📰 Meaning and Pointing
Full Title: Meaning and Pointing
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As with many abnormal psychological phenomena, the existence of derealization points to its absence in the normal world: the negative phenomenon of the loss of the sense of the average-everyday orientation points to the positive phenomenon of constructing the sense of the real.
In this essay I will explore a cartographic metaphor for the ways people create meaning and navigate the complex systems of meaning they create, based on pointing, reference, and maps.
We possess adaptations that facilitate pointing, such as the crescent shape of our sclerae (the whites of our eyes), allowing conspecifics (and our evolution partners, dogs) to easily perceive the direction of our gaze. In a sense, if our eyes are open, we are always pointing (at something) to any observer who cares to look.
The word “meaning” in English is itself a polyseme, a word with multiple meanings. In one sense, “meaning” refers to the referent of a word, its dictionary meaning or a particular contextual sense. In a broader sense, “meaning” refers to value, purpose, and more cosmic significance (as in “the meaning of life”).
While not a linguistic universal, it is very common in other languages for the word for semantic, dictionary “meaning” to also be used to indicate a deeper sense of purpose or significance.
“Meaning” in the sense of “meaning of life” carries with it from the semantic sense of “meaning” the expectation of a pointing relationship. What is the purpose of life, or love, or getting up in the morning? What does it signify?
Human cognition is characterized by asking “why?” – explicitly as a child, internally as an adult.
Baumeister divides purposes into two types: goals and fulfillments. Goals are short-term future plans that are likely to actually be achieved; once a goal is completed, a new one must be found. Fulfillments, on the other hand, are fantasies about an idealized far future.
If, as I have tried to motivate above, meaning is pointing, then in order to perform the essential human functions of experiencing meaning and feeling at Home in the world – in order not to get lost in derealization or depersonalization – we must navigate complexity using comfortable mental maps that point to our shared social world of information.
Mental maps for geographic navigation may help us feel at Home, creating a “meaningful” pointing relationship between what is in our minds and the world around us, but most of our time is spent not in geographic space, but in the information spaces created by language, technology, and culture. And we must have mental maps for these as well.