What Does Meaning Mean?
This is what I meant by venturing through and beyond postmodernism as opposed to retrenchment to a pre-postmodernism that is never coming back. Traditionalism, for example, is fine on a retail basis, but the culture at large is not going to return to a premodern mentality. Rather, the task before us is to bring the past into the future: neotraditional retrofuturism. Failing that, then we are, as Polanyi warns, on a path toward inevitable destruction.
What are the "unlimited demands" of the modern mind? They reduce to two, "our unbridled demands" for objectivity and for moral perfection. Right away you see the irony, because the left believes in neither intrinsic truth nor objective morality, and yet, who is more blindly dogmatic and shrilly moralistic than the unhinged leftist? Their stance is utterly incoherent -- which is why it requires force to make people comply with it, right down to bathroom usage (because they even presume to control biosocial reality).
It is noteworthy that the science Polanyi knew and revered is not the science of today. Even it has been infected by the left, at least in disciplines outside physics, chemistry, and engineering. I forget the exact figure, but something like 70% of scientific studies cannot be replicated, meaning they are less than worthless, because people may take them for true.
Are all of these the result of the left? I can only speak of my own field, psychology, which is so pervaded by leftist biases masquerading as scientific conclusions, that it is pretty much beyond repair. Certain conclusions are mandatory, while others are not even to be wondered about. Curiosity is forbidden. I would be surprised if a psychologist with politically incorrect opinions about homosexuality, IQ, motherhood, daycare, and feminism could be hired in a liberal university. Or even survive grad school.
Science was once guided by a prescientific morality founded upon a love of truth. Science can no more function in its absence than a democracy can survive with an ignorant and immoral citizenry. Consider, for example, how science functioned in the Soviet Union: the conclusions were already known; only the details needed to be worked out. Scientific Marxism was correct, period. Conclusions consistent with it were welcome, while those running counter to it were a threat to one's health.
What a soul-deadening enterprise! And why? It starts with the denial of the soul and its innate epistemophilic drive, i.e., love of truth. "Such views as these thus set men free to subvert and destroy the old order of things with all the fervor of their subterranean moral passions." The point is, we cannot actually be detached from commitment, from moral passion, from subjectivity.
Much of this centers around Polanyi's concept of tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge has a from-to structure, such that we perceive what it is pointing to without taking cognizance of the pointers, so to speak. Take an obvious example, the human face. We perceive the face holistically, such that it is always more than the sum of its parts. We do not additively see lips, nose, and eyes, and come to the conclusion that this is indeed a face.
And we can "know" or remember a face without being able to describe the parts of which it is composed. There can be no face without the features that constitute it, so we are obviously cognizant of them in some manner, but it is a tacit cognizance. As Polanyi would say, perception is constituted by a non-conscious seeing-from to a conscious seeing-to.
A useful way to think about it is to imagine what it must be like for an autistic individual who may perceive only parts but be unable to recognize the whole. Or, think of obsessive-compulsive disorder, which causes the individual to obsess over the trees to the exclusion of the forest. They literally lose the Big Picture.
More generally, perception is always "a meaningful but non explicit integration of many clues." This goes to why "artificial intelligence" is impossible in principle, because this is something no machine can ever do.
There is always a kind of living dialectic between parts and whole, between proximal and distal perception, between tacit and focal knowledge. Thus, there is always an element of subjectivity, because only a subject can dwell in the particulars in order to achieve an integration. Scientists who are committed to naturalism apparently don't like this idea, but there it is. There is no way around it.
Another key point is that focal perception is the meaning to which the tacit clues point. You might say that we look through and beyond the clues in order to perceive the meaning to which they point. Analogously, "brush strokes are meaningless, except as they enter into the appearance of the painting."
This applies to the distinction between semantics (meaning) and syntax (order) in language. Obviously, as you read this sentence, you are not consciously focussed on the letters or the words; rather, they are only tacitly present as you endeavor to grasp the meaning toward which they are aiming. "Without their bearing upon the distal they would be meaningless" -- literally just words.
Which opens up a whole can of wormholes vis-a-vis religious communication. I will stipulate, for example, that my words make no sense to our current troll, or even a kind of "negative sense," or destruction of meaning. I produce nothing of value except perhaps to weak minds, such that my "net contribution to humanity is deeply negative."
Suffice it to say that he not only doesn't see what we see, but generally sees in my words things I am not saying. In other words, he hallucinates things that aren't present. Meaning is surely present for him, only not the meaning I intend. He is like a dog sniffing my finger instead of looking at that to which I am pointing.
Now, meaning is really "a triadic term in that, in addition to the functionally different proximal and distal factors, there must always be a person, a user, an intender involved." Some people say that life is "meaningless." Is this true? Well, it's certainly true for them, as they do not see that to which all the clues are pointing.
Certainly we can agree that life is either meaningless or meaningful. There can be no middle ground, for if it isn't meaningful as such, than what we call "meaning" is just a trick of perception. If "God is dead," how did that happen? How did we un-meaning existence?
Polanyi says that meaning can be lost when, for example, we withdraw from focal awareness and focus instead on the particulars. Again, "brush strokes lose their meaning when studied focally," as do notes when taken in isolation from the performance -- by looking at instead of dwelling in.
Now, I take the position that God is that to which a multitude of diverse particulars are pointing. Thus, God is the meaning of things. Furthermore, I turn things around, such that because meaning obviously exists, therefore God does. The only alternative is to insist that God and therefore meaning do not exist. But that has no meaning, precisely. The One Cosmos we all see points to the one God we don't.