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 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. DNA molecules called chromosomes contain an organism’s genetic information.

Does that sound like something that came about by chemicals randomly bumping into each other without the post-DNA benefit of natural selection?

(Some say RNA, a similar but single-strand molecule currently synthesised from DNA, appeared first, and that DNA evolved from RNA. RNA is thought to be capable of self-replication. However, the appearance of RNA in a hypothesised pre-DNA ‘RNA world‘ presents the same problem.)

So how could such incredibly complex self-replicating molecules have come into existence? Perhaps it happened because – humour me – 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.

Random mutation, of course, fueled the natural selection which led from the first living organisms to humans capable of pondering the meaning of meaning. However, randomness and meaning are worlds apart.

Perhaps they’re in 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.

Perhaps the edifice supported by that scaffolding is a multiverse made of consciousness and meaning. If so, the meaning of life and the ‘purpose’ of DNA is to reflect multiversal meaning – a reflection exemplified by the works of Shakespeare.

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 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?

Sonnet 18 reviewed | Begun 2016 | 1,000 words

Guardian letter 7 (April 2016)

Me, me, me
The (disputed) ‘Cobbe’ portrait | Painter: unknown, photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/PA


In the late 90s I had a year off from my (non-academic) job at De Montfort University (in Leicester, UK) because of stress and depression. Medication made me feel better, but I was in no hurry to return to work. Towards the end of the year, I went to Skyros, the Greek island known for its creative retreat holidays.

The medication and my condition gave me a strangely heightened spirit. I pursued a woman who’s age was borderline inappropriate, and was rightly rejected. (She was in her early 30s; I was 50. It was a midlife crisis. Sue me.) But I had a good time!

One highlight was a class: reciting Shakespeare, taught by Steven Berkoff.

(Skyros has the knack of getting famous people to teach there for bed, board and the pleasure of being there. Toyah was there, teaching radio production – presumably a phase she went through.)

Our Shakespeare text was Sonnet 18 – ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’

On studying it – in my heightened state – I suddenly realised that for all its beauty it wasn’t a love poem – it was actually a paean of self-praise.

I put this to Berkoff over a beer on the terrace, but he was concerned about having left a notebook on the plane. He seemed disappointingly uninterested in my fascinating theory.

So does everyone else. At the time of writing this afterthought preamble (June 2022), this post’s had only 41 views, no Likes and no Comments. (After reading this, a friend took pity and added a Comment. Thanks, Nige.)

By (another!) comparison, my most-viewed post, Jackson Browne & Daryl Hannah, has had over 50,000 views.

Obviously, the time’s out of joint! 😉.

Anyway, some 20 years after my beer with Berkoff, a 2016 article in the UK Guardian on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death said Shakespeare’s sonnets show his belief that art can give immortality.

I remembered my Skyros epiphany. That’s true, I thought, and Sonnet 18 shows that in claiming immortality for his art, Shakespeare could be heartless and selfish – oddly so, for the writer of one of the world’s best known love poems. So I fired off a letter to the Guardian, and wrote this post.

Sonnet 18, digested:
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.

  • But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
  • Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
  • Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
  • When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
  • So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
  • So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

The poem shows the writer’s love not for the supposed beloved, but for the poetic skill that’ll preserve their youthful beauty. It’s Shakespeare, the youth-fetishising bardic taxidermist.

Was Shakespeare creating a persona? As Jonathan Bate says in the Guardian article that prompted this post, the poet’s ‘I’ isn’t necessarily the poet.

But the peculiarity of Sonnet 18 suggests the ‘I’ in ‘Shall I compare thee’ is the poet.

Shakespeare was a successful and popular writer. He was seeking social advancement for his family. Why would he create an authorial persona with such a casually heartless and narcissistic attitude?

The problem with the poem is that if he – the writer/persona/whatever – truly loved the addressee of his poem, he’d say he’d always love them even when they got old and wrinkled.

Instead, he crows about his precious sonnet immortalising their youthful beauty.

Sonnet 18’s language is beautiful but the message isn’t. Did Shakespeare have emotional deprivation disorder – or was he just full of it?

To be fair, Sonnet 116 does better:

  • Let me not to the marriage of true minds
  • Admit impediments. Love is not love
  • Which alters it when alteration finds

Sonnet 18 is the first of a series assuring the loved one that poetry would preserve their beauty. Still being fair, shouldn’t the great man be given the benefit of the doubt about these poetry-plugging sonnets?

Sonnet 18 seemed to me heartless in saying, Never mind your lost beauty – it’ll live on in my timeless poem (to which the appropriate response would be, ‘Well, thanks for nothing’).

But perhaps Shakespeare was just being honest about a young person’s beauty and its inevitable fading. Perhaps such honesty would please a lover by reflecting their own feelings about their looks.

(It might not please the childish romantic but perhaps it’d please a mature youth.)

So, Sonnet 18, redigested:
Sadly, your youthful loveliness will fade – but let me console you by preserving it in my eternal lines.

In that reading, the implication is: I give you my art because I love you.

But even if the poem is seen as a heartfelt romantic gesture rather than heartless PR, it shows an uncharacteristic shallowness.

In addressing only his subject’s skin-deep good looks, Shakespeare seems to be pandering – with the desperation of an obsessed suitor – to the shallow vanity of beautiful youth.

So however you slice it, Sonnet 18’s richness of language and imagery conceals a fundamental poverty of meaning.

Other sonnets are more meaningful, and show the beloved as a real person – not just a pretty face.

They also show that my suggestion of emotional deprivation disorder might be wrong. Perhaps, rather, the genius was on the spectrum – or bipolar.

Having scanned the sonnets (sorry – life’s too short), I’d say: they’re supposed to be playful love poems – but they’re actually dense and gloomy! They’re obsessed with desire, time and ageing. At times, they read (scan) like the diary of a mad man.

Perhaps Shakespeare was as sane and neurotypical as the next man (Christopher Marlowe). But the lavishly dressed emptiness of Sonnet 18 shows there was something twisted about him.

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