The meaning of meaning…?!


There was an article on Huffington Post not too long ago that almost any article on Wikipedia tends to cycle back to the word Philosophy. A similar essay on  Quora prompted a far more interesting response. The above exercise involved clicking the very first hyperlink on a Wikipedia article and then on the next linked article and so on. As it turns out, statistically 90+% of all articles end with the chain closing at the word Philosophy. Not surprising perhaps, but interesting nonetheless. However, as was pointed out in a Quora thread, some hyperlinks also closed a loop upon itself. This basically meant that the chain was closed and cyclic and after a few clicks returned to the word itself. This in fact brings me to the moot point of this article.

Most definitions are cyclic. Try finding the meaning of the word meaning. Now, sure, you might find some synonyms like “definition”, “explanation” etc. But they do no more a better a job than explaining what the word meaning means. Meaning means meaning. That’s all. You either understand it. Or don’t. Or say, let’s define the direction left. You might think that it’s well nigh impossible to do that without cyclic logic. However a look through some of the better dictionaries saw me find some innovative methods to circumvent this seeming impossibility. A way to define a direction is to break the isotropy of space. This means that you can differentiate between a left and a right or any other direction with various proportions of left and right (if such a thing is possible)! Left was defined cutely by Merriam Webster as the direction on which the heart was located. (Although, most anatomists would disagree here and claim that the heart is really centrally placed. But I digress.) Right, interestingly was defined as the direction opposite to left. One could also look at other universal constants like the night sky to define direction: a skill used by early maritime navigators to sail to distant lands.

But is almost every definition cyclic? It appears so. Unless, of course if it’s based on certain well made assumptions called axioms which I discussed extensively in an earlier post. But even if most words have a recursive meaning, even if there is no clear meaning for the word meaning, we know that the word meaning and meaningless don’t mean the same thing. Opposites are thus extremely important. A lack of something thus makes us aware of the meaning.

Of course there are also random stuff that we name so as to simply identify one thing from the other. While composing a nice broth there might be several ingredients. Different names. Required in different amounts. Perhaps to be added at different times during the cooking? Opposites will not really help us here. A far more thorough understanding of the ingredients is needed here. Same goes for most other arenas of life I guess.

Caveat: By life, I didn’t mean the absence of death here. It’s all the language silly! Sigh!

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