There are times during philosophical conversations, or everyday life, when one is asked to define the “simple” words and concepts we use. These are in fact the hardest words and concepts to define. What does it mean to be or exist? What is time? What do we mean when we say something “means” something else. What is the nature of meaning? I am merely putting this down as a note for later. It is an observation.
If I were to construct a theory of meaning, one core part of it would consist in part-whole relations. Meaning seems to be bound up in the relations between entities. Take a historical event for example. We might speak of the meaning of an election. Here the significance or meaning is bound up in its relation to other events in history and its impact. As we get further from the election and more events get added, that meaning may shift as its significance shrinks and grows in relation to the whole. “This gift meant a lot to me, said the girl.” Here significance and meaning are bound up in relation to other things.
However, it is not as if there is nothing intrinsic to the event itself that defines its meaning. Here I am think of something like a relational ontology versus a substance ontology.
Similarly we turn to words. Words mean what they mean in relation to other words. Their meaning is moulded by context. “The show rocked!” Rocked here means what it does given its purpose as a modifier of “show.” It is a positive word. “When I was dismissed from my job it rocked my world.” Here it is a negative word. “The ship rocked violently.” Here it is a verb, but its meaning is still in relation to other words. “The mother rocked the baby.” Again, the meaning in all these cases, in virtue of being metaphoric, has something to do essentially with change, motion, movement, disturbance. Simultaneously the meaning is modified by the context.
Sentences mean what they mean, both in relation to other words, and yet they can mean something on their own. “Thomas walked his dog that morning.” Minimally there is a man walking a dog. In a story about a man having a feud with his neighbors about walking his dog, the sentence meaning now implies an act of defiance.
Similarly a story means what it does in isolation to some extent. At the same time (the part) its meaning/significance is bound up in relation to the whole of other books or events in the culture, or the authors life. The story told by Jesus about the rebellious vineyard and the vineyard owner, is at some level – just that. A story about a vineyard and its own. However, in the context of Jesus, the Old Testament, and Israel, its meaning is also about the relationship of God to Israel. As before meaning—what a thing is—is based both on its relation to other things (relational ontology) as well as its own isolated structure (substance ontology).
Body Organs Systems – they are likewise what they are what they are in themselves. Similarly their function or significance is based on their relation to the whole body. He has the structures and features it does, in complete isolation from anything, and yet, it is best understood in relation to the whole.
Human identity is, on one hand, captured by the human body, or even the soul. You are who you are in complete isolation from anything else. Your same body and soul (if you are a dualist) could have grown up and lived in a completely different house, standard of living, school, set of friends and still be the same. A man who has no wife is still very much the same man. A woman who has no children likewise. However, your identity… who you are… is also very much characterized by your relation to the whole of your life. The man with a wife is very much a different man. So the woman with children is a very different person with or without them.
In music, the notes and chords are what they are in completely isolation from the other parts, and yet it is in relation to the rest of the music that they take on a new significance.
This pattern seems to be repeated throughout every corner of existence.
Perhaps even being is like this. We exist in complete isolation (being is ultimately sustained by God) and in another sense our being is bound up in our relations to everything else. If one could somehow abstract everything away from you… perhaps down to a soul (bracketing for the moment whether souls exist)… and isolated you from everything else in the universe… even God (as if that were possible)… it seems that this would just be the same as if you did not exist. Seems like God as triune, prevents God from “being” in complete isolation. This allows God to be in an a se way I suppose, so that God’s being does not depend in that secondary sense in relation to other things.
Why must we insist on either a substance ontology or a relational ontology? Why not just recognize both aspects as vital for a full account?