Meaning and the Physical World


By Pablo Fernandez Velasco

Haugeland, following Dreyfus, claims that the world is meaningful (Haugeland, 2000). In this paper I enquire into the nature of that world which is meaningful. I conclude that Dreyfus is referring to the phenomenal human world, but I claim that meaning in the phenomenal human world corresponds to relationships between macroscopic entities in the physical world. Afterwards, I respond to the issues of objectivity, triviality and normativity that this claim faces.


Being at home in what world?


“When we are at home in the world, the meaningful objects embedded in their context of references among which we live are not a model of the world stored in our mind or brain: they are the world itself”. (Dreyfus 1992, 265-266).


When I first came across this sentence in Haugeland’s Mind Embodied and Embedded, I felt a tinge of excitement. To begin with, it is a powerful and well-crafted sentence.  Mostly, I felt hopeful that it was the connection between something that had been traditionally regarded as inherently internal and mental (meaning) with something that had been traditionally regarded as external and non-mental (the world). As I kept on reading Haugeland’s paper, however, I realized I didn’t know what world Dreyfus and Haugeland were referring to. Did they refer to the world as we experience it, or to an objective physical world? And how do the two relate? In other words, is there such a thing as meaning in the physical world? This last question is what this paper addresses.


The claim that the world itself is meaningful is crucial for Haugeland’s central idea that the mind is embodied and embedded. I will not dedicate much time to defending the mind as embodied and embedded, only to illustrate the idea for the sake of context. What Haugeland explicitly denies is the existence of clear transducers between mind, body and world. He claims that these three cannot be regarded as separate when we are studying the mind.


Haugeland believes that intelligence abides in the meaningful. The meaningful is something that stands for something else, and intelligence is (roughly) “the ability to deal with more than the present and the manifest” (Haugeland, p.230). Haugeland is looking for a way of having intelligence abide in the meaningful while defending that intelligence extends outside the body and into the world, and he finds an answer in Dreyfus’s idea that the world itself is meaningful. It is important to note that at present we are not talking about derivative meaning, such as the way we give the meaning ‘peace’ to the symbol of forming a ‘v’ with our fingers. Here we are talking about original meaning.


Haugeland decomposes Dreyfus’s claim into three closely related theses: 1) Meaningful objects are not primarily inner. 2) The meaningful is not primarily representational. 3) We do not store the meaningful inside ourselves; we live in it. (Haugeland, p231-232). I will refer to these three theses jointly as the claim that ‘the world is meaningful’. Haugeland illustrates what this claim means succinctly with his example of the road to San José.


San José is a city in the San Francisco Bay. The road that goes to it from Oakland is the Interstate 880.  If you are in Oakland, San José is not something present and manifest, so the ability to deal with it (to get to it) is an example of intelligence. The traditional representational view would take this intelligence as an instance of representation. Maybe the driver has an internal model of the San Francisco Bay area and follows it, or maybe she follows a physical map. Here is how Haugeland gets to San José: he picks the right road, stays on it, and gets off at the end. What Haugeland is referring to is that the information that he needs to get to San José is not represented anywhere, but ‘encoded’ in the road (Haugeland, p.234). Of course, humans built the road so people could get to San José, but what is relevant (the path’s meaningfulness) would be the case if Haugeland were in the forest following a bear track. The road is meaningful because it stands for San José. If we are able to deal with this meaning is because we are at home in a meaningful world.


So, the world itself is meaningful. Now, does this mean that the physical world is meaningful and that the road is a meaningful physical entity, or that the road is part of a mental world? Haugeland answers that when we understand the mind as embodied and embedded, the body and world are in a way mental, and that the mind is in a way, corporeal; it all depends on what we are trying to understand (Haugeland, p.230). So, for anatomy, the brain is a separate system, but for psychology it isn’t. Of course this begs the question of how the world can be meaningful when we are studying psychology and cease to be meaningful when we are studying anatomy, as if we were switching the meaningful switch on and off. Haugeland doesn’t directly address the question of which is the world that is meaningful.


The phenomenal world, the physical world and Gestalt psychology

Dreyfus on the other hand, is quite clear that he is writing about the human phenomenal world, which “is prestructured in terms of human purposes and concerns in such a way that what counts as an object or is significant about an object already is a function of, or embodies, that concern” (Dreyfus, p.261). This seems to solve the question, but it does so not without raising another problem: How does the meaning in the phenomenal world relate to the physical world?


Dreyfus washes his hand of this problem: “The streams of sounds is a problem for physics and neurophysiology, while on the level of meaningful discourse, the necessary energy processing has already taken place, and the result is a meaningful world for which no new theory of production is required” (Dreyfus, p. 270-71).


Dreyfus builds a lot of his analysis on phenomenology and on Gestalt psychology, so I directed my search to the work of Wolfang Kölher, one of the main figures behind Gestalt psychology. One of the tenets of Gestalt psychology is perceptual organization: We don’t infer the existence of objects, movement or background out of a mosaic of dots in our retina; rather, all of these are already present in our perception. This is very relevant for meaning because “it is precisely the original segregation of circumscribed wholes which makes it possible for the sensory world to appear so utterly imbued with meaning to the adult; for, in its gradual entrance into the sensory field, meaning follows the lines drawn by natural organization (Köhler 1947, p.139).” For the Gestaltist, “meaning and values are perceived as immediately and effortlessly as shapes” (Epstein and Hatfield 1994, p.172).


Kölher believed in psychophysical isomorphism, the postulate that there is an equivalent structure in the organization of experience and in the organization of brain activity. If isomorphism is true, the structures perceived in the phenomenal world are evidence for corresponding structures at neural level. What about isomorphism between perceptual organization and the physical world (outside the brain)? Köhler believed that if we look at the microscopic level (light waves, atoms, etc.) we will not find isomorphism (Kölher 1947, p.94), but if we look at how those elements behave at macroscopic level we will find an organization of entities in the physical world that corresponds to perceptual organization (Köhler 1939, p.218).


A clarification is in order. Macroscopic and microscopic are not just two different perspectives. Entities have both macroscopic and microscopic properties. However, in many cases, it is thanks to the macroscopic properties that we understand the entities as entities. One example is dynamic steady states, such as the steady current of water flowing through a pipe. In this case, the local microscopic events don’t explain the behaviour of the water. The observer must take into account the context, the macroscopic properties of the stream as a stream. In Kölher’s words, “this distribution is steady only as a macroscopic dynamic context” (Köhler 1939, p.200). It is similar with our everyday objects. Right now there is a teacup on my table. At a microscopic level, there is not a clear outline between the cup and the table. This outline that delineates the cup exists only at macroscopic level. It is the physical cup at macroscopic level that is isomorphic with the cup as I experience it.


One caveat. For some exceptional cases, there are objects in perception that don’t correspond to macroscopic entities in the physical world. Such is the case of many illusions. Köhler studies this in the case of visual organization. He believes that the isomorphism between the physical and the phenomenal world is mediated by the cortical organization, which reassembles both. In the cases of illusions “cortical organization seems to agree with perception rather than with physics” (Köhler 1939, p.218). After all, our visual system has developed in such a way that our phenomenal world is isomorphic to the physical world (at macroscopic level), but this is so in virtue of our organism, and the isomorphism might not hold in certain exceptional situations.


Meaning in the physical world


Meaning follows perceptual organization. However, an entity in the phenomenal world cannot be meaningful autonomously. A meaningful object is an object that stands for something else. In Haugeland’s example, interstate 880 stands for San José, but let’s take the scale down to something more manageable. In my building, the front door, my flat and the staircase are all entities. These entities exist in the phenomenal world and in the physical world (of course, a staircase is a group of stairs, but a group can be a Gestalt unit while its elements remain gestalt units). In my phenomenal world, the staircase stands for my flat. Meaningful entities are meaningful because they stand for other entities.


What makes my staircase stand for my flat? It leads to my flat from the entrance to the building. It is the proximity between the staircase and my flat that makes it meaningful. And the reason that this relationship between two entities can exist in the phenomenal world is because these two entities have that relationship in the physical world. Meaning in the phenomenal human world corresponds to relationships between macroscopic entities in the physical world.


Wouldn’t this get more complicated once the relationship is different than that of proximity? A teapot means an object that contains and serves tea, an apple means food, etc. I can’t go through all of the possible types of relationships, but let’s think about these two. A teapot has a structure that can contain tea and the human digestive system can break the apple into calories. Meaning in the phenomenal world might correspond to a broad range of types of relationships between entities in the physical world. It is not the scope of this paper to make a taxonomy of these relationships. The claim here is quite radical, and, of course, it faces several issues, some of which I will address in the following sections.


Objectivity and triviality


One might wonder why, if there is an equivalent of meaning in the physical world, different people perceive different meanings in the same things. My neighbour will not perceive the staircase as the staircase to my house, but to her house. A related concern is that of triviality. A physical entity has so many relationships to so many different entities that if the claim were true, meaning would become something trivial. Everything would have innumerable meanings.


We have to remember that the phenomenal world “is prestructured in terms of human purposes and concerns” (Dreyfus, p.261). My phenomenal world is prestructured in terms of my purposes and concerns. My neighbour’s phenomenal world is prestructured in terms of her purposes and concerns. This links to the triviality concern: the relationship between two entities in my phenomenal world is based on the relationship between those two entities in the physical world, but I do not perceive all of the relationships that a given entity has in the physical world with other entities in that world, only the correspondent relationships in my phenomenal world that are relevant for my purposes and concerns. All of the meaning in the phenomenal world (if there is not a perceptive error) has an equivalent in the physical world in the form of a relationship between two entities (at macroscopic level), but not all of the relationships between entities in the physical world will find a correspondent in the phenomenal world of a given individual. After all, this is similar to when you compare humans with insects. They live in the same physical world as us, but not only the meaning of entities, even the entities they perceive, are different (a fly will not perceive the world as organized into a door, a table, etc.)


Normally, humans recognize this distinction. So far, my neighbour has never tried to convince me that the staircase leads only to her house, not to mine. However, in some cases there might be a disagreement about the meaning of a certain entity. A good example of this is the Russian classic film ‘The Irony of Fate’. The movie plays on the architectural uniformity of the Brezhnev era (a lot of buildings were identical, and a lot of the names of streets were the same in different cities). The main character, Zhenya (who lives in 3rd Builders’ street of Moscow) gets drunk with his friends until he passes out. Another friend (who also passes out, only two friends left standing at this point) has to go to Leningrad, and the two remaining friends put Zhenya in the plane to Leningrad by mistake (security controls were not very tight back then). Zhenya wakes up in Leningrad and takes a taxi to his address. In Leningrad there is also a Builders’ street and the building number 3 looks exactly like Zhenya’s.  Even the keys coincide, and Zhenya enters into the building. Let’s pause the movie here, I don’t want to spoil this fantastic film. Zhenya perceived the staircase of 3rd Builders’ street Leningrad as the staircase to his flat (which is in Moscow). There is a sense in which he cannot be wrong. The staircase is the staircase to his flat in his phenomenal world. However, there is a sense in which he is wrong, and which would cause him to disagree with anyone else in that building: the meaning of the staircase in Zhenya’s phenomenal world doesn’t correspond to the relationship between the staircase (in Leningrad) and his flat (in Moscow) in the physical world. The example of this Russian movie will also help in the study of the normativity issue.




Meaning is generally thought to be normative; it can be evaluated. For example, when I say ‘this teacup is on the table’, this can be evaluated. It will be true if the teacup is on the table, and false otherwise.


I would like to point out that the previous example is about meaning in language. What is true or false is a proposition that has content. Maybe normativity is not a concern for the present claim, because objects in the world have meaning, but not content. Back to Zhenya’s example, in the phenomenal world he is not wrong; the staircase is the staircase to his flat. There is nothing that can be evaluated. The physical world remains a world of facts as well. The relationship (e.g. of proximity) between the staircase and the flat doesn’t invite evaluation. If Zhenya is in Moscow, it will be zero (the staircase passes his flat). If he is in Leningrad it will be 400 miles (approx.). These are just facts.


However, Zhenya is wrong, and this is because the meaning in his phenomenal world doesn’t have an equivalent in the physical world. What is evaluated is whether there is an isomorphism between the meaning in the individual’s phenomenal world and the relationships between entities in the physical world. Now the leap between normativity and facts is smaller. If before we had to jump from a moving train, now we have to jump from a stationary train to the platform. What is being evaluated is not content, but isomorphism. It is similar to solving an equation. Imagine y is the weight of one object (measured in kg) and x is the weight of another object. Now: y=3x and x=1. Does y=3? Yes. There is no normativity here, just a fact about the world. In a similar way, in any given case, there is an isomorphism (between meaning and relationships in the physical world), or there isn’t. Whatever the answer is, that answer is a fact.

Of course, this discussion doesn’t settle the issue of normativity. Certainly, my arguments don’t extend smoothly to derivative meaning, and the discussion doesn’t solve the concern of normativity in its traditional ambit, which is language and mental representations. If Zhenya says (or thinks) ‘this is the staircase to my flat’, the meaning of that proposition can be evaluated, but that is a problem outside the scope of this paper.




The phenomenal world is meaningful and, at macroscopic level, there is an isomorphism between the phenomenal and the physical world. Although I haven’t resolved the normativity issue in the case of language and representations, I have showed how normativity, objectivity and triviality are not a threat to the claim that meaning in the phenomenal human world corresponds to relationships between macroscopic entities in the physical world.




Dreyfus, Hurbert L. (1992). What Computers Still Can’t Do. 4th ed. London: MIT Press


Köhler, Wolfang (1947). Gestalt Psychology. New York: Mentor.


Köhler, Wolfang (1939). The Place of Value in a World of Facts. London: Kegan Paul


Haugeland, John. Having thought. Harvard University Press, 2000.


Epstein, William & Hatfield, Gary (1994) Gestalt psychology and the philosophy of mind, Philosophical Psychology, 7:2, 163-181


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