Category Archives: Philosophy

Semanturgy and the End of Humanity

The latest word is that we’re doomed.  

We can put aside the details, such as how we got this way, how long it will take for us to be wiped off the face of the earth, that sort of thing is all beside my current objective, which is to imagine what comes next.

One of the most profound moments of a human being’s life is when they reach complete consciousness of their own mortality.  Our lives take on new meaning as we view our existence from an imaginary point in death: how we will be remembered, how will the sum of our actions and words appear,  what impact will we have had.  

Such a perspective helps us to crystallize our purpose.  We can realize which path we have been following, and decide to continue or veer in another direction.  This epiphany is an important moment, ideally an important series of moments over a lifetime, from the viewpoint of semanturgy, which is a conscious working with meaning.  To apply principles and purposes directly to a life consciously lived is semanturgy in it’s essential form.

We must imagine beyond our individual deaths when considering global warming, nuclear war, or any other event or process leading to the potential end of humanity.  It is not enough to wonder, what impact will I have? or how will I be remembered? if it is the apocalypse.  Who will be around to give a damn?  Now the questions become impossibly bigger.  What did it mean that ANY of us were around?  What impact did ANY of us have?  

If we accept some measure of responsibility in the cause of the end, then I suppose we have to say that the meaning we constructed in our world reflects a larger value being placed on things such as profit and power rather than on the life of any of earth’s creatures, including ourselves.

And assuming we dutifully play our part in the solution, voting, writing letters, buying locally, cycling, however we choose to participate, and assuming that the end comes anyway, then what does it all mean?  

If you are a member of a certain religion that explains all this, then you have it all sorted out, so read no further.  

For the rest of us, we come to an extremely existential moment in which all word, deed and relic of humanity falls uselessly into oblivion.  Yet after this experience, we still have to figure out what is for dinner, complete another task on our to-do list, conduct smalltalk with the cashier at the grocery store.  What is the overarching goal of our day to day survival, if we will never be the next Elvis or Mother Theresa, never be remembered or revered, if even the fostering of our bloodline, the fundamental biological goal of existence, will be for naught?  

Does it make our actions even more profoundly amazing, a generous gesture to a stranger, an encouraging word to a passerby, when we know it will come to nothing more than the fleeting presence of love, living only in the immediate moment and then lost forever?

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Semanturgy and Religion

Beginning at age 13, I have searched for meaning in many religions. Raised Catholic, I have explored New Age ideas, a couple of Native American spiritual paths, I have experienced a couple of other kinds of Christianity, I’ve read Taoist and Buddhist texts, even attended a couple of Unitarian Universalist services. I’ve read many Wiccan texts and participated in several rituals.

In short, it has been a long and widely wandering journey so far, with no destination in sight. Though every system has bits of wisdom that shine for me, no one structure rings true enough for me to feel right about adopting it as my own personal religion. Sometimes this lack of structure feels freeing, but at other times I wish I had a label to insert into the blanks on forms, I wish I had a name to provide to those who want to know, in a word, what I believe.

Cruising news sites yesterday, I came across a link to Tom Cruise’s latest discussion of Scientology, which led me to their official website to investigate. It made me feel sick to think of how someone can take an idea or system of ideas, as one might do with Semanturgy, and make a dogma out of it. I do not believe that Semanturgy can be a dogma, because the root “-urgy” or “work” indicates that the meanings being dealt with are not stagnant, not immobile, not at a distance being admired or worshipped. The meanings are being worked, whether created, debated, interpreted, or rearranged, it is not about standing passively and being dictated to. It is not about consuming thoughtlessly like a drone in a cult.

If a semanturgist found themselves doing something ritualistic, like say, trimming a Christmas tree, it would be an individual experience full of personal significance. It might be rooted in memories of previous Christmases, it might signify a personal goal of finding and cutting down a wild tree, it might show the consideration the person has for their children who will learn a new tradition or enjoy the sight of the lights, it might be the same plastic tree one’s grandfather had in his house and so be infused with Grandpa’s history. The act of trimming and the presence of the tree would show an active, thoughtful participation and an assumption of responsibility that would feed the rest of the person’s life, and possibly the lives of those around them.

I guess this demonstrates my problem with organized religion, and why I find it so difficult to “pick” one. There is a point where I am not allowed to decide for myself, but must just accept certain tenets as given. This was my original path away from Catholicism, when I was informed that, however logical or reasonable the possibility of reincarnation is, “We don’t believe in it.”

One thing I do firmly believe, I am now and will in the future be held responsible for the things I say, do and believe. For this reason, I cannot blindly follow what someone else decides is true or right, but I must think it through for myself. I must decide what the world means to me and then make sure that my words and actions reflect my personal truths.

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Semanturgy – meaning as medium

When you study a second (or third or fourth) language, there comes a point in your conversational ability where you stop trying to translate everything you hear and say into and out of your native language. The words of this new language become directly linked into meaning, and when you mean something, suddenly an approximation of this meaning comes immediately out of your mouth using sounds and inflections that you did not know how to use at one time in your past. 


I am fluent in three languages, and at one point I had a conversation with a neighbor who was also trilingual. It was one of the most wonderful conversations I’d ever had: his native language was Spanish, mine English, and we both were fluent in French. Still, we did not know every word in our non-native languages, so when we began to stumble, we would switch spontaneously into another language. We used all three languages without any real regard to which one we were speaking or hearing, just switching as it felt necessary, rather than pause to search for the word.

That night I had a dream in which I was speaking to a few people in an informal setting, and I had the clear awareness that no specific set of sounds, no verbal code was coming out of anyone’s mouth, although we were talking. We were exchanging meaning in its essential state. That is all I can tell you about it, except to say that it was really cool. Ironically, I have no other words to describe the sensation.

But the feeling that meaning is a kind of substance, albeit a quite slippery one, has stayed with me, and I can recall it at will. It is like the sun in that it illuminates the world, but it is difficult to stare at directly.

It is a resource that we waste with our thoughtless habits, our assuming natures, our rote and inattentive interactions with others. There are surely other ways to become aware of its existence besides learning a new code with which to express it, but language education is certainly a good trigger. In my next post I will discuss the way in which meaning should form the foundation of language education.

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Semanturgy, a preliminary discussion

I am imagining an alternate way to approach meaning in the world.  Semantics and other similar studies deal with meaning in what seems to me a very passive way, simply observing the relationships between symbols, signs, and meanings.  I added a suffix that signifies “work” so that the word denotes an active usage of meaning.

It seems to me that human consciousness is evolving to greater awareness.  At some point we became aware of meaning, how to create it and interpret it: that a certain sound uttered signifies a certain message, that a certain marking on the cave wall indicates a certain event. We even developed special rites, gestures, and other indications that communicate meaning to ourselves and the outer world.

But we have become spectators, passive consumers of meaning. I humbly acknowledge a huge debt of inspiration derived from the philosophy of the Situationists, who dealt with the phenomena of spectator and spectacle in modern times.

 As we move from being spectators to being agents in the world, in our own lives, we must be guided by something.  Can we go through our daily lives and infuse every action with a good intention, can we make every word reflect our truth, can we keep in mind a purpose that fits into a bigger picture, whatever that might be for each of us as individuals?

Sounds like an overwhelming project, but what is the alternative?  Have our lives dictated to us by the media?  Flail thoughtlessly through our days?  Speak what people want to hear, or parrot what we’ve always heard?  Focus on the little details, like the labels on our clothes and the hood ornament on our SUVs, without considering how these details make up the story of our lives? 

I choose to work with meaning as though it were a medium like clay or words, to weave significance into every aspect of my life, to make sure my actions and words represent what I think and believe. I reserve the right to interpret the meaning of events, art, nature and the world itself in ways that might be different from the way others tell me I have to understand them. I want to open up the discussion to all thinking people, to share what seems true to each of us and learn something new.

I leave behind the role of unthinking spectator, consuming what the commercialized world tells me is valuable, and take on the agency of participant, producer of meaning, accepting the freedom and responsibility that comes with open-eyed awareness and intentional living.

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All is nothing but flowers in a flowering universe

One needs only study geology to realize, once and for all, that even the mountains we take as symbols of eternity are, in fact, like everything surrounding us, only manifestations in motion, the illusion of stability which is actually the true face of change, yet another being in the process of growth or decay.

Why do I insist on complicating things that are really quite straightforward? It’s just a mountain, for crying out loud, get a grip.

Years ago the symbol of my life became the spiral, (I suspect it was the symbol all along and I just eventually realized it), but in any event, the spiral is movement: here to there, in and out, forth and back. When you see it drawn in two dimensions, it appears just to move from the center to the edges, or from the outer to the inner, but in 3 dimensions, though ultimately it may be tending in one direction, if you follow it closely it moves in a lot of directions in rapid succession. Rather dizzying, really.

The way a boring, plain little seed makes its way up towards the sun, then falls back down again into the dirt, possibly providing us sustenance somewhere in the middle, delaying our own spiral downward.

Somewhere in the middle of my flowering life other flowering lives have appeared, whose stems grow strong and whose leaves drink in the light. It is dizzying the way our individual spirals reach out into the world like the tendrils of a bean plant curl around whatever stable object the wind blows them up against.

The decay will surely come, the petals falling, sagging bits, furrowed brow, death. Name forgotten. There is no monument, not even faces carved into the side of a mountain, that will survive time’s dizzying spiral forward, warping all of space in its wake.

Sometimes, riding the waves of the wake, we stop to smell a flower: a friendly face encountered, fresh bread eaten, groovin’ tunes enjoyed, cool fat raindrops in a summer thunderstorm. It will all be gone soon enough, but today, how sweet.

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