Meaning Makers

“Dear Kate, you and I cannot be confined within the weak list of a country's fashion: we are the makers of manners, Kate; and the liberty that follows our places stops the mouth of all find-faults.” - William Shakespeare, Henry V, Act V, Scene 2

As Henry V is wooing Katherine of France, entreating her for a kiss, she objects that it is not the fashion in France to kiss before marriage. He responds that they should not be constrained by custom, but be “the makers of manners” -- and he gets his kiss.

As Henry argues that they should be “the makers of manners”, I argue that we should be “the makers of meaning”. Meaning is not merely something that already exists and is presented for our acceptance, although there are always proposed meanings before us for our consideration. Meaning is something we make.

Does this mean that meaning is completely undetermined, and that we can create whatever meaning we choose? In a sense, this is trivially true. No one can prevent me from thinking whatever I like about something I’m interpreting. From a pragmatic perspective, however, such idiosyncratic meaning has extremely limited utility: shared meaning is superior to private meaning. Consequently, my community constrains the possible useful meanings available to me.

Henry V is making an argument from a position of royalty, affording special privilege. In Mormonism, we affirm the divine potential in each person -- each of us is, in a sense, royalty. And divinity is also understood in Mormonism as communal. So when I say that we are the makers of meaning, that "we" should be understood communally, not individually. Henry seems to be saying, “Because we are royalty, we should not be constrained by the common customs”. However, royalty is certainly constrained by other royalty. When we make meaning best, we do so not in isolation where I make my own meaning and you make your own unrelated meaning, but communally, in which we work out meaning together.

Charles Sanders Peirce, one of the fathers of pragmatism and semiotics, described truth and reality in these terms:

“The real, then, is that which, sooner or later, information and reasoning would finally result in, and which is therefore independent of the vagaries of me and you. Thus, the very origin of the conception of reality shows that this conception essentially involves the notion of a COMMUNITY, without definite limits, and capable of an indefinite increase of knowledge.” (Peirce 1868, CP 5.311).

In other words, the best meaning (what we would call truth) is that toward which a community of meaning makers converges. This work of convergence is one way in which the concept of atonement operates continuously in our lives, and indefinitely.