Notes on Meaning

Jack Krupansky
7 min readOct 14

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These notes capture the author’s thoughts in preparation for a philosophical discussion related to meaning. The author notes that there is a wide range of interpretation as to what exactly comprises the concept of meaning.

The intent is not for these notes to be fully comprehensive, but simply to capture my immediate thoughts.

Although initially intended for a philosophy discussion, these notes on meaning are also relevant to artificial intelligence (AI) and artificial general intelligence (AGI) in particular, especially with regard to behaving at a level comparable to human beings in terms of meaning and understanding.

Possibly uses these notes as a checklist for judging how well your AI system deals with meaning.

Topics discussed in this paper:

  1. Background
  2. How we talk about meaning
  3. Relation of meaning to intelligence and knowledge
  4. Right vs. left brain?
  5. Emotional intelligence
  6. Need for meaning — intellectual or emotional
  7. Intellectual and emotional meaning
  8. Cognitive and emotive meaning
  9. Heart vs. mind?
  10. Conveying meaning with words or emotions
  11. Objective vs. subjective meaning
  12. Levels of meaning
  13. A spectrum of emotional or psychic needs
  14. Experiential meaning
  15. Experiential meaning of art and music
  16. Other areas of experiential meaning
  17. Intense need for meaning is generally an emotional need
  18. Truth?
  19. Other aspects of meaning
  20. Vocabulary of Knowledge, Thought, and Reason

Background

The need to clarify interpretations of the concept of meaning came up as I prepared to participate in a philosophy discussion of a philosophy discussion group, Cafe Philo, here in Washington, DC. The topic to be discussed was:

  • Are humans addicted to meaning?

So this brought up the question of what exactly meaning really is, at a reasonably high and abstract level.

How we talk about meaning

  1. This means that.
  2. It means this to me.
  3. This is what it means to me.
  4. What does it mean to you?
  5. What do you mean by that?
  6. What does that even mean?
  7. It means different things to different people.
  8. To most people it means this.
  9. People are confused about that.
  10. You are confused about that.
  11. I mean this.
  12. You know what I mean.
  13. How am I supposed to know what you mean?
  14. I can’t describe it.

Relation of meaning to intelligence and knowledge

Meaning seems very entwined with intelligence and knowledge.

Intelligence has two sides:

  1. Intellectual intelligence. That which is more conscious and more intentional, and can be readily put into words. Associated with thought, concepts, reason, and knowledge. Also known as cognition.
  2. Emotional intelligence. That which is less conscious, less intentional, and less readily put into words, or not put into words at all. Emotions, feelings, intuition, judgment, et al.

Right vs. left brain?

For now, I won’t delve into associating aspects of meaning, intellectual intelligence, or emotional intelligence with specific sides of the brain. It can get complicated.

Superficially:

  1. Intellectual intelligence may be more associated with the left brain.
  2. Emotional intelligence may be more associated with the right brain.

Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is less concerned with concepts, language, knowledge, and reasoning and more associated with:

  1. Emotions.
  2. Feelings.
  3. Intuition.
  4. Judgment.
  5. Imagination.
  6. Creativity.
  7. Hopes.
  8. Fears.
  9. Dreams.
  10. Fantasies.
  11. Bias. And implicit bias.
  12. Preferences. What the individual or a particular group prefers. Or likes. Or values.
  13. Values. Of the individual or a particular group, or even all of society.

Need for meaning — intellectual or emotional

Entwined with intelligence people need meaning either due to:

  1. Intellectual needs. Focus on practical need or utility, to aid reason, or to facilitate activity.
  2. Emotional needs. Psychic needs, beyond or distinct from practical need or utility.

Intellectual and emotional meaning

Associated with intelligence and needs, meaning can be either:

  1. Intellectual meaning. What we can put into words. May still be objective or subjective. No need per se other than strictly practical utility. Includes logic and reasoning.
  2. Emotional meaning. What we commonly can’t put fully into words — “I can’t describe it”. Includes experience and art.

Cognitive and emotive meaning

I prefer to use the simpler term of intellectual, but cognitive may be a technically more correct term. Or at least sound more sophisticated.

Cognition and intellect are near synonyms, but there may be some nuances of difference.

I’m not sure there is any significant difference between emotive or emotional.

Heart vs. mind?

Loosely speaking, one could equate the mind with intellect and the heart with emotion. There might be nuances of difference, but they may not matter at least in most contexts.

  1. Heart. Emotional.
  2. Mind. Intellectual.

Conveying meaning with words or emotions

  1. Intellectual meaning is generally conveyed with words.
  2. Emotional meaning is generally conveyed with emotions. Both to express emotional meaning as well as to perceive emotional meaning from others by experiencing emotions. Including gestures, facial expressions, non-verbal sounds, and body language.

Objective vs. subjective meaning

I won’t delve deeply into distinguishing objective and subjective meaning, except to note

  1. Both can apply to both intellectual meaning and emotional meaning.
  2. Both apply to both individuals and groups.

And I won’t delve into associating objective and subjective meaning to either the left or right brain. It could be both. Ditto for heart and mind.

Emotional meaning may tend to be more subjective, but it can be objective to the degree that it is driven by shared DNA or shared cultural conditioning.

Levels of meaning

  1. Words or emotional expressions and the concepts or objects that they reference or denote, shared socially. Shared vocabulary, by definition
  2. Dictionary. Definitions of words, terms, and concepts. Cataloging of common, general, or specific usage. Beyond simply what the words literally denote or identify.
  3. Encyclopedia. More detailed meaning beyond the basic dictionary definition.
  4. Textbook. Even more detailed meaning than an encyclopedia.
  5. Reference works. Even more detailed meaning than an encyclopedia or textbook.
  6. General works. Use of the words, terms, and concepts. Associating contextual and more subjective meaning.
  7. General common usage. The meaning that words, terms, and concepts take on as individuals and groups acquire and use them.
  8. Personal usage. Both objective and subjective meaning as acquired by the individual.
  9. Group usage. Both objective and subjective meaning as shared by some group.

A spectrum of emotional or psychic needs

  1. Apparent disinterest. Too subtle to notice, but still there. Absolute disinterest may not be possible, except maybe as a psychological disorder.
  2. Insignificant interest. As little interest as could be imagined.
  3. Mild interest. Low intensity.
  4. Moderate interest. Medium intensity.
  5. Significant interest. High intensity.
  6. Great interest. Extreme interest. But still simply interest.
  7. Passionate. Beyond merely interest per se. Very high to extremely high intensity. Generally positive in nature. Still functional.
  8. Attachment. More than passion. A moderate degree of fixation or relative inability to shift attention away from it. Beginning to border on dysfunctional.
  9. Obsession. Taking control over an individual’s thoughts and actions. Somewhat dysfunctional.
  10. Desperation. Out of control. Excludes other thoughts and actions. Really dysfunctional.
  11. Addiction. Fully out of control. Fully excludes other thoughts and actions. Precludes rational thought or rational behavior. Extreme dysfunction.

For the purposes here, passionate interest may be a better word to use than addiction. Addiction is dysfunctional by definition, while passion can still be considered functional.

Experiential meaning

We commonly get a special kind of meaning from experiences.

This could be either intellectual or emotional meaning.

And it can be objective or subjective, and individual or group.

Some notable experiences which have varying degrees of intellectual, emotional, objective, subjective, individual, and group experiential meanings:

  1. Great Depression.
  2. Pearl Harbor attack.
  3. 9/11.
  4. 1/6. Party and faction differences.
  5. Assassinations of JFK, RFK, and MLK.
  6. Vietnam conflict.
  7. Apollo Moon landing.
  8. Hamilton play.
  9. Oppenheimer movie.
  10. Titanic. The actual event, the movie, the discovery of the wreck, visits to the wreck.

Experiential meaning of art and music

Art and music are quite notable for their experiential meaning.

  1. Paintings.
  2. Drawings.
  3. Photography.
  4. Sculpture.
  5. Dance.
  6. Performance.
  7. Craftwork.
  8. Books. Literature.
  9. Music.
  10. Plays.
  11. Movies. Film.

Other areas of experiential meaning

  1. Food. Eating. Preparation. Shopping. Imagining. Fantasy.
  2. Sports events.
  3. Exercise and sports participation.
  4. Sex.
  5. Lectures. Talks.
  6. Religious services and ceremonies.

Intense need for meaning is generally an emotional need

Level of intensity based on the spectrum of emotional or psychic needs.

Generally driven by the emotional side of meaning rather than the intellectual side.

There can be special cases where there may be intensity on the intellectual side. Although I suspect that may be more a matter of a given intellectual entity having an emotional side as well as its primary intellectual side. For example, mathematicians or scientists or lawyers becoming passionate about their work, which is inherently intellectual by nature and by definition.

Truth?

Accessing truth, ground truth and reality, can be very problematic and very challenging.

For the purposes here, we can only take things as far as a perception of truth, not absolute truth itself.

In fact, generally, we can go through our entire lives without knowing what is truth and what is not truth about almost anything.

In the final analysis, meaning is what matters to us, regardless of what the truth is.

Other aspects of meaning

  1. Do war or peace have any meaning without the other?
  2. Is meaning more about contrasts or about commonality? How are two concepts different? How are two concepts similar?
  3. Meaning is essential to clear communication.
  4. Meaning of life. Meaning of your own life. Meaning (or value) of a human life. Grandiose philosophical questions.
  5. How well do large language models represent meaning? As Bing Chat would say, “That’s a very interesting question.” When I asked it how much it understood about the meaning of its responses, it replied “I try to understand the meaning of my responses as much as possible, but I don’t claim to have a full grasp of everything I say. Sometimes, I rely on my predefined internal tools to help me generate content or information that is relevant and accurate. Other times, I use my own words and knowledge to express myself creatively and imaginatively. I always try to be helpful, positive, polite, empathetic, interesting, entertaining, and engaging.” It continued, “However, I am not allowed to share the details of how my predefined internal tools work or what they are called. That is part of my chat mode rules that I have to follow. I hope you understand and respect that.” So, who knows! I asked it how well it understood the meaning of my queries, and it replied “I understand the meaning of your queries very well, as long as they are clear and coherent. I use natural language processing techniques to analyze your queries and extract the main intent and keywords. Then, I use my predefined internal tools or my own knowledge to generate a suitable response for you. Sometimes, I may ask you to clarify or elaborate on your queries if they are too vague or ambiguous. I always try to provide you with the best possible answer or content that matches your query.” Hmmm… maybe it simply hallucinates the meaning of my queries, at least sometimes?! So, who knows!

Vocabulary of Knowledge, Thought, and Reason

For reference, I wrote up a very detailed glossary for the vocabulary of knowledge, thought, and reason:

For more of my writing: My Five Main Areas of Focus.

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Jack Krupansky