The Instability of Meaning

Definition being nothing but making another understand by Words, what Idea the term defined stands for. – John Locke

The instability of meaning. I like this turn of phrase. Like it because it gets right at the heart of the matter.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: what we know is simply what we believe. And we are here for each other to open each other’s thinking.

What I mean is that the meaning I make of anything is stable as long as I stay inside my own head. The moment I go out into the world and interact with anyone or even anything, I am likely to get some part of my meaning turned on its head. Upheaval. Upside down. Mind blown. Creating sheer adventure of the sort that can make one feel as sick as cutting off an arm. Or that can intoxicate like a new romance. Or comfort like the smell of a baby. Or that can raise ire like the seismic shift of a tectonic plate.

File:Hieronymus Bosch - The Garden of Earthly Delights - The Earthly Paradise (Garden of Eden).jpg

Hieronymus Bosch - The Garden of Eden. Public Domain Image.

And I think about applying that to humanity. How does the human race change its mind? Change its collective mind? Its agreed upon story of what is? Something catastrophic has to occur. Like getting kicked out of the Garden. Or a flood that required an ark for all living things. The invention of agriculture. Or the onslaught of the Black Plague. Locusts. Climate change. Something… or someone. Like Copernicus, or Mozart, or Gandhi, or Hitler, or Marie Curie, or Harriet Tubman, or Simone de Beauvoir, or Freud – they all mark major moments in the history of changing our minds.

Do we change them easily? Apparently not.

Is the concept of the instability of meaning a philosophical one? A semiotics one? A psychoanalysis one? An intellectual or religious one? Maybe it’s all of them. Maybe it’s the fundamental idea of being here. We choose what we believe. And some of what we believe, the meaning we make, lasts longer than others.

For some of us, meaning is made with great difficulty, perhaps even reluctance, and it’s hard-won and so must be defended vigorously. For these, perhaps meaning is more stable, enduring. For others, meaning is more free-form and flexible. It changes with context and time, and this shifting can appear as instability, even flibbertigibbet-ness.

Ultimately, we may even choose the meaning of being here. To believe we ARE here. And maybe, when we change our minds, we go.

Maybe. But that’s just a story too. Wanna change my mind?


About Rebecca Reynolds

Leadership Guru; Systems Thinker; Complex Problem Solver; Facilitative Leader...also LOVE life, dog Wiley, good food, Malbec, forests, oceans, yoga stillness, the boxing bag, ballroom dance, and movies.
This entry was posted in History, Semiotics, Story and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Instability of Meaning

  1. rachelfiske says:

    i love this post. the question i think i carry with me most is, “How does the human race…change its collective mind?” i have no answers (whenever i think i do, it slips away, destabilized as my consideration escapes from the parameters of my own lived experience).

    have you read baudrillard?

  2. Glad this one struck you. I ponder that one a lot too. We seem to be changing our collective mind in important ways these days. I peer across the stream of words, data, images, and events watching for the bellwether that signals the shift. I have my own conclusions, but never much of anything final. I like it like that. Baudrillard. No, but I gather it’s time I do. Thanks.

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