concept pages: copyright Robert Ellis 2010 

Integration of meaning

The integration of meaning is the opposite of the fragmentation of meaning, and one of the three levels of integration (of desire, of meaning, and of belief). The concept of integration of meaning is based on an insistence that meaning cannot be reduced either to its cognitive or affective dimensions, that it is an incremental property, and that any discussion of it involves values as well as facts. Unlike the tradition of analytic philosophy and its Wittgensteinian offshoot, I do not discuss meaning in purely cognitive terms; but on the other hand not to recognise the cognitive dimension of meaning tends to lead to a new-agey vagueness or narrow expressivism. I do not wish to shut out certain ways of talking as 'meaningless', but rather to recognise that our experience is one of a gradation of meaningfulness in relation to the various written or other symbols around us. The extent to which we find symbols meaningful is not just important both for scientific progress and aesthetic appreciation, but also for moral objectivity, and it is only the mistaken fact-value distinction that leads many to falsely separate the conditions for these different kinds of progress.

The integration of meaning consists of a gradual increase in the meaningfulness of symbols in both cognitive and affective terms. Cognitive meaning becomes integrated when I understand more of the meaning of words or other symbols used by others that were previously meaningless to me. These might be foreign words, specialist vocabulary or jargon, or previously meaningless artistic symbols which I would not previously have been able to define, but an integration of cognitive meaning enables me to do so. Affective meaning becomes more integrated as I pay more attention to symbols that rouse my energies when they previously did not, and my experience of the significance of these symbols gains emotional or intuitive depth. Perhaps I start paying attention to what somebody is saying, when previously although I cognitively understood their words but found them affectively meaningless. Perhaps I actually start looking at a painting, suddenly understanding something of the significance of, say, a ray of light or a flower, for the artist, even if I couldn't give a cognitive 'key' that would translate these symbols into a verbal equivalent.

Though we could give examples of cognitive or affective integration of meaning that seem to be largely separate, they will never be wholly so, and the two kinds of integration are essential to each other. The understanding of a scientific paper depends on one's emotional engagement in reading it, and the most "ineffable" aesthetic experience will have a cognitive dimension that could be clumsily indicated in words. Integration of meaning must thus work in both areas simultaneously, though our development may be lopsided in concentrating on one side or the other. One could, for example, have a huge vocabulary but never listen to others, or be highly empathetic but have great difficulty grasping abstract concepts. The extent of meaning we can experience may be limited by our innate cognitive or emotional capacities (though it is often impossible to say exactly what is innate and what is amenable to effort), but the integration of our meaning consists in how far we have maximised this innate capacity to understand the symbols around us. Such integration needs to be described in terms of a psychological state rather than just in terms of philosophical analyses of meaning.

Meaning can be integrated not only at an individual level but also at a social level. In this case it becomes a way of talking about the breadth of symbols that can generally be understood and engaged with by the consensus of discussion within a particular society or group. Thus one can say, for example, that most Christians and Muslims do not understand Buddhism, in the sense that there is a lack of cognitive understanding and affective engagement with what Buddhists mean. This is different from asserting that Christians and Muslims disagree with Buddhism: they do that as well, but the disagreement is primarily due to a fragmentation of meaning which occurs before we reach the level of considering whether we agree with views that we understand. It could be addressed both by a cognitive effort to understand Buddhist utterances and symbols, and by an affective engagement of listening to Buddhists (and Buddhists could also help a lot with making themselves comprehensible - see The Trouble with Buddhism). Of course, speaking at a social level in this way, there is a necessary imprecision and many individual exceptions to the generalisation. 

Integration of meaning is dependent on integration of desire because our affective interest in new meanings depends on overcoming hatred and controlling craving. It also creates the conditions for integration of belief, as we cannot reach better justified beliefs without understanding the symbols those beliefs are expressed in, nor can we overcome disagreement without a basis in understanding.

Related discussion

Concept - fragmentation of meaning

Language and the Middle Way

Representationalism and expressivism (from thesis - scroll down to iii)

Wittgenstein (from thesis)

Integration and meaning (from thesis - scroll down to section c)


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