The meaning of meaning


Probability maths says that given infinity, a random character generator (producing upper and lower case letters, spaces and punctuation marks) will reproduce the Complete Works of Shakespeare. Think monkeys and typewriters, if you like.

(Shakespeare is wheeled on for this thought experiment rather than, say, Charles Dickens because he’s the supposed apogee of literary creativity. The reductionist probabilitarians are saying: you think Shakespeare’s great – well, he can be reproduced by empty randomness.)

You can kind of see what they mean, and there’s probably not much point arguing with a probability mathematician (though there are valid questions about the abstract concept of infinity) – but it just seems wrong, doesn’t it? The first sentence or two, maybe – but the whole thing? Maybe some things will never happen by chance, even in infinty.

Then there’s the origin of DNA. Scientists say it can be explained by random chemical events occurring over a very long time. There are several different theories as to how this might have happened, but none of them sounds remotely plausible. As with the randomly reproduced Shakespeare, it just seems impossible.

I know it sounds like I’m on the slippery slope from intelligent design to creationism, but I’m not. I’m suggesting that the crucial element in both cases is meaning.

Henry VI, Part One
Scene I: Westminster Abbey. Dead March. Enter the funeral of King Henry V, attended on by Dukes of Bedford, Regent of France, Protector; and Exeter, Earl of Warwick, the Bishop of Winchester, heralds, etc.
Bedford: Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!

I’m yawning already, but that’s not the point. The works of Shakespeare, including that opening of the first play, exist because they have meaning. That meaning comes from human consciousness (and its medium, language) . The unique sequence of six million characters comprising that product of meaning could never be reproduced by chance, I’d suggest.

Wikipedia says that DNA is a molecule that carries the genetic instructions used in the growth, development, functioning and reproduction of all known living organisms. Most DNA molecules consist of two strands coiled around each other to form a double helix. Both strands store the same biological information, which is replicated when the two strands separate.

Does that sound like something that came about by chemicals randomly bumping into each other?

Perhaps DNA came into existence because the universe (or multiverse if you like) has meaning, perhaps deriving from universal consciousness. Again, I’d suggest that meaning is never the product of random processes.

It must, of course, be admitted that random genetic mutation fueled the natural selection that led from the first living organisms to humans capable of pondering the meaning of meaning. Nevertheless, randomness and meaning are worlds apart.

Or perhaps, rather, they’re part of a hierarchy, with randomness subject to probability, and probability subject to meaning.

Try as it may, maths and science can’t yet explain the origin of life, what consciousness is, or the ultimate nature of the universe.

I’m a big fan of maths and science. I’d love science to have an explanation for everything; but perhaps some things are ineffable. Perhaps maths, for all its fundamental beauty, is the scaffolding rather than the be-all and end-all.

Pseudo-academic footnote

I thought my post title was original – but, of course, it’s not. The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism by Charles Ogden and Ivor Richards has been in print continuously since 1923.


The most recent publication is the critical edition prepared by Terrence Gordon as volume 3 of the 5-volume set C. K. Ogden & Linguistics (London: Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1995).

Wikipedia says that the book proposes a contextual theory of signs: words and things are connected by signs that are the source of our power over the external world.

(I’d say: sod the signs, it’s language that has the power – the power of meaning.)

The book has been used as a textbook in many fields including linguistics, philosophy, language, cognitive science, semantics and semiotics. Umberto Eco described it as ‘a seminal book, whose merit was to say certain things well in advance of its time’.

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Shakespeare in love – with himself?

Guardian letter 7 (April 2016)

Me, me, me
The ‘Cobbe’ portrait/painter unknown/Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/PA

The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016 occasioned a lot of media pieces about him. One newspaper article said that Shakespeare’s sonnets show his belief that art can give immortality.

That’s true – but the famous Sonnet 18 shows that in aiming for immortality, Shakespeare could be heartless and selfish – oddly so, for the writer of one of the world’s best known love poems.

Sonnet 18, digested, says: You’re more lovely than a summer’s day at the moment, but soon you’ll wither and age. However, luckily for you, my brilliant poem about you will live forever.

The poem shows his love not for the supposed beloved, but for his own poetic skill in preserving youthful beauty – like some sort of youth-fetishising bardic taxidermist.

If he loved the subject of his poem, he’d say that he’d always love them even when they got old and wrinkled – not that their skin-deep youthful beauty would be immortalised by his precious sonnet.

The language is beautiful but the message isn’t. Did Shakespeare have emotional deprivation disorder – or was he just full of it?

To be fair, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 (‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments’) does better: ‘Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks within his bending sickle’s compass come‘.

On second thoughts, maybe my analysis is the glib political correctness of a typically emotionally immature man. Was Shakespeare perhaps just being honest? When a woman’s beauty fades, how much love, in unspoken truth, does her lover lose?

It seemed to me heartless to say, Never mind, it lives on in my poem. But perhaps that honesty pleases a woman. Perhaps it reflects her feelings about her looks.

Would it please a lover? Probably not – not the childish romantic type anyway. But perhaps it’d please an emotionally mature young woman.

I was thinking of Shakespeare as a gay misogynist, writing the sonnets to order for a patron. But what if he was he a straight ladies man, ever in love, an easy lover, flirting and flitting from one beauty to another, as it pleased both parties?

Did he know what women want? Do women want unlimited praise seasoned with painfully honest but deep understanding? Was Shakespeare a lover selfishly offering no future, but generously claiming no title?

Yes, I know – Sonnets 1-126 are widely supposed to be addressed to a young man. Sonnets 1-17 urge the loved one to procreate, so as to preserve their beauty. Sonnet 18 is the first of a series assuring them that poetry will preserve it. Sonnet 20 is openly addressed to a beautiful youth. I was ignoring that.

Sonnets 127-154 are addressed to a ‘Dark Lady‘. I was ignoring that, too. My Shakespeare is benevolently freed from the shackles of autobiography. He walks free, a King incognito amongst his subjects, dispensing universal wisdom. Or self-obsessed crap. Whatever – the beauty of his writing is soul-deep.

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