Desiderata for any future mode of meaningness

Underwater fantasy

“Fluidity” is a positive vision for the future of society, culture, and our selves. Visions may be inspiring, but they’re useless unless they respect present realities. My conception of fluidity emerges from an analysis of the successes and failures of recent modes of meaningness.

This page, then, is the turning point of Meaningness and Time: from the recent past and present to the near future. It both looks back, extracting lessons from How meaning fell apart, and looks forward, sketching a nebulous preview of Sailing the seas of meaningness.

(If you have not read How meaning fell apart, it will help to read its overview, or to look at the summary chart. They explain how each mode attempted to solve problems of meaning the previous ones created, and how each was partly successful but eventually failed.)

The fluid mode should deliver the benefits of each previous mode, while minimizing the problems each created:

Is this possible? I think so—and the rest of Meaningness and Time sketches how.

Our tool for analyzing modes of meaningness, and for constructing the fluid mode, is the complete stance. That recognizes the inseparability of nebulosity and pattern, and thereby avoids the errors of both eternalism and nihilism. It particularly recognizes the nebulosity and pattern of boundaries and connections, and thereby avoids the errors of monism and dualism. These four confused stances account for most of the failures of the existing modes.

Metasystematicity is closely related to the complete stance. It is the attitude that systems of meaning are of great value (because meaning is patterned), but none can be complete or fully correct (because meaning is nebulous). Instead, we must deploy multiple systems, comprehend and negotiate the conflicts and synergies among them, and be willing to act even when no system can guide us.

Because systems emerge in particular social, cultural, and psychological circumstances, metasystematicity requires a historical perspective: an understanding of how meaningness develops through time. That was the aim of How meaning fell apart.

Here I ask: which aspects of these previous modes of meaningness are worth rescuing from historical oblivion, and how must they be transformed to function effectively as the future comes into focus?


We can understand the countercultural, subcultural, and atomized modes as attempts to address the defects of the systematic mode, and to restore lost benefits of choicelessness. They successively rejected three of systems’ key principles: rationality, universality, and coherence. These principles contribute to the oppressive rigidity of the systematic mode, because it takes them as eternalistic absolutes. Jettisoning them brought significant benefits. Unfortunately, each anti-systematic move was also, in part, regressive: walking back in longing for the choiceless mode.

Rationality, universality, and coherence contribute to systems’ beneficial functioning. Since the breakdown of the systematic mode, rational, large-scale, coherent systems have become increasingly inconceivable. Unfortunately, without them, civilization is impossible. A collapse of our legacy systems, under assault from anti-rational, anti-universal, anti-coherent myopia, would be catastrophic.

The fluid mode must restore all three principles, but in relativized forms that recognize their inseparable nebulosity and pattern. This requires a better understanding of the nature of meaningness—which I hope Meaningness, the book, supplies.

This page suggests that the fluid mode should:

These are desiderata: mere hopes and wishes. Sailing the seas of meaningness explains how the fluid mode may work. It is not structured in terms of previous modes of meaningness—although it takes them as background. This page extracts principles from the history, so we will rarely require further reference to it.

Simulate choiceless community

Nearly all humans have had a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. We lived in wandering clans, of a dozen to a few score, which were parts of wider tribes of a few hundreds or thousands. Some anthropologists say we spent about four hours a day working, which was enough to meet all material needs. Everyone’s work was recognized as meaningful and valuable by everyone else. Most of the rest of the time was spent in enjoyable cultural and social activities. Band membership was elective (chosen): if you didn’t get along with one, you could usually join another.

This sounds like a good deal to me! It seems that such a highly-meaningful, socially supportive, leisure-filled life would feel right, because our brains evolved for it.

It is a utopian fantasy, though, unless we also admit the nasty, brutish, and short aspects of hunter-gatherer life. Not just the material poverty, but the social and cultural narrowness: like being stuck with your middle-school clique, listening to the same twenty dumb songs, for your entire life. Having choices is usually good. Personal development beyond communal values, into more sophisticated ways of being, is good for those who can manage it.

Can’t we have the benefits without the limitations? Especially, can’t we get the benefits of both the choiceless (traditional, communal, premodern) and systematic (bureaucratic, rational, modern) modes?

Cultures and societies may function well just to the extent that they manage that. We can’t go back to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, even if we wanted to. But we can provide substitutes for its key features, or “simulations” that give similar benefits. In fact, every subsequent mode has worked partly by doing that:

The countercultural, subcultural, and atomized modes can all be seen as attempts to compromise between the choiceless and systematic modes, or to combine their benefits. Why is this so urgently necessary?

In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life, by the developmental psychologist Robert Kegan, suggests an answer. To make sense of life within systematic society, you have to build a systematic self. Otherwise, the expectations of modern institutions seem arbitrary, selfish, cruel, and deranged. Unfortunately, empirical studies find that only a minority of people in modern societies manage to create such selves. The majority are, in Kegan’s words, “developmentally traditional people in a modern world.” Friction from this mismatch causes great stress, especially in work life and in dealing with state institutions.

Society should work for as many people as possible. It certainly should work for the majority—who are not currently capable of coping with systematicity. That would mean they could live “as if” in the choiceless mode.

I hope the fluid mode will create a deliberately developmental society, based on a recognition that people vary in capacity. Ideally:

This is a tall order. Fulfilling it completely is not feasible with our current material technology and economy, nor with available social and cultural “technologies.” However, that is not required for the initial transition to the fluid mode. It’s a longer-term goal. Each previous mode’s way of simulating choicelessness also depended on innovations in technology, economics, social organization, and culture, so this is nothing new.

Although progress is never guaranteed, virtually unlimited material abundance seems plausible in a few decades. That would enable new economic arrangements, such as a “guaranteed basic income,” for example. That would have social and cultural consequences that we can only speculate about—but which it would be good to start preparing for.

An immediate transition to abundance might result in a catastrophic crisis of meaning: what would everyone do all day? In the absence of close community and participatory culture, perhaps most people would spend their time watching TV, and experiencing the symptoms of nihilism—depression, rage, and anxiety—because life without imposed structure seems meaningless.

Relativize systems

The systematic mode asked: how can we do things better? And its answer was: by building knowledge up from rational foundations. That led to Renaissance art, the scientific revolution, constitutional democracy, internet cat videos, and most everything else that makes life better for us than for subsistence farmers.

Although rationalist epistemology worked astonishingly well for centuries, it is not actually correct. Nebulosity is unavoidable, and ultimate foundations are impossible. Attempts to force nebulous reality to fit rigid systems inevitably fail. And before failing, they result in alienation, anomie, totalitarianism, existentialism, and other such evils.

These problems led the three following modes to abandon the three epistemological principles of rationality, universality, and coherence. Accordingly, the countercultures proposed unrealistic reforms to soften systematicity; the subcultures carved parts of life away from the systematic matrix, but remained parasitic on it; and the atomized mode is simply oblivious to it.

Those developments were mainly steps backward, although the post-systematic modes were right that rationality had failed. Despite that, the systematic mode’s epistemology is more sophisticated than both those of the choiceless mode and those of the post-systematic modes. Rationality powers its elegance and effectiveness.

As with the choiceless mode, we should ask: How do we get the benefits of systematicity without the costs?

I will suggest this is possible, in the fluid mode, by adopting a meta-rational epistemology. Meta-rationality retains the virtues of systematic rationality, but also incorporates an understanding of nebulosity and pattern. Abandoning the futile quest for absolute foundations, it enables forms of flexibility the systematic mode lacked. It allows multiple interpenetrating systems to co-exist, without demanding that all apparent conflicts be resolved in favor of one or another. Meta-rationality treats rationality, universality, and coherence as often-valuable tools, not as cosmic absolutes.

Meta-rationality is cognitively challenging:

Building a meta-systematic society and culture, when few people can follow meta-rational explanations, will be difficult. Nevertheless, I will suggest ways it may be possible. I will also suggest ways of making meta-rational understanding more broadly available. A clearly-marked path from personal systematicity to meta-systematicity is a further requirement for a deliberately developmental society.

In a sense, that is the project of Meaningness overall! But I will make more specific pedagogical proposals as well.

Enjoy the creativity and vision of mass culture

The systematic mode had an attractively optimistic vision: that we could do everything right, which would solve all problems. This vision was discredited by the endless catastrophes and breakdowns of the first half of the Twentieth Century.

The countercultures provided alternative optimistic visions. Those enabled a wave of delightful cultural creativity. Their universalism implied that “we, nationally or globally, are all in this together.” That gave them the critical mass of innovators needed to develop a panoply of new thick and wide meanings, attractive to tens or hundreds of millions of people.

Unfortunately, the universalism of the countercultures meant that their social reforms failed. People differ, and need different social, cultural, and personal arrangements. The fluid mode must recognize that. The countercultures’ anti-rationality also resulted in failure: their alternative, optimistic visions were wildly unrealistic.

Unlike the countercultures, the two subsequent modes have been unable to provide thick, broad, and positive culture. The essence of subculturalism was the rejection of mass-scale culture—which allowed creative diversity, but usually failed to achieve the scale needed to provide sufficient thickness and breadth of meaning. The atomized mode does resemble the countercultural mode in producing culture with global appeal, but its incoherence results in triviality, whereas the countercultures’ depth of meaning grew from coherent visions.

The subcultural and atomized modes also lost the countercultures’ optimism, and often slid into Lite Nihilism. As of 2017, most people in developed societies expect the future to be pretty much the same as the present, except worse. The possibility of a positive vision is met with derisive cynicism. This is understandable, as due to the collapse of eternalism, which had underwritten the belief in progress. But it is unfortunate and unprecedented.

How can we engender optimistic cultural creativity, like that of the countercultures—without their anti-rational idiocy, destructive antagonism, and totalitarian universalism?

In the fluid mode, this requires:

  1. Recovering a relativized rationality.
  2. Adopting the complete stance of participation, which resolves the opposition of monism and dualism. I explained how in “Completing the countercultures.”
  3. Recognizing the nebulosity and pattern of both universalism and particularism. I’ll sketch that in the next section of this page.

As for the first point: meta-rationality is the antidote to countercultural anti-rationality, as well as to systematic rationalist eternalism. Two partly-correct observations motivate anti-rationalism: that rationalism implies oppressive systematic rigidity, and that it implies nihilism.

Fluid social institutions and culture can grow from this understanding.

Rework subsociety boundaries

The subcultural mode abandoned universality, in favor of rigorous particularism. Different subcultures provided different bodies of meaning, suitable for different sorts of people. Finding the right subculture let you “be yourself.” Finding the right subsociety gave you a feeling of “coming home to my own people, at last.” This new mode provided a much better—nearly customized—self/society fit than the systematic and countercultural ones could.

Not needing to justify any universal claims, subcultures no longer had a use for any eternal rock of certainty. They maintained coherence thematically, with aesthetic judgements and with ritual, rather than with a foundational structure of justifications. This put them on track toward the complete stance: neither eternalist nor nihilist. Many subcultures did abandon eternalism—tacitly, at least—and most avoided nihilism.

Freed from pompous eternalism and dour nihilism, subcultures became explicitly play. Steampunk is deliberately ridiculous, and not meant to be taken seriously. But it is also not trivial genre entertainment, as it may appear to outsiders. The subcultures began to explore the possibility that seriousness and playfulness are not mutually exclusive. That inseparability should be a major, explicit aspect of the fluid mode.

Subculturalism enabled a new kind of creativity. Punks called it “DIY” (do it yourself): they rejected the resources of the culture industry, to escape its exploitative power. But “yourself” was an individualist self-misunderstanding. The tacit realization was that we make meaning together, as a subsociety, or “scene.” The meanings we make are meant just for us.

Functional communities range from dozens to thousands of people. When a subculture gained an audience of millions, the subsocieties that produced it exploded in size, became dysfunctional, and disintegrated.

Recognizing the problem, subsocieties found ways to limit membership. One strategy was to avoid mass appeal by making the subculture increasingly esoteric and repellent to outsiders. Eventually, the mode failed because the cultures it produced became ever narrower, shallower, and unsatisfying.

At their best, subsocieties and subcultures were refuges from the screeching chaotic dysfunction of nation-scale systematic social institutions and the nation-scale culture war. Particularism allowed members to deny responsibility for anything outside their subculture. Most did their best to simply ignore all that and enjoyed playing in their sandbox. This made the mode parasitic: keeping civilization running was someone else’s problem. Society as a whole cannot take this attitude. Meanwhile, nation-scale social institutions often regarded subcultures as threats, and attempted to destroy them, sometimes successfully. Nation-scale economic institutions often saw subcultures as opportunities for exploitation, which also destroyed some.

The failure of the countercultures showed that universalism, as an absolute, cannot work. However, the particularism of the subcultural mode also did not work as an absolute:

The fluid mode must relativize both universalism and particularism:

Supportive subsocieties were a great accomplishment of the subcultural era. I hope the fluid mode can create something similar. That will require explicitly reworking the relationship between subsocieties and larger groups. Both sides must understand and respect the needs of the other. Subsocieties must acknowledge their dependence on the effective functioning of states and economies, and must contribute to them. States and economies must acknowledge the worth of elective communities with distinctive values, and cede control over some matters to them.

This will not be easy. However, a proper understanding of the nature of boundaries may take us quite a long way. The boundaries between social groups are always both nebulous and patterned: selectively permeable. Boundaries exist only through constant maintenance activity: judgements of who and what is on one side or the other, who and what may pass, and the actions taken accordingly. Such judgements can never be fully systematized, but undergo continual renegotiation. And so boundaries naturally evolve as circumstances change.

This understanding illuminates the vertical relationship between subsocieties and larger institutions; the horizontal relationship between different subsocieties; and the relationship between individuals and subsocieties.

Embrace atomization

The atomization of culture, society, and self has liquefied experience. This mode contributes the critical realization that perfect coherence is neither necessary nor even desirable.

At a practical, intuitive, kinesthetic level, we have become much more tolerant of nebulosity: of paradox, volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Accepting nebulosity is a major step toward the complete stance, and toward the fluid mode.

Abandoning coherence altogether produces an overwhelming ocean of meanings that do not relate to each other in any way. That gives an impression of pervasive triviality. Value judgements—even aesthetic ones—seem impossible when nothing hangs together. Society cannot function without coherent relationships.

And yet… we do make value judgements, and society does still function. We have developed skills for navigating the seas of meaning. Mainly without explicit understanding, we constantly re-create relative coherence. We have learned to assemble atoms of meaning into temporary sea-worthy vessels, and to let go of those as they dissolve.

We are, in other words, already in the fluid mode. As we always have been.

Now we just need to get good at it.