Comments on “Rumcake and rainbows”


Jack Walker 2017-05-11

Hello David,

Where does inter-subjectivity fit in to your account of meaningness? Does the failure of an existentialist stance extend to inter-subjective accounts of meaning?
I was thinking of certain examples of cultural attitudes to sexual vitality and abuse, e.g.: Etoro people. There is a strong relationship between cultural attitudes or inter-subjective constructs, and the personal/subjective experience.

I did have a big sprawling comment about nested relationships, Peterson, Mandala Principle (as taught by Trungpa), Sloterdijk....but decided the verbosity was fun but rather unnecessary!

Thanks for another stimulating read.

Questioning "are interactions among people and circumstances"

Average Radical 2017-05-11

Regarding “are interactions among people and circumstances” - this is a common theme I see in the research on meaning literature - bald claims that meaning is in large part some sort of social construct. The analogy with ethics here is strong. However, I wonder why there can’t be meaning if someone is on a deserted island? Analogously, there can still be morality, therefore, my prior is that there can also be meaning without people.


Edward Heidicker 2017-05-11

Thank you for putting into a few words what some have devoted volumes to.

I have used thunderstorms as a means to “understand” meaning.

Thunderstorms “happen” under certain conditions. When the conditions are “right” there is a thunderstorm. When conditions change the thunderstorm ends but doesn’t go anywhere. We cannot isolate any one of the factors (that we know of) as the cause of the storm.

In like manner “meaningness” seems to happen but requires as it were participation as you suggest. I find sitting down and creating a clay pot meaningful. I cannot “create” that experience by saying that the meaning resides in either me or the clay; the experience requires both (plus other factors). If working with clay were inherently meaningful then anyone would describe working with clay as meaningful. We know that cannot be the case. Meaningness can also not reside in a box of clay. It takes a potter and the clay (and other conditions) for meaningness to arise temporarily.

Or at least that may be another “way” to get a handle on the it.


Anonymous 2017-05-11

My comment will probably seem feeble but something about this chapter occurred to me. I wonder if the human mind has been headed all along, towards this complete subjective reality, but it required a perfect storm of sorts to find full fruition, which perhaps shows up as this fragmented, disjointed society we now live in.

Could be technology has contributed to this, the sharing of vast amounts of information erodes long held beliefs that were considered indisputable, along the crumbling of accepted cultural definitions of our lives (the atomizing of society you talk about) etc. It does seem as though we are racing towards a complete breakdown of ‘shared’ meaning. While the potential to traverse could exist, it doesn’t look like humans are in any hurry to give up their remaining meanings, maybe even clutching on them even more as ultimate subjectivity looms over like a giant fly swatter.

Even as I try to deploy the ‘complete stance’ in my daily life, a little awareness always reminds me just how driven the human mind is to solidify reality. It’s baffling and remarkable all at the same time.

Vajrayana model: objective->

Romeo Stevens 2017-05-18

Vajrayana model: objective-> known, subjective->knower, intersubjective->knowing.

This also makes a frame click into place regarding the 4-5 bridge: the transition from prescriptive systematizing to descriptive systematizing.

What is the intersubjective equivalent for descriptive-prescriptive? Describing vs explaining? Process vs goals? The knowledge that by prescribing an action we lock in a certain ontology of reality? That by describing something we’ve changed our construal of it which is in many ways the only thing that actually exists?

RE: Romeo Stevens' 'intersubjective'

Jack Walker 2017-05-19

Not really my place to reply, but just thought that as my question also used the term ‘intersubjective’, I’d ask you what you meant because you seem to be using it in a rather different way. So I was just curious :)

I recall reading a similar formulation, whereby knowing/meaning emerges from the coalescence/interpenetration of subjective/objective ‘spheres’. I really don’t know the work of Ju Mipham well at all - David would be able to give a much better reply I’m sure - but he states that in the context of Dzogchen, in order to see the coalescence of appearance and emptiness, that would rest on a prior recognition of the interpenetration of object/subject. How this translates to David’s project, I assume would be the focus on the process-relational emergence of meaningness.

But I’m not sure you can use the term ‘intersubjective’ to refer to that, unless you are using it in a way considerably different to current usage in social sciences and psychology.

Great post ("chapter")!

Kenny 2017-06-05

This is pretty similar to something I’ve long pondered about DNA – it’s meaningless on its own! It’s only when interpreted in an ‘appropriate’ environment, e.g. a cell of a related organism, that it can be meaningful.

Average Radical –

If I’m reading David correctly, he’s not arguing that meaning is a social construct. He’s arguing that it’s an interaction between a person and the rest of the world. So meaning absolutely does exist even for a single person stranded on a deserted island. Similarly, I always liked that Ayn Rand considered morality and ethics to absolutely be meaningful even for an isolated person – someone’s actions can be good or bad, even if they’re the only person affected.

But that doesn’t mean that meaning or morality can exist without people; that doesn’t seem to be true. Both are things that only people enjoy. [And I’m perfectly comfortable admitting that anything that makes decisions or experiences meaningness is, at least in some sense, a ‘person’.]

Soused the desert

Steve Alexander 2017-06-16

“If you soak a sponge cake in rum, that invisible essence pervades the desert”

I like the imagery, particularly as you mentioned mirages earlier.

But “dessert” makes more immediate sense :-)

Wasteland pervasion

David Chapman 2017-06-16

Whoops! Thank you very much for pointing that out. Fixed!


Sasha 2017-07-02

Excellent article of an excellent project!

What is meant by “metaphysics” here? As I understand metaphysics, it’s a necessary background or foundation of any worldview, attempt at knowledge, inquiry, etc. That is: metaphysics comprises the ontology (what exists) and most basic principles of reality.

A metaphysics need not be an eternalize stance, of course; one can hold a tentative metaphysics just as one can hold to the current best theories in science without ever assuming that we have found absolute true.

Even physics presumes a metaphysics (and epistemology) in order to proceed with its work (e.g. there is a rule-governed world that we are able to come to know through the work of our senses and reason, etc).

But perhaps by “metaphysics” here you just mean something like “mysticism” or “supernatural”?

Metaphysics, loosely speaking

David Chapman 2017-07-02

Yeah, I was speaking loosely there. I’m addressing an audience that tends toward a scientific-rationalist worldview, and who are likely to reject anything called “metaphysics” out of hand.

I agree that the typical scientific-rationalist worldview does involve metaphysical assumptions (some of them probably wrong).

meaning - using humor as another analogy

Quirkz 2017-10-02

During the first part of the entry, before the rainbow analogy, I was trying to come up with my own examples to better understand what was being said. The best I got was using humor as an example. Imagine there’s a book, and someone reads a passage, finds it funny, and laughs. Where is the humor in this situation? It can’t be in the book, because sitting there by itself it’s not humorous, and there’s no laughter. But it’s also not just in the person, because if they were sitting without the book they wouldn’t be laughing at nothing. The nihilist stance that if it can’t be pinpointed then humor must not exist would be clearly absurd–we have laughter as evidence. The idea that the humor exists as an interaction between book and reader is sensible.

Then I thought a little more and considered that humor might just be a kind of meaning, so this isn’t so much an analogy as a rehash of the same idea. Except I think that people do relate to meaning in a way that they don’t quite with humor. People have an idea that meaning can be fixed to something (“What’s the meaning of life?”), whereas nobody would ask “What’s the humor of life?” and call it a sensible question.

More haggling, but about an important price

Rob Alexander 2018-09-23

The form of meaning you describe here is still what I would call subjective meaning. It’s subjective in that we individually experience it it in very idiosyncratic ways, with the potential for two individuals to take very different meaning from the same external experience. In your terms, it is nebulous, and very strongly so. I call things like that “subjective”, and I think this use of the term is quite common.

In contrast, you say on that for something to be “subjective” the subject must have the ability to choose it. Specifically, you say “Meanings mostly aren’t arbitrary; you mostly can’t choose to have things mean what you want. That’s part of what makes them “not subjective.””. Under my definition, that doesn’t disqualify something from being subjective.

I don’t have data on how common my use is. All I could find from a quick web search is that my use consistent with all the popular answers to questions like “what does ‘subjective’ mean” on on Quora. Everyone talks about how subjective judgements can’t be justified to others, or how it may be idiosyncratic — no-one I saw talks about people having radical freedom to choose it.

Using my definition here is easier for me than for you, I suspect, because I’ve never found the existentialist idea of “you create your own meanings” intelligible, and I’ve never needed to engage with anyone arguing for that position. As you say elsewhere, it’s probably dead as an explicit stance. So I don’t need a term for that position.

You might be right to say “this is just more quibbling about definitions”. After all, it’s your book and thus your prerogative to stipulate terms. But I think that this particular definition issue is going to cause a lot of unnecessary confusion.

[Non]definitions of subjective & objective

David Chapman 2018-09-23

Yes, I agree, this is potentially confusing, since “subjective” and “objective” aren’t well defined. In fact, the two words refer to several different distinctions in different contexts. Those are also somewhat nebulous, but the main confusion is that the distinctions don’t necessarily line up. (There’s supposed to eventually be much more about this issue later in the book.)

One meaning of “objective” is that “most reasonable observers would agree.” Under that definition, the meaning of a handshake (for example) is objective. It’s not usually idiosyncratic (although there are rare cases in which people might reasonably disagree). (It is contextual—a handshake agreement to a contract is different from a handshake on being casually introduced to the friend of a friend.)

A different meaning of “objective” is something like “inherent in physical laws,” and the meaning of a handshake is probably not objective in that sense. (Although, if you are a hardcore physicalist, social matters are supposedly reducible to physical law, so maybe it’s objective after all.)

The main point here is that “subjective” and “objective” are not a clear-cut partitioning of all possibilities. A handshake is subjective perhaps in some aspects, and objective in others; so maybe “both” is as true as “neither.”

Specific Meanings For Specific People

Thomas 2020-05-31

Very interesting post. It answered a lot of questions that I had regarding meaning.

But I still have one question left after reading this:
Since meanings aren’t exactly like rainbows, I suppose due to the subjective part of it not being passive, does it mean that there is, at the least at some level, an actual subjective or individual element on meanings wich could make certain interactions unique from person to person? Or even certain meanings being inacessible to some people (for example: blind people, who can’t “interact visually” with the world)?

Variations in meaning

David Chapman 2020-06-01

Yes, definitely! For example, some songs that are highly meaningful for me almost certainly wouldn’t be for you, and vice versa. Some meanings are shared almost universally; other might be purely personal.

What is Meaningness?

Rachel Horn 2022-07-26

What is meaningness

Humans make meaning from their environment, past and current experiences. Without the environment and experiences there would be no meaning. This much is obvious.

“Eternalism” is flawed because it assumes that meaning is objective and comes from someone else.
Nihilism is flawed because it says nothing has meaning.
Existentialism is flawed because it assumes meaning is subjective and can be made without the environment and the experiences.

I argue that meaningness is interactive between the subjective and objective. Meaningness is subjective and it is based on a human’s environment of objective past and current experiences and understanding of the meaningness of the experiences.