information about my personality or intentions could have helped you predict the action in question.

I’m sure I can’t force every use of the word mean into this pattern, but I think it’s a useful place to start. Particularly when considering ideas like “the meaning of life,” which sometimes seem to be so vague as to preclude clear thought, it’s helpful to have a hard core to anchor oneself to. It’s easier to think clearly about the meaning of life if you keep in mind that the basic question is: What information does life — that is, the bare fact that life-as-we-know-it exists — convey about things other than life itself? When I think about it that way, I can see (for the first time, I’m a little embarrassed to admit) why the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are considered to make life more meaningful. If life came into existence by chance, then the fact that it exists, rather than not existing, tells us little; it it was created for a purpose, then the fact of its existence tells us a lot. If life is a blip in a cosmic history characterized mostly by its absence, then it conveys little information about the universe as a whole; if life is destined to continue forever, then it conveys an infinite amount of information about the future history of the universe.

*

There is often a difference between past-oriented and future-oriented notions of meaningfulness. A particular throw of a pair of dice is meaningless in the past-oriented sense; the bare fact that I rolled two fives rather than some other combination of numbers tells us almost (if not quite) exactly nothing about the past. That doesn’t stop it from being meaningful in a future-oriented sense, though; in certain situations it might mean, for example, winning or losing a large amount of money.

*

There are at least two levels of meaning. If a random text generator spews out a grammatical sentence, that sentence itself will mean something, but the fact that that particular sentence was produced will be meaningless. If the same sentence is spoken by a person in conversation, it will also be meaningful in the second, higher sense.

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