Saturday, September 01, 2012
From Knowledge Management World Magazine, David Weinberger on the problem of the real meaning of things.
The problem turned out to be more with the word "real" than "meaning." It was, oddly, the philosophy of Martin Heidegger that taught me this. In my freshman year, I took a course with Prof. Joseph Fell, a humble, superb scholar and a rigorous but kind teacher. He took the class through Heidegger's Being and Time, a work famously difficult and sometimes seemingly purposefully obscure. Heidegger had been very influential on the existentialists, but—at least according to Prof. Fell's interpretation—they got him exactly wrong. We are not free to create any old meanings that we want. Rather, we each are thrown into a world not of our making that has a set of meanings (enacted by language) that we are powerless to change. (Heidegger thought that poets and philosophers could work substantial changes in a culture's fabric of meaning, but they're special.)
Further, those meanings aren't arbitrary. They express a long history of thought, practice and language. The meanings of the things around us are ways things show themselves to us. We always—almost always—encounter them with a particular project or plan in mind. The hammer shows itself to me as a thing for hammering when I'm hanging a picture, as a paperweight when the wind is lifting my papers, and as a spinner for Spin the Hammer when coeds are in the house (I was 18! It was 1968!). Those meanings are not eternal and universal, but Heidegger critiqued the assumption that only the eternal and universal are real. And that was enough to get me out of my funk: Meanings are not merely my choice, they are in the world at least as much as they are in my head, and they reveal something true about the world.
Prof Fell published his study of Sartre and Heidegger in 1983. It was the breakthrough to MH for me. I had studied Sartre enough so that the comparison and contrast with MH by Fell finally introduced me to the significance of MH.

Fell responded to my written inquries with the graciousness of an exemplary teacher. He put me on a path I have regretted sometimes but today am most grateful to have followed.
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