Friday, December 31, 2010

The Status of Meaning and Truth in the 21st Century

Philosophers, poets, and lawyers throughout history have argued over what constitutes the truth.  Or the Truth.  Or the "Truth."  You see, it's one of those words that changes its meaning based upon whether or not the first letter is capitalized or not, and some people are liable to accompany the sound with air quotations whenever possible.  The reason?  Truth is a complicated concept, an ideal that, nevertheless, seems to have some bearing on the real world.  Truth is a thing most people think it is worth striving towards, and yet, it's also a thing that's incredibly difficult to actually find.

You could say the same things, pretty much, about "meaning," except that it rarely gets capitalized.  The search for truth and the search for meaning are in many ways related, though in our modern parlance the latter seems to have replaced the former, as we've come into contact with more and more disparate ideas about what truth might be.  As Truth (with a capital T) has lost its luster - as fewer and fewer people believe there is such a thing - more and more people are content to find meaning, knowing that truth - if it even exists - is probably not worth the effort.

In our modern age, what with Wikipedia, Twitter, email, and smart phones, it seems to me that the status of meaning and truth are changing in our society.  That is not to say that truth itself is changing - if, again, there is such a thing - or that meaning is becoming harder (or easier) to find.  No, what it means is that the status of those concepts and the way we use those words is changing in a way that is uncommon.  Hegel has it that human history is effectively a long series of reversals in the status of meaning and truth resulting in socio-political and spiritual transformations leading humanity towards a brighter and eventually perfect future.  I'm not sure I buy all of that, but part of it is fair: we, as a society (or a society of societies) are constantly redefining our purposes and goals.

That is not to say there's not a great deal of constancy in human pursuits.  It would be foolish to ignore, in spite of all the radical differences between modern computer-happy man and a hunter-gatherer, the many similarities.  Sure, our conflicts and desires are more sophisticated and/or fetishized than they once were, but they are still more or less the same.  We still want to eat food and drink water, we still want to sleep safely, and - perhaps most important - we still are subject to strong reproductive urges that a cynic might say dictate somewhere between 90 and 100 percent of our actions.  In some ways, things never change.

Ah, but what does change is understanding.  Understanding is not truth, of course, nor is it necessarily meaning.  Rather, understanding is a very human attempt to put construct something sensible around the chaotic mess that is the world we experience every day.  Hegel would argue that, just as an individual has understanding, so too does a society as a whole.  And even if Hegel wouldn't argue that, I will.  From an anthropological perspective, we might just call that social understanding a "culture."  That is, we establish expectations and shared experiences that are so ingrained into our world-view that generally we don't even believe that things could be any different.

Consider, as a simple (and classic) example, standard American elevator behavior.  We stand, facing the door, head and hands down, quietly.  Most of us engage in this socially expected behavior without even thinking about it.  There are, however, examples of more consequence as well.  Things like facial expressions, gestures, and intonation when we ask a question versus when we make a statement are vital to our conceptions of meaning, but yet go largely unexamined except by a select group of social scientists (who, it should be added, are mostly ridiculed).  Even more important are our shared assumptions about morality and practicality, assumptions which spill over into political and religious beliefs.  Indeed, perhaps the biggest reason why our political and religious disagreements tend to be so violent and irrational is because our beliefs in those areas are cultural and not rational; that is, they come from an understanding of the world that is vestigial, subtly inherited from the world we live in.

Despite those ingrained assumptions about everything from how to shake hands to how to argue about elections, it remains the case that things do change.  I am not persuaded that human beings are purely rational creatures, but it does seem to me that reason and assumption dance with each other in a complex tango, leading to refined and re-defined understandings, which in turn change the possibilities for how we understand things like meaning and truth.  An optimist, like Hegel, might call this process evolutionary, pushing humanity towards further refinement and perfection, while a pessimist might call it corruption.  But regardless, there is change.

So where do we stand, in the year 2011, with regards to meaning and truth?  Well, certainly we have destroyed "Capital T" truth.  Our social reality is such that it's impossible for any reasonable person to argue that anyone in particular has access to the Truth, and while that doesn't mean there isn't one, it does mean that determining what it is is impossible.  Faith still exists, of course, and a reasonable person might very well acknowledge that it is not intellectually inconsistent to have faith in a given system of truth - whether that be scientific, religious, political, or otherwise - but then again, while faith itself is not intellectually dishonest, faith without acknowledging the possibility that it is misguided probably is.  Indeed, I, for one, take a very cynical view of religious strife: it seems to me like the insecurity of a bully, who will say he believes in his strength, but who secretly understands that he is not, necessarily, the strongest guy there is.  So too the religious fanatic: the more fanatical, the less certain, fundamentally, he is about his faith.

"Truth," then, has become a kind of rallying call for the refusal to consider another person's perspective.  "You have your facts, and I have mine," is a refrain you have likely heard.  Ironically, while this means that the status of truth is undoubtedly in question, it does nothing to undermine the philosopher's ideal that Truth is worth trying to uncover.  That people refuse to converse with each other and consider alternative opinions is perhaps the best indication not that there is no truth, but rather that no one is particularly working hard enough to get to it.  A tutor of mine at St. John's was fond of saying that perhaps the Truth is very, very, very, very, very hard to get to, while even the most devoted lover of wisdom is only willing to work very, very hard to get there.  It seems to me that Truth, if there is such a thing, is something right now we're not even willing to work hard for.  If it's not on Wikipedia, it's not worth knowing.  Of course, that assumes that Truth is knowledge, when it might be that Truth is, in fact, a way of thinking or a way of being.

Now that we're getting Taoist about things, I think it's time to dive into the deeper linguistic issues that are at play here.  The biggest problem with Truth is not its distance or the difficulty of the search to find it, but rather its ambiguous metaphysical status.  What do we mean by truth?  This is why meaning is so important, and why Wittgenstein was such a crazy person.

Meaning, generally, refers to the desire we have for our lives not to be a miserable waste of time.  But beyond the personal meaning we also use meaning to denote, well, what things mean.  You see, the problem with talking about meaning is that it tends to be a circular conversation.  Meaning is the truth of a thing, truth is the meaning of a thing, and so on.  In the end, a lot of words spew out, but we don't get anywhere.  Again, read Wittgenstein and you'll see what I'm talking about.

So, rather than trying to define meaning, let's talk about the status of meaning in 2011.  Meaning is, in short, becoming more and more individualized, whilst simultaneously becoming more and more standardized.  That is, modern technology is making a kind of paradox that even Husserl in his worst nightmares could never have imagined.  Increasingly, we are encouraged to define and express our own meaning; we live in a knowledge producing, and not knowledge consuming culture (I am as guilty as this as anyone, seeing as I write a blog with very few readers, but read very few blogs myself).  We are all shouting in a crowded room with our Twitter accounts and Facebook status updates.  We, in short, are given a lot of leeway to define and understand what meaning means to us.

That's hardly a bad thing; indeed, more opinions and ideas is probably more likely to lead us to, if not truth, at least somewhere interesting than fewer opinions and ideas.  No, the troubling part is that the variety of opinions and ideas - the individuality - we honor so much is essentially an illusion.  We like, in our culture, to believe that the message and the medium are different, that the content and the form of a thing are only incidentally related.  I think that's foolish.  While we all have the freedom to individually express ourselves, that our media are so constricted means that the possibilities for our opinions are similarly constricted.  Twitter may allow for a huge range of expressions of meaning, for example, but how huge, really?  Is there not a limit to what you can say in fewer than 200 characters?

Similarly the blog, which allows for imbedding videos or songs or pictures, and thus can do things that writing alone could never do.  Nevertheless, it's still limited, it's still restricting in ways that I can't express or imagine.  Of course, you might argue that this has always been true, and you'd be right to do so.  Humanity has never - or rarely, anyway - been able to imagine expressing meaning in ways that reach beyond the restrictions of whatever the contemporary media may be.  But the danger we get into, now, that we haven't in the past, is the assumption that things are supposed to be the way they are, that modern structures are inherently good because they are modern.

Take one of my favorite examples: politics.  While major parties have always been more powerful than minor ones (hence, major parties), it used to be that people found it possible to believe that neither of the two major parties were adequate expressions of their understanding of the meaning of a democratic nation.  In such cases, significant - sometimes in the 20 percent range - swatches of the population voted for third parties.  Now, however, we have narrowed the spectrum so far that we refuse to believe that something outside of that spectrum could possibly make sense.  Voting for a third party is practically a mark of insanity, which only goes to show how dangerous constricting the form (the parties) and not the content (actual issues) can really be.

We might do this with political systems, as well.  Regardless of political affiliation, it's generally considered nonsensical to believe in any kind of government but a Democratic Republic, if you live in the USA.  Indeed, you have to support not just a Democratic Republic, but specifically the archaic American Constitution.  It's not that we can't argue for other systems; it's that we can't even conceive of those systems.

If such is the case in something as simple as politics, imagine how much more pernicious the result of this artificial constriction of meaning is in spirituality, or music, or philosophy, or emotion.  Now I'm not arguing that there should be no systems at all, or that it would be better if we had completely unchecked emotional expression (because, hey, hello murders everywhere).  No, the point is that we have artificially limiting systems that people don't realize are artificial and limiting.  That, again, has always been true, but never at the scale - and thus with the homogeneity - that we have now.  The process of defining meaning (though not meaning itself), principally because anyone can share theirs with anyone else, is in danger of becoming homogenized.  And anytime processes become homogeneous, it seems to me, you see stagnation.

Ironically - paradoxically even - we live in a time where meaning is exploding, but where the processes behind meaning are atrophied.  This is a crisis much more poignant than Husserl's fear that science would destroy meaning altogether.  Rather than the broad, soul-crushing forces of an Orwellian totalitarian world, we're trending towards a Brave New World in which we share a wonderful illusion of freedom, meaning, truth, and beauty.  What Huxley missed, however, was that you need not restrict access to ideas or thoughts or even processes: you need only provide systems that are sufficiently limiting in form, but boundless in content.  Given the proper impetus, people will restrict themselves willingly.

The status of meaning and truth in the 21st Century?  Perilous, but expansive.  Paradoxically healthier and sicker than ever.  But that should come as no surprise.  The truth of the matter is, complexity and paradox have always been present in human experience, its just that we avoid acknowledging it.  Now we live in a time where refusal to acknowledge paradox is much more dangerous than it ever has been, whilst the opportunity to benefit from acknowledging paradox is larger than ever.  Color me pessimistic, of course, but hopeful.


  1. You really dislike Twitter, eh?

    That post was intriguing but overwhelming. I have some friendly criticisms and some questions.

    1. Were you trying to expound on something you read by Hegel? Or...wait...Wittgenstein? Or Husserl? Though I'm familiar with most of these names, it would be helpful if you provided a more focused explanation of which of their ideas/statements you refer to, or, even better, some quotes.
    2. I enjoyed reading what seemed to be buildup to conclusive statements of yours but sometimes felt left hanging. For example, your discussion of the tautology of meaning/truth or truth/meaning was valuable - I was really hoping for you to try to separate the two with something definitive, but I don't think you did.
    3. You made a lot of comparisons to the past with great certainty but provide no examples, statistics, or metrics. (Maybe I'm looking for the wrong kind of truth.)

    1. How did you get to "Well, certainly we have destroyed 'Capital T' truth," without first defining what you mean by such Truth?
    2. Your discussion of media seems limited to online networks. Does your idea that, to paraphrase, "the search for meaning/truth has become homogenized via excessive individual 'shouting in a crowded room'" change at all when you give consideration to literature/drama/music/visual art? Furthermore, does that change your comparison to the past at all?
    3. I got a little bit lost reading about "artificial and limiting" systems of expression. Spoken language seems limiting to me, but natural, whereas painting seems un-limiting, but artificial. Were you trying to say that "Truth" is less accessible because our systems of expression are limited? Is, then, "Truth" dependent upon expression?

  2. I've become an avid defender of Twitter. Twitter can be lots of different things, but what Twitter is often underestimated by people who don't use it, or use it in limited capacity is that it is a wonderful news source. It acts for me as my favorite gateway to new links, pictures and blogs. To podcasts I'd never find otherwise and wonderful little essays or peices of comedy. I rarely tweet, but it's great for a way to find little corners of the web that should not be missed.

    Anyways, thanks for the good read.