On the ternary nature of the will to meaning

I have been working out the details of the ternary nature of the "will to meaning" which was originally developed within Viktor Frankl's logotherapy, which I believe to be related to Wittgenstein's ideas on language. On a related note, I believe that Schopenhauer's insight into "will to life" which he said is the cause of all our misery and therefore ought to be suppressed, therefore leading to an ascetic lifestyle, is actually about suppressing a different will than "life"; by this I mean what Nietsche rightly called "will to power," which should be suppressed, leading to an ascetic lifestyle -- but as a way of enabling a truer, finer, will in its place: the will to meaning. This truer form of "will to life" is what Frankl identified more accurately with the "will to meaning." And, to keep things complicated, while we're talking about the nature of our fundamental will, note that Freud's ideas on "will to pleasure" were rather comparatively shallow, when compared to either Nietzsche or Schopenhauer, although he and Joseph Breuer developed an effective tool for drawing out, and working with, the will to meaning, by inventing psychotherapy.

So to summarize: Frankl was right, Schopenhauer was half-right, Nietzsche is most useful in identifying where Schopenhauer was right, and Freud's will wasn't deep enough to count. If that seems like a lot to wrap your mind around, note that this is the simplified version, and also intended to be slightly funny, in a dry way, to people who understand at least a few of these references to will.

If you're interested in this kind of discussion, you may enjoy the following excerpt from my journal, as I realized something about the meaning of meaning in conversation with my 10-year-old daughter. That realization led into a long-awaited insight about the ternary nature of the will to meaning.

As I'm looking into the meaning of meaning, let's start by looking at what the dictionaries say about meaning, because this is what I had copied down into my journal to help calibrate my adult thought process after the conversation with a young mind. (Note that I have edited the journal entry, as well as adding subheadings and illustrations, to draw out the points I was realizing while I wrote.)

meaning [ mee-ning ]

1. what is intended to be, or actually is, expressed or indicated; signification; import:
the three meanings of a word.

2. the end, purpose, or significance of something:
What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of this intrusion?

3. Linguistics.
a. the nonlinguistic cultural correlate, reference, or denotation of a linguistic form; expression.
b. linguistic content (opposed to expression).

4. intentioned (usually used in combination):
She's a well-meaning person.
5. full of significance; expressive:
a meaning look.

meaning / (ˈmiːnɪŋ) /

1. the sense or significance of a word, sentence, symbol, etc; import; semantic or lexical content
2. the purpose underlying or intended by speech, action, etc
3. the inner, symbolic, or true interpretation, value, or message;
the meaning of a dream
4. valid content; efficacya law with little or no meaning
5. philosophy
   a. the sense of an expression; its connotation
   b. the reference of an expression; its denotation. In recent philosophical writings meaning can be used in both the above senses

1. expressive of some sense, intention, criticism, etc;
a meaning look

mean·ing | \ ˈmē-niŋ \

Essential Meaning of meaning

1. the idea that is represented by a word, phrase, etc.
What is the precise/exact meaning of this word in English?
Many words have developed more than one meaning. [=sense]

2. the idea that a person wants to express by using words, signs, etc.
Don't distort her meaning by taking her words out of context.
Do you get my meaning? = (chiefly Brit) Do you take my meaning? [=do you understand what I'm telling you?]

3. the idea that is expressed in a work of writing, art, etc.
Literary critics disagree about the meanings of his poems.
a poem with subtle shades of meaning


1a. the thing one intends to convey especially by language : PURPORT
Do not mistake my meaning.

b. the thing that is conveyed especially by language : IMPORT
Many words have more than one meaning.

2. something meant or intended : AIM
a mischievous meaning was apparent

3. significant quality
especially : implication of a hidden or special significance
a glance full of meaning

4a. the logical connotation of a word or phrase
b. the logical denotation or extension of a word or phrase

The meaning of meaning

I like the British set of definitions better than the American (dictionary.com), but the Merriam-Webster version is the best, especially because the "essential meaning of meaning" in the Merriam-Webster definition captures the core of a riddle which I encountered yesterday as my 10-year-old daughter came to me, nearly in tears because her homework assignment for the day involved using the word meaning, which she did not know. She is gifted with vocabulary, so this was a rare event. The phrase "meaning of meaning" came up in my own attempt to define the word meaning with her. It surprised me, and I laughed, then showed her on the nearby computer screen that I am presently writing extensively about the "will to meaning" in this journal.

But even while showing her the multiple hits upon searching this obscure phrase, I was startled to realize I don't really know the meaning of meaning. I talked about how the meaning of a word is in how a word relates to other things. "The meaning of a pen," I said, "is not in the pen alone. The pen is white. It has ink in it. I can have facts about a pen which are 'in' the pen, but they are not meaningful yet. Meaning is in how the pen relates to the paper." This example was not immediately sensible to her, so I gave more examples. We eventually came around to the concept of "purpose," which was also new to her, but easier for her to understand, and when I finally gave her an example that related directly to something she knew well, she understood it and went happily back to answering her questions.

I gained a couple things out of that conversation: First, the meaning of meaning is not an obvious thing; one learns it at age ten if one is well-skilled in language, and even at that age, when it is very plainly used in an example sentence it doesn't make sense, and even after that, it's not easily explained, so who knows when others learn it?

Therefore there is a non-intuitive abstraction involved, as children at that age are still coming out of a concrete way of understanding things, still learning abstract things, but have already learned other more intuitive abstractions. Second, even as the words came out of my mouth, I realized I was startled by the repetition involved: "the meaning of meaning." The recursion here is alarming to think about; it should, as it did for me, alert you to the fact that we may not know the meaning of meaning if we have to so plainly repeat it in defining it.

In other words, there is an aspect to the meaning of meaning that may go beyond words, which reminds me of Wittgenstein's limit to language. I'm more familiar with the well-known "limit to language" within Wittgenstein's thinking than what he says about meaning, but after a quick Internet search, I understand he would stress the specific "use" of the word in order to find its meaning. This is a curious way to emphasis the puzzling nature of the word meaning. The "use" of the word is that it is being repeated, in a very rare way. But what does that mean?

Possibly by accident, I think in my insight about "the meaning of a word is in its relationship with other things" -- invented while struggling with how to talk about meaning to a young mind -- that I may have found something aligning with Wittgenstein's emphasis on use, but I am definitely seeing it from a new angle. If so, this may be a deeper insight than it seemed in the moment.

The meaning of will

The point here is that "will to meaning" is something I need to define carefully. What is happening, regarding will, inside this redundancy in the meaning of meaning? Is there an overlap between will and meaning? I think the definition I have discussed in this journal previously (i.e. in summary form: a 'will to meaning' introduces a logically ternary structure into a logically binary context) is much more insightful than it may first appear, because by bringing out the ternary nature of the will to meaning, I both draw out the "relational" aspect I was discussing with my 10-year-old daughter -- a word's meaning is not in the thing to which it refers, but in how the thing relates to other things -- and it also brings a key insight into the hard-to-discern structure of ternary logic, which is hardest to discern when it is seen from within binary logic, which excludes "middles" with its law of excluded middle, and thereby literally hides the ternary aspect of meaning. In other words, man's search for "the meaning of life" arises because of our reliance on binary logic, which works great -- but obscures meanings.

It's kind of like "meaning" operates at a grammatical level, rather than existing on the surface explicitly, and Wittgenstein was directing our attention to this fact by telling us to look at the use of a word to find the meaning of a word. In other words, the meaning of meaning is embedded within the unspoken legal structure of language, and we have to turn our attention toward that unspoken level to discern meaning. This leads me to wonder: Is half of the word "meaning" embedded in the unspeakable realm identified by Wittgenstein? Or do these dictionary definitions really capture it?

Purport and import reveal a clue

When purport and import align, true communication happens

In reading the dictionary definition above, I enjoyed learning the distinction between purport and import; until now, I've never known this classification and it is a useful one. I should start using it to make language more clear when purport/import distinctions arise... oh!

There it is right there!

There is a purport and an import to a word or an idea, and BOTH SIMULTANEOUSLY EXIST! Therefore there is an essential superposition in the meaning of meaning.

Aha! I see it immediately: There could be no more clear example of how to see the elusive ternary structure than what is embedded in the single idea that any idea has both a purport and an import, superpositioned1. When combining two into one makes a third -- this is the nature of ternary. (Whenever I see superposition, I immediately think "ternary," because that's the correct logical structure to understand things.)

Oh this is delightful. Only when the purport and the import of a word or idea... or life itself... align perfectly do we have the truest form of communication, a perfect communication. What is intended and what is received must align in order for communication to happen, and when they are not aligned, communication is poor, not yet optimal.

Meaning is in the alignment of interior and exterior

Even amidst an abundance of words, only half of an idea is conveyed until the meaning is conveyed. Meaning is the alignment between the interior and the exterior dimensions of a thing being made meaningful. This so perfectly captures the idea that I've struggled to put into words for years, this intuitive sense that Claude Shannon's brilliant insight into communication, creating information theory, was still not deep enough. I need to research: Does he talk about the context of a signal, which gives meaning to a signal?

(Answer: Yes, he does, and it was easy to find: in his lead paragraphs (PDF), he identifies meaning and says it is irrelevant to the rest of his paper! Good heavens, he missed it! Here is what he said: "Frequently the messages have meaning; that is they refer to or are correlated according to some system with certain physical or conceptual entities. These semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem." Now I know I'm onto something, because I'm herein identifying the fact that these aspects are not irrelevant. And my long-held intuitive hunch is confirmed. But now, back to my journal entry:)

If you do not embed the meaning of a signal into the signal, then what is received is meaningless... "Nonsense" is how Wittgenstein would say it. Gibberish. It doesn't make sense. It is almost useless, only useful in the hope that it provides: that it can be made more meaningful if more of the signal is received... (Yes it is true that context and meaning are often known at both ends of a sent signal, but I'm talking about the cases where it is not.)

This, dear reader, is something I have sought for years and years, and now I see it clearly. The meaning of meaning is quintessentially ternary, just like the will to meaning. Along these lines, "the most efficient data compression is defined by the choice of words in a binary-structured communication which most concisely conveys the ternary level of meaning" captures an idea I'll have to come back to later, because it is a rich tangent to what I'm talking about here.

An excellent teaching tool is in this riddle

This is perhaps the best way I can imagine for how to teach people the core insight required to understand the difference between binary and ternary logic. Until the meaning of meaning riddle is presented and then solved, one can say ten thousand words about the difference between ternary logic and binary logic and nobody will get it. I know this is true by experience, because I've tried all ten thousand ways of talking about it, and still get blank stares, often, regularly. People just cannot get that I'm making any sense at all, because a key aspect of my insight is hidden to them. In their eyes, I am speaking of meaningless nonsense, when I start talking about the ternary logic aspect of a matter. And, in truth, I am, because I haven't first led them to understand the dual nature of meaning (purport and import), which reveals the hidden ternary aspect of communication -- and how important this insight is.

To me... I see it clearly, a whole layer of nuance which embeds things into things, so to speak, which gives meaning to things... but to them, this layer is irrelevant. Ha! ha! Laughing as I write because I still remember the girlfriend who sternly rebuked me one day: "Not everything has to mean something!" she shouted, annoyed at me. She was frustrated because I was always -- without realizing it until she pointed it out -- trying to figure out the meaning of what was happening around me. Obsessively.

In truth, it is clear now: everything does mean something.

It's a core drive, I could no more turn it off than I can turn off thinking. Which reminds me, I recently read a description of Wittgenstein by one of his teachers, where the teacher was observing that Wittegenstein would sometimes just sit there, thinking, when all the other students were working on some problem or another, he was thinking. I chuckled because I am the same way, constantly thinking, and much of that thinking is oriented around discerning the meaning of things: "How does this which just happened fit into everything else? What is its meaning?" It's sometimes a messy process, leaking out ponderables into the lives of those around me, who are not driven by the same desire to understand the meaning of everything. They get frustrated with me and say, metaphorically stamping their feet: "not everything has to mean something!"

It is, in their eyes, a handicap, my obsession with meaning. It slows me down significantly. However, in my eyes, it is an essential quality of life, which would literally make my life meaningless if I were to elide it somehow.

Joseph Campbell places meaning within you. This aligns well with my insight.

I remember coining the phrase "the meaning of life is that life has meaning," decades ago, as I sought and finally began to realize the meaning of life. Without knowing it, I was already keying in to the fractal, redundant nature of meaning which I have only just discovered.

There is a common question: "What is the meaning of life?" which is usually brought forth when people want to refer to "deep" thinking. It's sad that I've only just now realized this is a key aspect of what sets me apart. There are plenty of people like me, but I think I may be sadly disappointed to learn who in my life, how few, have any interest in the meaning of life.

Meaning provides a key

There is something wonderful buried in understanding the meaning of a matter. It reminds me of a key point about depression which -- once I discovered it -- helped me handle depression ever since, and until I discovered it, I was thrown wildly around by "the black dog" as Churchill called it, as it had no origin or destination. It was like a wild animal thrown into the cage of my life, which it was my lot to wrestle into submission without any skill to do so, because the wild animal was within me, and had consumed all my meaning, leaving me with no ability to discern where or how to begin solving the problem it presented. Here's the key point I'm making with this example; it was this recursive insight:

A depression is half-over in the moment I realize I'm depressed.

Until I realize what is happening, I'm feeling the depression without realizing what is going on, and I have no ability to do anything about it. I'm driven by it. I'm in the throes of a "showing" experience while my mind is still stuck on the "saying" level of awareness. The moment I realize "Oh, I'm depressed," that explains things sufficiently that I can begin navigating out of the depression, instead of fighting it and being conquered continually because... I'm fighting myself.

The fight ends, becuase I know you cannot "win" against depression. It is some aspect of who you are which is fighting who you are at a core level, and exhausting both of you. So, realizing that you are depressed sets you free: you stop fighting yourself. Or at least, that's what I do with it. I do not know how to eliminate depression, (trying that only makes it worse), but I do not how to let go of fighting it. It is a letting-go. Let go of everything non-essential. Climb down Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and get into pure, raw, survival mode. It doesn't matter how ugly it looks (well it does, but also, it doesn't). Gracefully retreat from everything that is non-essential, even if it takes hours, days, weeks, or even months to do so. And when you've gotten down to only essential things happening: food, water, shelter, sleep, and little else... Depression has no more place to stand. It begins to fade. You conquer depression not by fighting it, but by letting go of everything else.

Now back to meaning. Before my example, I started with "There is something wonderful buried in understanding the meaning of a matter."

Meditation reveals the key of Being

This, dear reader, is a wonderful realization, but only half as wonderful as the context in which it happens, in the legal system underneath the surface of language where meaning dwells. This is the purpose of meditation. This is the purpose of prayer. This is the meaning of the phrase "thy will be done," at its most core level, where my saying has ended, and even my showing is ending, because I'm connecting directly into the Being level of who God is. Meditation is a process: Let go of the saying. Let go of even the showing. Simply be. And in the being... is the resolution of all problems, the healing of all suffering, the peace that passeth all understanding. Look, even there, in the meaning of "the peace that passeth all understanding," like "the evidence of things not seen," there is a paradox on the surface, but both are quintessentially deep in meaning under the surface.

This is what we do when we are meditating. We untangle ourselves from the saying world. And deep meditation untangles us from the showing world. Untangle until all that is left is being. And when all that is left is being... there is a meaning to everything which arrives in our conscious awareness, a signal from heaven through the ocean of our unconscious awareness, saying... "all is well." The peace which passeth all understanding is beneath all things, in all things, everywhere always continually, being... being... being, and that is enough.

Meaning is like that: once you discover the meaning of something, you can let go of all the possible things it doesn't mean; you can relax, and enjoy the meaning of life as it is. Not searching for it, but appreciating it.

Meaning is a relational thing

Wittgenstein was right, that meaning is in the use, but if I may be so bold, it seems that saying "meaning is a relational thing" is more insightful, because it identifies what we're looking for when we look into the use.

Being embedded in the binary way of seeing things which was more prevelant in his era, Wittgenstein wouldn't have focused on the relational aspect -- that's a more ternary way of seeing. Instead, he got as close as he could, by saying "look at how a word is used" and pointing out how many ways a word can be used, developing "language games" as a way of comparing the different ways words can be used. But all he really needed to say was that meaning is a relational thing.

Of course, being Wittgenstein, he would have been more proper, more Victorian, and said something like: "Meaning is a relational aspect." But then, in order to do so, he would likely have seen the ternary structure hidden behind the binary structures which make up our perceptions and language. He hovered closer to that precipice than even the Polish thinkers who invented ternary logic and non-Euclidean geometry. But he stayed firmly within the boundaries of binary logic, like everyone of his era. He pointed us to the use of a word, and that got us out of the binary model of thinking there was a 1-to-1 referent. He invented language games to get at the ternary idea of how a meaning can change, depending on context, because he didn't have the language to understand this aspect of ternary, where everything-is-connected-to-everything and thus things have overlapping, multitudiness meanings.

To break those binary boundaries, first, we needed a Wittgenstein, to take our attention to the utmost limit of the binary structure, hinting at the existence of something beyond that boundary, which was unspeakable, but powerful. Now that his work is done, it's time to go deeper. It's time to see the ternary structure which makes meaning meaningful instead of just meh.

Will to meaning is the pursuit of happiness?

Now back to the will to meaning. As we come out of the chaos of binary logic, as we "come out of Babylon" which organizes things in a meaningless way, we will come out of the desert of more than two millennia of wandering, and begin to fulfill our intrinsic will to meaning.

And just like Viktor Frankl learned of this deepest-of-all motives, the will which drives all other wills, during the most intense crucible of the Holocaust, we learn of it only when we have exhausted every other possible option within the binary frame. Because it's not in the binary frame. It's a ternary thing, the will to meaning.

The ancient phrase "Per aspera ad astra," (through adversity to the stars), is an excellent way to summarize what I mean here. The binary way of seeing, the zero-sum-game which requires the scapegoat mechanism in order to operate, is the greatest adversity we'll ever face. It has taken well over 2,000 years for this worldview to be completely exhausted. As we come out of it, into meaning, our will to meaning will have meaning.

"Men and nations behave wisely when they have exhausted all other resources." -- Abba Evan

Searching for the meaning of life is a lonely endeavour; searching for what to do with the meaning of life is much better: it implies community, relationship... meaning.

This means... will to meaning is... pursuit of happiness? Wow. Suddenly the Declaration of Independence takes on a whole new meaning -- we embedded a reference to our will to meaning in that sacred document without fully realizing what we were saying, not knowing that "pursuit of happiness" is the most fundamental expression of will imaginable.

In a way, an apt simile here regarding coming out of the binary confusion, is to say it's like we're transitioning from "where is joy?" to "what do we do with joy?" The answer to the first question took over two millennia to find. The answer to the second question is obvious. The will-to-meaning is another way of saying will-to-joy.

For we were created to be One, and in the oneness of all is our greatest joy.

1Superposition is a ternary thing; this aspect of the quantum world makes absolutely no sense within binary logic, which is also known as the logic of the excluded middle. Superposition requires a logic which has an included middle.

Posted in Phlosphy Stuff, Postinfinity Tergiversation on Jan 20, 2022