Attention, Meaning, and Meaningfulness

by Michael H. Goldhaber

(begun Monday, June 24, 1996)

The following is a start on a meditation on the connection and interplay among such terms as attention, meaning, meaningfulness, recognition,self, mind, interpretation, community, and so on. It can be read in conjunction with my "Principles of the NEW ECONOMY" and The Attention Apothegms.

We seek to lead a meaningful life. Why, and what does that mean? What would be the opposite, a meaningless life? What does it mean to complain that life has no meaning? One interpretation has to do with a desire to be fulfilling some larger purpose, being part of a larger plan, perhaps a divine plan. We can want to have a sense of what "we are here for,"or perhaps it must be "what I am here for?"

The question then might be, "What difference does it make, can it make that I am alive, and to whom does it make this difference?" The question might also be internal:"Who am I? What is right for me? How do I express my inner being, or determine what I really want?" If desire is at issue, a connected question becomes, "having determined what I want, how do I get it, or at least go about trying to get it?"

One can guess that for many the actual order of answers is reversed, having started on some path, for whatever reason, one then determines that being on this path is what one wants, because the goals it will lead to are what one wants even more ultimately, and that further that the answer to who one is, is the person on this path, and even that the purpose or plan that one is fulfilling is to be this person on this path.

If the path should change, well that only slightly changes the whole construction, for a path is always open to change at any point. In reality, who one is is then defined narratively -- the story of my life retrospectively reveals the path I was always on to get here, and that I am still on. One can reframe the story, thus changing the path one feels oneself to be on at the moment.

The procedures I have just outlined, and the answers they supply however, are misleading in one very crucial aspect. It is unlikely that one can make one's life meaningful simply through this internal self-reflection, and without any reference to the outer world, to other people (or conceivably other beings). The reason is that meaning is socially, not individually, conferred. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein had it, there are no private languages. If one only tells one's story to oneself, it remains arbitrary and ultimately without meaning or point, because no one else has acknolwedged it, even as a story. Furthermore, what one would put in the story would have to be very limited. For instance, at some earlier point, one might have defined oneself according to some craft, metier or trade. "I am a baker, a critic, a massage therapist, or a steel maker." These trades however are socially, not individually, defined and recognized.

So let us go back to the original questions and look at how someone might feel life to be meaningful. "Why am I here? "What difference does it make - - can it make -- that I am alive, and to whom does it make this difference?" If you start with conception and birth, the start of your individual story, you are here because of your (birth) parents, and you can make a difference to them, or to whoever it is who raises you. Obviously, it doesn't always make a difference. Parents can neglect children or treat them as nothing but nuisances.

One has to suspect, and there is a good deal of evidence to back this suspicion, that one may not feel that one's life has much meaning if too little attention is paid by one's parents. This begins very close to birth. A newborn baby cries, and can also smile. Are these preverbal expressions attnded to or ignored? Do the parents seek the meaning of the child's utterances, even at this stage?. For instance, do parents attempt to assuage whatever pain or disturbance causes crying, or do they treat it simply as a hideous noise they would rather not have to endure. Do they smile back at the first smile, do they babblingly or cooingly converse with the still preverbal baby?

Let us look a little ahead and then return to this stage of development. A child by age two has some language, as a rule, and often pointedly, and pointingly asks, "what's that? what's that?" The child takes it for granted in this that an adult will pay attention, will follow the child's gaze and do her bidding by trying to answer the question. This is not always so easy. Several (or many) different objects will always be in the line of sight. Even at this stage, and in this simple way, paying attention involves attempting to decipher what the child means, which can only be done by seeing from her viewpoint. Usually this involves imagination, at least of a primitive sort. "If I were looking in the direction she is, and pointing, what would I see that would be the sort of thing that would be likely to capture her attention?" Largely by going through this procedure (with those who are older) the child discovers the meaning of words.

She then checks her discoveries later."Ball. Ball," she says, happily holding up an apple. To learn the meaning of "ball" more precisely, she is going to have to receive more attention. You might choose to correct her, or to praise her for the concept, even though the word is misused in this instance. But you have to pay attention to know what she means. And also, you are not successfully paying attention if you are unable to intepret her meaning and don't make every effort to find out. Thus, every act of attention-paying is meaning laden. It acknowledges that utternces or actions are meaningful, and it verifies that as well.

At the same time, attention conveys meaning more directly. If I am paying attention to you and you point to an apple, I must follow your pointing, focussing on the apple, paying attention to the apple as something you are paying attention to. I have learned the meaning of your pointing, I recognize and might announce by the word "apple" that the word that means what you are pointing to is this, and at the same time, in the whole process, I am paying attention to you,and thereby conferring meaning, not just on your actions or on the words that are uttered, but on you yourself.

Every act of paying attention is in itself a means of conferring meaning. When I happen, in the course of writing this, to stare out my window and let my eyes fall on a wavering collection of green objects, I identify it as the leaves of a tree blowing in the wind, and in deciphering this, I glean meaning -- it's windy, for instance, or the tree needs pruning, or it's an ugly tree, or an acacia, or any of numerous other possible ways of attaching meaning to what I see, and it is impossible to pay attention to anything and not do that. And that thought, whether or not I articulate it to anyone in any way, is now articulable, at least for a short time, and so is now part of a shared system of meaning, at least potentially.

This tree happens to be in my backyard,and of course I have paid attention to it many times before,and it is telling me little new right at the moment. but suppose you and I were together and I pulled out a snapshot of the yard and pointed to the (image of the) same tree: "that's the tree I was referring to in this article." By paying attention to my act, and to my meaning, you also confer meaning on the tree.

It remains a tree in a yard, and it presumably itself is not concerned with the meaning of life, so this probably did little for it. It gives no indication of wanting attention, or being aware that has received any, either. Only animate creatures seem to do that. Only humans seem to be fully involved int he exchange of meaning through attention.

- more later August 23, 1996


--Michael H. Goldhaber /