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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7 responses to “Philosophies of Meaning and Philosophies of Fear

  1. Fabio Cunctator

    Looking forward to read it Michael.

    The issue of meaning in the natural world is something which concerns me too. Actually, I think that one possible response to your cat-paradox (by the way, my cat is terrified by the vacuum cleaner, even if it’s off! Pavlov’s dog I guess…) is that meaning is linked to a structure of temporality which is proper to the kind of ‘meta-reflection’ that human beings do. I think that we are the only kind of mind that can be frightened by indifference rather than by direct desire for survival.

    Yet this is problematic: does meaning require the future? Do we deem more meaningful that which indefinitely survives the future or that which is vulnerable to time? And anyway: how then do we consider past events meaningful? Or, cutting deeper, isn’t maybe the case that any talk of time is really always already meaning-laden talk of *phenomenological* time?

    Anyway, random thoughts.
    Have you seen this article on the latest issue of Cosmos and Nature? , it is quite an interesting *defense* of final causes in nature, but restricting the finality of the universe to the ‘pursuit’ of a purely thermodynamic equilibrium.

  2. Fabio Cunctator

    Oops, Cosmos and History of course!

  3. Hello Michael,
    Would you make a distinction between fear and anxiety?

    And secondly in your list of structuralist thinkers you proposed Lacan, Zizek, and possibly Badiou, what about Freud? Do you think its possible to disentangle him from all notions of trauma? What of the repetition compulsion, and the traumatic encounter with sexuality?

    Is there not also the possibility that this insistence upon meaning brings with it a dimension of religiosity? An attempt to make sense, where we are dealing with something which is a matter of ab-sence.

    Looking forward to reading these pieces.

  4. Another point which I forgot to add. You spoke in a previous post about “theoretical ocd”, but you didn’t bring into play the question of obsessional neurosis, and how it has been mapped in the work of Freud, Lacan, and Zizek, and the complexities that are stake. Questions of the body, the drives,materiality, sexuality, life, and death etc.

  5. Stef

    Sup Michael.

    I hope you add nuance to meaninglessness’ dichotomy of trauma/no trauma (such is the seeming of your outline, though I’m sure there’s more to it than that). I wonder if there’s a distinction also between things which have significance/meaning (is there a difference between the two terms or are they interchangeable?) for reasons relating to use-value, and things which have no “purpose” in a utilitarian sense but still have meaning. Sparkles has taken to staring at ceiling light fixtures, off or on; she just stares at ’em until distracted by movement or noise. Do the fixtures hold significance for her, though they don’t appear to affect her negatively or positively in any way? Cosbytooth has never stared at the fixtures like she does. So what would give them significance for her, if they have no use? (Of course, she could just be derpin’.)

    If this post doesn’t make sense, I could just upload a couple of pictures of Sparkles.

  6. Animals, plants, minerals, concepts all move towards order, at least as much as they are driven to destruction.

    A Design argument, on a PoMo site? About like seeing logic on Kotzko’s Ant und Fur Sick joke site.

    That said, a bit of Aristotle however quaint actually preferable to the Derridean drivel.

  7. This post & yr previous one stimulated some thinking for me. I trust it’s not presumptuous to post a link, as there are no automatic pingbacks between blogger and wordpress.

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