The Meaning of ‘Meaningful’…?

Stepping Back a Little is an education blog, but I think it’s worth pointing-out that, in order of interest to me educationally, my passions are:

  1. Philosophy of Education
  2. Teacher Development
  3. Pedagogy

I’m not that interested in tips and tricks, and I only get involved in the politics stuff in as much as it appears to impact on people making a fudge of No. 1 above.

Of massive foundational import to me is what people consider the “Purpose of Education”, and I think that a truly robust and encompassing version of it must inevitably tie-in with a truly robust and encompassing ‘purpose of life’ definition, and I’m going to have the audacity to make some pretty bold claims here… (*cue rolling of eyes and sharp intake of breath*).

So…. What’s the point of living…?

Quite what makes life worth living has become an increasingly private affair (doctors rarely ask why they should prolong your life), and the impulse to preach about life’s exact value has itself become something about which no consensus is to be expected in political or educational systems.

However, there IS a commonality of purpose to life…

Ultimately, whether you seek fulfillment in this world, salvation in the next, or indeed you abdicate all happiness of your own for the well-being of generations yet to come, the personal justification for our continued procreation comes down to us obtaining and valuing some kind of meaningful experience

The selfless ones might well quibble – “No! – I do it for the greater good!” (which gives you a sense of meaningful experience). The evolutionary scientists might well quibble too: “We relentlessly persist with life due to genetic drives which care little for the illusory experience of consciousness!” they might say. However, even if this is so, the sought-for outcome of all those hidden processes still ultimately justifies itself in the form of conscious satisfactions – meaningful experiences – to that curious locked-in observer called ‘me’…

I believe then that the best – clearest – definition of the purpose of education (and – whether we like it or not the purpose of schools) is…

To build an individual’s capacity for meaningful experience.

Making them ‘cleverer’ will do that. Making them ‘productive’ will do that. Making them ‘responsible citizens’ will do that. But keeping the focus on that purpose beyond each one of those stopping-off points, will – I believe – help harmonise the pursuit of them individually. Indeed, the search for meaningful experience can effectively be the central core for making people productive citizens capable of choosing and finding their path to happiness (and for the betterment of the rest of us if we define and channel the paths to ‘meaningful experience’ appropriately). It also achieves these goals in a way which is personalisable and intrinsically motivating.

Now, I’m writing a book on how following this through in practice could actually work, but a pivotal point to it of course comes from the phrase ‘meaningful experience. It’s really worthwhile then clarifying exactly what we do mean by ‘meaningful’, as I would suggest that meaning/meaningful are in fact weasel words’

If you didn’t know, ‘weasel words’ are apparently words or phrases which…

“…make arguments appear specific or meaningful [my italics], even though these terms are at best ambiguous and vague.”

Funnily enough then, I’m suggesting that the definition of ‘weasel words’ is itself based on the use of a…. weasel word (‘meaningful’)…!

Why do I think this…?

Well apart from the basic sense of literal communicated ‘meaning’ through signifiers such as words and their definitions, meaning gets used to refer to two different things: It can mean an intellectual construction to explain circumstances (“the meaning of life”). But it can also refer to something intuited tacitly in the moment, such as the feeling you get when you’ve helped a stranger, laughed with friends or taken a springtime walk (“the meaning in life”).

In general then, there are three modes of what we are trying to get at by describing things as ‘meaningful’, and I would suggest that these represent three different aspects of what it is to be human.

MODE 1:            COMMUNICATIVE meaning – the DENOTED SIGNIFIERS, semantic, automatic, referential meaning of words and other signifiers. This includes the recognition of base-level logical relationships. I see a person pull a trigger to someone’s head. I know what this implies.

MODE 2:            INTUITIVE meaning – the PERCEPTUAL EXPERIENCES arising from participating in the present moment which motivates us to seek more of them. Actions and interactions in the world which give a continuance of ‘happiness’ – love, participation, achievement, beauty…

MODE 3:            REFLECTIVE meaning – the abstract CONCEPTUAL CONSTRUCTIONS which we use as rationalisations and justifications for happenings, and just generally explaining the purpose of everything. The stuff which – when we stop and look around – we create to explain why we carry-on seeing importance in living in the presence of suffering and mortality.

The meaning of Meaningful

Now, one could argue that a lot of the pain and suffering in life actually comes from focusing our experience and attention increasingly in our evolved capacity for mode 3 thinking. We send our minds into overdrive trying to create direct logical closure – of the kind experienced with ‘communicative’ meaning – about ‘ultimate’ matters beyond our senses.

Essentially this is the level of philosophical agonising and doctrinal shortcuts; to define into existence things because it is the only way to experience the kind of closure in mode 3, that will appease our mode 1 sense of truth and reason.

I would argue that it is the middle aspect – the experience of intuitive meaning – which is the fundamental source of life satisfaction, and that both communicative and reflective meaning ultimately serve as enhancers and contributors to this experience.

I think it is also this aspect which – underneath internalised scripts of what we should and shouldn’t do – is the ultimate arbiter of whether we are glad we had an experience or not.

In this sense, ‘meaningful experience’ could simply be counted as those things which we are glad to have experienced in the cool light of the following day. The exact sense of satisfaction may grow or diminish over the course of time, but saying “experiences you are glad you had whilst reflecting from your death-bed” is possibly leaving things a bit late to be able to predict and work towards.

Ultimately, I think we keep on going in life most of the time because of this middle tier. We simply can’t help but derive satisfaction from routine habits: Interacting with the natural world, simple joyous human moments together, the perception of beauty and drama in the world around us, and the act of creating these moments, as well as practical solutions to situations confronting us. Perhaps much of the compulsive value of religious participation comes from this, rather than necessarily from the truthfulness of the narratives which go with them. We can’t help but love ceremony, rituals & communal sense-making, and it is the core focus of Humanist replacements for revelatory traditions. One way or another however, these intuitive experiences stimulate our rational minds to seek ‘the answer’. Whether or not we wish for it, we find ourselves yearning for a focal point way beyond what our rational minds can actually explain. Whether that is because there is actually something there – beaming down significance from above – or because it is a cognitive side-effect of our evolved drive for survival in a humanly incomprehensible existence, is not something I’m suggesting an answer for here.

Interestingly though, it also isn’t something that you need to have answered in order to adopt “To build an individual’s capacity for meaningful experienceas the universal purpose of education.


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