Monthly Archives: January 2011

Philosophies of Meaning and Philosophies of Fear


Some pieces from my notebook. These ideas and concerns have made their way into a nearly complete essay I’m working on.

– What does it mean for something to have meaning? What is it to be significant for a thing? Is there meaning outside of the human realm or is this simply a case of imagination and metaphor?

– Structuralism maintains that there is only meaning in the human realm, in the insular world of Language/Culture. To move beyond this structure is to broach horror, the trauma of meaninglessness. Beyond the order of humanity is chaos.

– What does it mean to begin with a philosophy of fear versus a philosophy of meaning? Are these categories mutually exclusive or even really opposed?

– Meaninglessness is not the same as horror or chaos. My cat used to be terrified of the microwave while making popcorn. The microwave was not meaningless for him, but was filled with significance. The only way it could fill him with fear is precisely because of the meaning it conveyed. What is without significance for him is that which goes ignored: the working condition of my wireless router, the significance of my library, the local bus strike. The contents of this notebook mean nothing to him, and this does not cause him great physical or psychological trauma, anymore than that which has no meaning for me, which means precisely that I am entirely unaware of it, has any traumatic effect on me.

– We are told that Nature is nothing but a bombardment of sensual and physical trauma until the order of language and culture is established. The world is filled with nothing but fright until the first primal utterance leaves the lips of one clever ape. Why then do non-human animals not simply perish at this unimaginable horror? If the natural world is so mind-blowingly terrifying then how do so many creatures navigate it so successfully? And what of non-animal life or the non-living? Is it the great irony of the cosmos that trees are unable to express their fear other than by producing their seeds?

– Order and structure are not exclusively human. Animals, plants, minerals, concepts all move towards order, at least as much as they are driven to destruction. The human is not some cosmic break with the order to things, as if prior to our birth the world was a swirling cloud of chaos or a pulsing lump of junk. While we do indeed build meaning and seek structure, this does not alienate us from the rest of reality.


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