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Talbott's Essay? -- Robin 20:35, 16 June 2012 (PDT)

I find Talbott's ideas fascinating - but also quite challenging. I'd love to hear what you made of them.

Robin 20:35, 16 June 2012 (PDT)

Meaning & purpose -- Criegod 17:16, 28 July 2012 (PDT)

I wrote the following notes on July 13th, after listening to the show. I felt my statements evidenced some sort of underlying bias and so i thought i'd sit on them for a while. Looking at them now, i'm inclined to just post it as i wrote it... bias or no. Note that the time indicators may not be accurate (at one point i think i was listening to the show after i'd chopped a segment from the beginning).

Overall, i felt that the majority of Steve Talbott's talk was relatively unobjectionable. However, i still had a fairly big problem with it, overall, finding it tedious, boring, and fundamentally misguided/fuzzy-headed.

I have little problem with the basic philosophy expressed (i think). But i feel he went badly wrong when talking about "meaning". My advice to him would be to go back, substitute the word "purpose" for "meaning" everywhere, then rethink everything.

Part 1, 46:00

Quotes-66.gifMeaning is never a fixed quantity, but always opens out onto the entire universe of meaning. Text and context are inseparable. And if you know enough to ask a half-way coherent question then, in the very framing of the question, we have already found our way towards some of the understanding we seek.Quotes-99.gif

It bothered me that he made certain general observations like this regarding "meaning", while neglecting to state what, i feel, should almost necessarily have been observed in the same breath, in order to preserve any intellectual coherency: that meaning, fundamentally, exists with respect to purpose. Meaning cannot exist in (complete) abstraction, i.e. where there is either a pretense that no purpose is present or the purposes are totally implicit and unexamined. That's what bothered me most... so much talking about "meaning" in abstraction, which (in my view) is pretty meaningless. Without reference to a purpose, there is no "meaning". The natural world, all by itself, with no humans observing it, has no "meaning" because it has no "purpose". (At least that is my "theological" view on the matter.) When we talk about the meaning of the natural world (he often spoke, citing specific details, about the "meaning" of the biological world). But the only meaning present there is that which relates to the purposes of the human beings doing the observing. One has gone badly wrong when, talking about meaning in abstraction, it becomes necessary (for decoding a coherent "meaning" in what is being said) to look at the human purposes, as embedded in systems, cultures and institutions, that have channeled/influenced the person's thinking towards the meaning that they perceive.

Part 1, 54:40

Quotes-66.gifThe aim of the whole endeavour is forgotten... an aim we might express with T.S. Eliot's familiar lines from Four Quartets: we shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive at where we started and know the place for the first time.Quotes-99.gif

This illustrates how one goes wrong when makes the fundamental mistake i am referring to:

"The aim of the whole endeavour..." ... is what? Forgotten? Truly? What sort of analysis is this? This demonstrates a kind of naiveté, if you will. The unstated presumption in all of this is that it just somehow happened... and then we just somehow "forgot". We lost track of meaning; we forgot our aim. This may seem like a nit, but the whole analysis is sterile and lacking when the most important and salient factors regarding the phenomenon that he talks about at such great length are never brought into the open. We didn't forget our aim. The model underlying this way of thinking is just flat out ridiculous, immature, babyish, naive. There is and has been throughout human history a mechanism at work which is responsible for the lamentable state of affairs that is the constant background/context within which he is talking... and yet he never refers to it... it's existence may be -- but certainly may as well be -- invisible to him.

Wouldn't it be relevant, when talking about "meaning", to ask whether there are any systematic factors, present throughout all human history and civilization that work to undermine the integrity of everything we do as human beings? Wouldn't this have an affect on _all_ our "meanings"? Because such is certainly the case. Absent these factors the phenomenon he is discussing wouldn't exist (not in anything remotely like the way he is viewing it). And yet he talks about the phenomenon without ever making any attempt whatsoever to inquire into these factors. There is an underlying abstraction to what he's saying, and what this abstraction fails to represent is vital to producing any coherent meaning in what he is saying (in my view). Worse, the implicit assumption he makes is that no such factors relevant to the topic he is discussing are worth mentioning (or even exist).

I really don't see how you can talk about a complex and subtle phenomenon in any meaningful way when you allow this background to go completely unquestioned. The view of the person doing such an analysis seems to be constrained, such that these questions cannot be asked, as a matter of attitude. I believe his whole thesis would be derailed if he delved into what lies in the background. So, almost willfully, he never looks and never asks.

And by not delving into the background of what he's discussing, he reinforces his comfortable place within the prevailing order of things, which might be disturbed by closer questioning.

Meaning always exists with respect to some purpose. Human beings, in general, have purpose and purposes. Foremostly, as individuals, to stay alive. But the culture and the institutions themselves have purposes, and these purposes play a fairly (at the least) dominant role in the order of things. To talk about meaning in abstraction is an exercise in meaninglessness. To think that one can meaningfully talk about meaning in complete abstraction is to implicitly (and unknowingly) ground what one is talking about in an unexamined context. Therefore, everything that one says when doing this is either meaningless, or worse ... an analysis implicitly based upon purposes which are never examined (and hence never understood, or even known to exist)... purposes that are hidden because structures of power wish them to be hidden. Not only hidden, but wish the populous to believe that the context of their meaning is different than it really is. No intelligent analysis can look at any of this in such a situation (where such dominant institutions and cultural patterns exist) without taking into account the supposed state of affairs (and the supposed meanings that derive from this) and the actual state of affairs.

So, i have to say, i found the essay rather sterile and meaningless. The good observations were so abstract, so far away from any real context (being closer to contexts that, in fact, are not "real" but rather constructions of power and propaganda) that they, in fact, held very little meaning, for me at least. But, this is what intellectuals and academics do. They intellectualize within a vacuum, because the context and purpose manifest in the real world is not "safe" for them to look at openly and honestly.

What i've vaguely referred to is his analysis of scientific thought, cultural trends of thought... that sort of thing. In other words an analysis which seeks to generalize about what it is finding. I have no problem with that, in general. But to generalize without taking into account (at all) the most highly relevant factors... that is a problem.

And it seems like there's a major error being made via the mechanism of looking at the natural world, making some observations (here there are no hidden purposes insofar as the phenomenon being looked at) and then, by analogy, carrying this thinking over into the human world (where it becomes "philosophy") without ever noting that the process of analogizing fails terribly due to the fact that the natural world holds no systematically suppressed "meanings"... a notable aspect of the human world.

Part 2, 2:30

Quotes-66.gifMeaning never arises from the non-meaningful. The question we should ask ourselves is not whether meaning can arise from what is not meaningful, but whether "not meaningful" makes any sense at all. Which, of course, is to ask whether meaningless has any meaning. That's the kind of absurd territory we lose ourselves in when we ask for an informative and truthful science without meaning.Quotes-99.gif

AND... even more when we fail to ask about purpose. It seems to me that meaning and purpose are related concepts. I could imagine talking about purpose very meaningfully, without ever feeling the need arise to mention meaning, but not vice versa.

You always have to bring abstraction back to the real world, or else you are allowing some unexamined purpose to prevail.

Whenever i hear someone use the word "forget" in relation to some aspect of human cultural or institutional functioning, i immediately look for the unidentified, unstated purposes that relate to the issue at hand. And there are many other words that function in this same way (to allow one to continue talking without identifying the vital factors that underlie what you're talking about): when "we" "lose" something, or any talk regarding our (unitary) collective purpose or intentions.

Part 2, ~24:00

Quotes-66.gifThis may carry some readers back to the mysterious remark we heard from Owen Barfield "asking about the origin of languages is like asking about the origin of origins". The thought suggests that the meaningful language of things is the foundation of their existence, tangentially speaking.Quotes-99.gif

Thus does abstract thought degenerate when failing to ground it in anything solid (specifically in terms of human purposes).