Meaningness

Completing the countercultures

Galleon Goteborg reconstruction sailing by London Bridge
Galleon courtesy George Owens

The countercultures of the 1960s-80s took attitudes to boundaries as their central themes. The monist counterculture—the 1960s youth movement—wanted to eliminate all boundaries and level all distinctions; the dualist counterculture, or religious right, wanted to make them absolute.

Meaningness suggests that oppositions between such mirror-image pairs of confused stances can be resolved by complete stances that correct their metaphysical errors. Specifically, monism and dualism share the mistaken idea that boundaries must be perfectly crisp. Participation, the complete stance regarding boundaries, recognizes that they are always both nebulous and patterned. (I’ll explain all this jargon shortly.)

Below, I apply that conceptual framework to two illustrative countercultural battlegrounds: gender and national borders. These are clear, easy, and important examples because:

  • it’s obvious that they are about boundaries
  • it’s obvious that these boundaries are both nebulous and patterned, so everyone already understands and accepts the complete stance
  • except that, even still now, ideologues sway many people by claiming otherwise
  • gender was perhaps the most important cultural issue in countercultural politics1
  • war was perhaps the most important social issue.

Meaningness: the complete stance

Dramatic cloudscape over Sydney opera house

Image courtesy Trey Ratcliff

This page introduces the central chapter of Meaningness, explaining the complete stance. The complete stance recognizes that meaningness is both nebulous and patterned. Put another way, it neither fixates nor denies meanings. Or, equivalently: it enables the realistic and creative possibilities that emerge when you let go of eternalism and nihilism simultaneously.

If you arrived here unfamiliar with the term “complete stance”: postpone this page! It will seem boring and technical. Instead, read “Preview: eternalism and nihilism” for an introduction to the topic.

So how does meaningness work?

Machinery

This far into the book, you may be impatient. I’ve said a lot about how meaningness doesn’t work. But how does it work? I have said almost nothing, other than that it is nebulous. How unsatisfactory!

I would love to tell you exactly what meaning is. I’d love to explain Life, The Universe, and Everything in a way that solves all your problems.

Unfortunately, I can’t—and neither can anyone else. That sucks; but this is the actual situation we are in.

We have a choice of explanations of meaningness: ones that are simple, clear, harmful, and wrong; or ones that are complex, vague, helpful, and approximately right. I prefer the latter.

It seems to me that:

  • No one can say quite how meaning works.
  • Theories that pretend to explain are either eternalist or nihilist, and both are wrong and harmful.1
  • We aren’t likely to get a full explanation any time soon.
  • We can’t wait for a perfect understanding of meaning, because we have to live life now.
  • So we have to accept that our understanding is incomplete, and do the best we can. Life is fired at us point-blank;2 issues of ethics and purpose won’t wait for someone to find a perfect theory.
  • We can form a partial understanding of meaningness. We are not entirely ignorant, and vague understanding is better than none.
  • Incomplete understanding is not a huge obstacle to sensible action—which is another reason waiting for a perfect theory would be senseless.

What is meaningness?

Diogenes of Sinope by Jean-Léon Gérôme

This book is about meaningness. “Meaningness” is a word I invented, referring to the quality of being meaningful and/or meaningless.

The word “meaning” has two quite different meanings in English. It can refer to the meaning of symbols, such as words and road signs. This book is not about that kind of meaning.

People also speak of “the meaning of life.” That is the sort of meaningness this book is about. So I apply “meaningness” only to the sorts of things one could describe as “deeply meaningful” or “pretty meaningless.” The book is about matters such as purpose, ethics, and selfhood.

Meaningness is a quality, not a thing. I don’t think there is a definite meaning of life. Meaningness is always nebulous: indefinite, uncertain, ambiguous.

The suffix -ness constantly reminds one of this nebulosity. I mostly avoid the word “meaning,” because it builds in the assumption that something meaningful has one specific meaning. Often, that is wrong.

No cosmic plan

Galaxy

This page is unfinished. It may be a mere placeholder in the book outline. Or, the text below (if any) may be a summary, or a discussion of what the page will say, or a partial or rough draft.

The puzzle of meaningness

Hands with wedding rings

Two years ago, well into a mainly happy marriage, you began a secret affair.

The attraction was overwhelming. The sex was scalding. You loved with a passion you had never felt before.

Your lover—also married—understood parts of you that your spouse did not. You were able to be a different person. You explored aspects of your personality that you had never been able to express before. You made different sorts of jokes. You went on adventurous dates, trying things your spouse—who you knew was sweet but a bit dull when you got married—would never have agreed to do.

After a year and a bit, the passion waned. Your secret meetings began to feel slightly repetitive. You found that your personalities would not be compatible in the long term. You wanted quite different things out of life.

It began to seem you were going through the motions. You had one meaningless fight about nothing. Then you discussed the future, and agreed to end the affair on good terms.

Now, you wonder: what did that mean?

Pages

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General explanation: Meaningness is a hypertext book. Start with an appetizer, or the table of contents. Its “metablog” includes additional essays, not part the book.

Subscribe to new content by email. Click on terms with dotted underlining to read a definition. The book is a work in progress; pages marked ⚒︎ are under construction.