What is Meaning?

July 2, 2020 — Leave a comment

I’m often challenged by people claiming I’ve found a meaning in a film that “isn’t really there”. Like my video on the Shawshank Redemption, for instance, people assure me that the writer (King/Darabont) had no intention of casting Andy Dufrene in the role of Jesus. They claim I’m reading too much into the film. And sometimes they’ll use the fancy word “pareidolia”, denoting our tendency to perceive patterns of meaning (such as faces) in random and naturally occurring phenomenon (like clouds). Thus for them, my perceiving that Andy represents Jesus isn’t any indication that the author intended or understood Andy as Jesus. It’s just a randomly occurring pattern from which I’ve mistakenly perceived the author’s intention. It’s funny though how those assuring me that I’ve missed the author’s intention never seem to have an answer for me when I ask them how they actually know what the author intended.

On the opposite extreme, I find many others adopting the popular impression from modern art, claiming that the filmmaker had no intentions or that their intentions really don’t matter when interpreting a film. The meaning is really whatever we want it to be. It’s held that all the artist seeks is engagement. So seeking the authors intended meaning is a fruitless endeavor. We’re the artists and we’re meant to create the meaning we see. The film is meaningful in any way people perceive it to be meaningful.

So what is meaning and where is it found?

Meaning is the product and goal of mind. It doesn’t exist apart from a mind. And it’s expressed in and through movement, a reduction in possibilities. It’s the actual whittled down from the potential. Information is the more basic product of this reduction but meaning, unlike information, is the product of a choice. Choice distinguishes meaning from random and naturally occurring phenomenon.

We can think of the difference between an arrowhead and a river stone. Both have been shaped by forces external to themselves but there’s a fundamental diffence in the forces which have shaped them. The stone has been shaped by a deterministic force. Gravity has caused the original rock to tumble into a river where it likewise has acted on water in the same way. While the material it acts upon react differently, Gravity only does one thing. This singularity of action blinds us to any intention. Since Gravity could not have caused the stone to be anything other than what it is, we cannot see a meaning or purpose in shaping a particular stone. The arrowhead, on the hand, reveals the alternative forces of a single actor. Whereas gravity does not choose the material upon which it acts and or it’s final form, the force which has formed the arrowhead has clearly done just that. And it’s this evidence of choice which reveals the meaning and purpose behind it.

Matthew Scott Miller

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