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Meaning in existentialism is descriptive; therefore it is unlike typical, prescriptive conceptions of “the meaning of life”. Due to the methods of existentialism, prescriptive or declarative statements about meaning are unjustified. The root of the word “meaning” is “mean”, which is the way someone or something is conveyed, interpreted, or represented. Each individual has his or her own form of unique perspective; meaning is, therefore, purely subjective. Meaning is the way something is understood by an individual; in turn, this subjective meaning is also how the individual may identify it. Meaning is the personal significance of something physical or abstract. This would include the assigning of value(s) to such significance.

What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. (…) I certainly do not deny that I still accept an imperative of knowledge and that through it men may be influenced, but then it must come alive in me, and this is what I now recognize as the most important of all.

— Søren Kierkegaard

For Kierkegaard, meaning does not equal knowledge, although both are important. Meaning, for Kierkegaard, is a lived experience, a quest to find one’s values, beliefs, and purpose in a meaningless world. As a Christian, Kierkegaard finds his meaning in the Word of God, but for those who are not Christian, Kierkegaard wishes them well in their search.

“Existence precedes essence” means that humans exist first before they have meaning in life. Meaning is not given, and must be achieved. With objects—say, a knife, for example—there is some creator who conceives of an idea or purpose of an object, and then creates it with the essence of the object already present. The essence of what the knife will be exists before the actual knife itself. Sartre, who was an atheist, believed that if there is no God to have conceived of our essence or nature, then we must come into existence first, and then create our own essence out of interaction with our surroundings and ourselves. With this come serious implications of self-responsibility over who we are and what our lives mean. For this reason, meaning is something without representation or bearing in anything or anyone else. It is something truly unique to each person – separate, independent.

Logotherapy is a type of psychological analysis that focuses on a will to meaning as opposed to a Nietzschean/Adlerian doctrine of “will to power” or Freud’s “will to pleasure”. Frankl also noted the barriers to humanity’s quest for meaning in life. He warns against “…affluence, hedonism, [and] materialism…” in the search for meaning.

The following list of tenets represents Frankl’s basic principles of Logotherapy:

  • Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.
  • Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life.
  • We have inalienable freedom to find meaning.
    — About Logotherapy

We can find meaning in life in three different ways:

  1. by creating a work or doing a deed;
  2. by experiencing something or encountering someone;
  3. by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.
    — About Logotherapy

Logotherapy was developed by psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl.

The sense that sentient creatures have that the various objects of our universe are linked is commonly referred to as a person’s sense of “meaning”. This is the sense of meaning at work when asking a person when they leave a theater, “What did that movie mean to you?” In short, the word “meaning” can sometimes be used to describe the interpretations that people have of the world. Example: “Chunks are pieces of information linked and bound by meaning. (Remembering details vs. getting an overall meaning) links individual memory traces together, to create conceptual chunks.” (Dr. Barbara Oakley, A Mind for Numbers, p. 55).

The field of semantics is often understood as a branch of linguistics, but this is not strictly true. Basic or non-idealized meaning as a type of semantics is a branch of psychology and ethics and reflects the original use of the term “meaning” as understood early in the 20th century by Lady Welby after her daughter had translated the term “semantics” from French. On the other hand, meaning, in so far as it was later objectified by not considering particular situations and the real intentions of speakers and writers, examines the ways in which words, phrases, and sentences can seem to have meaning. Objectified semantics is contrasted with communication-focused semantics where understanding the intent and assumptions of particular speakers and writers is primary as in the idea that people mean and not words, sentences or propositions. An underlying difference is that where causes are identified with relations or laws then it is normal to objectify meaning and consider it a branch of linguistics, while if causes are identified with particular agents, objects, or forces as if to cause means to influence as most historians and practical people assume, then real or non-objectified meaning is primary and we are dealing with intent or purpose as an aspect of human psychology, especially since human intent can be and often is independent of language and linguistics.

We are all familiar with how good or bad reputation can encourage or discourage us from reading or studying about certain people, positions, or philosophies even before we have studied them. This is normally called pre-judgment or prejudice. To determine whether a reputation is deserved we normally have to carry out extensive and balanced research into human intent and assumptions in psychology, and in the sphere of language and linguistics where this research tends to focus not only on the differences between denotation and connotation, but especially on the presence and often tenacious character of value connotation, that is, the good or bad associations we make with words. Re-definition can change denotation for some people, but value connotation almost always remains, and is merely re-directed at a different target. Unfortunately, while dictionaries mention the most common denotations or main meanings we associate with words they normally ignore value connotation. Indeed, it is value connotation or the effect of using it which results in denotation becoming prejudicial, even denotation which is imagined to be fair, neutral or objective. Indeed, much rhetoric is based on selecting words more for their value associations than for their denotations, and to expose and correct this bad habit it is normally wise to focus on the most likely intent and assumptions of particular people than to imagine that words have meaning in themselves or that either meaning or language can be genuinely objective, since in that process we are likely to forget the existence and dominating character of value connotation which is subjective in a bad sense, that is, which makes persuasion more an aspect of rhetoric and deception rather than judging people, positions and philosophy more by weight of evidence or legitimate argumentation.

One way to operationally define the meaningfulness of a stimulus is to look at the slope of the response time versus response probability line (Tarnow, 2007).

In another sense, the word “meaning” can be used to describe the internal workings of the mind, independently of any linguistic activity. This sort of meaning is deeply psychological. If we look for other uses we can find intent, feeling, implication, importance, value, and signification. Since the negative form– “meaningless”—challenges and would deny these uses, experts believe that underlying them all are understanding and understandability.

One approach to this way of understanding meaning was the psychosocial theorist Erik Erikson. Erikson had a certain perspective on the role of meaning in the process of human bodily development and socialization. Within his model, a “meaning” is the external source of gratification associated with the human erogenous zones and their respective modes. See imprinting (psychology) for some related topics.

Some communication by body language arises out of bodily signals that follow directly out of human instinct. Blushing, tears, erections and the startle reaction are examples. This type of communication is usually unintentional, but nevertheless conveys certain information to anyone present.

This was coined by Paul Grice, and describes associations in the natural world, as in the sentence, “Those clouds mean rain”, “mean” is associating cloud with rain.

Another example of natural meaning is the weathervane: when it points in a certain direction, that is taken to mean that the wind is blowing in the same direction.

Still another perspective comes courtesy of the Pragmatists, who insist that the meaning of an expression lies in its consequences. Philosopher and polymath Charles Sanders Peirce wrote the following:

The whole function of thought is to produce habits of action… To develop its meaning, we have, therefore, simply to determine what habits it produces, for what a thing means is simply what habits it involves. Now, the identity of a habit depends on how it might lead us to act, not merely under such circumstances as are likely to arise, but under such as might possibly occur, no matter how improbable they may be. …I only desire to point out how impossible it is that we should have an idea in our minds which relates to anything but conceived sensible effects of things. Our idea of anything is our idea of its sensible effects; and if we fancy that we have any other we deceive ourselves.

— (from the essay “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”, hosted courtesy of

Outside of the Pragmatic tradition was Canadian 20th century philosopher of media Marshall McLuhan. His famous dictum, “the medium is the message”, can be understood to be a consequentialist theory of meaning. His idea was that the medium which is used to communicate carries with it information: namely, the consequences that arise from the fact that the medium has become popular. For example, one “meaning” of the light bulb might be the idea of being able to read during the night.

The controversial social psychologist and ethicist Thomas Szasz also seemed to hold this view, stating that “a word means its consequences” in debate.

Some non-linguistic meaning emerges from natural history as a development over vast periods of time. This is the theory behind autopoiesis and self-organization. Some social scientists use autopoiesis as a model for the development of structural coupling in the family.

A typical example of this kind of relationship is the predator-prey relationship. These relations carry strong intrinsic (life and death) meaning for all living organisms, including people.

Observations of child development and of behavioral abnormalities in some people indicate that some innate capabilities of human beings are essential to the process of meaning creation. Two examples are:

  • rapid language development in children, at a pace that can not be accounted for by the usual learning process.
  • the functioning of a personal “theory of mind” about other people, or empathy, as an innate capability of most people. (Recently published research points to a reflex-based “model of mind” that is built upon the mirror neurons – that we share with certain other creatures.)


The Essential Dialectic of Meaning is:

{Apophatic ⇆ Literal ⇅ Moral} ↻ Allegorical


The Intermediary Dialectic of Meaning is:

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The Complete Dialectic of Meaning is:

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