A few people will find a book in their bookcase that they cannot decipher. As long as one does not know Chinese, Japanese, Russian, or Greek, one has no choice but to look for someone who can read, understand and transfer the scripture into an understandable language. The meaning of the hieroglyphs could only be deciphered in the Rosetta stone, in which a text was engraved as hieroglyphs, demotic and ancient Greek symbols among each other. There are books like the Voynich manuscript that could not be understood in the past six hundred years. Eventually, we realize that meaning can evaporate without translators, explainers, or experts – what a text means; how to make or use a tool; what purpose a monument like Stonehenge pursued; or how other people see the world.
With the current search for truth and the attempt to regulate language within the framework of political correctness, questions arise regarding meaning.
- What is the meaning?
Meaning is the very essence of people, things, locations, eras, and ideas. It is about the characteristics, the material, and immaterial characters of everything – what we perceive, think, exchange with each other, and do. These can be memories from the past, expectations about the future, and all sorts of abstract concepts. Means of expression are primarily words, images, haptics, smells, and tastes, or a mixture of these, like systems that are consciously or unconsciously shaped or emerge on their own. Meaning can be an idea, a theme, a concept/model, a plan, or a realization and describes
– building blocks that make up the whole,
– relationships between the building blocks,
– processes that consist of individual steps and have beginnings and ends,
– qualities that describe the merit of the named components,
– as well as all other aspects that go beyond everyday worldly wisdom.
To paraphrase Ludwig Wittgenstein: Meaning … is what an explanation of meaning explains” (PI560).
- Where do we find meaning?
Meaning is found everywhere and always in people and things. The essence of people comes from their outer appearance, social situation, visible and psychological behavior, relationships, and social impact. Things contain meaning through form, function, and their prestige. However, only people can make meaning visible since there is no tangible entity containing meaning with the essence of everything. It takes observers to interpret and communicate meaning – without ancient Egyptians and especially the Rosetta Stone, it would not be possible to access the meaning of hieroglyphics until today. The context provides further clues – the time reference (yesterday, today, tomorrow), the place, or the culture.
- How do we acquire meaning?
We perceive our environment with our senses: visually, auditory, kinesthetically, olfactory and gustatory. The pathway into our consciousness is still unclear. In the end, external stimuli expand the mental models that everybody has. In the so-called first-person perspective, each person thinks for itself. The resulting thoughts are only accessible to the respective self. Exchange of views is only possible by providing personal interpretations and transferring associations of the deep structure into the surface structure (e.g., language, images, or sounds). In the process, the message is distorted, generalized, and parts are deleted. The recipients perceive everything with their senses and open it up again for themselves. The meaning is created in the mind of each person. Due to the first-person perspective, however, it can never be verified since it can only be conveyed to others via the distorted statements of the surface structure (see meta-model of language).
- What is explained by meaning?
In general, we associate meaning with information and knowledge. Only sensually perceptible stimuli and data are tangible – written documents, pictures, films, sound recordings, things and the like, as well as digital data (e.g., 01001101011001011011010110010100001010). Information results from data that have meaning (e.g., memes – human behavior analogous to genes). When many pieces of information come together, knowledge is formed (e.g., memetics is the study of information and culture based on an analogy to Darwinian evolution). Once knowledge creates beliefs that enable decisions and evaluations, then we speak of wisdom (e.g., Viral marketing exploits the insights of memetics). Meanings resonate at all levels, providing circumstances with beings.
- Lost in meaning?
As soon as we leave the first-person perspective and speak of shared meaning, we always deal with the lowest common denominator. And since the rest, i.e., the understanding of the individual, is inaccessible, we have to live with the fact that there are countless interpretations (i.e., meanings) for everything. All for themselves are right. Therefore, for us to understand each other better, it is not enough to distribute our surface structure unedited, but we must shape our messages in such a way that counterparts can understand them – by using their language and jargon, familiar symbols, and so on. Analogies that make the fuzziness manageable supports this. Now, if we can manage to accept other opinions for what they are, filtered statements of first-person perspectives, we will not be Lost in Meanings.
Bottom line: Understanding what meaning is, where we find it, how we can reveal it, and by what it is represented, then it quickly becomes apparent that meaning without people hopelessly vanishes. The Voynich manuscript is a good example. It is physically available, but no human can interpret the signs and images. Whether it means anything, and if so, what is unattainable for the moment. However, this bound parchment has been shown to survive for centuries. To what extent our current flood of data lying on IT storage devices will survive the next one hundred years is pure speculation. Or, in other words, the meanings contained in all these people and things are ephemeral because they do not survive time. The Voynich manuscript, however, has shown us that the meanings of tangible data are also volatile.