Meaning: The idea, and the word

The idea of meaning plays a very big role in the sort of material that I discuss on this website, especially since the distinction between an “outer” or exoteric meaning, and one or more “inner” or esoteric meanings, is a crucial one to make when trying to make sense of traditional religions.  And, more generally, I believe that the idea of meaning lies at the heart of all human experience.  But it is interesting that the very word “meaning” seems to be etymologically related to a number of words found in languages from around the world, all of which words appear to me to be derived from some sort of common “M-N” root; and the meanings of these words are all related either to the ideas of “meaning” or “mind,” or to the ideas of “man” or “mankind.”  And I believe the apparent pervasiveness of this possible linguistic root serves as evidence of the crucial importance in human thought of the idea of meaning.  Moreover, it is precisely because the idea of meaning is so fundamental to human thought that it cannot be considered likely that the occurrence of words of this kind in such a wide variety of languages is due to borrowing that is at all recent; and it is also unlikely to be due to coincidence.

An important example of such a word is mana, found in Polynesian languages.  I believe this word can be properly thought of as referring to an idea similar or related to the idea corresponding to the English word “meaning.”  According to anthropologist Paul Radin, in his book Primitive Man as Philosopher,

Every discussion of mana must necessarily go back to the famous definition of [the missionary and anthropologist Bishop R. H.] Codrington:  “Mana is a force altogether distinct from physical power which acts in all kinds of ways for good and evil and which it is of the greatest advantage to possess and control … (and which) shows itself in physical force or in any kind of power or excellence which a man possesses.”  This has been the generally accepted view since Codrington’s time.[1]

This description is consistent with my hypothesis that the Polynesian word mana roughly corresponds to the idea of “meaning.”  Radin also writes, “A Fiji Islander told an investigator that ‘a thing has mana when it works; it has not mana when it doesn’t work.’”[2]  This idea of “inefficacy” or “ineffectiveness” is likewise consistent with the notions of “meaninglessness,” and “purposelessness,” and “pointlessness,” and “futility,” and “uselessness,” and “worthlessness.”

The word mana is also sometimes described as having the meaning of “prestige.”  This can be compared to the way in which English-speakers might refer to someone who enjoys prestige, as a person “of significance”; and say of someone who lacks prestige, that he is a person “of no significance,” or “of little significance”; and there is a great deal of overlap between the meanings of the English words “significance” and “meaning.”

Also, Codrington’s description of mana as a kind of “force” should be considered in connection with one of the New Testament passages that I discuss in my essay Against the Lie, 1 Corinthians 14:10-11, in which Paul writes,

It so happens that there are a great many kinds [genos] of language [or speech, or “sound”: phōné] in the world, and none is soundless [or, “lacking in (mere) sound”: a-phōnos]; therefore, if I do not know the meaning [more literally, “power,” or “force”: dynamis] of the sound [or language: phōné], I will be a foreigner [more literally, “barbarian”: barbaros] to the one speaking [laleō], and the one speaking [laleō] a foreigner [barbaros] to me.

The Greek word dynamis can, in addition to “meaning,” also mean “force, power, strength (including physical strength), might, worth, value, function, faculty, ability, capacity, efficacy, influence, authority.”  This range of meanings is very similar to that which the Polynesian word mana is said to be able to express.

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