What is the meaning of meaning? We can view meaning at two levels. First, it is a cognitive process whereby we make sense of the stream of information that assails us in each moment. At a higher level, deep meaning is what we seek in life and looks for answers to such spiritual questions such as 'Why are we here?'
Here are some of the existing academic theories about how we make sense of the world, understanding meaning. Please feel free to contribute with whatever you like to this list of theories. I will appreciate it if you bring new and strange thoughts.
1. Constructivism: We try to make sense of the world by making use of constructs, which are perceptual categories that we use when evaluating things.
2. Framing: A frame is the combination of beliefs, values, attitudes, mental models, and so on which we use to perceive a situation. We effectively look through this frame in the way we would look through tinted spectacles. The frame significantly effects how we infer meaning and hence understand the situation.
3. Focussing effect: When we are making judgments, we tend to weigh attributes and factors unevenly, putting more importance on some aspects and less on others.This is typically due to factors such as stereotyping and schemas that we use that bring certain factors to mind and downplay others.
4. Schema: A schema is a mental structure we use to organize and simplify our knowledge of the world around us. We have schemas about ourselves, other people, mechanical devices, food, and in fact almost everything.
5. Personal constructs: People develop internal models of reality, called constructs in order to understand and explain the world around them in the same way that scientists develop theories. They are developed based on observation and experimentation. Constructs thus start as unstable conjecture, changing and stabilizing as more experience and proof is gained. Constructs are often defined by words, but can also be non-verbal and hard to explain.
6. Symbolic interaction: People act based on symbolic meanings they find within any given situation. We thus interact with the symbols, forming relationships around them. The goals of our interactions with one another are to create shared meaning.
7. Objectification: Complex ideas are, almost by definition, difficult to understand. To help us make sense of them, we turn them into concrete images. There are three processes by which objectification is done, giving them physical properties, turn the ideas into pictures and turn the idea into a person.
8. Speach act: Getting a glass of water is an action. Asking someone else to get you one is also an act.When we speak, our words do not have meaning in and of themselves. They are very much affected by the situation, the speaker and the listener.
9. Social interaction: In order for people in groups to talk with one another, they need a system of common understanding, in particular of concepts and ideas that are outside of 'common' understanding or which have particular meaning for that group. Words thus become imbued with special meaning within particular social groups.
10. Story models: One way in wich we explain the world around us is to create stories about it. In particular when we are face with complex situations, we will pick out what seems to be key elements and then turn these into a story.