Networks of Meaning

2021-04-17 • 11 min read • comment via LW

Nearly every piece of fiction that I have written has had at its heart an image of some simple object linking two previously separate clusters of images.[1]

– Gerald Murnane

The more things an image is joined with, the more often it springs into life.

Dem.: The more other images an image is joined with, the more causes there are by which it can be aroused.[2]

– Baruch Spinoza

Clearly, some things are meaningful to us. Some things are meaningful to me but not to you. Some other things are meaningful to you but not to anyone else on Earth. What’s more, it happens that humans experience what we call revelation, where new information or a change in perspective makes previously familiar things seem newly meaningful to us.

The writer Gerald Murnane, in my view one of the greatest writers ever to live, recounts his having been brought by his wife to the opening of a contemporary art exhibition, where he is asked by the amiable organisers to take part in a panel discussion later the same evening. Being the sort of person who avoids walking into shops unless he is sure he wants to buy something (so as not to risk disappointing the shopkeeper), he accepts, though he knows nothing about contemporary art. Having accepted, he paces around the gallery, trying to think of something to say in the panel. He happens upon an artwork consisting of a handful of smooth stones scattered over the floor. The stones remind him of the fear he used to feel as a child on a rocky bay near his grandfather’s farm.

I said very little during the panel discussion at the gallery, and I have no recollection of how that little was received, but I have never forgotten my satisfaction at having formulated what had been for the previous three decades of my life as a writer a sort of instinctive awareness and no more. I said, at least once, and with an image in my mind of the stones on the bare floor of the brightly lit gallery but as though they slithered beneath my bare feet in the deep shadow at one end of a sunlit, remote bay of the Southern Ocean – I said that meaning for me was connection; that a thing had meaning for me if it was connected with another thing.


Once having equated meaning with connection, I saw that the sentence, even the simplest sentence, was the form of words best able to express meaning. The simplest sentence comprises a subject, for example The stones, and a predicate, for example were smooth and mottled. In the cited example, the qualities of smoothness and mottled-ness are connected with the perceived existence of certain stones. I got much satisfaction from assuring myself of these basic matters but vastly more satisfaction from my being thenceforth justified in supposing that my having preferred since childhood to read and to write long sentences was evidence of my longing to discover and to dwell on the countless connections between things: to dwell on them while I read and, while I wrote, to bring to light more of them than I or anyone had previously suspected.[3]

Murnane is referring not to the meaning of life, but to meaning in life. I think he would say that this sort of meaning has a metaphysical truth in it, but such a belief is not necessary for his account of meaningfulness to be valuable, for what he is describing is the way in which meaning arises from, or produces perhaps, or is even, the coherence one’s perspective gains from seeing how things are related to one another. There is, after all, the possibility that life is meaningless but some of the parts that constitute it are not.

Meaning in Life #

Consider these four examples:

What these four examples have in common is that, in each of them, a new connection is formed in a network of some sort, and this connection-forming stirs up some or other emotion. The networks are all different. In the first situation, it is a social network; in the second, it is something like a semantic network; in the third, it is a network of impressions and memories; in the fourth, it is one of places and blood relations. But in all situations, the process is similar.

Look, maybe I am just pattern matching here. Maybe the pleasure that Heranhal feels has nothing to do with his connecting the old friend with his new friends; maybe Beladora’s revelatory feeling has nothing to do with her connecting evolution with culture; maybe the mixture of emotions that Drilego feels has nothing to do with her connecting the sailing trip with her father with the memory of her dead mother; maybe the rootedness that Turtoualdus feels has nothing to do with his connecting himself to those far, fabled and historically significant peoples and regions.

But, on the other hand, this would help explain numerous things. It would help explain why younger people (who have had less time to form these meaning-connections) often have less sophisticated taste in art than adults (because sophisticated art relies on context and knowledge and is usually not on its own as immediately pleasurable or stimulating as popular art; sophisticated art needs things to latch on to; the minds of younger people contain fewer meaning-nodes for it to latch on to). It would help explain why there is a perceived need in any narrative to tie up all the loose ends, in other words to connect the themes, characters or events that have appeared in the narrative. It would help explain why epics often produce more powerful effects even as they take longer to get into. It would help explain the insistent force of genre (because works made in an established tradition can connect to concepts in that tradition; they have whole backgrounds of meaning to draw on and allude to). It would help explain why characters are often written so as to be relatable (because the more relatable and similar the character is to the reader, the more easily the reader will connect what is happening in the narrative to their own life).

It would also help explain how metaphor and simile works, viz. by making a connection between two separate things. The more unexpected this connection, the more striking the metaphor or simile; but those that are already familiar to us, we deride as cliché, e.g. “love is a battlefield” or “she is brave as a lion”. In fact, this would seem to explain why cliché and banality are such powerfully negative attributes in discussions about art generally, because works of art described thusly do not draw any new connections in the reader’s mind and are therefore dull, boring.

Meaning in Psychology #

This idea of meaning as connection is not especially new. The social psychologist Roy Baumeister has likened it to a web the strands of which are associations, a metaphor which, he writes, “is apt, for the essence of a web is not the individual strands but the fact of their connectedness and pattern”; “[m]eaning begins with simple association and distinction”.[5] Heintzelman & King, too, have given an account of meaning as something that emerges from the ability to associate, to detect relations between things in the environment.[6]

Definitions of meaning often point to properties like purpose or coherence.[7] Indeed, there is scholarly consensus that meaning comprises three chief components: coherence, existential mattering and purpose.[8]

It is not difficult to see how coherence could fit in here. When Beladora discovered the connection between evolution and culture, she put into place one more piece in the puzzle of life; and so did Turtoualdus when he learned of his ancestral history. Knowing the relations of things means having a more unified representation of the world.

As for existential mattering, the notion of networks of meaning could relate to it in the following way. If I matter existentially, it is because I have an impact on other things and people.[9] It is easier to produce and to see this impact if I can connect my own life to more different things. Therefore, if my network of meaning is rich around the node that represents me, then I ought to feel that I matter existentially, the way that Heranhal did twice over when he connected his old friend with his new friends. That would be why social exclusion – a shutting off from other people – produces feelings of not mattering or being without a purpose.[10]

Speaking of purpose, it is more difficult to see how it relates to all this. But let me venture a guess. Having a sense of purpose involves having some goal and structuring one’s life around that goal.[11] But a person with this kind of drive and focus may feel not only that they have a better picture of the world, but that they have a greater impact on it, too. If that is the case, the causal path runs from purpose to meaning only via coherence and existential mattering.

There is a thorny question here on which way the causality runs more generally. Do feelings of coherence and existential mattering produce meaning? Or does a sense of meaning (or, in Murnane’s view, connection) produce feelings of coherence and existential mattering? I don’t know. I am only confident in stating that there is an association between them.

On the one hand, this model finds support in some related research:

On the other hand, I can also think of a few things that speak against it:

Meaning in Aggregate #

This is a speculative post, in case you hadn’t noticed. What I am describing is a model for thinking about some emotion-producing events, not a description of how those things play out in practice. In this model, things are not meaningful in and of themselves: they are meaningful because they are connected to other meaningful things. So meaning, in this model, is a self-supporting network the nodes of which are persons, memories, ideas, images, works of art. It is self-supporting in the same way that the narrator of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time describes:

Thus the empty spaces of my memory were covered by degrees with names which in taking order, in composing themselves with relation to one another, in linking themselves to one another by an increasingly numerous connexion, resembled those finished works of art in which there is not one touch that is isolated, in which every part in turn receives from the rest a justification which it confers on them.[21]

What he describes is of course an artwork of strict logic. This passage from the same novel (though a later volume) expresses a similar sentiment:

We have put something of ourselves everywhere, everything is fertile, everything is dangerous, and we can make discoveries no less precious than in Pascal’s “Pensées” in an advertisement for soap.[22]

In my language, what Proust’s narrator is describing is a network of meaning so widely and densely connected that the bearer can find, in however unlikely a place, something that relates to it. This idea is supported by research suggesting that meaning in life is associated with habit.[23] It is also supported by research showing that meaning in life is associated with old age, as mentioned previously.[24] Anything becomes interesting when you’ve seen enough similar things.

Gerald Murnane, who greatly admires “[the] effeminate, hypochondriac Frenchman”, does not seem able to find profound stuff just anywhere. He finds it in a handful of seemingly ordinary places – in, among others, horse-racing, marbles, colour, ground-dwelling birds, plains and grasslands, maps, the Hungarian language and of course À la recherche du temps perdu. Most of these are connected to his childhood. But though not everything is fertile to him, that which is can never be drained of its meaning; things only attain an ever deeper profundity as time passes and further things are connected to them. Ours minds are flexible; meaning is additive.

Footnotes #

  1. Murnane, Personal Best. ↩︎

  2. Spinoza, Ethics (Vp13d). ↩︎

  3. Murnane, In Praise of the Long Sentence. ↩︎

  4. Presumably a version abridged and edited for children, or perhaps the real deal but with the last few chapters omitted. The past really is a foreign country. ↩︎

  5. Baumeister, Meanings of Life. ↩︎

  6. Heintzelman, S. J., & King, L. A. (2014). (The Feeling of) Meaning-as-Information. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 18(2), 153–167. ↩︎

  7. King, L. A., & Hicks, J. A. (2021). The Science of Meaning in Life. Annual Review of Psychology, 72(1), 561–584. ↩︎

  8. ibid. ↩︎

  9. ibid. ↩︎

  10. Williams, K. D. (2012). Ostracism: The impact of being rendered meaningless. In P. R. Shaver & M. Mikulincer (Eds.), Meaning, mortality, and choice: The social psychology of existential concerns (p. 309–323). ↩︎

  11. King, L. A., & Hicks, J. A. (2021). The Science of Meaning in Life. Annual Review of Psychology, 72(1), 561–584. ↩︎

  12. Steger, M. F., Oishi, S., & Kashdan, T. B. (2009). Meaning in life across the life span: Levels and correlates of meaning in life from emerging adulthood to older adulthood. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(1), 43–52. ↩︎

  13. King, L. A., & Hicks, J. A. (2021). The Science of Meaning in Life. Annual Review of Psychology, 72(1), 561–584. ↩︎

  14. ibid. ↩︎

  15. ibid. ↩︎

  16. Harris, C. B., Rasmussen, A. S., & Berntsen, D. (2013). The functions of autobiographical memory: An integrative approach. Memory, 22(5), 559–581. ↩︎

  17. Sedikides, C., & Wildschut, T. (2018). Finding Meaning in Nostalgia. Review of General Psychology, 22(1), 48–61. ↩︎

  18. King, L. A., & Hicks, J. A. (2021). The Science of Meaning in Life. Annual Review of Psychology, 72(1), 561–584. ↩︎

  19. ibid. ↩︎

  20. That is something I will save for another day. This post is already getting longer than I had expected. ↩︎

  21. Proust, The Guermantes Way. ↩︎

  22. Proust, The Captive & The Fugitive. ↩︎

  23. Heintzelman, S. J., & King, L. A. (2018). Routines and Meaning in Life. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(5), 688–699. ↩︎

  24. Steger, M. F., Oishi, S., & Kashdan, T. B. (2009). Meaning in life across the life span: Levels and correlates of meaning in life from emerging adulthood to older adulthood. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(1), 43–52. ↩︎