David Weinberger
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How meaning stuck ...

01 September 2012

We don't hear about "identity crises" much any more, but back in the late 1960s, they were a phase (and a phrase) a lot of us went through. I was 18 in 1968, and my identity crisis manifested itself as meaning slipping off the world. At its best, everything was equally absurd. At its worst, there didn't seem any reason to do one thing or another. I went through patches when there didn't seem any real reason to get up out of my chair.

My experience of meaninglessness was quite concrete. You could look at any object, understand what its meaning was supposed to be, and simply by becoming idle, you could cause it to drop its meaning, like a waiter dropping a tray. That hammer on the table next to me? I only think it's a hammer. In another circumstance, it might be a paperweight. Or equipment in some new Olympic sport. And on some other planet where the conscious species doesn't have hands, it's something else entirely. The meaningless of hammers applies just as well to music, love, morality, life.

Although I didn't know it at the time, I was suffering from a bad case of adolescent existentialism, although I think grownup existentialists were peddling the same bad bag of ideas. The existentialists took the moments when meaning slips off of things—and even the sanest of us have those moments of absurdity when a word becomes a mere sound—as especially revelatory, rather than as pathological. The positive side of the essential meaninglessness of it all was for the existentialists that we are radically free to invent meaning and to invent ourselves.

That wouldn't have helped me. I had already invented myself several times: I was a teenager! Making up meanings wasn't a solution to my despair about the lack of real meaning.

The problem turned out to be more with the word "real" than "meaning." It was, oddly, the philosophy of Martin Heidegger that taught me this. In my freshman year, I took a course with Prof. Joseph Fell, a humble, superb scholar and a rigorous but kind teacher. He took the class through Heidegger's Being and Time, a work famously difficult and sometimes seemingly purposefully obscure. Heidegger had been very influential on the existentialists, but—at least according to Prof. Fell's interpretation—they got him exactly wrong. We are not free to create any old meanings that we want. Rather, we each are thrown into a world not of our making that has a set of meanings (enacted by language) that we are powerless to change. (Heidegger thought that poets and philosophers could work substantial changes in a culture's fabric of meaning, but they're special.)

Further, those meanings aren't arbitrary. They express a long history of thought, practice and language. The meanings of the things around us are ways things show themselves to us. We always—almost always—encounter them with a particular project or plan in mind. The hammer shows itself to me as a thing for hammering when I'm hanging a picture, as a paperweight when the wind is lifting my papers, and as a spinner for Spin the Hammer when coeds are in the house (I was 18! It was 1968!). Those meanings are not eternal and universal, but Heidegger critiqued the assumption that only the eternal and universal are real. And that was enough to get me out of my funk: Meanings are not merely my choice, they are in the world at least as much as they are in my head, and they reveal something true about the world.

One more Heideggerian point: Meanings only make sense within a dense web of meanings. Hammers can only have meaning as carpentry tools if you also know about nails, wood, ecosystems and economic systems that turn trees into lumber.

So that's what I learned as a teenager going through a particularly intellectual identity crisis. Is there anything here for businesses to learn, especially with regard to knowledge management? I think so.

First, knowledge isn't everything. Meaning counts for at least as much. Second, what things mean—what they are to us—depends to a large degree on what we're trying to do. Attempts to permanently fix meanings to things, and attempts to identify knowledge as if it were valuable free of your context and projects, are misguided. Finally, we have less freedom than we think we do. Dreaming it doesn't make it so. We are thrown into a world-and a business environment-not of our own making. 

That may sound harsh, but as my 18-year-old self would tell you, that is also what lets the world have meaning that doesn't slide off at the drop of a hammer.