concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2010


Fragmentation of meaning

The fragmentation of meaning is the opposite of the integration of meaning, and signifies the way in which the meanings of symbols in human experience can lack coherence and consistency over time. This lack of coherence and consistency is a matter of degree, and can occur both in cognitive and in affective terms. All symbols vary to some degree in human experience, as we encounter symbols in different practical situations, in different mental states and in different social contexts. However, there is also some consistency in symbols: if this was not the case everything would be meaningless and we would not be able to communicate in terms of any recognised signification. The Middle Way requires the recognition that our experience implies neither fixed meaning nor total meaninglessness (each of which is a dualistic extreme), but rather a practical responsibility to integrate meaning and increase its consistency as much as possible. The recognition of a degree of fragmentation of meaning in our experience is the starting condition of a process of integrating meaning.

The cognitive fragmentation of meaning occurs due to our degree of ignorance of symbols and our lack of awareness of that ignorance. We do not understand foreign languages. We do not understand the dialects or jargon of other groups speaking our own language. We may not have sufficient vocabulary to actually understand the words spoken to us, or we may misunderstand them because we do not adapt our understanding to the context. However, this cognitive fragmentation is mixed up to varying degree with affective fragmentation, which occurs to a greater or lesser degree due to our alienation from the symbols we encounter. I may understand someone's words but pay no attention to them because of a lack of emotional engagement with their personality, background or way of life. It may seem meaningless because it is very much the preserve of a particular group (e.g. older people not understanding the language of teenagers), or because it seems to consist in bureaucratic formalism (e.g. safety instructions on flights) or because of over-familiarity and boredom (e.g. married couples repeating the same things to each other but neither listening). Some symbols have very little cognitive content but are largely affective (e.g. a baby's cry, a crucifix), and the extent to which we find them meaningful depends almost entirely on emotional conditions.

This fragmentation is not limited to our lack of understanding of what others are communicating, but also applies to the consistency of the symbols we use when understanding ourselves. Someone who is inconsistent in their words and deeds (for example, being hypocritical or not keeping a promise), may simply not understand the significance of their earlier utterances, either because they have forgotten its meaning or because they have become alienated from that meaning. Someone who promises faithfully to do something when in church on Sunday that they neglect to do the rest of the week may just not have connected the meanings of the words they use in different places.

Fragmentation of meaning is closely connected to two other levels of lack of integration: of desire and of belief. Our desires are fragmented in what I have called frustration and an integration of desires forms one of the conditions for an integration of meaning. Our beliefs are also fragmented in what I have called doubt, and the integration of meaning forms a condition for the integration of beliefs. To find someone's utterances meaningful, we may need to overcome a basic alienation in order to want to understand them in the first place. To then integrate our beliefs so that they are both coherent and respectful of our degree of ignorance, we need to find a variety of beliefs meaningful enough to work with them using reason.

For more on how the fragmentation of meaning can be overcome, see the article on integration of meaning .


Links to related discussion

Fragmentation of meaning from thesis (scroll down to c.ii)

Language and the Middle Way


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