On Meaning [1] | Absolute Truth

A few weeks ago Nic and Jonathan and I had one of our occasional drinks at the Crown and Greyhound and ended up in a very politely heated debate on ‘meaning’, which we are planning to jointly thrash out here and over at Haunted Geographies (though not sure exactly when he’ll be posting).

It had started innocently enough. Nic asked how Sigur Ros was, and I mentioned my thoughts about music being somehow ‘beyond language’. He argued that without language there can be no meaning. And I want to try to explore why I disagree with that, and why I think that disagreement is important, rather than totally academic – which I’ll probably get to in the next post. So bear with us.

Slide2My hunch that began the conversation was that there is a meaning behind language that we, very occasionally, get a glimpse of.

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In moments that we might call ‘epiphanies’ we touch something that simply cannot be properly expressed in words, and I think that historically music has been the tool that has given us access to these moments most often. What I would agree with is that language is the only means we have to share meaning, and I’ve sketched out my idea of this here.

As two people dialogue – just as Nic and I were doing – they are attempting to communicate what they actually mean. But the only way they can do this, the only way they can put their meaning into public space, is through language. Language is the public space by which we attempt to share meaning, it is an imperfect construct for doing so. So arriving at meaning by dialogue is inevitably a process of negotiation – hence the ‘half equation’ arrows between.

In this sense I agree with the postmodern idea of, for example, the meaning of a text being a negotiation between reader and writer. But I only agree with that in the sense that the process by which sharing meaning has to happen is imperfect. What I disagree with is that there is no original meaning behind language.

In the conversation we had, Nic raised the example of a “cat”. Or “chat” in French, or “gatto” in Italian. I use the quotation marks deliberately, because when we use a word – cat for example – we are actually only using it in the sense that we a) understand some shared meaning, and b) may have some particular nuances of meaning for that word based on our experiences of cats up to this point. “So” “in” “some” “ways” “all” “our” “words” “should” “be” “in” “quotes”. Because when we talk we are negotiating some shared meaning with a background of private experiences.

However, I would want to argue that in a world which happened to have no word for cat, cats would still have meaning. In other words, they would still exist, just as before my son had formed language, things still existed for him in a meaningful way. According to popular postmodern argument, without language for it, things simply don’t mean anything, and therefore don’t exist.

Now this may appear to be basically academic: what the hell difference does it make? But, as we discovered as we continued our discussion, what this boils down to is the question of existence outside of ourselves. If there is no original meaning which language is trying to (imperfectly) communicate, then there is no absolute truth. And it’s that question that I want to address in the next post.


29 responses to “On Meaning [1] | Absolute Truth”

  1. Hey Kester, it´s your language which let you think of two different entities titled ‘language’ and ‘meaning’. Maybe there is meaning behind language, maybe it is in front of language. Who know´s? Probably God. I think: It´s all totally interwoven: meaning, language, and the little tiny rest. We can´t move out of language to have a look what else is there. Wherefore? To look if there exist´s something out of yourself? What is something? Pure substance? Probably it´s a historical apriori that leads us to think of a hierarchical ontology which put´s the ‘Sein’ in the first place and language in the second row. What is doubted by some is not that we have an intense and authentic feeling that there is something beyond language (meaning, reality), but the hierarchy of the ‘historical apriori’ – to think of two different entities and to put them in only one order. To fear that there will be not truth and no meaning left, when we concede that there is – for us – nothing outside language (´cause everything is interwoven with language), is the consequence of still thinking in the paradigm of the ‘historical apriori’. Is this ‘historical apriori’ biblical? I don´t think so. We are used to read the bible from this viewpoint, but there are some other hints, e.g. in the beginning God speaks and the universe, our reality, and the rest arouses. So maybe there is language beyond meaning, and language beyond reality. Wow, that´s really tricky, tricky…hope my queer thoughts are somehow understandable.

  2. Have you read any Wittgenstein? He touches on these very points (years before many other so-called philosophers).
    He makes a really important point using the phrase “Five red apples.” What does it mean? Without many other signifiers (including gesture, intonation, context, etc.,) the language means very little, which, if I’ve read rightly, kind of turns Nic’s point about the word “cat” on it’s head.
    Language and words are just labels that we use for apprehending the world in some way, and, in that sense, potentially interchangeable, up for negotiation, and, at some level, meaning-less.

  3. Just thinking about the tower of babel…
    Jesus raised the topic “Love” which leads to acting. Out of love for God I start to love myself which leads me to charity.
    So Love is not really expressed by words (even if many poems are written about it), isn´t it ? The message of Love is the ultimate and absolute truth of christ and because it cannot be explained but only experienced there MUST be a different path that leads to absolute truth which cannot depend on words.

  4. Totally Mike.
    ‘Wittgenstein’s Beatle’
    It’s all his stuff about language preceding us, as language was around before all us. The world can only be apprehended through language.
    ‘In the beginning was the word’
    ‘Discourses written on the body’

  5. Err…Mike…somehow our posts were permuted…I posted the “I was just thinking about the tower of babel….”
    Lol, never happened to me before.

  6. Sorry…my mistake..forget my last post 😛

  7. me again.
    “What I disagree with is that there is no original meaning behind language”
    That’s the puppy. Having actually read this properly- sorry !-)
    I think this is what we got stuck on. I’m not sure if I believe in an ‘absolute’ truth. At best it doesn’t make sense and at worst it seems tyrannical (response to ‘Horror Vacui). That’s why I prefer ‘meaning’, more fluid than ‘truth’.
    How can there be an ‘original meaning behind language’ when as you say its constructed ‘dialogically’ between author and reader. Even if it did exist, there’s too many of us for ‘meaning’ to be fixed. I find that liberating.

  8. God is absolute truth.
    Jesus taught us what to do, so since he was god, he taught us truth. He told us truth lies in the interwoven path of love. When love is the key, words are simply needed to give hints to, but never reveal truth.
    We need words to express our feelings. But before we express them we have to feel them.
    So it leads back to what I say first. Thats liberating, Jesus is liberating.
    Remember Faust ! 😛

  9. What’s God’s name then?

  10. 😛
    “Jahwe” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jahwe :).
    (But again, its only a name which describes his nature…you cannot transcend god by debate oder diskussion. So he became Jesus to give us a picture to work with…he knows of our always-urging heart..as well as the devil :P)

  11. In the beginning was the Word is just another metaphor. I assume you are not stating it as absolute truth… Which is the paradox of a relativistic position.
    I won’t pretend to be a great student of Wittgenstein’s ideas, but I do know that he was very concerned with the idea of pain.
    When a young child cries out in pain, we cannot deny that they are feeling that pain. But they may not have developed the language skills yet to describe it to us.
    As soon as they do, things begin to get complicated: is my pain the same as yours? Pain is not an ‘inner object’ that we can own, as W showed.
    What I think W is getting at is that language is the problem. And language is the only way in which we can share perceptions / feelings etc. There can be meaning/truth behind language, it’s just that we cannot access it in an effective way. And, going back to the child in pain example, the problems arise once language develops. Before that there are things that exist beyond language that we can’t deny.
    In other words, it’s the development of consciousness/language that has created these problems for us and lifted us above the interconnected web of created being. Back down with the animals, the zebra may not have the language to express feelings about the lion, but sure as hell knows lions exist.
    However, given that we do have language, I’m with you on the fact that meaning becomes fluid because it is the only way we can negotiation publically. Connectedly, on the tyrannical aspects of absolute truth, that’s precisely what I’m aiming to address in the next post.

  12. Randy Cathcart

    As a side note, have you considered that music is language as well? It follows agreed upon rules that must generally be followed for meaningful communication between composer, performer, and listener. Even when the rules are broken, they are broken as a means of communicating, and they are broken according to basically agreed upon rules for breaking the rules. So in this way, even what is beyond the reach of verbal language may still be within the reach of non-verbal language.

  13. Randy Cathcart

    That’s weird. My post was listed under another name.

  14. I think we’re in danger of going back to a platonic idea of what truth is here, which I don’t think is very helpful. It’s a classic example of where Greek thought is muddled up with Christian thought, and not in a good way.
    I appreciate that this contradicts my previous post, but I’m not sure how this can be resolved. And I’m not sure that language solidifies truth either, which is negotiated.
    Another passing thought that I had is that language could be seen to be commensurate with being self-aware, which in my mind is also commensurate with soul. And by self-aware, I mean that we are also aware of the limitations of language.
    “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” 1 Cor 13:1

  15. I’d like to hear more Mike… I too would not want to be Platonic about it either.
    Randy – I’m not convinced that music is a language. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s not. We use the ‘language of language’ about it, but I don’t think that that holds up to closer analysis. Yes, music has rules, but these rules have little or no agreed meaning, which, no matter how much we argue about it, languages do.
    Loud music, minor keys, rhythms – they can all suggest themes, but they cannot be said to be linguistic. Similarly, colours have some moods associated with them, but I don’t think colour is a language.
    Colour and music are environments in which language/meaning are drawn in certain directions.

  16. Buddhism teaches that any room of existence is based on perception. So we create images only by labeling them. Is a “tree” still a “tree” when theres no one percepting it ?
    If you go on like this you would have to say that nothing lasts until there is a perceiver who is perceiving an objekt which then leads to sensoric input and recognition.
    Buddhist philosophy excludes the inherent existence of any object. Nothing can exist out of itself (has no meaning) except there is someone who perceives (names) it.
    I do not agree with it. I think there is a “collective” meaning beyond any individual object because in the end its all based on the same basic elemental structure…even if this structure would be “light” or an “idea”. I can only figure.
    God gave man the freedom of naming all the different objects he created, so even if theres differences in language or culture there must be a basic equal meaning in it.
    Maybe your lack of linguistic expression describes the basic meaning of all there is. It could be a hint to god…wow…spooky 😛

  17. Hmmm. Well, I think the Platonic idea that there are idealised astract truths that we all at some level know about plays into some very fundamentalist hands, not to mention some monotone shirts (black? brown? blue? Pick a colour).
    Plato said that the general word “horse” (for example) refers not to a specific horse, but to any horse. There is somewhere or other, an ideal horse outside of space and time. The idea is real, the particular is only apparent.
    This apparently innocent observation was to be the cause of more lost marbles among philosophers than were ever nicked from the Parthenon, and I think we may follow suit if we carry on.
    I think what we actually have are a relative set of ideals that we interact with others using language as an imperfect medium that, when we compares “notes” we use to form a generalised idea of how things are. This is why I think community is important, but at the same time allowing for provisionality, and also allowing for a greater a level of experience beyond just language in isolation (which is where these wordy debates usually end up, ironically).

  18. But, to connect back with Wolfgang’s comment, I do believe that horses would still exist even if we weren’t there to name them. And to suggest otherwise – that a tree falling in a forest with no one to hear it makes no noise etc – is the height of human arrogance. It concludes that without us, nothing exists. And I don’t believe that’s true. The fact that this view has been given credence for so long is perhaps one of the roots of the environmental crisis we find ourselves in… Which – though I agree Mike that these debates can get wordy – it is important to thrash this stuff out and get it right, as it has real impacts.

  19. Kes, have you gone off piste with this one?
    Wasn’t it a question of the possibility of ‘meaning’ beyond words- not ‘being’ beyond words? How ‘French’ are you!

  20. If I’m off piste with that one, you’re the ski-guide 😉
    This was one of the nubs of the original conversation wasn’t it – that if we have no word for ‘cat’, cats don’t exist… At least that’s what I thought you and John ‘meant’.
    Regardless, I think the two are related anyway. If we take the Buddhist thing: “Buddhism teaches that any room of existence is based on perception. So we create images only by labeling them. Is a “tree” still a “tree” when theres no one percepting it ?” then I think there is a relevant danger of ‘meaning nothing’ becoming ‘being nothing’ and not existing. “You mean nothing to me” is essentially saying “You don’t exist for me.” And I think this is what we often see in terms of world issues.

  21. No Kester, you’re right. It IS an important debate, one worth me coming out from my usual silence for.
    But I think conversations such as these usually end up as linguistic symbol manouvering, rather than actually establishing anything, and that’s the only issue I have with it really.
    Like you, I don’t believe that the existence of anything is dependent on our perception of it either. I think that is deify humanity, and language at the same time, and as I was suggesting, that’s a little too close to fundamentalist rhetoric for my liking.
    I think that the idea of idealisation or some abstract idea of the thing that we’re trying to name descends into a rigid idea of what that idealisation actually consists of, usually decided by an elite, that controls ideas or, at the very least expels those who don’t agree with “their” perception.
    I think we have to get back to the idea that language is a tool for something else, and therefore secondary or provisional. It’s something that we merely use from personal narratives to communicate and share. That resolves a lot of the issues that seem to occur in many fields, in terms of ecology, theology and even linguistics, semantics and semiology themselves.

  22. Thats why I decided against buddhism.
    I found this thought interesting: What do you guys think is behind language ? I think language, as a whole is always a tool to express “feelings”. Even if a topic considers nothing particular “emotional” I came to the suggestion that everything circles around to basic emotions: Agree / Disagree, Love/Hate.
    So considering Kesters point, that somehow we are finding ourselves “touched” by a meaning beyond language couldn´t it be possible that during such moments we are touched by the very feeling of love/hate ?
    Like if you listen to a certain melody that makes you feel sad (Pain is connected to Love) or happy. So…maybe its possible that sometimes the meaning touches the basic abilities and dodges the complex structures and layers around it ?
    I hope this isn´t to confusing…my english has become a little rusty.

  23. Whatever is behind language, we can’t express it / share it fully – because to do so requires language. Yet this yearning to express this ‘sein’ behind language is what has be-mused and fascinated artists/poets/songwriters/composers since forever.
    I think the closest anyone has got is perhaps with the words ‘love each other, love The Other’. What language/music/art tries to express at its best is that we are not alone; that we not only need one another, but need ‘The Other’ too. It is a reaching out, an attempt to breach Babel and communicate universally, to extend beyond the boundaries of our Selves…
    It’s this innate need to breach our Selves that is, for me, anti-entropic, and thus connected to my belief in absolute truth, more of which later…

  24. The last conclusion I was coming is what I call the threefold path of christ, which is similar to what you´ve just said Kes.
    Im looking forward to your explanation of A.T. Es wird sicher spannend 😛

  25. Is Absolute truth ‘stasis’? It smells rotten to me?

  26. Yeh, but for me, this is arse-about-face.
    Absolute truth, if I can use your terminology, is something we arrive at, or discover by means of interaction. We start with our own personal narratives, we use a blunt instrument like language to put that narrative across, and we make some realisations about absolute truth.
    I think its too easy to confuse the “sein” with absolute truth, which is something that isn’t necessarily being said here, but is said all too often elsewhere.

  27. That old chestnut- no one has defined their terms. We could be arguing the same thing? We probably are.
    I’d agree with that. You’re implying it’s a social construct.
    Good point about ‘sein’ or ‘haeccity’. If I understand it, that’s what I react against. That there is some sort of pre-ordained meaning, rules of engagement or ‘isness’- a divine database with tags that define ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ usage. Any illegal use (which I love) automatically stands outside the official cannon, rendering it relative. This is why I don’t understand the notion of absolute with all its borders and restraints. It’s the space of the ‘bottom-inspectors’ and the elites- nothing like a good hierarchy.


    I was close to commenting, but then realised I didn’t understand the questions, the points, the language or the point.
    I say in absolute truth.

  29. pete rollins book (which isn’t out yet but will be shortly) ‘how (not) to speak of god’ is going to be a great addition to this conversation methinks…