Just what is meaning?

Let’s start with things that we investigate and wonder whether they have meaning. For instance, if you look at this word


and if you cannot read Cyrillic, never mind Russian, you would conclude that it has no meaning to you (the word is the translation of “meaning”). But at the same time, you might well surmise that these signs have meaning for someone other than yourself, because you know how to read.

Then there are emojis:





The meanings here seem pretty obvious. In fact, these little symbols are universally understood: they start with a smile, breaking into laughter, laughing to tears, and then mugging a lunatic smile.

Not to mention this fairly-new one: 💩

People understand these because of our experience with other people, specifically, their bodies, speech, gestures. This makes us human beings, social animals with self-consciousness. Emojis that symbolize people evoke those experiences. The little brown one reminds us of those times when a well-placed expletive seemed to fit the situation.

The explosion of this means of communication continues to add new pictographs, not always universally understood by any means. Popular culture keeps inventing new ones, whose meaning is culturally tied to something particular, and therefore, like Cyrillic, you may conclude that you do not understand the meaning, though others probably do.[1] For instance, 💁 — also known as “information desk girl”, for reasons this writer doesn’t understand…

Art has meaning as well, though a particular painting, sculpture, dance, poem, piece of music or theater, photograph, etc., may only suggest a meaning: i.e., it is “meaningful,” but its actual meaning arises only within the consciousness of the person appreciating it. That is, the meaning of a particular piece of art is subjective, although in the case of music, for instance, similar emotional reactions among listeners often arise simultaneously. Of course, I am talking about art that lasts over two or more generations, that is able to engage the attention of people over time. And while these are often tied to historical events, like Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica, which refers to a bombardment during the Spanish civil war of the 1930s, their meaning goes well beyond.

Consider the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: “da-da-da-duh”. Instantly recognizable even in this “transcription”, isn’t it? It has different meanings for people in different generations. People who heard it when the composer was alive had a different experience than a 20-year-old today would have. They would have listened to it with respect to other popular composers of the day, like Mozart, Haydn, Cherubini, Hummel, and so on. For the World War II generation, these four notes denoted the Morse code symbol for the letter “V”, “V for victory.” For a young person now, that connotation is probably lacking. However, the forceful introduction always commands the attention of any listener, of any generation.

Bad art is technically poor, or else its meaning is too clear. The best art draws us back to itself over and over: “Things [that] are not only what they are, they give more than they have.”[2] In other words, art that is “true” suggests different meanings as time goes on, and yet remains the same work.

Of course, there is plenty of art (not just visual) whose significance may escape you. The “Dadaist” movement of the early 20th century, for instance, tried to avoid the notion that art has meaning. But of course, this attempt failed, for there was meaning in trying to avoid artistic meaning, that is, despite it all, the works of the Dadaists were meaningful.

This brings us to the meaning of symbols. If you’ve made it this far through this article, your brain has processed some 3810 symbols. Yet you were hardly aware, right? And that is as it should be, for if you paid attention to each of them, you would never have gotten this far.

The five pictographs or emojis are also symbols. Road signs, too. When the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, overnight all the country’s road signs began to indicate the way back to Moscow. The ordinary symbols (“Praha ➡️10km”) now indicated the non-violent resistance of Czechs to overwhelming force.

Symbols are not only visual. We saw above that the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth is symbolic as well. Think of people singing “Danny Boy” at an Irish funeral: there’s more meaning to them than just the words and music. The blind read symbols with their fingers — the raised dots of the Braille system. The taste of a croissant may remind you of a trip to Paris. And smells can instantly awaken old memories. For instance, when I drink jasmine tea, I remember conversations with my mother, who loved it and shared her love of it with me.

Symbols are sensual signs that enable us to make abstractions.[3] The word is Greek, meaning “to throw together.” Symbols connect “the outside” to our “inside” minds (though in fact, there is no inside and outside…) They invite us into the world mediated by meaning.

This is different from the immediate and limited world of sense . Reading this means that you are in the world that meaning has opened up for you, because you have mastered symbolic communication in English (and emojis!).

The first symbols we encounter are sounds. Repeated over and over, the baby learns to recognize her name, and to respond to it, especially when she is rewarded by a positive reaction from her parents. From birth each of us has been adapted to a particular language and culture, first from learning to listen and speak, and secondly, from our surroundings and lifestyle. German, Congolese, and Chinese babies grow up to be German, Congolese, and Chinese adults, shaped from the womb by among other things the different structures of German, Lingala, or Mandarin. Each understands his world differently, yet upon meeting others of these countries for the first time, she will recognize that despite different skin color, etc., they use language too, wear clothes, have parents, and so on, just as he does.

Even so, while each of us can (and should) learn to appreciate languages and cultures other than our own, the fact is that none of us can ever really overcome the stamp of what we were raised in. And since all languages and cultures are constantly changing, this means each of us is also a product of our period in time, as well.

Such is life in the world mediated by meaning that only human beings, you and I, inhabit. In this world — as opposed to the immediate world of sense experience — is either subjugation by falsehoods or freedom through truth.

Which you prefer is actually up to you in the long run.

[This story, along with “Just what is truth?”, “Just what is language?”, and “Just the facts, Ms. AI”, are excerpts from my unpublished book, Set You Free: Know Your Own Mind. Write me for more information…]

[1] For help, see https://emojipedia.org.

[2] Jacques Maritain, in Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1953).

[3] Suzanne Langer, Feeling and Form: a theory of art (New York: Scribner & Sons, 1953).

Written by

Bishop in charge, Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, 2001–2019. French-American. Musician, composer, author, happily married. www.pierrewhalon.info

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