Sunday, January 8, 2012

Language and Meaning

Language is the carrier of meaning. A source of useful contemplation for me of late has been the possibility of communication by meanings alone, dispensing with the carrier. Not that that’s possible in this dimension, but it may be possible in the Beyond. The thought here is that the carrier actually influences that which it carries. There is Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism, The medium is the message. Supposing that we are awaiting the Dalai Lama. Here is this ornate pillared building and the crowd is on wide steps leading up to it, a wide boulevard below. And here comes the Dalai Lama—on a bicycle. The bicycle is his carrier. But suppose the Dalai Lama arrives in a long, sleek limousine. Three or four people stumble out first, not least the chauffeur, wearing a uniform. Finally the Lama himself clad in Tibetan robes. Yet another image. The Lama comes by helicopter—and the furious wind of his descent make people raise their hands to fend off the blast of air. The carrier modifies the meaning. — Abrupt shift. — For me the words “original sin” carry a very potent meaning. In many ways it is one of the most useful meanings for understanding at least human reality. But the words that carry it also carry extra baggage that causes many people to reject their meaning. We would agree on a whole lot more things if meanings came to us naked.


  1. That's pretty interesting, and I am thinking about it. First time through this comes to mind:

    If the meaning came to us naked, would that be metaphorically the same as saying the Dalai Lama came walking down the street barefoot?
    No fancy carriers...

    But "Dalai Lama" itself is not a simple concept; when we say the Dalai Lama is walking to the ornate building barefoot, is not the lack of a "carrier" itself a strengthening (i.e., modification) of a image of Buddhist practice and piety? Thus both carrier and lack of carrier modify.

    Do not take this as a rebuttal; it is probably illogical; this is the first thing that popped into my cranium, and I am going to think about it further. It could be an interesting discussion.

  2. Delighted that someone actually "engages" the content here. I was using the poor Lama as an illustration. The name's naked meaning is "holy man." If he shows up on a bicycle, some will think that he is being ridiculous, if in a sedan the power that sedan represents distorts the meaning, if in a helicopter, even more so.

    Original sin immediately evokes a naked Adam and Eve. The naked meaning is human limitation.

  3. I understand, but I always want to go further, and the meaning "holy man" itself is so complex it defies my brain.

    We have an entire catalogue and museum of "holy" poses: we have haloes, we have sweet smiles, we have stigmata, we have miracles curing physical ailments, we have mysterious writings, we have habits and hoods to wear, we have begging bowls,we have swoons, we have brides and grooms of the gods...

    I am not sure whether the helicopter distorts our meaning of "holy man", or whether it distorts what we intend "holy man" to mean.

    Then further on, I suppose the Cargo Cults of the Pacific thought pilots of aircraft were angels and possibly holy men... thus extending the meaning of "holy man" perhaps?

    Got to go... someone is calling me to change a light bulb... just a lot of random thoughts on my part...


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