Embodied Meaning and Integration

Overcoming the Abstracted Grip on Meaning in Theory and Practice

To be published by Equinox, late 2024/ early 2025

Embodied meaning is a new approach to understanding the significance of all symbols, including those of language, as association in human experience. It has been developed since the 1980’s, but its full practical significance has rarely been applied, nor have the full challenges that it presents to entrenched assumptions been followed through. Robert M. Ellis here develops a detailed multi-disciplinary account of the role of embodied meaning in the Middle Way as a practical path. This includes criticisms of some ways that embodied meaning has been confused with belief. At the heart of his practical case for the applying embodied meaning in our lives are the concepts of fragmentation and integration of meaning. A variety of practices, including the arts, enable us to develop our meaning resources, both ‘cognitively’ and ‘emotionally’, and thus create the imaginative conditions for provisionality of belief.

Summary by Chapter


1. Embodied Meaning   

a. Association in Living Systems

Embodied meaning is associative meaning, formed of links within the structure of an organism in response to electrical signals. Meaning without belief is association without potential action, and involves a shift throughout the internal system. The interdependent and gestalt nature of systemic meaning implies that it is only found in living organisms, not AI (which models only the left hemisphere). Only left hemisphere over-dominance makes computer models the norm, and interprets association deterministically.


b. The Channelling of Desire

Desire and meaning are highly interdependent, with meaning channelling the energy of desire through specific forms. Our motives for engagement with meaningful objects are not just a matter of ‘emotive’ meaning, but are a condition for all aspects of meaning as we experience it. Our desires can be engaged in meaning even when there are no beliefs or goals involved, as we particularly see in the experience of beauty.


c. Differentiation and Integration

The specific associations of embodied meaning only become possible through initial differentiation of our associative experience in infancy. However, at some stage the learning process passes from one of differentiation to one of integration – that is, of remaking lost (fragmented) connections between the meanings of symbols in different contexts. Differentiation does not necessarily cause fragmentation, because the latter involves loss of awareness of the underlying connections between differentiated symbols.


d. Symbols

Symbols are any experiences that are associated with other experiences – including any object, person, image or word. Our focusing of attention makes them meaningful along with association. Symbols are multivalent, unlike the univalent signs relied on by representationalism, which mistakes a practical need for shared fixity of meaning in particular circumstances for a general condition. Such symbols can be ‘private’ even if that limits their use.


e. Prototypes

Prototype theory lies at the roots of embodied meaning, as it shows how our categorizations are based on association rather than absolute definition. This also shows how meaning is incremental, even if we define categories absolutely for practical purposes. Prototype theory looks most at nouns, but it can also be applied to other words and to non-linguistic symbols. Prototypes should not be confused with archetypes, although the empirical evidence for each may have a similar structure.


f. Basic Level Categories

Basic level categories are the initial associations of terms that we make in relation to objects and similar types of objects, making these terms meaningful at the level we interact with them. Objects are most basically meaningful somewhere in the middle of the range between generality and specificity. We need to combine basic level categories with embodied schemas and metaphors to understand contexts, but we often rely instead on abstract extension of absolutized categories.


g. Embodied schemas

Embodied schemas (or ‘image schemas’) are associative patterns of interaction with our environment which provide clusters of meaning for symbols. They combine different sense experiences, interaction, and cultural embeddedness to provide meaning context both through our bodily experience and our relation to objects. They are both ‘cognitive’ and ‘emotive’. They link basic level categories, and can be extended to new spheres by metaphor.


h. Metaphorical extension

Metaphor extends meaning by associating one context (the ‘source domain’) to another (the ‘target domain’), in both linguistic and non-linguistic symbols. It follows the same pattern of meaning extension as prototypes. It is supplemented by metonymy, which associates a part with a whole – although this can also be used dissociatively. By this means, basic level categories and embodied schemas can be extended to provide embodied meaning even to the most abstracted ‘cognitive’ propositions.


i. Idealized models

Models (known widely as ‘cognitive’ models) are our supposed representations, dependent on basic categories, schemas and metaphors. They offer coherent possible beliefs within a framework, but are structures of meaning, not belief or ‘knowledge’. Idealizing a model involves implicit absolutization of the meaning conditions to produce representationalism. This is especially common in relation to mathematics and to essentialized definitional frameworks of language – the basis of rationalistic errors in philosophy.


2. The Trouble with Representationalism

a. What is Representationalism?

‘Representationalism’ is not defined here as narrowly as in most philosophy and cognitive science. It refers to any view according to which meaning is dependent on a metaphysical state via an idealized model. It does not depend on any particular metaphysical distinction (e.g. realism or idealism). Representationalism is generally marked by abstraction (e.g. in computationalism) and by assumed isomorphic relationships between language and reality (for which our experience of meaning gives no grounds).


 b. Representationalism, the Left Hemisphere and Propositional Sentences

Neuroscience gives additional, non-reductive, evidence against representationalism. It shows meaning not to be merely processed in Broca’s Region of the left hemisphere, but instead more widely in the right, dependent on perceptual, emotional, and motor systems. Broca’s Region assembles prior meaning into propositions that can represent possible states of affairs, rather than creating meaning in the first place.


c. Representation and Judgement

The ‘freezing’ of models is a necessary prerequisite for action, as it provides an assumed context to act in. However, this ‘freezing’ is a provisional representation and does not have to be interpreted absolutely: rather an integration of meaning allows our beliefs to be reassessed at any point. Representationalism, on the other hand, requires implicitly absolute representations appealing to ‘reality’, with accompanying essentialism and denial of the possibility of provisionality.


d. Representation and Communication

Communication is necessary for learning meaning, but is not sufficient for it, and meaning should not be reduced to communication. The ‘privacy’ of individual meaning does not completely prevent checking of boundaries, and boundaries need to be adequately (not absolutely) shared in communication for practical purposes. Dictionary definitions tell us about idealized shared models, not meaning, and essentializing meaning to them is an absolutizing shortcut.


e. The Reduction of Meaning to ‘Cognition’

Meaning should not be reduced to ‘cognition’, as academics almost universally do, reinforcing representationalism. This either reinforces the absolutizing cognitive-emotive dichotomy, or subsumes emotive meaning into ‘knowledge’ – an absolute term – in a way that obscures our lack of it and conflates meaning with belief. Instead we need a pyramidal conceptual model with meaning at the bottom and ‘knowledge’ (if there is any) only at the tip.


f. Representation and Expression

Expressivism is a dummy counterpart in supposed opposition to representationalism, seeing meaning only as expression of inner feeling, that collapses into representationalism when examined. It relies on an inward-outward dichotomy that assumes far more than is necessary from the individuality of our experience of meaning. Both representation and expression need to be seen as incremental qualities of meaning, not as total accounts of it.


g. Representation, Metaphysics and Essentialism

Representationalism and metaphysics are both dimensions of absolutization, both arising from the rigid idealization of models. Metaphysics depends not just on the exact words used in a claim, but on the essentialism in their interpretation, with alternative interpretations excluded. It is perpetuated by absolutized logic and ad hoc defensive argument. Essentialism both restricts the options and maintains culturally entrenched narrowness of interpretation.


h. Representation Blindness and the Subtilization Slope

A further feature of representationalism is blindness of itself and its assumptions, even extending to unawareness of representation as a chosen basis for meaning. The relationship between meaning and represented object is assumed to be transparent. This also leads to the subtilization slope in which process or emptiness type philosophies seek increasingly refined metaphysical beliefs, rather than realizing that we lack the meaning basis to justify any view of such beliefs.


3. Taking Embodied Meaning Seriously

a. The Lack of Need for ‘Sense-making’

The idea of ‘sense-making’ involves filling in gaps of our understanding of a given context. This might be helpfully applied to the integration of belief using Vervaeke’s ‘relevance realization’, but is also seriously undermined by its failure to distinguish meaning from belief. Meaning alone cannot fill gaps in adaptive belief, though it does provide important resources. Moreover, we do not generally suffer from a loss of meaning, but a fragmentation of the meaning we have already have.


b. Archetypal Meaning, not Metaphysics

Representationalism undermines helpful archetypal responses to religious or other inspired experience. An account of archetypes as sources of inspiration can be based on embodied meaning, and avoids the unnecessary but entrenched metaphysical interpretation of inspirational and integrative experience. Archetypes need to be separated from their specific symbols and from their projection as beliefs, but none of their power needs to be lost in an agnostic attitude to their ‘reality’.


c. The Tapering of Ineffability

The concept of ineffability is a negative application of representationalism to assert that we can’t represent profound experiences – an assertion that assumes we can represent more normal experiences. Mystics can and do discuss profound experience, even if communication or expression of it gets incrementally harder, because our ability to do so depends on association rather than representation. An embodied approach to them allows us to take responsibility for our interpretation.


d. Non-linguistic Symbols and Beauty

Representationalists tend to see non-linguistic symbols as either ‘subjective’ because non-propositional, or ‘objective’ by indirect means – but neither are applicable to embodied meaning. Instead, non-linguistic symbols are meaningful through schemas and metaphors like linguistic ones, though with some further schemas specific to the visual arts and music. They differ from linguistic symbols in offering more direct access to aesthetic forms of beauty, that stimulate attention in direct response to sensual experience.


e. Representationalism and Religion

The representationalist dominance of religious traditions is not inevitable or essential, but nevertheless an overwhelmingly evident fact. This dominance is explicitly evident in beliefs about the revelation of the Qur’an in Islam, the dogmatic pronouncements of the Catholic Church, and the tradition of Buddhavacana in Buddhism, even though this needs to be offset against the more marginal mystical and liberal elements in all these traditions.


f. Representationalism and Philosophy

Representationalism has dominated Western philosophy since the theories of Forms and the soul in Plato. Empiricist challenges to Plato still assumed a universal source of meaning distinct from the body, as did the Kantian mediation of rationalism and empiricism. Wittgenstein offered some challenges, but turned to a social reduction of meaning. This dominance has disastrously imposed a polarized metaphysical model on both science and ethics, undermining any incrementality in justification because meaning remained absolutized.


g. Representationalism and Politics

The effect of implicit representationalism on politics is often to make voters choose from simplistic propositions in which abstract concepts of political ideology are central, but with these concepts understood prototypically and detached from the complexity of their practical application. Concepts like ‘tradition’, ‘justice’ and ‘freedom’, which are interdependent in an embodied context, are separated from that context, thus resulting in much less adequate policy propositions when judged representationally in terms of supposed ‘realities’.


4. The Fragmentation of Meaning

a. What are the Fragmentation and Integration of Meaning?

Meaning is not subject to conflict in the way that desire and belief are, but is subject to fragmentation, which is a lack of connection between different meanings in our experience (and/or in our neural network). Integration of meaning, which connects separated meaningful symbols wherever relevant, reduces the conditions for conflict in a way that is indirect but also still important. Integration of meaning roughly differs from meaning in general in being mainly developed through individual awareness rather than cultural expectations.


b. Fragmentation of Meaning as a Condition for Conflict

Fragmentation of meaning is a condition for conflict because the alternative meanings needed to integrate a conflict are unavailable to us in the model being used. This limiting model may be shared and defended by both sides. This fragmentation is usually implicit, but can also happen within an explicit framework, where the explicitness is selective. Not all fragmentation necessarily causes conflict, because it depends on the obscured meanings becoming (unpredictably) relevant.


c. Babel: The Fragmentation of ‘Cognitive’ Understanding

The ‘cognitiveness’ of meaning fragmentation is always a matter of degree, given the constant interdependence of ‘cognitive’ and ‘emotive’ elements. Relatively ‘cognitive’ fragmentation includes many types of language difference, from whole languages to jargon. It can include fragmentation within an individual over time as well as between groups. Such fragmentation is more likely when we lack motives to overcome it – an indifference that can be culturally reinforced.


d. Planetary Indifference: The Fragmentation of ‘Emotive’ Understanding

The ‘emotive’ aspects of understanding become fragmented when we fail to pay enough attention to some relevant symbols – even ones of which we have a full ‘cognitive’ grasp. This is often due to habitual responses to immediate sources of meaning, reinforced by culture. Planetary indifference to global warming is a good example where over-cognitive understanding fails to move us sufficiently. In contrast, aesthetic attention such as mindfulness can engage emotive meaning without any immediate symbolic (‘cognitive’) content.


e. Linguistic and other Symbolic Fragmentation

Fragmentation in the understanding of language or other symbols depends on lack of engagement with symbols used by others. These are often reinforced by prejudicial beliefs about the status of their linguistic or symbolic forms. These beliefs lack justification, as differences in linguistic form are arbitrary, and they are not inevitable. They can be separated from fragmentation of meaning, even though they are often interdependent with it.


f. Cultural Fragmentation

Cultural fragmentation is the wider context for linguistic fragmentation, and consists of the mutual incomprehensibility of habitual symbols and accompanying actions across every field of human activity, including religion and the arts. Whilst most obvious between larger groups, this fragmentation is also found within individual meaning over time, especially when we move between social contexts with contrasting values. It is reinforced by belief, but not reducible to it.


g. Archetypal Fragmentation

Archetypal fragmentation is the separation of our understanding of symbolic sources of inspiration from one another, so that we lose that inspiration. This is typically due to projection of the archetype, in which we cease to take responsibility for its role in our own experience, and assume it ‘exists’ out there in an object with that sole quality. Projected archetypes cannot be combined in a wider understanding in the way that integrated ones can.


h. Somatic Fragmentation

Somatic fragmentation is the gaps in understanding encountered at bodily level, as separation of webs of meaning (neural or experiential), interdependent with other types of fragmentation. These gaps can be understood in terms of left hemisphere functioning, ‘dysconnection’ interfering with our synthetic processes, domain dependence, localized traumatic stress, or loss of memory. This fragmentation conditions our experience, but should not be interpreted as determining it.


5. Integration of Meaning

a. The Growth of Meaning Resources

Our resources of meaningful symbols can grow almost limitlessly with almost no cost, thus defying the trade-offs that affect most other human capacities. Growth in right hemisphere meaning does not involve the alienating repetition of left, and is based on episodic, not semantic, memory. Research on memory engrams shows the separability of flexible linkage in memory from specific representational content. This growth is dependent on general development, and is boosted by education, with meaning (not ’knowledge’) as education’s function.


b. The Pruning and Clarification of Meaning

The exception to the limitless growth of meaning is that of pruning and clarification, but this needs to be seen as honing meaning in relation to goals and beliefs, not as limiting more basic meaning.  At neural level, synaptic pruning is a necessary aspect of learning. At experiential level, clarification is the helpful limiting of meaning in relation to goals and beliefs through shared definition, analysis, or stipulation. This may be a necessary preparation for synthesis.


c. Absorptive Methods of Meaning Integration

The most basic way of integrating fragmented meaning is in a relatively (but not absolutely) passive process of absorption. This can come through observing and associating new symbols (including vocabulary) in experience, or from activating wider grammatical structures to help us develop coherent models. Education offers many absorptive opportunities, as does learning foreign languages and travel. The arts can be absorptive, particularly as music or story, and fairy tales have a distinctive role in integrating meaning for children.


d. Communicative Methods of Meaning Integration

Although communication only contingently shares meaning, it can still integrate it (1) in its production, reinforcing meaning for the individual, (2) in the meaning shared with others, either implicitly or explicitly, which can also enable dialectical reframing, and (3) in the development of meaning resources for others, including in the patterns of meaning found in stories or theories. The Buddhist speech precepts offer some practical guidelines for everyday application of this.


e. Expressive Methods of Meaning Integration

We can integrate meaning effectively by outwardly expressing inner states, linking them to new combinations of symbols. This involves the creative recombination of art, which copies with variation rather than precisely. Art therapy and (flexibly administered) ritual provide particularly strong ways of integrating conflicting emotions. Integrating meaning expressively through the arts does not necessarily integrate belief, so can leave moral conflict, but provides a contingent basis for doing so.


f. Meditative Methods of Meaning Integration

Meaning integration can be directly cultivated by associating patterns of meaning in inner experience. This can be done indirectly by relaxing intrusive patterns of disconnected meaning in mindfulness meditation, but also more directly by gradually widening our associations with people through loving-kindness meditations. Visualization (or other sensual recollection) of archetypal symbols may also integrate meaning through association with a source of inspiration.


g. Ambiguity

The integration of meaning depends on an acceptance of ambiguity and vagueness in basic meaning (beyond the context of a particular model). Ambiguity precedes differentiation, so we can reach back to a wider sense by the two-way ambiguous connection of metaphor. Loving-kindness meditation also accepts ambiguities in our view of people. Equivocation within a model, on the other hand, can maintain unnecessary conflict through contradictory belief.


h. Synthesis

Synthesis works both at the level of belief, where a dialectical process combines opposing beliefs, and at the prior level of meaning, where we consider possibilities that may then form new options for belief. Meaning synthesis needs to be held open to enable provisionality. Syntheses occur at different levels of development, in turn dependent on biological and cultural conditions. Integration of meaning is a complex application of synthesis, but one vital for addressing a range of conditions.


i. Sublimity

States of sublimity, as identified in Romantic approaches to the arts, are short-term integrations of meaning, dependent both on us and on an object and its meaning (combining with other meanings). They often interact with states of temporary integration of desire that make us more receptive, boosting our attention with a sense of beauty. Sublimity is a source of inspiration (especially when associated with archetypal symbols), but it needs to be invested for longer-term practical effect.


j. The Meaning of Absolutes

The integration of meaning can help us to understand the helpful role of symbols associated with absolutes, which provide an inspirational reminder of a pre-differentiated experience of meaning. Secure attachment anchored to our pre-differentiated memories, which enables us to differentiate meaning in infancy, also provides a context for the integration of fragmented meaning. But this archetypal meaning is constantly projected, confused with beliefs about absolutes.