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Meaning is a concept fundamental to semiotics, linguistics, psychology, sociology, philosophy and all other fields of human observation and study. The uses of the term in many fields more or less overlap, with differing ways in which it is related to other concepts and defined or delineated by other terms. In semiotics, the meaning of a sign is determined by its place or set of roles in sign relations. In linguistics, meaning is what a source or sender expresses, communicates, or conveys in their messages to the observer or receiver, or what the receiver infers from the current context.
- Quotes are arranged alphabetically by author
A - F
- According to Husserl, that 'act of meaning', or the use of a given phrase as an expression of a certain language, consists in the fact that a sensory content appears in consciousness, by means of which one might think visually about that phrase, should that content be joined by an appropriate intention directed to that phrase. But when a given phrase is used as an expression belonging to a certain language, then that sensory content is joined by another intention, not necessarily a representative one, which is however in principle directed to something other than that phrase itself. Together with the sensory content in question, that intention makes up a uniform experience, but neither the experiencing of that sensory content, nor that intention is a complete, independent experience. Both the one and the other are non-independent parts of the experience as a whole. The meaning of a given expression (as a type) would be, according to Husserl, the type under which that intention joined to the sensory content must fall if the given phrase is to be used as an expression belonging precisely to that language
- Kazimierz Ajdukiewicz, On the Meaning of Expressions, Lwow 1931. (original title: O znaczeniii wyrazen.) p. 19-20; as cited in: Schaff (1962;299)
- You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.
- Albert Camus, in "Intuitions" (October 1932), published in Youthful Writings (1976)
- I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I cannot know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms. What I touch, what resists me — that I understand. And these two certainties — my appetite for the absolute and for unity and the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle — I also know that I cannot reconcile them. What other truth can I admit without lying, without bringing in a hope I lack and which means nothing within the limits of my conditions?
- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942)
- When the imagination sleeps, words are emptied of their meaning: a deaf population absent-mindedly registers the condemnation of a man. … there is no other solution but to speak out and show the obscenity hidden under the verbal cloak.
- Albert Camus, Reflections on the Guillotine (1957); later included in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death (1960)
- "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master — that's all."
- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass (1871), Ch. 6; Quoted in: Adam Schaff (1962). Introduction to semantics, p. 212
- The sign of a truly totalitarian culture is that important truths simply lack cognitive meaning and are interpretable only at the level of "Fuck You", so they can then elicit a perfectly predictable torrent of abuse in response. We've long ago reached that level.
- Noam Chomsky, in in a letter to Alexander Cockburn (1 March 1990), later paraphrased in Deterring Democracy (1992) p. 345
- What is the meaning of human life, or of organic life altogether? To answer this question at all implies a religion. Is there any sense then, you ask, in putting it? I answer, the man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life.
- Albert Einstein, The World As I See It (1949)
- Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.
- Albert Einstein, in "Why Socialism?" Monthly Review (May 1949)
- The traditional religions worry me. Their long history proves that they have not understood the meaning of the commandment: Thou shalt not kill. If we want to save this world from unimaginable destruction we should concentrate not on the faraway God, but on the heart of the individual.
- Albert Einstein, as quoted in Einstein and the Poet : In Search of the Cosmic Man (1983) by William Hermanns
- The Letheri are masters at corrupting words, their meanings. They call war peace, they call tyranny liberty. On which side of the shadow you stand decides a word's meaning. Words are the weapons used by those who see others with contempt. A contempt which only deepens when they see how those others are deceived and made into fools because they choose to believe. Because in their naivety they thought the meaning of a word was fixed, immune to abuse.
- Steven Erikson, in Reaper's Gale (2007)
- A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. … For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory."
- The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.
- Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.
- What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.
G - L
- I do not recommend any legislative action against hermeneutics. I am a liberal person opposed to all unnecessary state limitation of individual liberties. Hermeneutics between consenting adults should not, in my view, be the object of any statutory restrictions. I know, only too well, what it would entail. Hermeneutic speakeasies would spring up all over the place, smuggled Thick Descriptions would be brought in by the lorry-load from Canada by the Mafia, blood and thick meaning would clot in the gutter as rival gangs of semiotic bootleggers slugged it out in a series of bloody shoot-outs and ambushes. Addicts would be subject to blackmail. Consumption of deep meanings and its attendant psychic consequences would in no way diminsh, but the criminal world would benefit, and the whole fabric of civil society would be put under severe strain. Never!
- Ernest Gellner, Anthropology and Politics (1995)
- Any concepts or words which have been formed in the past through the interplay between the world and ourselves are not really sharply defined with respect to their meaning: that is to say, we do not know exactly how far they will help us in finding our way in the world. We often know that they can be applied to a wide range of inner or outer experience, but we practically never know precisely the limits of their applicability. This is true even of the simplest and most general concepts like "existence" and "space and time". Therefore, it will never be possible by pure reason to arrive at some absolute truth.
The concepts may, however, be sharply defined with regard to their connections... a group of connected concepts may be applicable to a wide field of experience and will help us to find our way in this field. But the limits of the applicability will in general not be known, at least not completely...
- Werner Heisenberg, in Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science (1958), lectures delivered at University of St. Andrews, Scotland, Winter 1955-56
- I believe that I am not responsible for the meaningfulness or meaninglessness of life, but that I am responsible for what I do with the life I've got.
- Hermann Hesse, Verliebt in die verrückte Welt: Betrachtungen, Gedichte, Erzählungen, Briefe
- You can only learn the meaning of the word meaning from the consideration of the nature of ideas, and their connection with things.
- Edward Johnson, in Nuces Philosophicoe; or, Philosophy of Things (1842)
- I am sure that no man asketh mercy and grace with true meaning, but if mercy and grace be first given to him.
- Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (c.1393), Ch. 42
- I desired oftentimes to learn what was our Lord’s meaning. And fifteen years after, and more, I was answered in ghostly understanding, saying thus: Wouldst thou learn thy Lord’s meaning in this thing? Learn it well: Love was His meaning. Who shewed it thee? Love. What shewed He thee? Love. Wherefore shewed it He? For Love. Hold thee therein and thou shalt learn and know more in the same. But thou shalt never know nor learn therein other thing without end. Thus was I learned that Love was our Lord’s meaning.
- Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (c.1393), Ch. 86
- For it all depends on how we look at things, and not on how they are in themselves. The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.
- ...—but what of the ultimate meaning of life? How has life been called into existence? Why has it culminated in a human form? For what final purpose have we been called into existence? Surely man is part of a great whole!
- Arthur Keith, "Chapter X". Living Philosophies. Simon & Schuster. 1931. p. 151.
- The search for meaning is not limited to science: it is constant and continuous--all of us engage in it during all our waking hours the search continues even in our dreams. There are many ways of finding meaning, and there are no absolute boundaries separating them.
- Ervin László (1996) Evolution: the general theory. p. 3
- One can find meaning in poetry as well as in science in the contemplations of a flower as well as in the grasp of an equation. We can be filled with wonder as we stand under the majestic dome of the night sky and see the myriad lights that twinkle and shine in its seemingly infinite depths. We can also be filled with awe as we behold the meaning of the formulae that define the propagation of light in space, the formation of galaxies, the synthesis of chemical elements, and the relation of energy, mass and velocity in the physical universe. The mystical perception of oneness and the religious intuition of a Divine intelligence are as much a construction of meaning as the postulation of the universal law of gravitation.
- Ervin László (1996) Evolution: the general theory. p. 3
- Men content themselves with the same words as other people use, as if the very sound necessarily carried the same meaning.
- John Locke, quoted in: Adam Schaff (1962). Introduction to semantics, p. 212
M - R
- A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean. If my drawing, on the other hand, is so far from being a work of art that it needs THIS IS A HORSE written under it, what can it matter that neither you nor your child should know what it means? It is there not so much to convey a meaning as to wake a meaning. If it do not even wake an interest, throw it aside. A meaning may be there, but it is not for you. If, again, you do not know a horse when you see it, the name written under it will not serve you much.
- George MacDonald, in "The Fantastic Imagination" (1893), a Preface to an American edition of MacDonald's Fairy Tales.
- One difference between God's work and man's is, that, while God's work cannot mean more than he meant, man's must mean more than he meant. For in everything that God has made, there is layer upon layer of ascending significance; also he expresses the same thought in higher and higher kinds of that thought: it is God's things, his embodied thoughts, which alone a man has to use, modified and adapted to his own purposes, for the expression of his thoughts; therefore he cannot help his words and figures falling into such combinations in the mind of another as he had himself not foreseen, so many are the thoughts allied to every other thought, so many are the relations involved in every figure, so many the facts hinted in every symbol. A man may well himself discover truth in what he wrote; for he was dealing all the time with things that came from thoughts beyond his own.
- George MacDonald, in "The Fantastic Imagination" (1893)
- It's all very well to laugh at the military, but when one considers the meaning of life, it is a struggle between alternative viewpoints of life itself. And without the ability to defend one's own viewpoint against other perhaps more aggressive ideologies, then reasonableness and moderation could, quite simply, disappear. That is why we'll always need an army, and may God strike me down were it to be otherwise.
- Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983), a General in "Part III: Fighting Each Other", just prior to being destroyed by a lightning bolt
- The mystery of meaning is that it doesn’t seem to be located anywhere—not in the word, not in the mind, not in a separate concept or idea hovering between the word, the mind, and the things we are talking about. And yet we use language all the time, and it enables us to think complicated thoughts which span great reaches of time and space. You can talk about how many people in Okinawa are over five feet tall, or whether there is life in other galaxies, and the little noises you make will be sentences which are true or false in virtue of complicated facts about far away things that you will probably never encounter directly.
- Thomas Nagel, What Does It All Mean? (1987), Chap. 5 : The Meaning of Words
- There is not one big cosmic meaning for all; there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.
- Anaïs Nin, The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 1: 1931-1934
- There is a high goal, a mountain peak, a star that shines in the darkness, beckoning above the horizon. Its mere existence gives you hope—and that is the meaning without which you cannot live.
- Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order (2021), p. 133
- The thing about words is that meaning can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning.
- Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies (1992)
- Everything has a meaning, if only we could read it.
- Philip Pullman, Lyra's Oxford (2003)
S - Z
- The idiot heard the sounds, but they had no meaning for him. He lived inside somewhere, apart, and the little link between word and significance hung broken.
- Theodore Sturgeon, More Than Human (1953), Ch. 1 : The Fabulous Idiot, p. 1
- One needs something to believe in, something for which one can have whole-hearted enthusiasm. One needs to feel that one's life has meaning, that one is needed in this world.
- Hannah Szenes, Hannah Senesh: Her Life and Diary (1938).
- As intellectualism suppresses belief in magic, the world’s processes become disenchanted, lose their magical significance, and henceforth simply “are” and “happen” but no longer signify anything. As a consequence, there is a growing demand that the world and the total pattern of life be subject to an order that is significant and meaningful.
The conflict of this requirement of meaningfulness with the empirical realities of the world and its institutions, and with the possibilities of conducting one’s life in the empirical world, are responsible for the intellectual’s characteristic flights from the world.
- Max Weber, Sociology of Religion, p. 125
- The most important part of education — to teach the meaning of to know (in the scientific sense).
- Simone Weil, Waiting for God (1950); the last statement in her notebook.
- Words like virtue, nobility, honor, honesty, generosity, have become almost impossible to use or else they have acquired bastard meanings; language is no longer equipped for legitimately praising a man’s character.
- Simone Weil, On Science, Necessity, and the Love of God (1968) “The responsibility of writers,” p. 168
- Suffering is admittedly one of the central problems of human existence; but this is because we have a suspicion that it is all for nothing. If we had a certainty about meaning, the suffering would be bearable. With no certainty of meaning, even comfort begins to feel futile.
- Colin Wilson in Frankenstein's Castle p. 89 (1980)
- A trap is for fish: when you've got the fish, you can forget the trap. A snare is for rabbits: when you've got the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words are for meaning: when you've got the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find someone who's forgotten words so I can have a word with him?...
- "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!"
- Book of Ecclesiastes 1:2, New International Version of the Bible (1973)