“Words don’t have meaning, people have meaning…?” (or, “This last, dim, weird battle of the West” or, The End of Civilization, Maybe”) (Part 1)

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“This last, dim, weird battle of the West” or, The End of Civilization, Maybe. (Part 1)

Mark Williams, Ph.D.
Professor of Rhetoric, California State University, Sacramento

(from the regular Column: “Meaningful-Faith: Words, the Word, and a Life of Substance”)

A fellow college professor, who is a friend of mine, was recently praised in his student evaluations for destroying the possibility of civilization. Now, to be clear, the student did not know that is what they were praising the professor for, and the professor had specifically attempted to avoid destroying civilization. But things don’t always work out like we expect, and here we are. It is 2020, after all.

According to this student (let us call him Stultus), the most memorable insight he received from the course was this: “Words don’t have meaning, people have meaning.”

While civilization is certainly under some threat from comma splices, too, that is not my issue at present. Don’t misunderstand: I can certainly offer extensive reflections on the relationship of punctuation, grammar, and cultural morality, if you care to ask, but experience suggests this is not a warmly received conversational topic. So, for the moment, I intend to focus on the content, rather than the punctuation, of Stultus’ expression.

This mysterious claim that people, not words, have meaning might have its origins in several different perspectives. First, Stultus might just be confused and saying something in a rather clumsy way that is moderately innocent and crushingly dull. Examples come easily to mind. He might be remarking on the utterly unremarkable fact that words are, mechanically, noises we make in the air. People have assigned these noises to represent specific realities, but other sounds would have worked just as well. The reality we presently refer to as dogs might have been called mooblits, and if so, it would be those sounds that would reference the type of creature that is presently sleeping at my feet and drooling on my floor. This is both true and uninteresting.

Or, Stultus might have happened upon a startling insight: I cannot understand what someone said if I do not know the meaning of the words they used. If you say, “Three of his four aglets were missing,” the word aglet is meaningless (to me), unless I already know (or until I learn) that it refers to the plastic tube on the end of a shoelace.

Or, perhaps Stultus was simply celebrating his discovery, for the first time in his life, that it is possible to increase one’s vocabulary by looking up new words in a dictionary. Perhaps he was sincerely celebrating the banal.

My intuitions suggest another, alternative perspective for the origin of this claim, though. I suspect Stultus is mixed up and mixed up in a way that is intellectually unrewarding and perhaps even dangerous, not just to the student, but to everybody around him, too. It may be that Stultus really does believe, sincerely, that it is not just the mechanical sounds of words that are arbitrary, but also the actual meanings—the realities to which words (or at least many words) refer—that are arbitrary and exist only as people construct them. If so, then those constructed realities are perfectly open to reconstruction. We can change our definition of what it means to act justly or to think clearly. And therein lies the road to darkness.

There are two quick observations to make about this fact. Here, no quarter will be given. Here is no safe space of any sort for anyone. That a road leads to darkness says nothing at all about whether it is or is not the correct or only road open to us. It may be that all of life is in fact a chance set of arbitrarily experienced phenomena without inherent purpose or meaning. The truth of such a claim does not depend on whether we, personally, find it pleasant or unpleasant.  Meaningless darkness may be our end, like it or not.

It follows, therefore, that the idea of meaning will need to be explored by folks willing to admit that life is empty and devoid of meaning. I claim to be a person willing to embrace that conclusion. A terrifyingly good case can be made for the claim that life is meaningless. But such realities will also need to be explored by folks who are willing to admit that life is potentially flourishing and filled with meaning. I claim to be one of those persons, too. A terrifyingly good case can be made for a life of meaning.

To begin that conversation, we will need to dig a bit deeper into this idea that realities are constructed by people, and people, therefore, are in charge of all meanings; we will look more closely at this aspect of Stultus’ claim in our next installment.

Comments 1

  1. Thanks for a thought provoking essay. In cultural studies there is a term ‘the obstinate audience’ that is a bit more stubborn about interpreting a text in ways that suit them rather than being swayed by the ‘preferred meaning’ or intent of the authors. I think we can flip that a bit to join in your dialogue with Stultus. There is what Burke calls “charismatic” terms or texts that trigger a wide range of interpretations. What “freedom” means depends very much on who you ask. There are other texts we might call “obstinate texts” that are more resistant to a wide range of meanings–at least by reasonable and responsible interpreters. It is sloppy citizenship to constantly say “he was joking” when he clearly was not. The text, tone and context are not so wide open as to allow that interpretation to stand along side others as equally valid. So Stultus might be cautioned to avoid thinking of language, or language systems as a collection of pipe cleaners to twist into any position he prefers, but rather as something more like Legos which while versatile, cannot create a circle or triangle. Legos allow tremendous creativity, but also very clear constraints. Such is the language system we participate in.

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