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Meaning and Value

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The 'How' and the 'Why' of Life

Structuralism as a theory implies that we split reality up into signs, or categories of objects, in order to make sense of life. [¹]. In modern times the ideas of structuralism became stuck because writers focused only on the synchronic view of language (the view that ignores the effects of time); they did not know how to incorporate time into the sign of language. One main effect of time is that it changes ideas of individuality. The structuralist writers failed to understand the significance of the individual in producing linguistic change.

Sub - Headings
Following Meaning
Psycho-dynamic View

The manner in which the individual related to language was not understood.
Language was conceived to be a social fact, thereby being independent of everything personal. This view is underpinned by an inaccurate understanding of the relation between a person's subjectivity and the objectivity of the world. To understand better the nature of language I use a comparison between subjectivity and objectivity  – this sets up a dualistic framework of  ideas. This matches the dualism of a single person versus a group of persons.

In order to create a dialogue between subjectivity and objectivity, I consider that  meanings  are subjective
and values  are objective.

To understand the role of the individual within the system of language, we need to consider two issues: why  the individual relates to society, and how  he relates to society. The first issue leads to the production of meanings. The individual seeks subjective meaning to his life: why should he have relationships?  Meanings become the search for significant motivations or ideals in his life. The second issue leads to the conversion of meanings into values. His answers are translated into objective values as he learns how to engage in relationships. These values are then incorporated into language.


First of all, in the course of history the ideas that are at the disposal of the person develop both in breadth and depth. Human evolution produces a slow expansion of consciousness. This process is speeded up by the deliberate exploration of the mind. This exploration achieves maximum efficiency when self-deception and confusion are eliminated as much as possible from states of mind. The intrepid explorer achieves this result by using truth as his instrument and the concept of meaning as his guide. Some states of mind are states of relationships. These relationships are explored for their meaning by subjecting them to critical observation and examination.

An observer is usually relating to what he is observing (unless he is feeling bored). If the observation is passive (watching someone else), then little understanding will be achieved. It is not usually possible to identify meanings simply by watching the behaviours of other people. The observation needs to be an active one, if worthwhile results are to be obtained, that is, the person needs to observe himself whilst he is in the act of relating. This practice maximises awareness, and makes it easier to detect confusion and self-deception.

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Following Meaning

The exploration of relationships for their meaning is the exploration of the significance of these relationships for the individual, the exploration of the quality of life that they offer. Relationships pose problems. What happens to relationships when attachments to power and dependency are overcome?  What forms does harmony take?  Does harmony arise at all ?  By following the concept of meaning the explorer will find that his relationships change as his understanding of them changes.

Meaning arises from the individual’s relationships. The individual produces new meanings, but only from his contact with society. Meaning does not arise solely from the individual in his isolation. This is why the individual meditator, in his solitude, almost never produces new meanings ; he is not relating to anyone. The isolated meditator can only function within the pre-set values, and the confines, of his spiritual tradition. Society cannot evolve just as a society ; it needs the individual.

Some of the meanings that the individual creates are useful to society. These subjective meanings are taken up and transformed into objective, social values. Only when meanings are objectified into values can they enter the arena of discourse. Meanings can transform the individual, whilst values can transform relationships.

The two extreme poles of human variability are the subjective individual and objective society. Both the individual and society are equal in importance. Only by accepting that meaning is created first by the individual and then expressed in society can the proper appreciation of the individual develop. In this manner, personal meanings that can fulfill social needs are transformed into social values.

Meanings and values lie in the nature of the relationships which a person has. So when the pursuit of truth is used to eliminate self-deception and confusion, truth becomes centred on meanings and values. Meanings are subjective, values are objective. Subjectivity always arises before objectivity. [²].
Hence meanings arise before values do. This view implies that human life is little more than the arena of meanings, values and relationships. The concept of  ‘expansion of consciousness’  is shorthand for the principle that the person is continually elevating his meanings into values and transforming his relationships from the material level to the mental level, then to the spiritual level.

Language contains traditional values – this is what is implied in the ideas of social conditioning and socialisation. However, these values are the objectification of the individual’s subjective meanings. In this manner, the individual is an important component of the language system. Language as a system of social facts is built upon the creative individual.

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The existing set of social values (whether Marxist, Socialist, Liberal, Conservative, etc) forms an ideology. [³]. Why is this?  When any framework of knowledge tries to ask and answer all questions concerning values and standards within its own boundaries it becomes an ideology. Such a system does not lead to the acceptance of any knowledge that is outside those boundaries. Typical examples from the past are religious groups or churches that depend upon the voice of authority as being infallible. This authority can be a holy book, a past teacher, or an authoritarian hierarchy such as Catholicism. Modern examples include Marxism and science (or more accurately, the direction that science has taken since world war 2). [4]

If we want to analyse an existing ideology, we can split the analysis into two parts, those of the synchronic and the diachronic modes. The individual has his role in both parts. In his synchronic practice he develops new meanings. Then, as a member of society, he transforms these into social values and helps society to change as time goes by. The pursuit of truth, or the stage of mental awareness, mental acuity, is necessary in order to avoid becoming trapped in the ideology.

The importance of the individual lies in the fact that all ideologies change. Now when an ideology has exhausted its positive potential it still has to change. Everything is always changing, nothing stays still ; if you do not go forward then you go backwards. If there is no individual to supply new meanings then the social set of values can only deteriorate. Without the individual creating new values, then sooner or later society will work itself back to barbarity and stone-age culture (or stone-age values within a technological culture).

Many writers are over-impressed by the power of language. One writer gave the impression that meaning is impossible without language. This is an error. Meaning antedates language because the infant encodes it in emotion and attitudes during his pre-verbal existence. If this did not happen then infant psychosis would be an impossibility, that is, schizophrenia and other disorders are the ultimate verification that meaning is encoded in emotion and attitudes. Only later in childhood does the child also encode meaning in desire and in language. Since emotion and attitudes require concepts [5], we can say that meaning is impossible without the mind (which produces the concepts) but not impossible without language.

The state of  equanimity provides another instance of meaning that is outside of language. Equanimity implies that no value judgements are being made, because the person has stepped outside of verbal thought. Yet the world still has meaning, meaning that is non-conceptual, non-linguistic.

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A Psycho-dynamic View

The relationship between meaning and value can be explored from a psycho-dynamic viewpoint. The difference between them can be understood as the difference between psychology and existentialism

The process of childhood growth into adulthood produces a person who has acquired, voluntarily or involuntarily, many fixed beliefs and prejudices. The involuntarily-accepted beliefs are just another name for social conditioning. These fixed beliefs enable a person to structure his character, since they create values. Values are the standards that he bases his identity on. But these values have usually been created either mechanically or subconsciously, and hence are usually enshrouded in confusion and self-deception.

Fixed beliefs and values arise when attitudes and concepts become underpinned by anxiety. So simultaneously this fixed structure produces determinism ; that is, a person usually acts in a present situation in a manner that was first established in the past of long ago.[6]. The more that he centres himself in these confused beliefs and values so the more he finds that he is subject to determinism and fate. Psychology is the investigation and understanding of this fixed structure. Psychological man is afflicted by anxiety (or unwanted stress).

In contrast, the existentialist tries to live a very different situation. He accepts his limitations from the past ; his character is his present starting point. And from this starting point he tries to live a life of meaning, a life of choice, a life of free will, not a life of values. This is the important difference between standard man and existential man. Standard man acts from values. Existential man seeks meanings.

Meanings become the way that life is lived, lived in all its drama. The meaning of anything is just what that thing can teach him. Meanings are just the idealistic ideas that are important to him. In effect, meaning is given to ideas that function in a manner that can neutralise anxiety. So meanings are always of the present, and not the past.

In reality, each individual mixes values and meanings. Values give structure and an element of rigidity to a person’s character, and help determine his actions and behaviour. Hence they are objective. Whereas meanings are always subjective, since flexibility of character and ability to change are of prime importance.

The psychological difference between value and meaning revolves around the manner of handling anxiety.

Fixed beliefs and values arise when attitudes and concepts become underpinned by anxiety.
Values are used as a defence against anxiety.
Meaning is given to ideas that function in a manner that can neutralise anxiety.

Values change as society changes because the old values can no longer resolve anxiety. New meanings are taken up as new values since they enable society to come to terms with change in a more harmonious way. In my view, values arise from karma, the diachronic mode. Meanings arise from the ego, the synchronic mode.

There are more notes on meaning and value at the beginning of the article The Antinomies of Kant.


The number in brackets at the end of each reference takes you back to the paragraph that featured it. The addresses of my other websites are on the Links page.

[¹]. For the meaning of signs and their role in language, see the article Semiology. [1]

[²]. Another view on the idea that subjectivity precedes objectivity is in the article Morality and its Origins, where I contrast the opposition between virtue and morality. [2]

[³]. I have an article that  analyses ideology. See the article Paradigm and Ideology. Also, see the article Structure and Ideology  in this section. [3]

[4]. My view is that since WW2, the pursuit of knowledge has become corrupted by the need for social control and conformity, especially in America. Science is turned into an ideology when free-thinking is proscribed if it is detrimental to business and financial interests. [4]

[5]. My definition of emotion is: Emotion is the activity of feeling directed into a mental concept.
My ideas on Emotion are described in three articles which are on all my psychology websites, such as Discover Your Mind. [5]

[6]. I have an article on Determinism. There are some notes on determinism and karma in the article Existentialism and Psychology. [6]

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The articles in this section are :

Semiology (or Semiotics)

Existentialism and Psychology

Meaning and Value


Structure and Ideology

Benjamin Lee Whorf

Copyright @2003  Ian Heath
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Ian Heath
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