Nearly every piece of fiction that I have written has had at its heart an image of some simple object linking two previously separate clusters of images.[1]

– Gerald Murnane

The more things an image is joined with, the more often it springs into life.

Dem.: The more other images an image is joined with, the more causes there are by which it can be aroused.[2]

– Baruch Spinoza

Clearly, some things are meaningful to us. Some things are meaningful to me but not to you. Some other things are meaningful to you but not to anyone else on Earth. What's more, it happens that humans experience what we call revelation, where new information or a change in perspective makes previously familiar things seem newly meaningful to us.

The writer Gerald Murnane, in my view one of the greatest writers ever to live, recounts his having been brought by his wife to the opening of a contemporary art exhibition, where he is asked by the amiable organisers to take part in a panel discussion later the same evening. Being the sort of person who avoids walking into shops unless he is sure he wants to buy something (so as not to risk disappointing the shopkeeper), he accepts, though he knows nothing about contemporary art. Having accepted, he paces around the gallery, trying to think of something to say in the panel. He happens upon an artwork consisting of a handful of smooth stones scattered over the floor. The stones remind him of the fear he used to feel as a child on a rocky bay near his grandfather's farm.

I said very little during the panel discussion at the gallery, and I have no recollection of how that little was received, but I have never forgotten my satisfaction at having formulated what had been for the previous three decades of my life as a writer a sort of instinctive awareness and no more. I said, at least once, and with an image in my mind of the stones on the bare floor of the brightly lit gallery but as though they slithered beneath my bare feet in the deep shadow at one end of a sunlit, remote bay of the Southern Ocean – I said that meaning for me was connection; that a thing had meaning for me if it was connected with another thing.

[...]

Once having equated meaning with connection, I saw that the sentence, even the simplest sentence, was the form of words best able to express meaning. The simplest sentence comprises a subject, for example The stones, and a predicate, for example were smooth and mottled. In the cited example, the qualities of smoothness and mottled-ness are connected with the perceived existence of certain stones. I got much satisfaction from assuring myself of these basic matters but vastly more satisfaction from my being thenceforth justified in supposing that my having preferred since childhood to read and to write long sentences was evidence of my longing to discover and to dwell on the countless connections between things: to dwell on them while I read and, while I wrote, to bring to light more of them than I or anyone had previously suspected.[3]

Murnane is referring not to the meaning of life, but to meaning in life. I think he would say that this sort of meaning has a metaphysical truth in it, but such a belief is not necessary for his account of meaningfulness to be valuable, for what he is describing is the way in which meaning arises from, or produces perhaps, or is even, the coherence one's perspective gains from seeing how things are related to one another. There is, after all, the possibility that life is meaningless but some of the parts that constitute it are not.

Meaning in Life

Consider these four examples:

  • Heranhal organises a party in his home, for which an old friend comes from afar. This friend arrives gracefully at the party & gets along well with everyone there. Afterwards, thinking about these new friendships that have blossomed between the old friend & the new ones, Heranhal experiences a shudder of pleasure.
  • Beladora reads a book about cultural evolution. The fact that a process well-known to her, evolution, is a powerful analogue of many cultural processes also familiar to her, astonishes her. It is as if a new & fertile landscape has suddenly opened up before her.
  • Drilego goes sailing on the Mediterranean with her father. At one point, the wine-dark sea causes her to remember the Odyssey, which her departed mother read to her when she was a child.[4] She feels a tangled mixture of emotions.
  • Turtoualdus wonders what his ancestry looks like. He sends a saliva sample to a personal genomics service & gets in return a detailed report on where his ancestors came from. He now feels more rooted.

What these four examples have in common is that, in each of them, a new connection is formed in a network of some sort, & this connection-forming stirs up some or other emotion. The networks are all different. In the first situation, it is a social network; in the second, it is something like a semantic network; in the third, it is a network of impressions & memories; in the fourth, it is one of places & blood relations. But in all situations, the process is similar.

Look, maybe I am just pattern matching here. Maybe the pleasure that Heranhal feels has nothing to do with his connecting the old friend with his new friends; maybe Beladora's revelatory feeling has nothing to do with her connecting evolution with culture; maybe the mixture of emotions that Drilego feels has nothing to do with her connecting the sailing trip with her father with the memory of her dead mother; maybe the rootedness that Turtoualdus feels has nothing to do with his connecting himself to those far, fabled & historically significant peoples & regions.

But, on the other hand, this would help explain numerous things. It would help explain why younger people (who have had less time to form these meaning-connections) often have less sophisticated taste in art than adults (because sophisticated art relies on context & knowledge & is usually not on its own as immediately pleasurable or stimulating as popular art; sophisticated art needs things to latch on to; the minds of younger people contain fewer meaning-nodes for it to latch on to). It would help explain why there is a perceived need in any narrative to tie up all the loose ends, in other words to connect the themes, characters or events that have appeared in the narrative. It would help explain why epics often produce more powerful effects even as they take longer to get into. It would help explain the insistent force of genre (because works made in an established tradition can connect to concepts in that tradition; they have whole backgrounds of meaning to draw on & allude to). It would help explain why characters are often written so as to be relatable (because the more relatable & similar the character is to the reader, the more easily the reader will connect what is happening in the narrative to their own life).

It would also help explain how metaphor & simile works, viz. by making a connection between two separate things. The more unexpected this connection, the more striking the metaphor or simile; but those that are already familiar to us, we deride as cliché, e.g. "love is a battlefield" or "she is brave as a lion". In fact, this would seem to explain why cliché & banality are such powerfully negative attributes in discussions about art generally, because works of art described thusly do not draw any new connections in the reader's mind & are therefore dull, boring.

Meaning in Psychology

This idea of meaning as connection is not especially new. The social psychologist Roy Baumeister has likened it to a web the strands of which are associations, a metaphor which, he writes, "is apt, for the essence of a web is not the individual strands but the fact of their connectedness and pattern"; "[m]eaning begins with simple association and distinction".[5] Heintzelman & King, too, have given an account of meaning as something that emerges from the ability to associate, to detect relations between things in the environment.[6]

Definitions of meaning often point to properties like purpose or coherence.[7] Indeed, there is scholarly consensus that meaning comprises three chief components: coherence, existential mattering & purpose.[8]

It is not difficult to see how coherence could fit in here. When Beladora discovered the connection between evolution & culture, she put into place one more piece in the puzzle of life; & so did Turtoualdus when he learned of his ancestral history. Knowing the relations of things means having a more unified representation of the world.

As for existential mattering, the notion of networks of meaning could relate to it in the following way. If I matter existentially, it is because I have an impact on other things & people.[9] It is easier to produce & to see this impact if I can connect my own life to more different things. Therefore, if my network of meaning is rich around the node that represents me, then I ought to feel that I matter existentially, the way that Heranhal did twice over when he connected his old friend with his new friends. That would be why social exclusion – a shutting off from other people – produces feelings of not mattering or being without a purpose.[10]

Speaking of purpose, it is more difficult to see how it relates to all this. But let me venture a guess. Having a sense of purpose involves having some goal & structuring one's life around that goal.[11] But a person with this kind of drive & focus may feel not only that they have a better picture of the world, but that they have a greater impact on it, too. If that is the case, the causal path runs from purpose to meaning only via coherence & existential mattering.

There is a thorny question here on which way the causality runs more generally. Do feelings of coherence & existential mattering produce meaning? Or does a sense of meaning (or, in Murnane's view, connection) produce feelings of coherence & existential mattering? I don't know. I am only confident in stating that there is an association between them.

On the one hand, this model finds support in some related research:

  • People report finding more meaning in their lives when they have good family & social relations.[12] The fact that family members & old friends are closely linked to many of our memories, thoughts, ideas & other friends & family members makes me think that our early lives are the foundation of meaning, to which all subsequent things are linked later on.
  • People report finding more meaning in their lives if they subscribe to a grand world view such as a religion.[13] These world views connect the believer both with a higher entity (gods, flags, ideals) & with things that exist or have existed in the world (movements, places, histories). Faith in the Islamic religion, for example, is what allows a pilgrimage to Mecca to be deeply meaningful in a way that it wouldn't be for someone who has no connection to it.
  • People report finding more meaning in their lives when they are older.[14] The mechanism here would be similar to that which makes adults better able to appreciate sophisticated art than younger people.
  • Autobiographical memories may be important in the creation of meaning.[15][16] (Elsewhere, Murnane has compared the mind – & I'm paraphrasing here – to a plain on which cities are images & the roads between them memories.) Likewise, Sedikides & Wildschut write that nostalgia helps people find meaning, "primarily by increasing social connectedness [...], and secondarily by augmenting self-continuity (a sense of connection between one's past and one's present)".[17]

On the other hand, I can also think of a few things that speak against it:

  • Positive emotions seem to produce meaning in life.[18] In fact, they are apparently one of the main drivers of meaning.[19] Some things seem meaningful because they are bound up with strong feelings, but in the examples that I have given, meaningful experiences produced powerful emotions, not the other way around.
  • There is a sense in which the network model of meaning might just not be that useful. Nearly anything can be described in terms of networks. For it to be a useful metaphor, the thing described also has to show some features peculiar to networks, such as clusters, motifs or centrality, that would allow us to use the tools of network analysis to also analyse meaning. Though I have hinted at some of these features, I have not explained how they fit in or why that makes the network metaphor useful.[20]

Meaning in Aggregate

This is a speculative post, in case you hadn't noticed. What I am describing is a model for thinking about some emotion-producing events, not a description of how those things play out in practice. In this model, things are not meaningful in & of themselves: they are meaningful because they are connected to other meaningful things. So meaning, in this model, is a self-supporting network the nodes of which are persons, memories, ideas, images, works of art. It is self-supporting in the same way that the narrator of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time describes:

Thus the empty spaces of my memory were covered by degrees with names which in taking order, in composing themselves with relation to one another, in linking themselves to one another by an increasingly numerous connexion, resembled those finished works of art in which there is not one touch that is isolated, in which every part in turn receives from the rest a justification which it confers on them.[21]

What he describes is of course an artwork of strict logic. This passage from the same novel (though a later volume) expresses a similar sentiment:

We have put something of ourselves everywhere, everything is fertile, everything is dangerous, and we can make discoveries no less precious than in Pascal's "Pensées" in an advertisement for soap.[22]

In my language, what Proust's narrator is describing is a network of meaning so widely & densely connected that the bearer can find, in however unlikely a place, something that relates to it. This idea is supported by research suggesting that meaning in life is associated with habit.[23] It is also supported by research showing that meaning in life is associated with old age, as mentioned previously.[24] Anything becomes interesting when you've seen enough similar things.

Gerald Murnane, who greatly admires "[the] effeminate, hypochondriac Frenchman", does not seem able to find profound stuff just anywhere. He finds it in a handful of seemingly ordinary places – in, among others, horse-racing, marbles, colour, ground-dwelling birds, plains & grasslands, maps, the Hungarian language & of course À la recherche du temps perdu. Most of these are connected to his childhood. But though not everything is fertile to him, that which is can never be drained of its meaning; things only attain an ever deeper profundity as time passes & further things are connected to them. Ours minds are flexible; meaning is additive.


  1. Murnane, Personal Best. ↩︎

  2. Spinoza, Ethics (Vp13d). ↩︎

  3. Murnane, In Praise of the Long Sentence. ↩︎

  4. Presumably a version abridged & edited for children, or perhaps the real deal but with the last few chapters omitted. The past really is a foreign country. ↩︎

  5. Baumeister, Meanings of Life. ↩︎

  6. Heintzelman, S. J., & King, L. A. (2014). (The Feeling of) Meaning-as-Information. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 18(2), 153–167. ↩︎

  7. King, L. A., & Hicks, J. A. (2021). The Science of Meaning in Life. Annual Review of Psychology, 72(1), 561–584. ↩︎

  8. ibid. ↩︎

  9. ibid. ↩︎

  10. Williams, K. D. (2012). Ostracism: The impact of being rendered meaningless. In P. R. Shaver & M. Mikulincer (Eds.), Meaning, mortality, and choice: The social psychology of existential concerns (p. 309–323). ↩︎

  11. King, L. A., & Hicks, J. A. (2021). The Science of Meaning in Life. Annual Review of Psychology, 72(1), 561–584. ↩︎

  12. Steger, M. F., Oishi, S., & Kashdan, T. B. (2009). Meaning in life across the life span: Levels and correlates of meaning in life from emerging adulthood to older adulthood. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(1), 43–52. ↩︎

  13. King, L. A., & Hicks, J. A. (2021). The Science of Meaning in Life. Annual Review of Psychology, 72(1), 561–584. ↩︎

  14. ibid. ↩︎

  15. ibid. ↩︎

  16. Harris, C. B., Rasmussen, A. S., & Berntsen, D. (2013). The functions of autobiographical memory: An integrative approach. Memory, 22(5), 559–581. ↩︎

  17. Sedikides, C., & Wildschut, T. (2018). Finding Meaning in Nostalgia. Review of General Psychology, 22(1), 48–61. ↩︎

  18. King, L. A., & Hicks, J. A. (2021). The Science of Meaning in Life. Annual Review of Psychology, 72(1), 561–584. ↩︎

  19. ibid. ↩︎

  20. That is something I will save for another day. This post is already getting longer than I had expected. ↩︎

  21. Proust, The Guermantes Way. ↩︎

  22. Proust, The Captive & The Fugitive. ↩︎

  23. Heintzelman, S. J., & King, L. A. (2018). Routines and Meaning in Life. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(5), 688–699. ↩︎

  24. Steger, M. F., Oishi, S., & Kashdan, T. B. (2009). Meaning in life across the life span: Levels and correlates of meaning in life from emerging adulthood to older adulthood. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(1), 43–52. ↩︎

21

1 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 9:51 AM
New Comment

Conspiracy theories are usually represented with a large amount of connections (and a distrust of those in power). Notably, I love Scott Alexander's many self-created non-sense connections (see all of Unsong), which still end up evoking this sense of importance even though I know it's fiction. 

I'm glad you honed in on coherence, existential mattering, and purpose because there are an infinite amount of connections between things that feel unmeaningful (i.e. the grass and my mouse pad are both green, it is hot outside my door and also hot outside my door to a few feet to the right, etc.). Honing in on what specific properties makes a connection feel meaningful seems interesting (as well as looking at the existing literature and listing specific, real-life examples but that's just my personal preference).

The strong emotion causing meaning (as opposed to a connection evoking meaning) was interesting, though couldn't you say that specific connections cause strong emotions? For example, someone making fun of something I strongly identify with ("All your actions are selfish!") as opposed to something I don't really care about ("You're a bad tuba player!") affects me differently; I could describe each activity as weaker and stronger "connections" to myself. 

A specific strong emotion that's doesn't quite fit is experiencing jhana, which I could describe as a meditative flow state that feels really good. It felt important and meaningful, though part of that is I had a pre-existing model of what "jhana" was and what it may mean. Specifically, I thought it meant that the rest of the crazy-sounding meditation claims like infinite happiness and willpower are way more likely to be true.