How to Find It in Philosophical Counseling
Epistle 14. Posted on 2019-04-02.
When you consider the meaning of it all, the meaning of life, the meaning of your life, the meaning of someone else to you, and other important topics of meaning, the answers you come up with may have profound impacts. This article presents an interpretation of meaning in the context of philosophical counseling. Meaning is defined here as follows:
The meaning of something or some event in our experience is the list of all concepts that are necessarily applicable to it.
Before we explore this definition, we must first consider perception. Life consists, in part, of receiving and interpreting sense data. Sense data arrives as electrical signals, and perception is an unconscious process that applies concepts to this sense data. Perception, then, is the unconscious interpretation of sense data with concepts. When Wendy sees a wall, her unconscious brain assigns the concept of a wall to that sense data, but only if it perceives it correctly. In this case, the concept of a wall is an explicit concept that also implies other concepts, such as being man-made, or being impassable or at least an obstruction, depending on the wall. Wendy’s wall happens to be gray, but since walls are not required by definition to have the same color, the grayness of this wall is not a concept that is implied necessarily by its wall-ness. However, its grayness may be implied by other concepts.
Since everything that has been elevated into your consciousness is a representation of something and was interpreted beforehand by the unconscious brain, everything experienced is subjective. Every experience requires interpretation, and everyone’s perception depends on their concepts, which is determined mostly by their previous experiences, thought judgment is also a factor. As a result, every meaning is subjective.
When the unconscious brain interprets the electrical signals that carry sense data, perception applies concepts to that data. When you read this sentence, your brain is assigning numerous concepts to the sense data shortly after it arrives, including letters, words, and context. Your brain is about to interpret the following letter, z, as a certain letter of the alphabet. Everything experienced, including the letter “z”, packs a ton of meaning. And we will be specifically concerned with which concepts your brain applies to your inner experience, as well as those which you apply later in consciousness.
Much of what is experienced is expressible in language. When you consider an experience, a thought about the experience typically accompanies it. This experiential thought is usually expressed as a proposition about the experience. Meaning involves the concepts that are applicable to the subject in a proposition about your experience. The subject may denote either one particular object or a category of objects.
For example, Mira is sitting in her kitchen and considers the meaning of the glass of water before her on the table. In her personal experience, the subject is the glass of water, and this subject denotes a particular glass of water. This glass of water connotes several concepts, including a glass, water, and table, among others. Each of these concepts may be defined with other concepts. The concept of a glass may be defined as a human-made container that is made of glass and designed to contain liquid for drinking. This definition is subjective, and may be improved upon. But for now, this is her understanding of a glass. This definition in turn connotes other concepts, including glass as a material rather than merely a container, and so the word glass is used in two different senses, or has two different meanings.
But, Mira loses interest in contemplating the meaning of this glass of water, and instead considers the meaning of a person. In contrast to the glass of water, a person is generic rather than specific, because there are billions of people. Mira considers people in general rather than a specific person. After some thought, Mira arrives at the same definition of a person that Aristotle had for a human: a person is a rational animal. Therefore, every person has her implied concepts of animality and rationality.
Meaning also applies to events. For example, Mira next considers the meaning of losing her job, which is a recent event. She remembers when she was terminated and walked out of the building. The subject, then, is not the job, but the “losing” of it. This predicate is converted to a common noun, a loss. Mira is really considering a particular and recent loss: her job. That specific event was unexpected and embarrassing, among other things.
All of the above examples are rich in meaning, and consequently, are presented only briefly. In addition to presenting the rough idea of how to consider the meaning of something or some event, it is also important to realize that everything has meaning, and usually has so much meaning it is difficult to summarize it.
Next, Mira notices a new refrigerator magnet that she has not seen before. She inspects it, and it reads:
Quanto satius est rectum sequi limitem et eo se perducere, ut ca demum sint tibi iucunda, quae honesta.
Mira does not know Latin, and consequently she does not know that it is from lines 12-13 in Seneca’s Epistle No. 123. In 1925, Richard M. Gummere (1883 – 1969) translated it for the Loeb Classical Library as
How much better to follow a straight course and attain a goal where the words “pleasant” and “honorable” have the same meaning!
Even though Mira does not know or recognize Latin, the sentence is steeped in meaning. She recognizes that it is a written sentence from its punctuation and from the familiar letters, even though they are combined in unfamiliar words. Its message may be obscured and merely gibberish to her, but the contents of this refrigerator magnet remain meaningful in many respects.
There are several applications of the topic of meaning in philosophical counseling. Sometimes meaning is the main focus, and other times meaning is a stepping stone to other topics.
Perhaps the most common application is with respect to the concept of meaninglessness, wherein the immediate goal is to find meaning. Finding meaning from perceived meaninglessness usually occurs in the context of a more important goal, and it usually relates to the more important concepts of life, such as a loved one or to life itself.
Whether or not it begins with perceived meaninglessness, a popular application is when I help someone who is seeking to discover the meaning of someone or something in their life. Usually, the goal is to facilitate a future decision, and oftentimes this is in the context of a dilemma.
Finally, another application of the topic of meaning in philosophical counseling is in the context of introspection, when a person is exploring the meaning of someone or something in their life, usually as a means to self-discovery, and hopefully the self-exploration also leads to self-improvement.
The topic of meaning is often confused with purpose, and it often occurs together with other topics, such as introspection. Consider the concept of meaninglessness. The proposition that life is meaningless is an exaggeration that usually results from realizing that one thing is disconnected from another when such a connection was desired, and usually there are multiple such disconnections involved.
For example, Mira spent ten years of her life in college, only to begin a profession that she discovered too late that she dislikes. She has not found the kind of meaning in her profession that she hoped for, let alone in sacrificing a decade of her life to qualify for it, a decade she cannot take back and put to better use. Mira desired a connection between education, employment, and satisfaction, and she invested heavily into it; but that connection did not manifest, regardless of her efforts. Due to education, she expected that satisfaction would be part of the meaning of her future concept of employment, but it was not. However, for Mira to conclude that her education and employment are meaningless would be an exaggeration.
If Mira, in this example, experiences a conflict due to desiring a particular kind of meaning where there is none for her, she is experiencing an existential crisis. Perhaps she can be satisfied with a different job, or with a different education.
The good news is that everything about your life is rich with meaning, and that it is rewarding to explore it. I use formal reason (deductive logic) to explore personal meaning such as the meaning of life. Sometimes a change of perspective results, and if it does, it is always a self-improvement, and something to be proud of. There are better and worse ways to interpret things in your life, and I look forward to helping you find the better ways.
Vale (pronounced WAH-lay is Latin for “Farewell”),