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exploration into the meaning of the word “meaning”

from a seminar conducted by David Bohm
in Ojai, California, December 1-3, 1989:

Bohm: We can hold a block of concrete in our hands; that’s what is called ‘manifest’. In Latin, ‘manifest’ means literally ‘what you hold in your hand’. But the thing that holds society together isn’t manifest. You can’t put it in your hand. The things you can put in your hand will not hold society together.

We have raised the question: what is the nature of this subtle concrete, glue, cement? I say it is the sharing of meaning. I am saying that the concrete basis of society is that meaning—whatever meaning is.

Now, meaning is not just abstract. You see, behind the abstraction is something concrete—the concrete reality of the very thought process itself—or more generally, of the overall mind process. And underlying this is meaning. In an elementary case it is thought which has a certain meaning, words which have a certain meaning; but there may be more subtle meanings.

Q: For an individual, the concrete reality is the meaning. For instance, with a table the meaning is in a sense what the table is—what it represents to him.

Bohm: Yes. And also the meaning of the whole room is what holds it all together as a room. The meaning of your life is what would hold it together. If it lacks that meaning, then you feel it is falling apart. If society lacks a common meaning, or the culture lacks it, it won’t hold.

Culture is the shared meaning. And meaning includes not only significance, but also value and purpose. According to the dictionary, these are the three meanings of the word ‘meaning’. I am saying that common significance, value and purpose will hold the society together. If society does not share those, it is incoherent and it goes apart. And now we have a lot of subgroups in our society which don’t share meanings, and so it actually starts to fall apart.

Q: This almost sounds too mechanical—that these things can hold society together. It sounds as though they couldn’t really.

Bohm: Why not?

Q: Well, it would seem like the thing that would hold the society together wouldn’t be a ‘thing’.

Bohm: But meaning is not a thing. You can’t point to the meaning. It is very subtle.

Q: Then you say ‘shared values’?

Bohm: That is one of the aspects of meaning. If we want to say what the meaning itself is—the concrete reality of the meaning—we can’t get hold of it. But we can experience it in various forms—like the significance, the value, and the purpose. If we share meanings, then we will have a common purpose and a common value, which certainly will help hold us together. We have to go more deeply into what that means.

Q: Is the difference between significance, value, purpose important for this discussion? And if so, could you expand on that?

Bohm: There is not a fundamental difference. They are really different aspects of the same thing. ‘Significance’ has the word ‘sign’ in it, indicating that it sort of points to something: ‘What is the significance of what we are talking about? What is the significance of what we are doing?’ That is one idea of meaning.

Value is something which is part of it. If something is very significant, you may sense it as having a high value. The word ‘value’ has a root which is interesting—the same root as ‘valor’ and ‘valiant’. It means ‘strong’. You might suppose that in early times, when people sensed something of high value they didn’t have a word for it, although it moved them strongly. Later they found a word for it and said it has high value. And then later the word itself may convey that.

If something is significant it may have a high value. And if it has a high value, you may have or you may develop a strong purpose or intention to get it, or sustain it, or something. Things that do not have high value will not generate any very strong purpose. You would say, “It’s not interesting. It doesn’t mean much to me.”

“It means a lot to me” means it has high value. And “I mean to do it” is the same as to say, “It’s my purpose.” You can see that the word ‘meaning’ has those three meanings. And I don’t think it is an accident; I think they are very deeply related.

pp. 51-53

A transcript of the complete seminar appears in Proprioception of Thought, David Bohm, David Bohm Seminars, P.O. Box 1452, Ojai, CA 93023. Copyright © 1990 by David Bohm. All rights reserved.

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