moralobjectivity. net concept pages: copyright Robert Ellis 2011


Meaning is the relationship we have with symbols that enables us to conceive those symbols as related to objects. By 'symbols' here I mean pictorial symbols, gestures, noises, words, phrases, sentences, and combinations thereof. By 'objects' I do not necessarily mean  specific physical things, but also abstractions, feelings, or experiences that are symbolised through a process of association. When meaning is communicated, one person creates symbols and another understands them, and meaning has been communicated to the extent that the understanding on either side coincides. However, communication can also be meaningful to the recipient in unintended ways, and to the creator in ways that do not reach the recipient. In either case, it is the relationship that each person has with symbols that makes the communication possible, however partial and ambiguous that communication may be.

It should not be assumed that meaning can only be understood in terms conditioned by communication and the agreed social use of symbols. Communication conditions meaning, but meaning also conditions communication and can occur independently of communication. As you read this page, the meaning of the written words used is entirely dependent on your capacity to find these words meaningful, a capacity which depends not just on your understanding of English, but also your understanding of this kind of philosophical writing and its specific use of language, and on your emotional state and degree of concentration. You could also look at something that was not communicative (for example, a tree near your home) and experience that tree as meaningful, because it symbolises, say, your locality, your feelings for the surrounding environment, or the species of tree it belongs to. Similarly, here, the meaning of a tree as symbol depends very much on your whole relationship to it, rather than just on the tree itself. 

What is specific to Middle Way philosophy in its treatment of meaning is the refusal to separate meaning from meaningfulness, or cognitive and emotional types of meaning. In our experience we do not find meaning separated from meaningfulness: they are always bundled together, although some symbols stress precise relationships to objects ("meaning") and others stress emotional expression ("meaningfulness"). Another way of putting this point is that representation (symbolisation of objects) cannot occur without expression (a relationship with our emotional states which brings energy to focus on the symbols and give them significance), and vice-versa. If we analyse out meaning into its cognitive and emotional elements, and then draw further conclusions about meaning or meaningfulness alone from this analysis, we are likely to over-simplify the issues through this schematisation. When schematisation is separated from the experience out of which it was analysed and mistaken for reality, we have metaphysical assumptions about meaning. Many other dualisms are in some way dependent on this dualism of meaning. For example, the dualism of facts and values depends directly on the dualism between cognitive and affective meaning. 

Another specific feature of the treatment of meaning in Middle Way philosophy is the conception of meanings as energies in the psyche that work intermediately between desires and beliefs. In each psyche (and also in each group or society) is a totality of meanings, representing our entire practical capacity to apply energies to symbols and connect those symbols to objects. This capacity forms a parallel meaning-psyche to the totality of our possible desires, and the totality of our possible beliefs, each of which can also be understood psychologically. This totality of meaning capacity for a given individual depends both on their cognitive abilities (languages and types of language understood) and on their emotional drives (their interest in exercising those abilities and the significance they feel for symbols). However, we do not use our full capacity for meaning because of the fragmentation of meaning - the ways in which symbols remain meaningless to us through a combination of cognitive and emotional factors. Fragmentation of meaning can be overcome through integration of meaning, which brings together the energies and capacities devoted to finding symbols meaningful. Integration of meaning helps to make our own experience richer and aids our understanding of others.

It is the fragmentation and integration of meaning that give a moral perspective to the question of meaning, and make it more than just an abstract question of 'semantics'. The integration model provides a way of explaining in more detail why dualism in one's explanation of meaning, with cognitive separated from affective, has a negative moral effect. If our underlying way of understanding meaning neglects whole areas of conditions and has a tendency to narrow us into eternalistic or nihilistic ways of operating, we have to fix it through developing better philosophical conceptions - laborious though that might seem.

One writer who has provided a very useful starting point for this process is George Lakoff, whose explanation of meaning as directly related to our bodies provides a way of avoiding either representationalism (which explains meaning solely in terms of its relationship to objects) or expressivism (which explains meaning solely in relation to the experiences of the self, as distinguished from objects). Representationalism and expressivism cannot be completely avoided, because both representation and expression occur in any use of symbols, but they do need to be combined and synthesised in a way that does not reduce one to the other. Lakoff's account of meaning provides a way of doing this, though it seems that much of its revolutionary potential remains unappreciated (and Lakoff himself sticks to a standard scientistic descriptive account of ethics).

See the following other concept articles for different aspects of meaning:

Fragmentation of meaning

Integration of meaning

Linguistic idealism

Linguistic realism



Defeasibility contexts


Also see the following sections of the thesis for more detailed discussion:

Psychological basis and philosophical expression


Integration and meaning (scroll down to section c)


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