The Structure of Meaning in Experience: Rediscovering that which has been lost
Of the many things that have become lost during the rise of our techno-scientific era, meaning is perhaps one of the most significant losses. The meaning I am referring to is of an existential nature. It is the kind of meaning that is referred to in discussions about the meaning of life or of an individual’s life, and its loss is due, in part, to the natural attitude characteristic of scientific endeavors and the belief that this approach is capable of exhausting reality.
Such scientific endeavors, for better or worse, attempt to describe the world from a “view from nowhere.” This attempt presupposes a sharp distinction and separation between human and world. It is an attempt that is unable to be fully realized, however, because to have a view requires having a view from somewhere, and the perspectival nature of description and understanding, even within the sciences, necessarily requires someone that is describing or understanding.
Put differently, and as Maurice Merleau-Ponty made explicit in his preface to Phenomenology of Perception, the third-person perspective of science is only made possible through first-person human experience because we only achieve a third-person perspective via a collection of first-person human experiences (Merleau-Ponty, 1945). The subjective first-person experience, then, is something that is both pervasive and inescapable.
If the subjective nature of human life necessarily factors into each experience and investigation of the world, and if the scientific approach is one that attempts to remove this subjectivity insofar as that is possible, one might justifiably expect that this approach would blind itself to some important matters regarding life, world, and reality.
Properly understood, the quantitative nature of scientific analysis and the subsequent understanding of reality drawn from scientific investigation constitute a part and not the whole of a thorough understanding of life, world, and reality. As Dan Zahavi and others have noted, this is not meant as a criticism of the sciences as such. Rather, it is a criticism of scientism via the rejection of “the idea that natural science can provide an exhaustive account of reality” (Zahavi, 2019). This rejection is accompanied by the recognition that the subjective nature of human life is in need of illumination if one hopes to achieve a more holistic and comprehensive understanding of reality.
Phenomenology rises to the occasion and embraces the subjective nature of human life. It recognizes the intimate connection between human being, life, world, reality, and understanding, and it seeks to illuminate the structures of experience as experienced (Smith, 2013).
Phenomenology doesn’t seek to give scientific explanations of phenomena, nor does it seek to find some reality beyond experience (such as when physics investigates material objects and finds that they are made up of particles or quantum field excitations, for example). The significance of phenomenology is due to this difference. It is in the focus on the structures of experience — in the focus on phenomena as given in experience — that phenomenology grants novel insight.
For the phenomenologist, human being and world are not separate, for to have an experience and to subsequently investigate the structures of such experience presupposes a world in which the experience is taking place. That is, the phenomenologist recognizes the unceasing and intimate connection of human being and world. Human being is, essentially, an embodied and embedded type of being.
As a result, a phenomenological investigation will take both the world and human being as its targets of analysis. World and human being are not taken in isolation, however. They are taken together, along with the irrevocable relation between world and human being. This interplay of human-being-in-the-world is, as I will argue, precisely where existential meaning is to be found.
Existential meaning seems to be a phenomenon which is necessarily inseparable from the subject but yet requires a world and thus finds its mode of being within the interplay of human-being-in-the-world. To reveal the structure of something inseparable from the subject, and to illuminate where in the world this phenomenon might be found, one must readmit both the experiencing-subject and the subject-world relation into the scope of analysis. More specifically, an analysis of the structures of experience is required.
The abundance of meaning that reveals itself through careful phenomenological analysis stands in stark contrast with the alleged meaningless cosmos articulated by physical science. Further, there is no secret method or esoteric experience that you must spend your life in search of in order to find meaning. Meaning is, however, difficult to make explicit in language. After all, it is an experiential phenomenon. It is something that must be constantly renewed and is unlike a propositional fact that one can memorize and call into being whenever one wishes. Consequently, this explication in language will serve as a signpost which attempts to point the meaning-seeker toward meaningful experiences.
Being With Others
Many meaningful experiences involve other people. Given our emergence from isolation and lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a relevant example that many of us are experiencing is that of reuniting with old friends and family over a shared meal. Such a simple thing can mean so much to us.
An uncontrollable smile is smeared across your face as you hurriedly turn the corner or walk through the door. You are anticipating a reunion of presence. You breathe a sigh of relief as you embrace your friend, sibling, mother, or father, and you are immediately thrown into a state of excitement. You sit down at a restaurant, or help prepare the meal at home, all the while absorbed in conversation with one another. You speak of something or someone new in your life, and they listen, asking questions or commenting — sharing in the excitement. They share something or someone they have lost, and you listen — sharing in the sorrow.
You speak of times spent together — a mutual exploration of life — something having-been, but which isn’t gone, as it is present during your reunion. Your shared history has made this reunion possible, and it informs the present, as you understand one another in ways that others might not, and this provides access to depths which are not easily revealed.
You are absorbed in the world, with others, in this experience. Time passes without much notice, and you have all but forgotten about that experience-stealing smartphone that is often clung to as a faux source of life. You begin to share in the food and drink, which is not only serving to sustain life, but also to celebrate your reunion or to honor something or someone that has been lost. Perhaps you embrace a moment of silence, allowing for the simplicity of unaided presence in which nothing must be said or done, but which is mutually understood neither as a signal of boredom, nor as a confrontation with something awkward, but as a shared contentedness with the simplicity of being together.
As this experience of being-together comes to a close, you embrace each other once again, holding onto that which you love and admire, thinking about the next time you will be together. You speak sacred words of care and love, and then you each experience the transition from presence to absence.
Below the surface of this descriptive account of an experience of meaning through being-with-others rests a deeper structure. This deeper structure is one that extends beyond any single experience of being-with-others and can serve as an informant to the cultivation of a meaningful life.
Taking the example outlined above, and if we reflect on similar experiences of meaning through being-with-others, we find pervasive themes of relationships, shared experience, and temporality as being part of that deeper structure.
Relationships are forged through a series of shared experiences, which constitute a shared history. This shared history is a product of life lived together – a mutual exploration of the human condition. Cultivating deep relationships is not only meaningful in itself, but it is a necessary step in creating a possibility landscape for this type of meaningful experience.
This possibility landscape allows for such experiences as the one described above. That is, the meaningful experience of reunion with friends and family is made possible through the prior and continuing cultivation of deep relationships. It is like planting a seed of meaning, which must be attended and nurtured so that it might grow into a meaning bearing tree that you can continually revisit for nourishment.
Our shared historical experiences have a unique way of being, it is as though they are smeared across past, present, and future. We carry the vestiges of our shared historical experiences in present being, as they inform our facticity, but they also extend into the future through the landscape of possibility. This landscape allows for an anticipation of presence – an anticipation of a continued renewal and extension of love, friendship, and meaning.
For Martin Heidegger, past events are always projected into the future, while also existing presently as “having-been” (Wheeler, 2011). “The future is not later than having-been, and having-been is not earlier than the Present” (qtd in ibid.). What was, having-been, arises simultaneously with the present and the future, and human-being is always toward-itself in anticipation of the possible ways of being.
For example, cultivating a friendship requires performing friendly actions. These actions are committed in the present, but with this present action arises, simultaneously, a shared history, which is immediately projected into the future, giving rise to a possibility landscape. This possibility landscape provides us with new ways of being, without which we could not anticipate a reunion of togetherness.
In more concrete terms, imagine that during my visit to the local café I notice someone who is reading one of my favorite books. Because of my interest in discussing this book, I approach them and ask for their opinion or evaluation regarding a particular idea that is detailed in the book. Let’s assume that there is mutual interest in discussing the book, and we proceed to engage in a long and detailed conversation. As we are engaged in this conversation, our shared history is co-arising with the present blossoming of friendship, and this is projecting itself into the future by offering novel possibilities for being, such as the futural possibility of continued literary discussion. In a very important sense, then, past, present, and future co-arise and are intimately interconnected.
This novel Heideggerian conception of temporality can be contrasted with a vulgar understanding of time. Vulgar time is that which is told by a clock, and which is viewed as fleeting and flowing. The Heideggerian concept of time “frees the phenomenologist from thinking of past, present and future as sequentially ordered groupings of distinct events” (Wheeler, 2011). It is the vulgar understanding of time which ceases to be of concern to those who are absorbed and immersed through the experience of being-with-others while Heideggerian temporality is revealed through such experiences.
While being-with-others can provide a fountain of meaning from which to drink, there are more individualistic experiences that can provide one with the experience of meaning, too. Such experiences often involve passion and creation.
Take, for example, the artist. The artist is a passionate creature, in touch with an intuition that compels them to create. Such creations are no easy task, nor is this intensive work “pleasurable” in any ordinary sense of the term. Great works of art require an embodied and passionate engagement that is both serious and playful.
The artist might approach their work in a thoughtful and planned manner, or they might become ignited with overwhelming inspiration, which immediately directs them to their chosen medium. Once the artist has begun, everything but their project falls away. That is, their involvement with their creation draws them in, causing an immersion in the nowness of being.
The skilled painter wields her brush with instinct, as though it were an extension of her body. She intuits with what pressure each stroke must graze the canvas — turning lines into shapes and shapes into objects which are then transmuted into something much more than lines, shapes, and objects.
Moments of stillness, which might seem as though she is thoughtlessly absent, are followed by graceful movements along the canvas. This fluid dance is then overtaken by rigid and rapid motion. There is an interplay of technique, which seems to rise in her as naturally as the rising interplay between the Sun and the Moon.
Her passionate engagement with this creative project satiates her as she continues to work without remembering that she, a creature of this earth, requires nourishment and must eat and drink. Minutes and hours seem to be something that exist outside of her creative immersion, as the ordinary and vulgar understanding of time ceases to be significant.
Although the vulgarity of time has no role to play for the immersed artist, the temporality of being is revealed, for the habituated technique that allows her to create was made possible through past experience, it is manifest in her present being, while projecting itself toward the future through an anticipation of her oeuvre.
She incurs no thought of self as separate from the world. Instead, she feels a natural place within the world — as part of the world — so intertwined with it that when she moves, the world seems to move, too.
She manifests her ideas and emotions, not giving them original life, for their origin is alive in her, but she extends and expands their being through her powers of creation.
The immersed artist is an example of meaning incarnate. This type of immersive experience has been referred to as the “flow state,” and cognitive scientist John Vervaeke, among others, has called attention to the flow state and the ways in which it is indicative of existential meaning. More specifically, those who have these types of immersive experiences are more likely to “rate [their] life as meaningful” (Vervaeke, n.d.).
This immersive and flowing state of being has been achieved by many people through a variety of activities — art is simply one example. Other examples might include yoga, dancing, playing a musical instrument, martial arts, and, in my own experience — writing.
The flow state is more than mere attending to what is present, however. A lucid example of an attending experience where the flow state is absent involves something that was hinted at earlier – the faux source of life which is our smartphone.
Most of us have been gripped by our smartphones, absorbed in the endless content that is provided by a Twitter or TikTok feed. The minutes and hours can pass unnoticed, but this is often accompanied by an underlying angst rather than a feeling of unity with the world. When we are attending our social media feeds, we are not participating with the world or others, nor are we actively engaged in a creative or passionate activity. Rather, we are passively receiving an endless stream of content about other people. This content can only be minimally engaged with (if one engages at all). This leads one to occupy the role of outside spectator, viewing others and worldly events in an isolated and alienated manner. This seems to result in an increase in the perceived distance between self and world – an opposing result from the flow state which acts, instead, as a catalyst for self-world unification.
A core distinction between this type of passively absorbed and alienating experience and that of the flow state concerns skillful and active participation. “There must a dynamic match between the demands of the situation and the skills of the individual” if the flow state is to be achieved (Vervaeke et al., 2018). In other words, one must be actively participating in a skillful activity and that skill must be appropriately challenged by the environment in which the activity is taking place. If skill outweighs challenge, one becomes bored with the situation at hand. If challenge significantly outweighs skill, one becomes overwhelmed and anxious (Vervaeke et al., 2018).
Take the pianist, for example. If the pianist has been practicing for a year, he has acquired some skill and can play simple chords in an intuitive manner. An appropriate challenge for him would lead an expert pianist into a state of boredom, and an appropriate challenge for the expert would lead the beginner into a state of anxiety, neither situation would produce the flow state. Each pianist must find the appropriate challenge. The appropriate challenge pushes the pianist to the limits of their skill level but does not overwhelm to the point of break down.
Contrast this with the passive attending to one’s smartphone. The smartphone user absorbed in social content is not actively participating in a skillful activity – there is no challenge that is demanding a skilled response, nor is there an intersubjective experience of being-with-others. The temporality of being seems to be absent, too, as this passive experience is not significant to one’s historical being, nor does it provide one with novel futural possibilities.
As was mentioned in the opening paragraphs, science seems to be deficient in illuminating existential meaning because the approach of science seeks to remove subjective experience from its explanations and descriptions of reality. Per definition, existential meaning is a phenomenon that occurs in the experience of living subjects – and so removing the subject from a description of reality will leave one with a worldview bereft of meaning. But how does this deficiency look in practice?
Taking the examples outlined above, we can ask, how would science explain these meaningful experiences? Unfortunately, there is very little scientific literature surrounding the phenomenon of existential meaning. There is, however, some scientific literature about pleasure, happiness, and the flow state, and while it is a mistake to conflate pleasure and happiness with meaning, we can, at the very least, get an idea of the kind of explanation that is characteristic of science.
In a paper called “The Neuroscience of Happiness and Pleasure,” the pleasurable experience of social interaction is explained as being a result of hedonic brain activity and a cocktail of neurotransmitters (Kringelbach & Berridge). Hedonic brain circuitry includes regions of the brain such as the “nucleus accumbens, ventral pallidum, orbitofrontal, cingulate, medial prefrontal and insular cortices” and the relevant neurotransmitters include dopamine and serotonin (Kringelbach & Berridge). Our meaningful experience of being-with-others, then, is explained by an appeal to neurobiological mechanisms which are correlated with pleasurable experiences. Similar mechanistic explanations can be found regarding the flow state.
For example, brain scans were conducted on participants experiencing the flow state. The results showed that “flow state was characterized by increased theta activities in the frontal areas and moderate alpha activities in the frontal and central areas” of the brain (Katahira et al., 2018).
There is nothing inherently wrong with these explanations, and they seem to provide novel insight into the neurobiological processes occurring within the human body. The problem, then, is not scientific explanation as such, but a scientistic attitude which wants to elevate these descriptions as constituting a full and comprehensive understanding of the explanandum.
If we remain at the scientific level of description, we cannot find anything pleasurable, meaningful, or happy about brain states and neurotransmitters. Such strictly scientific understanding lacks the relevant context of subjective human experience. These descriptions must be buttressed by experiential descriptions. It is only when these scientific descriptions are assimilated into a holistic understanding of the phenomenon in question that they can be properly understood as neurobiological factors which are correlated with meaning, pleasure, and happiness.
Further, it is worth noting that a scientific explanation of pleasure, happiness, meaning, or the flow state requires some sort of prior experiential analysis. In other words, without a subjective description of these experiences as experienced, and without willing participants who can identify, with precision, these experiential phenomena, science could not proceed with their investigations because it would lack a foundational starting point. Experiential description and understanding, then, is a precondition for the scientific study of such humanly relevant phenomena.
Although the meaningful experiences outlined in the preceding pages are diverse, they share a deeper structure. This structure includes the temporality of being, wherein our present action co-arises with an informative history which transcends past and present by expanding the horizon of futural possibility, thereby providing our factical selves with the capacity for meaningful transcendence. During meaningful experience, this Heideggerian temporality displaces the vulgar understanding of time, for the latter loses its significance when human-being is immersed in the world through passionate, skilled, and creative activity, or during being-with-others. The immersive nature of such experience draws us nearer to the world, severing the thought that we are somehow separate or distinct from it. Instead, we experience a natural unification of self and world.
Existential meaning isn’t something that has been lost, after all. It has merely been obfuscated through the rise of scientism, according to which science is supposed to exhaust reality and anything which is considered to be real must be revealed, described, and explained in scientific terms.
It seems natural, however, that something like meaning, which carries with it an experiential mode of being, would be absent in a worldview which has removed subjective experience from its descriptions of reality. This mistake blinds itself to the subjective presuppositions that are present in science itself, for every experience, including scientific investigation, proceeds from human experience, and any scientific study about existential meaning must take, as a precondition, an experiential analysis of meaning as it is experienced. It is only through knowing the phenomenon of meaning as given in experience that science could conduct a correlative neurobiological investigation of meaning.
Quantitative data regarding brain states and neurotransmitters mean nothing unless properly contextualized, and if we want to speak of these things as correlates of meaning, happiness, or pleasure, and if meaning, happiness, and pleasure are things which occurs in experience, then the relevant context is one of human experience. Further, there could be no understanding of the significance of friendship, family, or love without this human context, and the novel temporality of past, present, and future as co-arising could not be made explicit without careful phenomenological analysis. The deficiency of science in illuminating meaning, then, must be nourished through a partnership with phenomenological investigation.
We mustn’t forget, however, that any description of meaning, no matter how robust, is not meaning itself, as meaning is something that must be experienced, and not something we can fully capture in concepts or propositions. In recognizing this, we can use phenomenological analysis as a map to guides us in the direction of meaningful experience. It remains up to the meaning-seeker, however, to embark on the journey toward a meaningful life.
Katahira Kenji, Y. Y. (2018). EEG Correlates of the Flow State: A Combination of Increased Frontal Theta and Moderate Frontocentral Alpha Rhythm in the Mental Arithmetic Task. Frontiers in Psychology.
Kringelbach, M., & Berridge, K. (2010). The Neuroscience of Happiness and Pleasure. Social Research.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1945). Phenomenology of Perception.
Smith, D. W. (2013). Phenomenology. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/phenomenology/
Vervaeke, J. (n.d.). Flow, Metaphor, and the Axial Revolution. Retrieved from https://www.meaningcrisis.co/episode-2-flow-metaphor-and-the-axial-revolution/
Vervaeke, J., Ferraro, L., & Herrera-Bennett, A. (2018). Flow as spontaneous thought: Insight and implicit learning. In The Oxford Handbook of Spontaneous Thought: Mind-Wandering, Creativity,.
Wheeler, M. (2011). Martin Heidegger. Retrieved from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heidegger/
Zahavi, D. (2019). Phenomenology: The Basics. Routledge.