Signifiers, the World, and Meaning

Thought experiment: The world as meaningless because it does not signify.

We, as rational animals, are sign-users; that is, we operate with signs. Within signs we have the signifier and the signified. We use signifiers everyday–we call it language, and this language points us towards a reality, the signified. When I say  the word ‘apple,’ as signifier, I am speaking of an actual apple, the signified.

If the reader could, I would like for him to repeat the word ‘Apple’ over and over again. He may even read it along to himself here:

Apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple

Notice the curious effect: At some point, you began asking yourself if this was really a word, that is, a signifier; or perhaps it was misspelled (but no, it wasn’t); or whether it was something of fabrication–In a phrase, it was just sound and a mismatch of english characters. During this process of repetition, the word ‘Apple’ lacked all meaning. It did not signify.

Never before did you notice such a thing, until it was called out. There was, in a real sense, detachment from signs once you realized it. Also notice, however, this did not occur until you did the experiment of repetition. Why is it that this repetition somehow negated the use of the signifier from its signified?

I would answer that in the process of repetition the signifier became the signified; that is, the word pointed to itself. However this is not how language works: Words point to something other than themselves–Signifiers point to the signified. For this reason, the word ‘apple’ was removed of any meaning. In its removal of a true signified, it was just sound.

Now there is another curious work of language: We say that the world is meaningless (or meaningful). What is it exactly that we mean by that?

The world has no significance. It has no reason. It has no purpose. (You may also juxtapose it with meaningfull-ness)

At first, the predications appear to offer no valuable insight, unless one has an understanding of telos. To say it has no reason, means there was no cause behind it. To say no purpose, means there is no aim. No significance, means it is unintelligible (Though this may be a play on english words—take note of signifiers and significance!).

However let us return to the actual word: Meaningless–What does this mean except that it does not signify? During the repetition experiment, the word was meaningless. Indeed, to signify means to point to something else; or in other words, it can show causality, aim, and (much like it does in language) intelligibleness.

How is it, then, that we say the world is meaningless? The answer seems obvious: By repetition.

Now let us not confuse repetition itself with repetitious acts. Eating, sleeping, etc.. are repetitious acts, but they are necessary. However the mode that we engage the world causes repetition; that is, its context. 

When we discussed the repetition experiment on ‘apple,’ we did not do this within the context of language; viz, it was not in a sentence. Maybe more Wittgensteinian: We did not play the language-game.

We may say the world is meaningless as we are not viewing it in its proper context. [One may be indisposed to point out certain philosophical viewpoints, such as skepticism and scientism, as the cause of this; however, let us refrain from this for the moment.]

Let us backtrack to the original statement: ‘The world is meaningless.’ This statement either makes sense or it is senseless; that is, we are correctly or incorrectly stating something. Following the three subtexts (Aim, causality, and intelligibility), it makes sense. Now note: We are sign-users. The world, as a signifier, would mean it points to something other than itself for us, which would follow unto the three subtexts.

What is the context, then, that would have us question these; or rather, and perhaps more appropriately, how are we viewing the world out of context? The answer to this is what divides men fundamentally, as I see it, as much as what divided Western philosophy with the debate of Essence or Existence as being fundamental: There will we find the repetition.

Herein, I believe, we may start to undertake philosophy seriously: The unexamined life is not worth living. Or as Walker Percy has said:

The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.

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