Where Does Meaning Come From?


The definition of language is typically confined to human behaviors that use structured sounds, symbols and/or gestures to communicate meaning.[1] Academic titans in the field of linguistics and cognition have done battle over whether language is behaviorally motivated by cause and effect through stimulus and response, a product of neuronal behaviors in the brain, or perhaps a hardwired human trait.[2] Brain scientists have embarked on quests for such things as “the grandmother neuron” in the search for the means by which we get our state of awareness.[3] Some daring warriors of exploration have pondered that language may be part of the broader animal kingdom. Some definitions expand the language bracket to include non-verbal elements of relationship such as visual communications like architectural design and art. Posture, tone and inflection are woven into the fabric of some theories or even such distant things as the signaling processes that goes on within and between biological cells[4] and organisms. With all of this squishy chatter about the definition of language we could easily miss the common thread that ties them all together; meaning. While there are many conflicts over the nature of language, the idea that language is a structured communication of meaning is not typically in dispute.

Language communicates meaning, and the origin of meaning is relationship. In fact; if we use the idea that “relationship is the origin of meaning” as our lens, it opens up a whole new world beyond the narrow definitions that confine meaning to traditional ideas of language. To illustrate the connection between relationship and meaning we can start by looking at a familiar word; “water”. “Water” is a group of symbols that stands in for the actual substance water. Although the word water and the actual substance are separate entities, these symbols and the substance are connected in relationship. It is this relationship connection by which meaning is conveyed.[5] When a relationship connection is a shared value between two or more entities, this is the root of communication. When two or more people understand this relationship with a shared value between the symbol and the substance, communication is possible, but the point that meaning is conveyed through relationship is the key.

The English word communication comes from a Latin word “communis”, which means “to share”. With meanings built on relationships as the currency of every language and shared values as the means of communicating that meaning we cannot assume that every meaning conveyed through relationships is understood. Communication requires this shared system relationship values in order to both encode and decode the same meaning. Language is the method by which meanings are encoded but communication requires encoding and accurately decoding by way of shared values. If shared values do not exist between both sender and receiver, communication can be distorted or destroyed even though the currency of meaning based on relationships still exists.

With these definitions of language and communication we can explore the meaning expressed through relationships that lay beyond symbolic languages. We are no longer bound to the limits of abstract symbols as the sole means by which meaning is conveyed. We can also see how a narrow definition of language can limit our vision of meaning by cutting off communication from all the relationships that exist outside our traditional ideas of language. With a limiting lens we could also be conjuring up unreal ghosts by distorting meaning through a lens that distorts or obscures the intended meaning – in other words; losing the real meaning in translation.

With the idea that meaning comes from relationships and communication from shared values, we can know that because substance water is built on relationships that it also conveys meaning. We can know that if relationships are the origin of meaning, and we deny this, that we would not understand the message conveyed through water because our lens is not properly tuned to decode the meaning. To the contrary, our abstract lens could by definition be tuned to block the real nature of the communication of water. With relationship as the origin of meaning we can look at the whole of reality as an expression of meaning instead of as a mere process devoid of meaning except perhaps within the domain of what we call human consciousness or biology. We can then use this lens to explore the meaning expressed through the relationship matrix of reality to better understand ourselves and what fulfills us.

Consider the following facts: Since we are real, everything we are is, by definition, a product of reality. Because we are alive and aware, reality is alive and aware, at least to the extent that we are. Because we plan, act with intention and arguably some measure of choice, these are also factors that govern at least a portion of relationships in reality. Since we generate and perceive meaning, this is a property in reality as well. Because we use language and shared values as the means by which we express meaning and communicate; language and communication are also products of reality. The real question is not whether meaning exists, but to what extent meaning exists and is communicated. Is the communication and perception of meaning confined to our own particular biological form of existence, or is it part of the fundamental properties of relationship that define reality itself.

If we embrace the possibility that meaning is a fundamental part of reality we must also embrace the notion that reality is making a statement that we may be unaware of because we artificially limited the notion of language to the sole domain of an infinitesimal fragment of specific human biology-in an unremarkable corner of the cosmos. This narrow idea is perhaps comparable to the once held view that earth was the center of the universe. We have since discovered with the aid of telescopes that the earth centric, human centric perspective was built on arbitrary and narrow assumptions that limited our understanding. It is to our benefit that this self-limiting idea did not weather the storm of empirical discovery as our lenses improved. With the aid of better telescopes, the microscope and other tools we have discovered that earth is not even the center of the solar system much less the universe and humans are a non-essential part of a much greater web of relationships that includes many forms of biology, the planet, fundamental forces, space-time and so on.

As creatures that are dependent on specific relationships for biological coherence we are inseparably dependent on a much larger system of relationships. This relationship matrix is a statement of meaning. It says something about us and what fulfills us. If the relationships that define our existence are stressed beyond their capacity to render the sustained environment of nourishment on which our existence depends, we cannot exist in our current form. This means something. The lion’s relationship to the zebra and the heart’s relationship to the kidney are also statements of meaning. The fact that plants inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen while we inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide means something. A whole new world of meaning opens up when we expand our vision to include ourselves as part of nature, rather than mere observers of it, and that means everything.

[1] For a perspective on this narrow definition of language (not being used here), look up the terms; “biolinguistics”, “Noam Chompsky”, and “Minimalist program”.

[2] For more information on language as a hardwired human trait look up the term; “universal grammar” and “foxp2 gene”

[3] This search for the grandmother has been largely disproved over the years and the brain is currently thought to be built on a vast network structure of connections rather than specific neurons that contain single memories.

[4] For examples of communication between cells look up the term “cell signaling” and “quorum sensing”.

[5] For more information on the structure of verbal/symbolic language in general look up the terms “linguistics” and “semiotics”.

8 responses to “Where Does Meaning Come From?

  1. This is very good, thank you for sharing it.

  2. Here is food for thought.
    I learned in college that human language has a number of characteristics that set it apart from any other species’ form of communication. I don’t remember all of them, but one of them was that human language uses symbols for things rather than the things themselves. Of course it follows that the speaker and the listener (or writer and reader) must agree on the relationship between the symbol and the thing. In the the simplest sense, that relationship is all that we mean by “meaning.” To suggest that other kinds of relationships between things in the physical world also constitute “meaning” seems to me to be treading the realm of philosophy or metaphysics.

    • I think you are probably referring to the human centric linguistic orthodoxy asserted by Noam Chomsky which I referred to in the footnotes. I am not asserting that Noam’s line of reasoning is incorrect. I am aware that I am being quite polemic proposing the possibility that language and perhaps awareness and meaning may be a fundamental force of nature rather than strictly an epiphenomenon of biology, particularly human biology. I really appreciate you questioning this. Again, I am not making the assertion that my proposition is correct, only that limiting the definition of language and meaning to human terms does not seem to be something we have necessary and sufficient evidence to support “ruling out” an expanded possibility unless we use arbitrary abstractions supported only by other arbitrary abstractions in order to do it. To give an example, the word “anthropomorphize” asserts that someone is assigning human traits to non human things. While this is true by the definition of the word, that does not mean it is evidence that non human things do not have the same qualities as we do and that anthropomorphizing is incorrect. After all were all made of the same star stuff so to speak.

      This was one of the reasons I reversed the argument to suggest that assuming that life, awareness, language and meaning are the sole domain of that which stems from our human biological perspective alone is arbitrary. We do not know, but we seem to rule that wider possibility out with abstractions and not real evidence. To be sure if we narrow the definition of language to include only that which characterizes human language as the means test for language then we can certainly rule out all other potential forms as “other”.

      Again thanks for the feedback!

  3. WordsFallFromMyEyes

    A wonderful article – thought provoking. Indeed, if we opened ourselves up to far wider communication on this earth… I like what you said about it meaning something re plants & us & oxygen etc. I’d never considered how truly meaningful that really is.

    I appreciated reading the comments too – & what you said on anthropomorpize. Truly interesting.

    • Thank you very much for reading and taking the time to comment. It’s nice to know it’s connecting in some way. I think it’s essential to recognize how easily we can become lost in our own little words.

  4. Pingback: The “Functional” Approach Methodology – Where Does Meaning Come From? | Hyperoptivity

  5. Pingback: #2 The Functional Approach Methodology – Where Does Meaning Come From? | Hyperoptivity: Discussions on Religious Pattern

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