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The Meaning of ‘Meaning’
Stephen Anderson asks what we mean when we ask if existence has a meaning.
In their 1983 film The Meaning of Life, Monty Python took their departing shot at the movie-going public, and simultaneously at philosophical aspirations. With their customary combination of profundity and profanity they systematically skewered the idea that any meaning at all can be derived from the pell-mell absurdity of human life. Tracking Shakespeare’s ‘Seven Ages of Man’, the film derided every scheme by which humankind tries to assign purpose to the universe. It culminated in the following pronouncement:
Lady Presenter: Well, that’s the end of the film. Now, here’s the meaning of life.
[Receives an envelope]
Lady Presenter: Thank you, Brigitte.
[Opens envelope, reads what’s inside]
Lady Presenter: Hmm. Well, it’s nothing very special. Uh, try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations…
If we could take them seriously, it would seem that the meaning of life came down to no more than one or two unctuous platitudes served cold. But of course they didn’t intend us to believe them. Long before the film’s release, they made it clear that despite the promise in the title, there would be no meaning forthcoming. The promotional poster depicts the hand of God using a screwdriver to screw each of the six members of the comedy troupe into the ground. “If we want meaning,” they seem to be saying, “we’re all screwed anyway.”
Perhaps so. Perhaps not. Or perhaps the reason why we are so adrift on the meaning of life has something to do with the terms on which we are seeking it. This intriguing possibility came to me while I was teaching my high school philosophy class. The textbook raised it, but my students took it up with such enthusiasm that they obliged me to dwell on it with them for several classes. I would like to share with you the direction our discussion took, with a view to getting some clarity on the issue – not so much on the ultimate answer, as on the implications of us posing the question in the first place.
The Context of the Question
We were two-thirds the way through a unit on metaphysics when we ran into a chapter bearing the ambitious title ‘A Meaning for Existence’. The text then plunged into the various views on God: Theism, Polytheism, Pantheism, Atheism… This seemed a bit of an arbitrary association, so we paused to question the value of the question of the meaning of life itself, breaking it down it to see if it made any sense, and to see whether or not there was another direction to take on the issue not offered by the text.
In questioning the question, we chose to proceed through analytic rather than synthetic means. For those unfamiliar with this distinction, an analytic procedure asks questions about the meaning of words themselves, trying to see what is assumed in their use. By contrast, a synthetic procedure is one which takes certain basic concepts or their definitions for granted, in order to open up the possibility of generating additional ideas. It sees what the implications are of assuming the initial meanings to be true. In other words, we can say that in analytical statements, the information can be known to be true or false by analysing the meaning of the words in the statement, whereas for synthetic statements we would need to know more than the meaning of the words themselves.
An illustration may help. ‘Apples are red’ is a synthetic judgment, because apples can also be green, or yellow, or brownish, or whatever. On the other hand, when we say ‘Apples are fruit’, we are not attributing to apples a thing which is optional like their particular colour, but rather we are specifying a property intrinsic to the meaning of the word ‘apple’. Thus, the statement ‘Apples are fruit’ is an analytic statement: no one who genuinely understands what we are referring to by the words can avoid conceding that an apple is necessarily a fruit – unless they want to refer to a different concept altogether, such as ‘a picture of an apple’ or an ‘Apple computer’.
To proceed analytically, then, is to discern the definition of the concept itself, not to posit some changeable or contingent quality of it. Thus, analytic judgments are true by definition, as Christine Korsgaard says in her introduction to Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (CUP, 2002). She does not mean that they always lead to perfect truth, but that they expose definitions so that we can see whether they are any good. We can always abandon a concept we’ve been using if analysis shows it to be incoherent. Synthetic statements are always inherently questionable, since they add aspects or characteristics to a concept that are not necessarily inherent in it.
The Question of Meaning
What my students were interested in was whether or not there was a meaningful sense in which we could ask, ‘Does existence have any meaning?’ – if there was any sense in which we could talk about life having a meaning: their lives, my life, all human lives, and ultimately, the ‘life’ of the universe itself, perhaps. That is to say, they wanted to know if they were reasonable to hope that their lives might be governed by some purpose or fundamental justification.
While I might fairly easily have found a way to deflect my students, I chose instead to honour their curiosity. So we embarked on our analysis of the meaning of meaning, asking ourselves what someone could expect when he or she supposes that life could have a meaning, and what sort of answer would respect his or her aspirations.
Meaning Beyond Personal Existence
Pretty quickly, we arrived at a basic conclusion: that whatever the answer was, it would have to be something intelligible. We decided that to refer to inarticulable feelings and impressions as a basis of meaning made no sense. A person might have such things, to be sure, and they might be a source of considerable personal satisfaction; but they seemed to us to fall far short of what we were expecting of a meaning to life, since they could be experienced without the experiencer being able to say anything at all about them. We decided, then, that meaning implied some sort of rational predication about life: that meaning meant this or meant that, not merely that it ‘felt good’.
This proved to be a very important step. There’s plenty of talk about life having a meaning which is bound up with wholly private experiences: but we decided that such talk has to be nonsense. It abuses the word ‘meaning’, since that word entails some property of life which can be made intelligible, even if only to the person him or herself. If nonsense syllables or irrational sensations are all there could be, then it seemed to us that the concept of meaning was itself simply out of court.
Granting this basic step immediately produced a cascade of further insights. We quickly decided that this also meant that a meaning for life had to be renderable as a grammatically-complete statement. It had to be something articulable, if only as an internal monologue. But if it had to be articulable privately, it seemed impossible to see why it could not be articulated outwardly, to the rational satisfaction or dissatisfaction of an external listener. In other words, it seemed unavoidable to us that anyone who has a real meaning for life should be able to tell not only him or herself what it is, but should be able to express it to others. But in that case it seemed impossible to see that other people should remain incapable of understanding (and even perhaps of sharing) one’s private, intelligible judgment about the meaning of life. To summarize, when one answers the question ‘What is the meaning of life?’ then people should be able to understand what one is saying, and be capable of making their own rational judgments about it. In fact, if I should privately have a meaning for existence, but find that every time I try to articulate it I simply baffle all listeners, this seems as good a reason as any for me to reconsider whether what I have is a meaning. After all, the fault might not be with them – it might be the best reason to suspect that I had located no real meaning at all. In any case, my students would never have let me off with such a feint.
Meaning Beyond Social Existence
At that point, we could see that a proper answer to the meaning of life question would be something everyone who could understand language could at least in principle understand (whether they chose to agree with it or not). This is how communities of people get attached to particular meanings for existence, when they discuss it with each other, developing the philosophical implications of their answer. In fact, that looked very much like what philosophers always do. So far, so good.
But does the matter rest there? If it does, it would seem that asking “Does existence have a meaning?” would be equivalent to asking, “Do communities of persons have shared meanings for existence?” Of course, they do: but so what? We’re asking a question about existence, or perhaps life. To say that different people hold different views merely seemed to beg the question “Views of what?” In other words, it’s not enough to simply note that different communities have different views. We observe that communities committed to particular answers to the question of the meaning of life get into debates with other communities. We could ask, “What are they arguing about?”
This led us to a new question: does meaning have to exist prior to our discovery of it, or could it be in some sense constructed – a product of personal reflection and social consensus? We decided that if it were the latter, it would be very hard to see how intercommunal discourse on the subject would be profitable, or even possible. Would it not then be true, as our postmoderns love to affirm, that different communities of meaning would be locked into their own rational spaces, incapable of meaningful communication with rival communities? If so, it would be expedient to the collective peace that we eliminate the meaning question from public debate and simply agree to disagree. Moreover, if we were to suppose that any of these strictly culturally-relative meanings were legitimate, how would we establish their legitimacy in the absence of reference to any universal, objective axioms? But if we were to suppose that meaning does exist independently of the community, and that different philosophical communities are actually attempting to approximate to the same pre-existing, overarching meaning, then it would be unreasonable to ask them to quit debating the meaning of existence, and we would believe there to be, at least in principle, some means of judging between them.
Well, philosophical and religious communities of meaning certainly seem to think they can debate each other: but that is merely an empirical observation, not an analytic judgment on the meaning of meaning. More importantly, to merely say, “Different communities have different views” would have been patronizing and unhelpful. My students already knew that. They could remind me that the various communities holding to different views of ultimate meaning seem to feel pretty strongly that something bigger is at stake. They could also accuse me of evading a major analytical implication of their question – namely that the concept ‘meaning’ here referred to existence itself, not simply to any contingent communities.
In other words, it seemed clear there was no way to do justice to the question “Does existence have a meaning?” without understanding ‘existence’ to imply some sort of universal meaning. Moreover, it would not be enough if this universal meaning were merely a product of human judgment, even if we could ever get the entire human race to agree on it, since a meaning accepted by the entire human race might be as arbitrary as a meaning propounded by an individual or a limited community. Nothing in the increase of numbers of an idea’s adherents guarantees its infallibility. In fact, it could be the case that there is no meaning to the universe at all, and that all ‘meanings’ are merely fictions by which we keep ourselves from facing the abyss.
Their real question, then, was whether there is an independent, objective meaning to existence, not merely a universally-held attribution of meaning. The implications of this would be significant. Say goodbye to the Existentialist account of the meaning of existence, along with the Constructionist view and the Cultural Relativist view. All such answers are dismissals of the idea of an objective, ultimate meaning. They would now only be different responses to the human need to invent some kind of meaning for an existence which, objectively, is random and meaningless. The question then is whether there exists a prior meaning to be discovered, not whether people happen to like imagining meanings for existence.
Meaning Beyond Universal Existence
But the issue of ‘ontological priority’ (existing beforehand and independently) implicit in the question raised a final difficult issue. We had not yet observed a very important analytic feature of the word meaning: it implies intention – someone has to mean something for something to have meaning. Or, for something to have a meaning there must be a ‘meaner’. But who or what could do the intending in the way required?
It couldn’t be inanimate forces. We do not correctly say, “The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 meant to destroy the city” even though that was its effect. Likewise, we cannot rightly say, “Chance meant for us to become the sorts of people we are today,” even though we have become what we are. These are mere anthropomorphisms, which assign intentions to things which cannot possibly have them.
No, only intelligent agents can intend: purpose and personality go together. Yet we have already seen that personhood is not enough by itself to generate ultimate meaning, since this is not the meaning of a private life or of a specific community, but of existence as a whole. That rules out all contingent beings – all humans. Furthermore, the existence of the human race is one of the things the answer is supposed to explain. For if we are looking for the meaning of existence as a whole, that includes everything that exists, and in particular, humanity. What is the meaning of the existence of the human race? Why is it here? Such questions imply a purpose enacted in the creation of the species itself. But obviously, the species did not create itself, nor did it ‘intend’ anything by appearing on the planet. Therefore, whatever ‘meanings’ the human species may invent to lend a sense of meaning to its existence can be no more than comfortable imaginings: either there was Someone who ‘meant’ something in generating the human race, or our genesis was purely accidental, and hence devoid of any ontologically-prior meaning. So answers to the question which depend solely on human beings are unavoidably inadequate.
It seemed inescapable that in order for the question to keep its intelligibility it had to imply a Person of universal scope – one capable of meaning something by there being existence at all. At this point we could see why the writers of our metaphysics textbook had felt compelled to open with questions about the existence or non-existence of the Divine Being. Their choice of subject matter wasn’t arbitrary: the question they had framed in the first place, the question that my class had taken up, had forced their hand. The assumptions in the question gave them nowhere else to go.
The question ‘Does existence have a meaning?’ forces us to respond to it in a particular way. The response will have to be articulable and communicable, the sort of grammatically-complete proposition that could be understood and debated by rational others. Thus it requires us to respond in intelligible sentences, predicating something meaningful of existence. It requires reference to a universal, personal, intentional agent ontologically prior to [i.e., existing before and independent of] the referent of the word ‘existence’. In other words, it can only be answered with reference to some sort of Supreme Being.
Meaning as Unintelligible
Having analyzed the question to the point of understanding its implications, we were now in a position to make a better judgment about its legitimacy. We could ask, “Are we well-advised to ask ‘Is there a meaning for existence?’”
Now nothing we had derived so far from our conceptual analysis showed that the question was legitimate. The question might necessarily assume all the criteria we had derived for it – intelligibility, articulability, and so on, and even the existence of a Supreme Being – yet this goes not one step towards proving that the question is intelligible.
Quite so. Perhaps there is no such meaning. Perhaps the people who pose the question simply fail to recognize the radical contingency of the universe, and the impossibility of meaning entailed by naturalism (i.e., the idea that there’s no supernatural being). Perhaps absolute-meaning seekers are caught up in a delusion, and cannot see that they are irrationally presupposing the cogency of their request, when no such meaning could possibly exist. We cannot rationally expect meaning to come from random collocations of hydrogen and helium, or quark-gluon plasma, or to ask what the Big Bang ‘intended’; thus any meaning attributed to existence must surely be an imposition after the fact.
To respond this way is an option which squares well with naturalist or materialist perspectives. But if we do this, then we now have to drop the concept of objective meaning altogether, for it has now been exposed as a delusion. To be fair, I have never met a philosopher of this stripe who did not ‘taxicab’ his or her belief system, taking it only so far as was comfortable, then bailing out when its full implications loomed. For, as Joel Marks has previously cogently argued in this magazine, thoroughgoing naturalism argues not only for the elimination from the universe of all meanings other than those arbitrarily assigned after the fact, but also for the abolition of objective morality as well. This appears to be too much for most people to entertain, and we may all be very thankful that naturalists and materialists are usually much better people than the consequences of their own worldviews warrant them to be.
If a meaning for existence is an unintelligible concept, then how are we to avoid despair? One way is to heap scorn on the question, making an exhibition of our intellectual superiority. The risk here, of course, is that bright people will see through the ruse and call us to account for our certainty; and even those who do not see the bluff will feel personally insulted. Or, we might claim that although we live in a purely naturalistic universe there is a meaning for existence – except that we don’t happen to know what it is. That might help us to avoid despair, but our listeners would surely wonder how we could possibly know about what we were simultaneously confessing not to know about. Finally, pretending that the question doesn’t really matter is not terribly likely to work, for the question articulates one of the longest-standing concerns of humanity and has an august pedigree in philosophy. So what to do with it?
For those readers who still wish to ask, ‘Is there a meaning to existence?’, the upshot is this: we cannot even ask that question without granting that the answer must be rendered as an intelligible proposition of the sort that others can comprehend and discuss. An answer that is claimed by one person but not intelligible to anyone else will not qualify as a meaning. Neither will an answer that, although intelligible to one ‘community of meaning’, fails to be intelligible in a more general discourse. In other words, it will not be enough to say, “The meaning of existence is different things,” because that fails to be a meaning of existence. The answer must be universal. Because of this, the meaning must also pre-exist the other things it applies to. And it must also account for the intention inherent in the concept of meaning.
For those who remain skeptical about the foregoing analysis, I invite you to join the game. You have read the steps of analysis my class and I followed: I invite you to examine the logical steps we took and the criteria we decided were analytically necessary. Consider if any of these were actually synthetic judgments, or if we missed some additional criterion that ought to be attributed to meaning. Show how the question can be tendered on any other set of suppositions than those we discovered.
There is more to be done with the question itself, of course. Our conceptual analysis does not even attempt to unpack what specific ‘meanings’ can be posited for the ‘meaning of existence’, or to evaluate the relative compatibility with meaning of the various Supreme Being views on offer. However, it is my hope that we now have incentive to further debate.
© Dr Stephen L. Anderson 2012
Stephen Anderson finds new meaning daily in his conversations with his high school philosophy classes in London, Ontario.