Hyponoetics - Philosophy of Mind

This blog discusses ideas and concepts that I am currently thinking about for my book on Hyponoetics as an integral philosophy of mind and matter.

A Table is A Table

Nov 10, 2023 - Category: Epistemology - Tag: Axiology  Knowledge  Language  Semantics

The Swiss writer Peter Bichsel (born 1935) wrote a short story with the title 'Ein Tisch ist ein Tisch' (A table is a table) about language and meaning. It is about an old man who feels tired and suffers from the fact that his day passes always in the same way. Frustrated with his situation that nothing ever changes, he invents his own language by re-naming the objects in his room, for example, instead of calling the bed 'bed', he calls it 'picture' and so on with all the other things. As time goes on, he starts to forget the original names of things and as a result, he was no longer able to talk to other people and others could no longer understand him. He ends up alone talking only to himself.

You can read the original German version here and a translation here. There is also a short film version in German with English subtitles here.

What is the meaning of Bichsel's short and poignant story? It's about language and the meaning of words, what is referred to as the problem of meaning in philosophy. The meanings of words in a language have been established by cultural conventions throughout history and must be learned within the social context and public practices of a culture. This allows us to communicate and interact with other people. As the short story shows, a private language is incommunicable and cannot be comprehended by others. The meaning of a word is something shared, 'a shared form of life' (Lebensform) as Wittgenstein calls it. The meaning of a word also refers to its correct use. It is normative in so far as it contains the standard observed by everyone. We learn words within the context of things. A certain use of language means also a certain use of things, that is, words must refer to the correct things for which they were intended. Meanings arise out of cultural interactions. Meaning, properly understood, is socially constructed.

In Semiology, a sign is the union of the signifier (spoken, expressed word/sound) and the signified (concept). There is an inherent connection between a sign and thinking (noema, ennoia). The process of thinking creates the concept. The concept signifies (= means) something, by referring to an experiential or phenomenological object.

A sign denotes something, makes something known. A sign is a mark or token or characteristic by which something can be known and recognized. A sign points to something other than itself. It is a placeholder for an object of our experience or thought, not the object itself. Our mind needs tokens to be able to understand and know reality, to organize and order experiential content (percepts).

Since we create signs to help us grasp and cope with reality, and signs have meaning only for us human beings (because we invented those signs), meaning is therefore an add-on to reality and not something that can be extracted from it. Signification is the unconscious process of generating meaning (signs) for what we perceive, experience, and think. It is an extra layer or filter added to our experience (percepts). It is the layer of concepts (conceptualization).

The psychiatrist and philosopher Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) believed that humans are motivated by a "will to meaning," which is the desire to find meaning in life. He developed logotherapy, a mode of psychotherapy that emphasizes the search for meaning, which is not necessarily the search for God or any other supernatural being. Frankl argued that life can have meaning even in the most miserable of circumstances and that the motivation for living comes from finding that meaning.

And the philosopher Nietzsche (1844-1900) wrote in his Thus Spake Zarathustra:

Truly, men have given themselves all their good and evil. Truly, they did not take it, they did not find it, it did not descend to them as a voice from heaven.
Man first implanted values into things to maintain himself – he created the meaning of things, a human meaning! Therefore he calls himself: 'Man', that is: the evaluator.
Evaluation is creation: hear it, you creative men! Valuating is itself the value and jewel of all valued things.
Only through evaluation is there value…
[Translated by R. J. Hollingdale, Penguin Books, 1969, p. 85]
Wahrlich, die Menschen gaben sich alles ihr Gutes und Böses. Wahrlich, sie nahmen es nicht, sie fanden es nicht, nicht fiel es ihnen als Stimme vom Himmel.
Werte legte erst der Mensch in die Dinge, sich zu erhalten, - er schuf erst den Dingen Sinn, einen Menschen-Sinn! Darum nennt er sich "Mensch", das ist: der Schätzende.
Schätzen ist Schaffen: hört es, ihr Schaffenden! Schätzen selber ist aller geschätzten Dinge Schatz und Kleinod.
Durch das Schätzen erst gib es Wert...
[Friederich Nietzsche: Das Hauptwerk, Band 3, Also Sprach Zarathustra, p. 62 f., nymphenburger 1990]