Those of us lucky enough, over the festive period, to be able to sink into the loving embrace of the sofa beside an open fire, glass of port in hand, belly full of turkey and Thornton’s, and surrounded by loving relatives, might be tempted to proclaim that ‘this is what it’s all about’. The meaningful life consists in the cosiness of affection, security and slight material overindulgence that we lucky ones feel at Christmas.
A scroll through the #entrepreneurship, #digitalnomad, #selfhelp, or #amwriting communities on Twitter or Medium reveals a plethora of similar candidates for ‘meaningful’ activities:
- Having a job that fulfils us
- Not being a corporate drone
- Having other purposes/goals
- Any activity at all (since we ourselves give our lives meaning)
- Searching for meaning gives meaning (e.g. here)
- Passing on genes
- Being altruistic
- Having loving relationships
Much ink has been spilled on the topic of ‘the meaning of life’, but not all of it gainfully employed. I don’t think it’s abundantly clear that ‘meaning’ has meaning, or at least one that everyone understands. All we have talked about so far is what makes us happy or fulfils us, or what we value. Isn’t ‘meaning’ more than this?
When these authors get onto talking about religion and spirituality, we might feel they are on a more promising track. However, religion and spirituality are often simply listed among the other activities or practices that are supposed to confer meaning on our lives (example here), whereas an authentic practice of religion (and maybe philosophy) has typically been premised on the idea that there already is meaning to life, the purpose of religion/philosophy/the intellectual life being to discover it. Is this true? Is there another sense of ‘meaning’, is there something ‘more’ than the above pursuits?
Meaning in language
Life is not the only thing that (allegedly) has meaning. When you’re learning a new language, and you come across a new word, you ask the teacher what it means. A French teacher might say, ‘chien means dog’; but this just gives you another way of saying the same thing; it doesn’t explain what the meaning is. In cases where there is no direct translation, your teacher might say instead, ‘schadenfreude is pleasure we derive from seeing others’ pain’. That concept is the meaning; it is what we have in mind when we say the word, and is what we intend our listeners to understand when they hear it.
This fact, that you can’t just guess what a new foreign word means, points to an interesting feature of (non-hieroglyphic) languages, which is that the words themselves, either in the way they sound or the way they look on the page, have no relation to the things they refer to (onomatopoeia is a notable exception). So I daresay most readers won’t get anything from these sentences but the beauty of the shapes:
هذا هو الحكم في العربية
આ ગુજરાતી સજા છે
Considered as a set of shapes, the famous Bad Word printed in Ian McEwan’s Atonement is memorably described as ‘Three figures huddling at the foot of the cross’. The prostrated mourners are what the person unfamiliar with the word sees in the new configuration of shapes on the page. Only someone who does know what the word means could insist, as the narrator does, that ‘the word was at one with its meaning’ because of its ‘smooth-hollowed, partly enclosed forms’.
Meaning in art
The Bad Word implies huddled mourners if it is considered as a pictorial depiction or representation, rather than as a sign that is only arbitrarily connected to its meaning. Pictorial representation and other types of art is another domain where we talk about meaning: we say ‘what is this painting telling me?’ or ‘what does this symphony express?’ But we don’t mean quite what we mean when we’re talking about a sentence. (1) If I don’t understand what my friend says, I can ask her for clarification, but whether we should accept what the artist says about his/her work as its definitive meaning is a disputed point. (2) In everyday language, we’re typically trying to be as precise as we can, so that we can be sure our listeners understand us, that we transmit our mental content to them. While our everyday speech attempts to point directly to what we mean, our artworks are less ‘fixed’, more ambiguous; they constitute more a vague gesture toward meaning than a pointed finger.
So at least in the artistic and linguistic context, meaning is to do with the idea that what is present to us is not all that there is; that there is ‘something beyond’, something that, if we want to communicate it, perhaps to conceive of it, we need an intermediary sign to point to or gesture towards it.
Meaning in life
Rolling with this definition of meaning, how might this apply to life? Is there indeed ‘something beyond’ what is immediately apparent to our senses (well in one sense, of course there is – e.g. Australia and atoms)? And if there is something beyond, does it have the relation to its signs that language does, or that a realist painting does? Can we infer the meaning from the sign, or not?
Some ready-made ideas are out there already: (1) Plato thought that part of reality consisted in a non-material world of Forms, such as the Form of brownness or the Form of cat. Material cats and brown things are instantiations of the Form, like the imperfect performances of an opera, each one slightly different. Material cats could be said to ‘point to’ the cat Form because the cat Form is an explanation for their common properties. (2) Or, there is nothing beyond what appears to be the external world. What appears to be material and external to us is an illusion created by our minds. Either the mind is all there is or we cannot have knowledge of anything outside it. (3) Alternatively, some will posit a generic God who lies behind or beyond the material world but has nothing to do with it, and whose characteristics are not inferrable from what we can see of the world (like linguistic signs). (4) A less generic God might be said to influence the world through its will or final causality, and thus events in or features of the world can be traceable back to it and show what it is like (unlike linguistic signs). Something good happened to me, because God. Something bad happened to me, but I overcame the struggle, learnt something new and became a better person in the process, because God. The laws of nature are structured and ordered, because God.
The existential angst I’m sure we’ve all felt at some point springs from a fifth possibility, that the buck really might stop with the material world: there is no soul (form) that will outlive the fleshbags we lug around all day (or that lug us around); my overwhelming temptation to state that ‘I am something’ is the temptation to tell a lie; all my feelings are an illusion. It feels difficult to give full assent to a strong form of materialism (at least to me). Even if we think love, the mind, myself, are acceptable casualties of this view, it seems bold to deny ourselves the existence of, or the possibility of talking about, ‘relations’ (e.g. between two atoms) including causes; or properties; or numbers (lots to debate here!). So our question about the meaning of life could be a question about how materialist we really are: to what extent we think there is ‘something behind’ everyday appearances, to what extent anything other than atoms can be said to exist.
This may not be a question that gives us pause. Perhaps we really don’t care about the meaning of life (i.e. the nature of reality); perhaps we’re happy simply to talk about what we value and what fulfils us. All I’m saying is, don’t let the internet fool you into thinking that, if you quit your corporate job to write a self-help book from a Buddhist monastery in Kazakhstan, suddenly ‘meaning’ will pop out of the woodwork, suddenly you will have ‘solved life’. Anyone can have values and find happiness and fulfilment in furthering those values in the world. Figuring out reality is rather harder. (#readphilosophyinstead)
Footnote: I do think ‘meaning’ has other senses that are not derived from the use of the word in linguistic/artistic context… For example, it could be to do with the idea of ‘mattering’, being important to others (e.g. by being their parent or benefactor or contributing to human knowledge, etc) whether while alive or after death. Or something else.
- This was interesting for the idea that language is ‘endowed with’ meaning by agents (people), and maybe life is too – https://philosophynow.org/issues/35/The_Meaning_of_Life
- Also this could be good 😛 – https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/life-meaning/