The meaning of meaning

The meaning of meaning March 30, 2015

At the heart of any intellectual exercise is meaning-making. Whether I am using a microscope or a telescope, an ancient text or a new survey, a legal document or a recorded conversation, my desire to make meaning out of the raw material reflects something fundamental about being a homo sapiens, a “wise person.” 

What is the meaning of our meaning-making? What is it about our spontaneous ability and drive to raise questions about the world? Why do we hunger for understanding of the world and ourselves?

Michael Buckley once observed that that God is “the direction toward which wonder progresses” (see his Origins of Modern Atheism, Yale University Press 1987, p. 360). Commenting on this idea, Kenneth Garcia (Academic Freedom and the Telos of the Catholic University, my review here) describes the Church’s reflection on the dynamism of intellect. He points to Justin Martyr (2nd century), whose doctrine of the spermatikos logos (“seeds of the Word,” i.e. seeds of the divine intelligence that makes creation possible), suggested that all people, regardless of religious faith, participate in a certain likeness to God inasmuch as they can experience wonder. Origen (3rd century), following Plato, held that all education (paideia) should be oriented toward helping us realize our union with God; it is rooted in the experience of desire (eros) that moves us toward knowledge. We are restless until we understand what is true. Gregory of Nyssa (4th century) similarly emphasized desire, and the direction of desire toward goodness, truth, and beauty: whoever “pursues true virtue participates in nothing other than God” (cited in Garcia, p. 9).

What is the meaning of meaning? Our participation in the life of God. Catholic intellectual life is the self-consciousness of this participation. Catholic universities are the institutions that encourage both meaning-making (like all good universities) and the reflective habits of understanding the meaning of meaning-making. These include habits of silence and self-awareness (which I teach my students), as well as habits of prayer and worship.

In practice, what these institutions promote are two forms of knowing. One is what I’ll call “reflective knowing.” Reflective knowing encompasses all forms of knowing that involve looking backwards: reading old books, reviewing old experiments to understand their principles, understanding past events, rehearsing old theorems to gain firsthand knowledge of what they mean. Paideia depends upon reflective knowing, because it is a movement from what John Henry Newman described as notional knowledge to real knowledge. I can tell a young person to learn the Pythagorean theorem, but it is more important that the student learn for herself what that theorem means by learning different proofs for it. She develops knowledge for herself rather than just accepting what I say.

The other form of knowing that unfolds I’ll call “new knowing.” Think of original research, scientific discoveries, new insights about the past (like where Richard III was buried, for example). A good deal of new knowing is possible only at the graduate level or above, but even undergraduates are capable of discerning new knowledge. 

Today, there is a heavy emphasis on new knowledge, with attention to the STEM fields leading the charge. Much of this attention is rooted in economic imperatives: training people who will make the discoveries that lead to usable (sellable) technology. Full disclosure: I’ve spent my academic career almost entirely in service to paideia and reflective knowing, so I have a certain bias. I value new knowledge and am happy when my students go into research-intensive fields. But I am concerned sometimes that the eros for new knowledge is caught up in economic imperatives which can sometimes steamroll larger questions about where the human family is going, and how.

My interest–not exclusive, mind you, because new knowledge is good–is encouraging reflective knowledge. I want to encourage knowers (all of us) to slow down and taste (sapere, the root of sapiens) what others before us have understood. Knowledge is not mere intellectual titillation; it must have a hold on us and change us, lest we become hopeless dilettantes. Saint Augustine distinguished curiositas from studiositasthe former being a kind of rootless inquisitiveness and the latter being a focused effort at understanding something. Paul Griffiths’ 2009 book Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar addresses this distinction. Reviewing this book in Modern Theology, John Cavadini writes

While the “studious” come to know the world ever more deeply as an economy of gift and therefore an economy of grateful wonder, the curious come to know the world as a place to be managed, classified and tabulated in encyclopedic taxonomies that claim to offer an exhaustive knowledge of the whole. The “studious” see the world as an “icon” of God’s generosity; the “curious” see it as a “spectacle,” an object whose main appeal is that it can be “reduced” to a catalogue, tamed and domesticated to those whose knowledge has achieved such mastery. The “studious” are not interested in novelty or originality per se, since all is known to God, and in fact the most important things are able to be known, in principle, to everyone. The curious, on the other hand, form an elite precisely in order to appreciate the novelty of their members’ achievements.

To oversimplify, what Griffiths is getting at is the difference between those who experience wonder as an intellectual gift, and those who see it as a commodity to be exploited for gain.

The meaning of meaning-making, in this context, is that it is for the reflective knower (which can include those involved in cutting-edge research) a humble participation in a world charged with the grandeur of God.

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