Mapping Towers of Meaning

Mon, Jan 9, 2012


Meaning, I have hypothesized, is constructed as tower like structures: structures that start from a wide base of meanings piled or assembled on top of one another to support higher meanings crowned at the pinnacle by a key meaning that, like a landmark, guides and influences entire aspects of our lives.  But these towers are not constructed by a single individual.  Instead, they are inherited from the culture in which a person has grown up, consisting of so many layers of meaning, and fitting into such an extensive system of other towers of meaning, that they are more akin to mountain ranges, dwarfing what a single individual could create in her or his life (refer to my article on Meaning and the Mountain).

A systematic analysis and modeling of towers of meaning could then open the door to solving problems ranging from conflict resolution and nation building, to marketing and product design, to learning creativity and leadership.  But such analysis faces some tall barriers.

The first barrier arises from the nature of meaning itself, since the rules that apply to unearthing and understanding meaning differ from ordinary knowledge.  Why?  For one, meaning is attached to emotion.  We respond to meaning because we feel something, we follow meaning because we are inspired by it, and we mourn meaning that is destroyed by new ways of thinking.  For another, meaning is connected with tacit knowledge, or more accurately, images and thoughts that are subconscious and not understood.  So unlike knowledge, which is mostly concerned with stuff outside of our minds, these two elements (subconscious thought and emotion) make meaning a very human thing.  And more than this meaning is something that transforms and governs our minds, in other words, it changes the very agency (i.e. the human mind) that creates and transforms knowledge.  Not only are emotions and subconscious thought fluid and malleable, but by their very nature they cannot be understood without experience–it is almost impossible to understand meaning without some form of experiential learning.

A solution would be to strike a balance between formal analysis and guidelines for practitioners.  Formal analysis would be used map meanings that have a long history and are so ingrained as to change slowly–what I refer to as a high level map– while guidelines describe methods and procedures that a practitioner would apply to understand how meaning is constructed and used in specific situations.  Formal analysis would consist of ongoing multiyear projects, possibly undertaken at academic establishments and commercial research centers, while practitioners would be mainly involved in short term (less than a year) projects as consultants and advisors.

In any such analysis it is important to guard against the assumption that meaning structures must form a logical consistent whole that works well together.  In fact, it would be better to assume exactly the opposite: that almost all meaning structures have flaws and contradictions resulting in conflict and that such conflict is continuous and that at almost any point some towers of meaning are collapsing under the weight of such conflict, while other towers of meaning are being constructed at the very same time.  Thus one must view towers of meaning as dynamic entities in constant flux and that any formal map of such towers would be incomplete without an analysis of trends and directions in the evolution of meaning.  This then, analysis of changes and trends, is on of the most important results of meaning analysis.

With a map in hand and the tools needed to analyse specific situations, a fresh approach can be taken on a diverse set of problems to do with human behavior and motivation, which perhaps are today some of the most intractable problems in both business and government.  Such problems as corruption would no longer be viewed as something due to ‘bad’ character, but rather as the lack of those towers of meaning that bring patriotism or a love of the rule of law.  Good product design would no longer be seen as some mysterious black art, but as a something derived from a solid grounding in meanings consumer are reaching for and their physical and artistic translation.  Even though meaning analysis only forms part of a portfolio in a meaning economy, a solid grounding in it will be essential for any involving people.

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