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Definition of "Meaning"

Usually the term meaning refers to the use of the word in the context of language where "words" have "meanings" which can be thought of as the objects that these words refer to as in a symbol or sign which refers to something. However, thinking about other uses of "meaning" points to a deeper level which relates to a mental experience where someone knows the "meaning" of something which is the real essence, the depth and the feeling (sense) of something. For example: asking questions like "What is the meaning of an idea?" or saying sentences like "This means the world to me" show that meaning involves both "depth and essence" and "experience and subjectivity" that is meaning is both "known" and "felt".
Some questions that I'd like to raise:
- How does meaning relate to the following: "Definitions", "Analogies", "Conceptual Models"?
- How is conceptual depth felt? What determines that some idea is "deep"?
- Is thinking and understanding just some mechanical process or is it accompanied with a feeling and experience?
- How can a better understanding of thinking and meaning affect the quality of education?

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    Feb 25 2014: I thought twice before writing this comment. You seem like a very deep thinker and as such, if I start a conversation with you it could potentially escalate to parts unknown, topics I have no knowledge or ability in, which could then lead you to be dissatisfied and regretful. But then again, that is healthy in terms of critical thinking so I thought, 'to hell with it!'.

    Okay, so first things first. We are going to talk about the meaning of 'meaning' itself so if we're not careful we could end up being circular and redundant. So, I would start with how I understand your problem in my field, namely Psychology. When we commonly say 'meaning' in everyday discourse, I believe that we only meant to convey that that particular word or even the idea attached to that word has a very particular connotation or undertone to you. Like your example statement 'this means the world to me.' that implies that the object in question has the same importance and thus, 'meaning' to the speaker as how the world itself is important to him. Assuming that the world is a pretty big thing for the speaker, then the statement implies that his existence or his whole perception or reality and/or happiness, is tied in with the object referred to by the statement. Thus, it would not be surprising to hear the statement 'this is my life.' from the very same speaker. So, in terms of depth, the more attached meanings such as feelings, experiences, ideas, or what have you, a person has associated with a thing, a word, an idea or what have you, the 'deeper' the meaning of such things become. This technique is frequently used in artistic literature. Works like 'Othello' come into mind. As such, if for example, we saw an old man crying while holding a piece or rock, we could not fathom immediately why a rock could have such a profound effect, until later we learn that it was that rock his poor father had given him for his birthday after sacrificing everything in the war. Thus, meaning could be subjective.
    • Feb 25 2014: First of all thanks for your reply. That's actually my first Ted conversation so "It means the world to me" :D.

      To restate what you said, meaning can be seen as "What is the meaning of X?" and as "What does X mean to me?" , the first shows meaning as objective where meaning refers to the essence of X while the second shows meaning where X is the subjective perspective of how someone sees X. I prefer assigning the term "perspective" more than "importance" to meaning when referring to the subjective side of the word because sometimes a concept is perceived as deep in the way we see it when it is actually of no significant importance as in the case of "the meaning of meaning" which I believe is established as deep although it is of no practical importance. The way we see and think of something defines its meaning to us. Can we say that the more the perspectives, the greater the meaning?

      Back to what defines "deep meaning", is there some concepts that are inherently more meaningful than others? For example, abstract concepts vs concrete concepts? Do we assign more meaning to something when we relate it to one that is more abstract? Sometimes even it appears the other way round, that an abstract concept is meaningless unless it is put into context and associated with concrete examples as in mathematics. My last suggestion is that meaning comes from the link between the abstract and concrete, the real world is considered concrete and structureless thus without meaning, but when different objects and relations are recognized and one is able to find structure and order, things gain more meaning.

      Do concepts gain more meaning when they are closer to the mind? Using the example that you mentioned, the rock was meaningless but because it was related to "sacrifice" which is closer to the mind's nature, it became deeper. Same for mathematics, when it is seen as manipulation of symbols, it seems meaningless and hard, but knowing that maths is a language of thinking does not.
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    Feb 25 2014: Your first conversation is off, I think, to a superb start. I will pick up a couple of the threads you throw for us.

    Thinking and understanding include observation, feeling, and experience as inputs into the processing of ideas and observations into a conceptual framework (or category that calls for action) and as accompaniment and result within the thinker. Those who believe they are coldly analytic in the sense of feeling-free are mistaken (we will exclude the rare consequences of brain injury). See for this Kandel, Principles of Neural Science.

    Depth of inquiry is related to the variety of probing questions including the sequence of whys for each observation/assumption and the delving into the connection of an area of thought to thoughts and ideas in adjacent areas or that may be structurally analogous. It involves seeking and finding underlying structures that make sense of what is being observed in its context and that offer predictive power in other contexts. It involves truly entertaining different possible perspectives and explanations rather than simply gathering confirming evidence for a preconception and ignoring or dismissing the rest.

    Depth and expertise are closely linked in a way people often do not realize, as many people think of expertise as a memory for details of a field rather than effective understanding and integration of what is known and where the open questions are.

    These matters are tightly connected to best practices in the classroom in the sense that experience in wrestling with ideas and subjects through questioning, critical reflection, inquiry, and interrogation of ideas put forward by other thinking people is a vital disposition and skill to cultivate in the life-long independent learner and future creative collaborator.

    Bransford in How Children Learn writes of giving students the experience- the practice and feeling of expertise. Bruner talks about representing disciplines with integrity- how one "knows" in those fields.
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      Feb 26 2014: That second to the last paragraph should have an applause.
      Its a sad thing, especially in my country, that education involves spoon feeding and rote learning almost devoid of any critical thinking. A paradigm suddenly reversed in the work place. Students good at memorizing but have little comprehension of what they have learned are suddenly demanded to use mental functions they have rarely used before. A drastic design change must be had with the current educational system. Hundreds if not thousands of research and studies have been had about better teaching methods and yet, we still see little to no implementation.
      A culture of open ideas sharing and critical reflection as advocated by TED is a good school design. Everyone has easy and equal access to different ideas and is free to form their own. I would enroll back to school if ever I find an institution like that...
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        Feb 26 2014: I have heard that many countries maintain a curriculum based on memorization. I just don't understand why.
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          Feb 26 2014: Well I've thought about hosting a TEDx with that theme. But I do not have the budget or organizational machinery to do so. Well... Its gonna have to wait then :)
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        Feb 26 2014: There is so much support by now for favoring critical thinking over memorization that it is hard to believe authorities in education in the Philipines are not already aware of it. Why do you think your country is slow to reform?

        How did you cultivate your critical thinking?
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          Feb 26 2014: Well yes we do get the message but the sad thing is, its all just good on paper. The one that needs reaching are the old and tired faculty that do all the 'work' that the government mandates. there is also that culture here of kicking out good professors because the good professors tend to be the ones with guts to give students bad grades when they don't deserve it.
          As regards to my own critical thinking.. well we could say i'm hard headed enough to ignore punishments because believe me, in our country, thinking 'too much' is punished unofficially. By 'unofficially punished' I mean to say that people like me are usually shunned like the plague for talking about things way over our heads, and general lack of support and funding for research which are more often stolen and/or forgotten, or ignored.
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        Mar 9 2014: Mr. Ramirez,

        You come across as a thoughtful and intelligent person inspite of the fact that you were educated in a system where rote learning dominates. Please present your thoughts and ideas without mentioning where you come from, unless it is absolutely necessary. It may be better that way. The mere mention of where you come from generates a lot of painful comments that may not be related to the topic under discussion. Do your country and your people a favor. Besides, we are now living in a global community. National boundaries and ethnicites are becoming less and less significant.
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          Mar 10 2014: I will try thanks. It's just a shock to me that the global 'culture' and my origin's 'culture is such a stark contrast that I could not help but compare. In my opinion, I was only stating facts, but if the facts turned out to be hurtful then i will stop. Don't get me wrong though, I do love my country but I am also a sober guy. There are a lot of things to be fixed here and as helpless as I am, all I could do for now is talk about it. I was prompted to talk about my country's condition because sir Fritzie asked me about it. And I gave the example about the Philippines in the other conversation about technology and religion because its the best example I am familiar with. Statistically speaking, the amount of comments that I've written which is neutral compared to the comments you detest, is I think much larger as a review of this whole conversation I think would show. Amir nasr and I had a very healthy exchange of thoughts before and i believe I didn't bring my country to fore until only the very end. This IS an exchange of ideas, including ideas about fixing problems, filing needs, and national awareness. TED's slogan is 'ideas worth spreading'. I maybe wrong, but I understood that as 'any idea is worth spreading' an unwritten rule maybe that as long as the nature of the idea means that it could help man in one way or another. As such, though i am a little hurt by your comment and I believe that it has no factual basis such as the 'The mere mention of where you come from generates a lot of painful comments' for I have not seen any so far except for this one, and others seem to be advocating about their country without much reprimand, I shall oblige to your request.
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        Mar 10 2014: Mr. Ramirez,

        You are a person of unlimited potential. The Philippines need a lot of people like you. Someday you'll understand ...Below is a fellow contributor's comment posted on Poch Peralta's "America's Top 1%".

        Jan 31 2014: I have been to the Philippines. Too many people, too little land, too few resources. Combine that with the corruption, vast inequity, foreign influence..

        I do not think most Americans can relate. My numbers are out of date as it was 25 years ago when I was there, but then it was $300 a year annual income. 25 cents a day spent on food. A cup of rice per meal, and maybe a piece of fruit for vitamin C.

        30,000 young women clamoring to get into the bars, not for the $2 they may get from US sailors buying them drinks, but rather for desperate hope an American would fall in love, marry them, and take them away. A flush toilet meant a hand pump to draw a bucket of water to pour down the toilet, flushing the waste into the open trench in the alley behind the buildings.

        I traveled from Subic to Manila. I met a family of 10 living in a windowless, cement house (and that was an upgrade from the plywood and tin many lived it. They worked a rice paddy the size of a football field for $1000 a year worth of rice, but then the land owner would charge them $800 a year rent. Electricity? Nope.

        In Manila, million dollar mansions and $400 a night hotels across the street from the $5 a night motel, $15 if you wanted companionship. BMWs driving the streets that are lined with girls offering sex for $5, or less for a quickie.

        bribery everywhere. You had to bribe the trash man to pick up the trash, because he had to bribe the city official to get the job, because that city official had to bribe the national official to get his election, because that government official had to bribe the citizens' groups...

        I had to bribe the people working airport security to clear my bag and to let me through to the gates.

        America's bottom 10% are like the top 10% ...
    • Feb 27 2014: I can't help but agree to each point :).
      1) Thinking and understanding as accompanied with a special feeling not just processing and manipulating representations.
      2) I agree asking questions is the engine of thinking, but I want to add that the "what" questions are the most important in my point of view especially in the part related to meaning. I believe that asking "What is X?" as an open question is just capable of transforming any concept X from a simple commonly used and obvious concept to a deep huge and mysterious concept. I don't know if it's just me or is there something special about that specific question.
      3) Expertise as a mindset where one has their perspective and model of thinking rather than a bunch of information.
      4) The need to learn both thinking and "about" thinking in classrooms.
      I couldn't do more than restate your points in less lines. Good for me :D. I hope I've understood them correctly anyway :)
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        Feb 27 2014: I don't know whether the "what" is *most* important, but in many cases it is critical. That question can get at the different definitions and connections people may have in considering a thing or an idea.

        There is a well known exercise among those who study creativity in which people are presented with a brick and asked to list as many uses as they can think of. Those who construe a brick narrowly in terms of a very few attributes or typical functions do not find nearly as many disparate uses as those who record mentally a richer set of attributes. That noticing of a richer set of attributes is connected to flexibility and resourcefulness.

        There are habits of mind in which people note only few and superficial elements and move on. This disposition is somewhat opposite from depth. Interestingly both over-generalization (missing variation and nuance) and under-generalization (such as seeing only the trees and missing the forest) are the enemies of depth.
        • Feb 27 2014: I didn't mean to say the 'what' is more important than the why in any way, each type of questions has its purpose. I meant that as far as meaning goes, i find the 'what' more relevant and eye opening on the depth of the concept. Anyway any type of open ended questions will definitely lead to more questions of the neighboring types.
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        Feb 27 2014: Personally I prefer the 'why' but I've heard someone else think its the 'how' so maybe we all just have to keep asking questions. :)
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    Feb 25 2014: Whoa slow down there friend! There's only so many words that we could fit in this comment box yet so many things that have to be discussed so let's take it easy. :)
    In terms of the first suppositions of my points regarding the objective and subjective side of a meaning X, I don't think I made such a claim. In my point of view there is no such thing as an objective 'meaning'. For example, we may both have the common knowledge and understanding of what that the particular letters r, e, and d sounds and means. However, it does not mean that that particular wavelength of light had been assigned those three letters in that unique order since the beginning of time. As such, we observe differences in the use of words, evolution of language and variety of dialects, which are dynamic as the human imagination. And even IF let's say that red means universally means the color red, what if the person is color blind? For all we know, that person may have learned to call 'red' something that actually more resembles a color that we call 'brown'. The words use is just a consensus in our efforts to be able to understand on another better. I point out at something and scream 'RED!' and so, from that point onward you know that if I scream red again you know what I meant. As such, words themselves are like gossip, with enough change of hands the words over time change their 'objective' meaning. Language evolves. 'Bad' used to mean an effeminate man or what we call 'gay' in current language, but it gradually changed to mean... something not 'good'. In terms of 'greatness' or 'deepness' of meaning I believe you would have to make those terms clearer for me, for we may have different ideas and thus, 'meaning' as to what those words 'mean'. Get it? :) There is a phenomenon or idea in psychology explained by William James as the 'psychologist's fallacy'. It goes like this, I dream of a skull on night then ask my therapist about it. Wait my words are running out so I would have to continue.
    • Feb 25 2014: "In my point of view there is no such thing as an objective 'meaning'. " By objective side of meaning, I meant that meaning is sort of a connection between someone and something, so from one side there's someone who is looking at something so it is subjective, from the other side there is the thing which he is looking at which is the object. I didn't mean objective as in all people have universal meaning for some concept but that meaning involves both a personal experience of the feeling of meaning and knowledge about what X is. I'm not trying to debate actually, I'm just trying to explore different sides and perspectives of the concept of meaning.

      By depth, I didn't define clearly the term because I wanted to get more insights on how it is perceived and characterized. The way I see it, depth as an analogy from space is related to the inside as opposed to the outside surface, so depth involves the feeling that one is going inside his own mind and seeing things that are not actually visible by connecting different concepts and finding patterns.
  • Mar 3 2014: Hi Dear Amir,meaning sometimes means pratical,useful.meaning sometimes means as simple as it is,as easy as it can be,as long as it can solve the problem,questions we want to know.
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    Feb 28 2014: nice:)
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    Feb 27 2014: Perhaps 'meaning' is our awareness and interpretation of anything which presents via our mental, emotional, spiritual, mystical or physical senses and faculties.

    Reliable 'meanings' and their relationship to' meaningful' definitions, analogies and conceptual models are dependent upon and limited only by our imagination and our breadth of vision, and this applies to individuals, societies and their students and educators.

    Conceptual depth relates to each of these individuals' and groups' abilities to cultivate and to respond to their gut feelings, and to their willingness to think, and to act, accordingly.
  • Feb 26 2014: I think that asking questions like this reflect on how bored you are. It is boring at the top of the food chain.
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      Feb 27 2014: I can't help but notice that I've seen this statement of yours 'It is boring at he top of the food chain.' in more than this occasion. Is there anything you mean by it? are you against discussions such as these? then why even bother to read or participate in the first place?
      • Feb 27 2014: My answer to all 3 questions is "I'm not telling you."
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          Feb 27 2014: What a way to advocate the goals of TED. Certainly an idea worth spreading you have there sir.
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    Feb 26 2014: .
    By common sense, meaning is the results of computation of the data in our brain.
    The data consist of our ancestors' successful experiences in DNA and those we acquired today.
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    Feb 26 2014: since you've been thinking about this a while, what do you think determines that some idea is deep? Is it an idea that seems to cover many situations, or many people's situations, and seems to describe them accurately, or offers a solution to many people's problem(s) that seems true?
  • Feb 26 2014: Amir,

    I am going to only discuss a few questions. I think any idea can be deep but it is the individual's point of view that makes it deep or not. You can teach a mechanical process, but then you lose the spontaneity and the ability to think outside of the box. All thinking requires a basis on knowledge, experience, feeling. It is what gives us that "Eureka" moments. Understanding will allow us to reach more students in general but I also feel that there is an individual component which needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, we create education procedures to teach to the masses when we should be teaching to the individual. That is why great tutors in certain nations earn a large amount of money.
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    Feb 25 2014: I like the way you think my good sir! I too was not trying to debate, but I do apologize that I do tend to have a debating tone when discussing a point. Its just the way I explain you see, hope you understand. :) Anyway, correct me if i'm wrong but you appear to have a unique idea in your head which you'd like to have a second opinion on. I like this exchange very much, but I would just like to know where you are going with this. You had forced me to get out the mental broom and sweep those cognitive cobwebs in my brain just to keep up! :) I don't know if you've read this but it may help.,d.aGc
    Its a philosophical paper if your wondering, about the nature of truth.
    So, going back now, I agree with your perception to the meaning of 'depth' in 'meaning'. However, the general tendency for anything vague is for it to have multiple meanings, and thus, multiple perceptions, which may or may not be in there but adds to the feeling of heaviness or gravity of an utterance. For example, the joke 'why did the chicken cross the road?' with its corresponding answer 'to get to the other side.' may mean nothing if not, even sound stupid to the common bloke. That, is until somebody tells you that, what the joke meant for the 'other side' was death. The whole thing gains so much meaning, and darkness that the joke disappears into a nightmarish hell hole of images of a chicken sentient enough and apparently depressed to a point of committing suicide on a busy street. Well... not really because its still funny because its a chicken, but you get the point. Meaning is arbitrarily given by people who wants to, and could appreciate such meaning. A beautiful equation means nothing to a child as the child's drawing means nothing to the mathematician who made the equation.
    • Feb 27 2014: Apart from the fact that I find thinking about thinking and thinking about meaning interesting and rich with "aha moments", I think understanding what qualifies content as meaningful and deep is useful practically in learning and teaching and would be applicable in education. So the attention would be switched from plain facts to meaningful knowledge.That's about where I'm going with this :).

      I think one of the reasons why "meaning" is confusing is because we're dealing with meaning as a whole without asking "the meaning of what?". A classification which I found to clear things up about "the what" was to classify things as "particulars" and "generalizations". When we're talking about the meaning of a "particular" incident that happened in a specific time or if we're talking about a "particular" object, the meanings of those particulars depend on their importance, value or how personal they are as you have mentioned earlier. The depth of the meaning of a "particular" depends on how it affects our experience and how do we see it in our minds. The other side of meaning is for generalizations or (abstractions), and since abstractions and concepts are thinking tools that describe a category of objects, the depth and meaning of an abstraction depends on how much it serves its purpose as a thinking tool not as a particular object. A thinking tool is valued by how it affects thinking regardless of how much useful in practice it is. If we consider "Love" as an example of both sides of meaning, there's love as an abstract concept and its value lies in how we think about it and define it as a concept. On the other hand, loving a specific person may have a deep value and importance due to the experience of the relationship and does not depend on the depth of love as a concept. Both have their deep meanings in different ways. That's not to say that both ways definitely affect each other, the experience of a particular affects the conception of the abstract and vice versa.
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    Feb 25 2014: Okay so as was saying, When I tell my therapist about the skull, he would probably think it over and say that it could mean that I want somebody dead! Not that its not true, but James warns that a skull does not necessarily mean that, nor does it necessary mean ANYTHING. Its just a skull, plain and simple. The point is, people tend to give meanings to vague things, actually, they like to give meaning to almost anything!. It could be abstract or concrete. But since all meaning is in a way subjective, everything is up for interpretation. As you said, I could be writing math or Greek but as long as you do not understand what I am trying to communicate, those symbols or sounds would be meaningless. same goes for ideas. I could say a statement like, 'The sky is always above the earth.' and it could mean anything to anybody! Another great idea from the field of psychology, particularly the gestalts, is that, a thing would only have meaning in their context. We would have to look back and see the great picture in order to have an idea as to what the object that we are examining actually means... we think. So does more perspectives give greater meaning? Could be, could be not. Do they gain meaning as it becomes more personal? To the one who experiences it, definitely. Forgive my typos, I'm not really a good writer, it was horrible when I reread what i wrote. :O
    • Feb 25 2014: According to the skull dream example, there are different levels of meaning. The direct meaning of the skull as to the object seen in the dream and another underlying meaning that is assigned by the person to the skull such as what is it associated with and what does it imply...etc. which in my opinion shows that deeper meanings arise from the level of abstraction since a skull is a material object while death is a concept. In other words, there is the meaning of the "word" skull and there is the meaning of the meaning of the word skull as to what a skull refers to. That nested meaning and recursive idea is perhaps what adds depth to the idea.

      On the other hand, an abstract concept is not an abstraction if there are no concrete examples for it i.e. a category can not be perceived as a Category if it has no member objects which can explain why ideas and concepts can't have meanings without the ability to put them in contexts.

      I would like to clarify what I said about mathematics as a language. I didn't just mean that one should understand what the language means in order for it to be meaningful. What I meant about math is that one needs to know THAT it is a language in order to think of math as meaningful and deep instead of the term "cold" logic that is associated with math due to the lack of a proper definition and perspective of math in the high school education. This leads to students who can DO math but can not FEEL and appreciate what they are doing. They know that 1+1 = 2 but can't see what that refers to intuitively. The same goes with language education where one learns how to use the language and what rules to follow but it takes some philosophy to reach the level that language is actually a way of thinking not just a way of communication.