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  • Writer's pictureAndrew White

The double face of meaning: How our loves guide and deceive us

Half a woman's face illuminated, the other half casting a shadow of a second face
Image: Shutterstock

Our sense of meaning is a guidepost for action. If we have a sense that something is meaningful, then we value this and orient ourselves accordingly. The German Philosopher Max Scheler, whose hierarchy of values was a precursor to Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, stated that before a person thinks, or wants, they love. Scheler's notion of love is broader than romantic or parental love, but instead refers to an attracting force that precedes our thinking and discloses what is significant to us. It is only after this significance has been disclosed that our capacity for thought engages with it.

Are our wants our own?

But aren’t our wants tied to our loves? Of course, for the most part they are, but they can also be the product of detached reasoning or calculated thinking. For example, the university student that wants to go into finance at the end of their studies. This student may have a deep love of the field, a love that is largely unconscious, and that emanates from a unique mixture of inherited temperament, family upbringing and schooling. However, it is also likely that these wants stem from an analytical, calculating form of thinking that is powered by utilitarian reasons related to status, money, or ingrained family expectations. The thoughts of this person may be that they want to work in this field to earn a significant amount of money (hopefully), wanting to retire early and then worry about what they love. It may be that what they are naturally drawn to, perhaps it is writing or painting or cooking meals for others is actively suppressed by the more conscious, deliberative mind because it doesn’t fit in with its model of calculable utility.

The primacy of 'affect'

Scheler’s philosophical notion of being oriented and attracted by the subconscious forces of our loves, has a significant body of evidence to support it and is referred to in psychology as the primacy of affect. In psychology affect means any feeling or emotion we experience, and is broadly speaking, the baseline disposition for what we pay attention to.

This disposition is largely unconscious and operates as a shortcut for much of our decision making, what psychologists refer to as the affect heuristic. What this means is that most of our decision making is based on our emotions, feelings, and intuitions. We are subconsciously matching patterns and associations that have become developed over time with new experiences as they arise and ascertaining whether they feel meaningful or true. It is only when these patterns jar against each other or we need to learn something new that we deliberate into the conscious, calculating and analytical part of our intelligence.

The dual nature of our mind

This dual nature emanates from the asymmetrical symmetry of our biology, most importantly the two halves of our brain that attend to the world in very different ways. One part of our brain is attentive to the global, holistic picture, and is primarily more intuitive, non-verbal, and embodied. The other part of the brain is more attentive to the local, detailed picture and is more analytical and verbal, abstracting our lived experience through the symbol of language. The first of these attributes is related to the Right Hemisphere and the second is related to the Left.

When our minds are working well, we have a balance of cognitive processing between both ways of attending to the world. Iain McGilchrist, Psychiatrist, Neuroscientist and author of The Matter with Things and The Master and His Emissary, talks of how the mind working in concert takes a global, right hemisphere view, 'passes' that view to the left hemisphere for analysing how it fits within its 'abstract' models, and then passes its findings back to the right for a broader understanding of what is going on. Essentially, we respond to the world in a largely unconscious, embodied manner before the scalpel of our intellectual mind is brought to use.

How what is meaningful can lead us astray

Whilst the primacy of our affect can orient our gaze in a certain direction, without the detached modelling of reason we can be led astray by what feels meaningful. What we find meaningful doesn't necessarily equate with what is good for us, a fact that is foundational for the work of people like Daniel Kahneman, Bob Tversky, Richard Thaler, Cass Sunstein and others. What we love and value can be manipulated by the powers of advertising and media, leading us to become intoxicated or potentially addicted to substances, technology and ideology. On the other hand, our more conscious, cognitive capacity to abstract and re-present concepts in mind can invent meanings that lead to inflexible beliefs and intractable delusions.

A tragic example of this is the individual suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, a syndrome characterised by an over active left hemisphere, an imbalance characterised by mental abstractions and delusion, most commonly in the form of auditory hallucinations. This person has a lot of meaning in their life, however this meaning isn’t shared with anyone, an ordeal which becomes terrifying and isolating. Another example is the reflected ignorance of the alt-right-troll and arch-woke-liberal on social media, both intoxicated by the meaning of their particular world views, unwilling to find any reasonable common ground. Meaning, too narrowly focused, becomes rigid, dogmatic, and fanatical.

Grasping at meaning

Meaning is important, a life without a shared sense of it would have dark implications for the way in which we live and treat each other. However, there is a problem that lies in the fact that meaning is often sought in abstractions. We look up and outward, over, and past one another to potential signs and symbols that we believe justify or vindicate our own decisions. We sacrifice years of our lives toward work or ideals that we believe will one day provide us the time and space to engage with what we hold most dear. Our capacity for mental time travel means that we all, to some extent, live in hope of a final delivery to our imagined future, a delivery we hope will reward our sacrifice of the present.

Bringing it all together

The purpose of this article is not to say that we can become omnipotent and never fall prey to miscalculation, delusion, or bias. However, by becoming more attentive to our state of mind, reflecting on our experience and connecting with others, we may develop the discernment that allows us to decide when and when not to act on what we find meaningful.


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