Friday, December 23, 2011

Meaning, Self-Determination, and Relativism

We left off our last post with some pretty big questions.  What I hope to do in this post is sketch in a very broad outline the direction I see answers to those questions as going.  Then in future posts I will flesh that out a bit more through some more concrete discussions of different issues.  What that means is that this post will probably be a bit more “technical” or “jargony” than I would like, but I hope it will still be relatively clear. 
First, meaning:  We ended by saying that meaning is defined by the one bestowing meaning.  That actually is too simplistic for the reason that we are all bestowing meaning on a shared collection of objects.  Further, we are influenced in our own bestowing of meaning by the meanings others have bestowed.  There is a back and forth going on that is far more complicated than a single direction of movement or even a two-directional dialogue between “object” and “interpreter.”  It is more like trying to pinpoint a person in a crowded room where everyone is moving and swirling around.  We can find the person-- we can bestow meaning-- but it involves a serious amount of maneuvering and jostling past other people trying to do the same.  This is what we can call the “hermeneutical situation.”  Objects exist a certain way in themselves.  But we can only comprehend them in the way we perceive them, in the way we bestow meaning on them or interpret them.  But these perceptions and interpretations are influenced by the way our culture has taught us to perceive and interpret objects.  But even that is filtered through our own sets of categories, which have been influenced by a myriad of factors from our family situation to our particular education to our conversations with others.  So in the end, we bestow a particular meaning on things, but that is not merely a process of us arbitrarily deciding something will mean x for us.  Understanding and parsing through all the various influences on us and how they impact our own understanding of the world (our own efforts to bestow meaning), what we can call the hermeneutical process, is as much an exercise in psychology as it is in philosophy.
Second, self-determination:  Just as all of the various cultural and experiential factors we have noted above work together to shape the way we understand the world, so they work together to shape us into who we are.  Seemingly this “determines” us and makes us products of our culture and situation.  However, there is a sense in which we do and must have freedom in the midst of this process.  That sense is in our choosing to embrace what we are.  We are self-determined in that we decide that we are satisfied with ourselves, that we are who we are and are not something else which has failed to accomplish its own being.  That sense of self-acceptance, of choosing ourself, is the existential endeavor.  It involves understanding ourself, just as with the hermeneutical process above, and deciding that the self whom we understand is in fact “us.”  That does not translate into a static existence-- we are always in motion and on certain trajectories.  But it involves us recognizing the trajectories on which we are moving and consciously choosing to embrace them, understanding and accepting their consequences for our being.
Third, relativism:  What needs to be kept in mind is that the things we have discussed are primarily epistemological and don’t necessarily translate into concrete metaphysical implications.  The limitation introduced by our subjective perspective is an epistemological limitation.  But what we are able to know has no bearing on what is.  The meaning we perceive in the world is not somehow imposed on the world by our perception of it.  So many perspectives exist and we must recognize the limit of our own perspectival viewpoint.  This is not the same as saying that all such perspectives are true in the sense that they correspond to metaphysical reality.  While the claim could be made that since we don’t have access to objective knowledge of the world the best we can do is formulate our own subjective understanding of it, this is not the same as saying that our individual subjective understanding describes the way the world actually exists.  In fact, to make this relativist leap, to claim that all beliefs are metaphysically true, is to negate the value of holding beliefs.  If no perspective can be valued as “better” or “worse” than another then there is no reason to choose any perspective.  This is not to say we wouldn’t choose-- that is a natural consequence of being human, we have a perspective and an understanding of the world-- but it would be to say there would be no basis for the choice except luck or chance.  This, in turn, fundamentally negates the value of our own existence.  To find our own existence meaningful we need to “choose” it in the sense of self-determination as we have already discussed.  To do that we need some reason to “value” it.  We find that reason by comparing different perspectives, thinking through issues in different ways, and embracing that which we find most compelling.  In effect, when we make this choice, we are claiming that as best we can tell the perspective we have adopted is the “most true” of all the options available to us.  This is not the same as saying it is “objectively true.”  But neither is it the same as saying that all beliefs are true, which is effectively the same as saying no beliefs are true and no beliefs are meaningful.

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