Where Does Meaning Come From?


Mara Stafecka

In one of his interviews in the 1980's Georgian philosopher Merab Mamardashvili, a mentor to many young Soviet philosophers in the 1970's and 1980's, said that a poet is like a musical instrument on which the inner self plays. According to Mamardashvili, a poet is a cultural seismograph, which registers all hidden perturbations, trends and displacements. As the first one who touches the unknown, the poet brings it into the horizon of our attention.

Merab Mamardashvili pointed out that in our century philosophy usually operates with ready-made notions or cognitive blocks. The contemporary mind operates with notions that have been in use since the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Our mind uses these cognitive units as analytic and descriptive tools to compare and contrast, to critique and explain. These manipulations, on the other hand, do not require our mind to "try them on" or to use them existentially. Most of the time our mind uses them only verbally without recognizing that it does. If cognitive units are not embedded existentially in our mental space, we do not constitute meaning. Thus, we do not think authentically.

Every category or notion represents a certain existential act of thinking. Philosophical notions are born in acts of thinking. If the thinking is authentic, the notion it raises is also authentic. Using authentic notions, we can restore the state of mind which caused them to come into being. Internalized, those notions connect us to the process of thinking which great minds have developed over centuries.

Besides authentic thinking, especially, when there is a period of transition, every period and every culture produces a lot of clutter. On the surface it may look similar to the products of authentic thinking. The only difference is that signifying symbols of clutter cannot be transferred back into acts of thinking.

Mamardashvili calls verbal symbols of clutter "pseudo-thoughts". They look like products of the thinking process, but if you tried to induce an act of thinking based on them, it would fail. Pseudo-thoughts do not constitute meaning because they do not belong to the same mental space. Moreover, they are destructive. If someone honestly tried to reconstruct the process of thinking, he would never succeed because of the lack of a uniting state of mind.

Where does clutter come from? Why do our minds produce clutter? First, it is pseudo-thinking that weaves words and terms into verbal lace, creating complicated patterns and impressive combinations. Second, it is pseudo-artistic imagination that claims authenticity of poetic vision.

Mamardashvili emphasized that only original, authentic thought can generate the state of mind in which a new meaning is constituted. We, as beings, are projecting ourselves into the future. We, as beings, are transcending beyond the horizon of known and into the unknown. In the process of doing so, our existence reveals itself and becomes observable. Poets and artists are the first ones who sense the new, essential changes that happen in human life. Terry Eagleton mentioned that if history moves forward, the knowledge of it travels backwards. l I would use a different metaphor: a circle. Knowledge and being are two sides of a vicious circle that preserves their authenticity. Very seldom are they balanced. Most often we have a contradictory, clashing, ambiguous, paradoxical, scattered, exaggerated, unclear, vague, and blurred landscape of our existence. It is almost impossible to keep the larger picture in focus and not to lose essential details. What happens when we are trying to locate our point of view in this overwhelmingly disastrous landscape?

SOURCE: Stafecka, Mara. “Where Does Meaning Come From?” in The Visible and the Invisible in the Interplay Between Philosophy, Literature, And Reality, edited by Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka (Dordrecht; Boston: Kluwer, 2002), pp. 63-69. (Analecta Husserliana; 75) This excerpt pp. 63-64 (beginning of essay). Not included here: the remainder of the article, on postmodernism, post-Soviet literature, Victor Pelevin, Heidegger & Gadamer. The essay is partially visible at Google Books.

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