Noimetics, Anyone?

07/12/2011 09:15 am ET | Updated Sep 11, 2011

If meaning is the new money, as pundits are fond of saying, where is the bank? How do you make a deposit? How do you make a withdrawal? How do you take out a loan?

The old containers of meaning, whether -isms like Stoicism, idealism, or existentialism, eastern religions like Buddhism or Taoism, or Western religions like Judaism or Christianity, all had their "banking crises." Can any of them be "the meaning bank" for a contemporary person?

Existentialism seemed to want to pay special attention to meaning and looked like it might be that bank, but it fell short. Postmodernism told us to forget about ever finding such a bank -- to create it would only amount to creating a new metaphor to deconstruct. Marketing types and business types tell us that meaning exists right inside of corporations -- that capitalism and materialism are the only reliable banks -- but we have our doubts about that, don't we? So, where is the bank? What could it be?

For several years now I've been championing the phrase "making meaning" and the idea of a paradigm shift from seeking meaning to making meaning. I've been saying, "You make the bank." This idea tends to resonate with people, as does my associated language about "making meaning investments" and "seizing meaning opportunities." These were foundational ideas and accompanying language for what has turned out to be a complete new philosophy of meaning.

I've embarked on creating this full-fledged new philosophy of meaning by examining how meaning actually operates in people's lives. One starting place is the creation of some useful distinctions among the following four realities:

  1. Meaning as a psychological experience
  2. Meaning as an idea
  3. Meaning as an evaluation
  4. Meaning as a poignant challenge

Each of these is very different from the other. The better we understand these four realities, the clearer we'll become about our genuine meaning needs and about what we can do to experience life as meaningful.

We will also begin to understand why meaning is not an issue for some people and a grave issue for others. Many intelligent, sensitive people are astounded by the fact that while they feel plagued by meaning issues and meaning crises, very few people they know seem to be similarly burdened. How this can be becomes abundantly clear when we recognize that meaning is at root "only" a psychological experience, one of many, and not an experience that everyone needs, craves or misses.

As we look carefully at these realities and these distinctions we can start to ask -- and answer --much more interesting questions than, "What is the purpose of the universe?" or, "What is the meaning of life?" We can begin to ask questions like, "How much meaning does a person need on a given day?" and, "Does meaning trump value or does value trump meaning?" These more useful questions are actually the ones that matter to us -- now we can frame them and answer them.

Philosophies are known by their ideas. Confucian ideas of benevolence and reciprocity, Enlightenment ideas of human rights and human potential, Buddhist ideas of suffering and detachment, existential ideas of contingent reality and personal responsibility, and the postmodern idea of the collapse of master narratives are the sorts of ideas that define and distinguish these religions and philosophies. The new philosophy that I'm angling for would be known for the special attention it pays to our human experience of meaning.

Let me unveil it now: It is called noimetics. Derived from "noima," the Greek word for meaning, it is a new philosophy of meaning that provides a true-to-life account of our meaning-making needs and our meaning-making skills. It is a step forward in our thinking about meaning and a philosophy that is badly needed, given that all previous banks -- all our philosophies and religions -- look sorely insufficient.

I propose noimetics as the new bank, the one where you can go to make meaning withdrawals and meaning investments. It will especially speak to you if you get bored, anxious or depressed, if you feel as if you're going through the motions, if you don't believe that you or your efforts particularly matter, if you create beautiful plans and don't follow through, or if you regularly doubt your choices and your path. These are all meaning issues -- and only a philosophy that makes meaning its focus can address them.

Noimetics, anyone?

Dr. Eric Maisel is teaching noimetics with the Academy for Optimal Living. To learn more please visit