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Existentialism, language and the construction of meaning

I think there is wonderful logic in the existentialist ethic with regards to meaning: it’s not that ‘everything is meaningless’, but, more encouragingly, that nothing possesses an innate meaning within itself. You can come to understand this fact through the deconstruction of spiritual beliefs, the demystification of what is believed to be ‘common sense’ knowledge, and grasping the fragile nature of language and communication. It is at this point you can begin to see the absence of ‘true’ meaning in the world. Perhaps the most challenging thing about trying to create meaning with an existentialist ethic is the overarching awareness of meaning as a construct; meaning is not unchanging and it is not ‘natural’.

There is undeniable comfort in the notion of fixed meaning found in other ethical approaches, and in institutional practices, but it is evident that the belief in fixed meaning is incredibly dangerous and counter-productive for society. I want to look at native languages as an example of the flaws in assigning some kind of everlasting meaning to something.

I’m from Ireland. English is by far the most widely spoken language throughout the country, yet Irish remains an official national language. It is a compulsory subject throughout primary and secondary education despite the fact that its popularity (both spoken and written) has been spirally downward for decades. There are frequent debates over its role in Irish education and culture: some argue it’s an integral part of our Irish identity, others argue that it has no function in the working world. While the relegation of Irish to historical status and accepting English as the national language would be seen by many as a success of British colonialism, I would like to point something out to anyone who fears the day this becomes a reality: language arises from a community, not from the piece of land that that community resides upon.

irish-english-language-signs

A language develops amongst people as a means in which to communicate. It is only in the past couple of centuries that overarching authorities on what ‘real’ words are have come about. Throughout Eastern Europe and Scandinavia in the 19th Century there was an obsession with establishing dictionaries of national languages to promote nationalist politics: a particular language was imposed upon a particular region of land (see Benedict Anderson’s book Imagined Communities). I’m not saying it’s ethical to squash the languages of particular communities, but the real function of language is to communicate with one another. By insisting on teaching the language to every child in the country, the Irish government is in fact imposing a national language upon its children, as it is not spoken outside of the classroom. Thus I return to the notion of ‘fixed meaning’. You are deemed as ‘more Irish’ than someone else because you can speak a language that is virtually without function in the world today and was developed hundreds of years ago by people who spoke and wrote in that language because they had no other language. All because the meaning of what a language is supposed to be for has been replaced by political and cultural theories of authenticity.

My example has hopefully explained to readers why I believe that creating meaning with an existentialist ethic is possible and is worth arguing for. Once we understand how and why MEANING IS CREATED, AND THEN ATTRIBUTED TO THINGS, we can begin to dismantle grandiose ideas of what things should be like, and instead concentrate on why they are thought to be this way: thus moving towards a society that questions rather than simply learns.

Categories: 2013 Winter Writing Contest, Philosophy, Social Science, Uncategorized.

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One Response

  1. In the interest of further deconstructing why meaning is assigned to teaching Irish, I think there is something to be said for the connection to the past. Children who grow up with a sense of where and who they come from tend to flourish more. Do we create that meaning for ourselves as we grow up, or is that an involuntary part of human nature?

    I’m all about creating meaning, but it seems to me there are some general patterns that I don’t think we can (or should try to) individually change.

Got insight?