The Irreducibility of Meaning

In social systems theory, meaning is irreducible; it cannot be reduced to meaningful/meaningless or meaning/no-meaning because these distinctions must also be treated as meaningful. In other words, if I say “Your statement is meaningless” or “This story has no meaning,” my own statement is treated as meaningful. Otherwise, communication cannot happen. Thus, in social as well as psychic systems, observation can only operate on one side of the distinction–the meaning side. For the same reason, social systems and psychic systems cannot observe chaos or noise; they must make order from noise. If there is an order/chaos distinction, social and psychic systems can only operate on the order side. This might explain the habit of looking for meaning or order in apparent chaos. We assume there is some underlying order or perhaps a narrative. Innocent people are killed in an apparently random accident, and we immediately start looking for meaning in the event. We want to make sense of it. But even if we say it was a random, meaningless tragedy, that statement is still treated as meaningful; it is a premise or invitation for further communication. The point is not whether life is or is not meaningful. It is communication that must be meaningful.

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