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The Search for Meaning

by Rick Lewis

A famous parable dating back to ancient India involves some blind monks encountering an elephant. The monks each touch just one part of the elephant, and afterwards they compare notes. One declares that the creature feels like a snake, another that it has a shape like a tree trunk and so on. Like many parables, you can interpret it in different ways, but it seems to be saying that even for something that is an objectively real part of the world, like an elephant, it is possible to have different subjective views of it, all of which may be valid.

It is hard enough to obtain consensus when the question is just about something’s shape. It is harder still when the question is about what something means. This issue of Philosophy Now has as its theme the search for meaning.

This ‘search for meaning’ could just be about making sense of the world in general. This is the task of much philosophy, and much science too. Alternatively, it could be asking about the meaning of our lives, either as a whole or of the different activities and projects within them. Why do any of us make the effort to get out of bed? It can be for some exalted cause like world peace or fighting injustice. It can be some mundane and immediate cause like a desire for some toast or the need to go to work. The fact that you do get out of bed shows there are things in your life motivating you to do so, whether they are consciously articulated or not. “What does it all mean?” is a very fruitful philosophical question, as is the question“Why bother?”

The articles in our theme section explore various aspects of meaning, especially to do with the meaning of life. Between them they deal with some of the central concerns that bring people to study philosophy in the first place. For example, Jim Mepham explains what various thinkers have had to say about the nature of a good life. Rob Glacier asks if happiness can only be found in the present moment – and in doing so ends up in a fascinating discussion of the nature of time according to Heidegger. Michael Allen Fox asks what life is worth, which is certainly connected with meaning. Georgia Arkell compares the insights of Holocaust survivor and psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl with those of existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre (see this month’s Existential Comics cartoon strip too!). Patrick Testa also considers Frankl’s philosophy, but with particular regard to meaning in the face of suffering, something Frankl knew a thing or two about. Sometimes life is great, full of good company, good health, prosperity, love and light. Sometimes it definitely is not. And sometimes people have everything, and yet are still miserable. What does keep some people going even in the worst of times, marching stoically on amidst life’s most desperate struggles? Finally Ruben David Azevedo confronts a worry many have – that their lives are meaningless because they are so unimaginably brief and tiny compared to the vast, majestic scale of the Universe.

In his 1976 British Academy lecture ‘Truth, Invention, and the Meaning of Life’, David Wiggins claimed that “philosophy has put happiness in the place that should have been occupied in moral philosophy by meaning.” Even so, analytic philosophers in the mid 20th century were wary of questions about meaning – particularly about the meaning of life – partly because they felt that these questions were unclear and confused. Part of the problem seems to be that people use the word ‘meaning’ in several ways, and it isn’t always clear from the context which they have in mind. It seems to me that the word ‘meaning’ has at least three different meanings itself. Firstly it can be about what something denotes. Think of the archaeologist scratching her head over some tricky inscription and asking “What does it mean?” Secondly there is meaning as purpose. “What is this meant to do?” Thirdly, there is meaning as importance, as in “this means a lot to me.” A statement about what something denotes might be objectively true or false – perhaps only one interpretation of that archaeological inscription is correct. By contrast, both the purpose and the importance of something can be very much related to the values and the aspirations of the beholder – very subjective, in other words. And if you are asking about the meaning of life, all three uses of the word ‘meaning’ can make sense. You see what a tangle it can become?

In any case, we all need our lives to add up to something. We need to know that we are making a difference, and even if we aren’t pharaohs planning pyramids, perhaps we hope that something we have created or cared about will live on after we are gone. Daniel Dennett, that genial colossus of cogitation who sadly passed away in April, wrote something about meaning and happiness that is quoted at the start of his obituary in this issue: “The secret of happiness is: Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.”

Our brilliant front cover artist, Alex, drew the blind monks as blind mice instead – perhaps because mice are cuter. But maybe those mice are also monks? Who knows? In any case, I hope we can agree that ‘meaning’ is the elephant in the room.

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