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Do we Make or Discover Meaning?

In discussions about the nature of cognition, a central question focuses on how meaning emerges from interactions between agents and their environments. It seems clear that the 'meaning' of any object depends in part on properties of the object, in part on the observer, and in part on the situation. For example, consider the following observations from Rasmussen (1986)

The way in which the functional properties of a system are perceived by a decision maker very much depends upon the goals and intentions of the person. In general, objects in the environment in fact only exist isolated from the background in the mind of a human, and the properties they are allocated depend on the actual intentions. A stone may disappear unrecognized into the general scenery; it may be recognized as a stone, maybe even a geologic specimen; it may be considered an item suitable to scare away a threatening dog; or it may be a useful weight that prevents manuscript sheets from being carried away by the wind - all depending on the needs or interests of a human subject. Each person has his own world, depending on his immediate needs.

(p. 13)

There are two subtly different ways to think about the dynamics of experience that underlies the emergence of meaning. Conventionally, constructivist approaches to cognition talk about making meaning. This makes a lot of sense in the context of language, where arbitrary signs such as a sequence of marks on a page (e.g., C - A - T) are interpreted relative to prior learning about alphabets and word definitions. The suggestion is that the meaning is the result of adding prior knowledge to the arbitrary sign to make (or construct) meaning. The implication is that the symbols are meaningless until they are interpreted.

An alternative way to think about the dynamic of experience, that reflects ecological or situated perspectives on experience, is that meaning is discovered. This perspective makes a lot of sense in terms of perceptual-motor skills. For example, we discover affordances like graspable and reachable by interacting with the objects in the environment. The underlying relations that determine whether an object will fit comfortably in the hand are not arbitrary (though the affordances of a specific object like a basketball may vary from individual to individual as a function of hand sizes). Affordances reflect meaning-full properties of the ecology - that exist independent from perception or interpretation. The intention will not be realized if the affordance is not detected, but the affordance exists and can be specified objectively, whether or not it is ever realized in action. Further the meaning can be mis-perceived, but will be corrected through the feedback that results from acting on the misperception.

The framework of meaning making makes sense if you think about the stimuli of experience as punctate instances in time (e.g., isolated frames in a movie reel). In this case, experiencing a melody requires that the significance of a particular note be constructed  by retrieving the prior notes from memory and mentally adding them together to re-construct the melody.

In contrast, the framework of meaning discovery suggests that perceptions are not punctate, but that they are extended over time so that the pattern of notes is experienced as a whole (as a chunk). This extension may go beyond the notes heard to include prior experiences with a particular memory that allow prediction or anticipation of the entire melody. The metaphor does not have to invoke memory in terms of adding the prior notes. Rather, the metaphor is one of attuning or resonating to a pattern - and recognizing a melody.

Note that the meaning discovery framework does suggest the existence of mental structures (schema or frames) - but these structures function more like filters - that resonate to some properties or patterns, as a function of prior experience. In this framework, the function of experience or learning is not about storing past instances (that can be added to new instances to construct meaning), rather it is about tuning attention to those properties of experience that have functional significance (e.g., tuning the weights in a neural net).

Back to the processing of (C-A-T). These symbols may be arbitrary in that there is no obvious physical or analogical relation to the animal that they represent. But they are NOT arbitrary in a cultural sense. If we assume that the meaning of C-A-T is created by a culture - not by a mind. Then the meaning discovery framework could be sensibly applied to language as well as to perceptual motor skills. In this sense, learning language is not about creating meaning from arbitrary signs - but about discovering the cultural significance of the signs (in the same way that discovering affordances is about discovering the significant action properties of an object).

The danger of the constructivist framework where minds make meaning is the implication that everything is meaningless until it comes in contact with a mind. There is a subtle implication that we live in a meaningless world. I can't accept that implication - and thus prefer to think of the dynamic of learning and experience as one of discovering meaning. There is a subjective dimension to meaning, but I can't accept that meaning is purely subjective.

5 thoughts on “Do we Make or Discover Meaning?

  1. Jop Havinga

    I do wonder if the difference in view is partly caused by the field of study. CSE tends to focus on work and a systems' goals. This leads to somewhat a stable meaning an element can have towards those goals, and they can be discovered. However, when people are not at work, people do not always have as clear of a goal and nor are their goals as stable.
    When someone is watching the news, or chatting to friends, their actions cannot as easily be explained in terms of trying to reach singular or stable higher goals. In conversation for sure, things bring up associated meanings that go beyond one's current goals. Goals can quickly change based on what is encountered, and can change into goals that had not been considered or even have existed before. This makes meaning of any element a lot less stable and does make it more like construction, as they can influence their goals and the way they 'choose' to view the context. The idea of 'objectively' analysing meaning becomes at least infeasible if goals constantly change, cannot be known beforehand, and can be created on the spot.

    1. John Flach

      Of course, I didn't mean to imply that 'goals' or 'intentions' are the only subjective factors shaping our experience. I suspect that there are many other factors, particularly those that are linked to emotions (e.g. Damasio). The point is that experience and meaning are not purely subjective - the world has a say in terms of what can be experienced. The size of the rock is an important factor contributing to how it is experienced - all rocks can't be picked up and used to threaten a dog. So too, the cultural context will have much to sat about what C - A - T means.

      1. Jop

        I completely agree with your point. I agree there are limits to what can be constructed/discovered in a setting and in a cultural context, and this is not completely subjective. I even believe (at least, theoretically) it can be reasonably predicted how people will provide meaning to their environment and objects in it. I belief a decent group of people using the word construction / meaning making hold that view as well. On the philosophical end of sconstructivism, there are some statements, like 'there's nothing outside the text' that I don't think that hold up (this would basically suggest that Peirce's indexation does not exist, which seems ridiculous), but I think these statements are somewhat outliers.
        There are some aspects about the metaphor construction / meaning making that I do like. One is that one act of 'meaning establishing', can provide a step towards, and enable multiple possibilities of subsequent 'meaning establishing'. This sounds more like construction with building blocks, than discovery.
        Discovery also has the association that something permanent/stable is found. This is reasonably correct (e.g. affordances) and in work situations and goal driven systems, this makes sense to focus on this. When analysing people having a causal conversation, I don't know if focussing on this makes as much sense, and any meaning seems a lot more fleeting and re-interpretable. Construction still sounds way too permanent, but does allow for more changing of meaning that was already given.

  2. Steve

    It has to be both, right? Meaning is the resonance I feel between the world as it shows up and my existing mental models. Your distinction between discovery and construction = which of these two sides gets altered more in order to achieve that resonance.


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