|The Meaning of “Meaning”
© Stephen L. Anderson 2011.
In their 1983 film finale, The Meaning of Life, the Monty Python comedy group took their departing shot at the movie-going public, and simultaneously, at general philosophical aspirations as well. With their customary combination of profundity and profanity they systematically skewered the supposition that any “meaning” at all can be derived from the pell-mell absurdity of human life. Roughly tracking Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man,” the film derided one scheme after another 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: M-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, then 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 even that far. Long before the film’s release, they made it clear that despite the promise in the title, there would be no “meaning” forthcoming. The official promotional poster depicted the Hand of God using a screwdriver literally to screw each of the six members of the troupe into the ground. “If we want meaning,” they seemed 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 pause and dwell on it with them for several classes. I would like to take this opportunity 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.
A Context for the Question
But first some context: 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 a series of categorizations of the various views on God: Theism, Deism, Pantheism, Panentheism, Atheism, and so on. This seemed a bit arbitrary, so rather than simply accepting the terms handed to us, we focused a little further on the question itself, trying to think about what it implied, and whether or not there was another direction not offered by the text.
Another way of explaining this is to say that we chose to proceed through analytic rather than synthetic means. For those unfamiliar with the distinction, perhaps I can explain a bit. An “analytic” procedure asks questions about the meaning of words themselves, trying to see what is assumed already when one adopts a particular premise or frames a particular question. In contrast, a “synthetic” procedure is one which takes certain basic concepts or definitions for granted, in order to open up the possibility of generating additional premises. As Christine Korsgaard puts it “a judgment is analytic if the predicate is contained in the concept of the subject.” On the other hand, if the predicate adds something more than is generally recognized as existing in the subject, then what we are making is a “synthetic” judgment or distinction.
An illustration may help. We may say “Apples are red,” but this is only 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 colour, but rather we are specifying a property intrinsic to the concept of “apple” itself. No one who genuinely understands what we are referring to by “apple” can avoid conceding it’s necessarily a fruit – unless he or she wants to refer to a different concept altogether, such as “a picture of an apple” or an “Apple computer.” Thus, the statement that “Apples are fruit” is an analytic statement.
To proceed analytically, then, is to declare the unavoidable definition of the concept itself, not to posit some changeable quality of it. Synthetic statements are always inherently questionable, since they add judgments to a concept that are not necessarily inherent in it; but analytic judgments involve only explaining the precise definition of a concept itself. Thus, Korsgaard says, analytic judgments are “true by definition.”
Now, this does not mean that they always lead to uncontrovertable Truth (In fact, a possible outcome of analytic judgments is that we may find our received concepts to be unreliable, unwarranted or unrealistic; indeed, this is a common outcome of the method.) But because analytic judgments involve only definitions, they force us to a decision: either we continue believing in a given concept, accepting the conceptual ‘baggage’ entailed by it, or else we reform the concept, or we abandon it altogether.
The Question of Meaning
But enough of the preliminaries. 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?” It wasn’t hard to discern that they were not asking the ontological question, “Do material objects, mental properties, abstract entities, and so on really exist?” or the scientific question “Why does something exist rather than nothing?” To be sure, these are good philosophical questions, but they were not the focus of their concern. What they wanted to know is 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. Their question was really something closer to what Monty Python famously lampooned: they wanted to know if they were reasonable to hope that their own lives might be governed by some purpose or justification, and perhaps that at the end of it all they might have reason to suppose they had, in some sense, “lived well.”
While I might fairly easily have found a way to deflect my class into some more abstract and less contentious question, I was determined to honour my students for asking it. So we embarked on our analysis of the meaning of “meaning.” We began to ask ourselves what a person could expect when he or she supposes that life could have a “meaning,” and what sort of answer would be respectful of his or her aspirations.
Meaning Beyond Personal Existence
Pretty quickly, we arrived at a basic conclusion: whatever the answer was, we decided that it would have to be something intelligible. That is, we did not think that to refer to inarticulable feelings and impressions as a basis of “meaning” made any 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 in raising the question of “meaning,” since they could be experienced without the experiencer being able to say anything at all about them. We decided, then, that “meaning” meant some sort of rational predication about life – that it meant this or meant that – not merely that it “felt good” to some individual.
This proved to be a very important step. There is plenty of talk in our day about life having a “meaning” which is bound up with personal feelings and wholly private experiences: but we decided that such talk has to be nonsense. It abuses the word “meaning,” since that word entails the predication of some property of life which can be made intelligible, even if only to the private person him or herself. Thus, we did not think that a supposed “meaning for existence” framed only in nonsense syllables or referring to irrational sensations was capable of corresponding to the question. If that is all there could be, then it seemed to us that the concept of “meaning” itself was simply out of court.
But granting this basic step immediately issued in a cascade of further judgments. We quickly decided that this also meant that a “meaning” for life had to be rendered as a grammatically-complete statement. It had to be something articulable, if only within the internal monologue of the private person him or herself. But then, 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 not only be able to tell him or herself what it is, but should be able to express it to other people. But then it seemed impossible to see why other people should remain incapable of understanding and even perhaps of sharing one’s private, intelligible judgment about the meaning of life. So it had to be, at least potentially, communicable and shareable as well as intelligible.
We summarized this as follows: when one answered the question “What is the meaning of existence?” then people should understand what one is saying, and be capable of making their own rational judgments about that. Far from being a matter of private judgment, then, the “meaning of life,” if such a thing exists, must be the sort of thing one can share, and a community can understand, discuss or debate. In fact, if I should privately have a “meaning” for existence, but find that every time I try to articulate or explain 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.” Common sense suggests that if all rational others are permanently incapable of grasping my point, then the fault might not, after all, be with them. Perhaps to say that my “meaning” was inherently universally incomprehensible would 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 smoke-and-mirrors, so we were obliged to press on. We had arrived, then, at a point where we could see that a “meaning for existence” had to be something intelligible, and not merely intelligible to the private person but also potentially articulable in rational terms to other persons, and thus capable of communal concern. A proper answer to the “meaning of life” question would be something everyone could (whether they chose to agree with it or not) at least in principle understand. This would explain why communities of people get attached to particular “meanings for existence” which they can discuss with each other, perhaps even extending and developing the philosophical implications of their answer in doing so. In fact, that looked very much like what philosophers always do. So far, so good.
Meaning Beyond Social Existence
But does the matter rest there? If it does, it would seem that what we meaning in asking “Does existence have a meaning?’ would be roughly equivalent to asking, “Do communities of persons have shared ‘meanings’ for existence?” Of course, empirically speaking, we can observe that they have: but so what? This realization didn’t seem enough to terminate our question, and a little thought showed us why. We were trying to ask a question about “existence,” or perhaps “life.” To say that different people hold different views merely seemed to beg the question “Of what?” Empirically, we can again observe that communities of persons committed to particular answers to the question get into debates with other communities: we could ask, “What are they arguing about?”
This led us to an additional important question: does “meaning” have to be ontologically prior to our discovery of it, or could it be in some sense constructed, a derivative product of personal reflection and/or social consensus? We decided that if it were the latter, it would be very hard to see how inter-communal discourse on the subject would be profitable, or even possible. It seemed to us that it would then be true, as so many of our ‘postmoderns’ love to affirm, that different “communities of meaning” would be locked into their own rational space, incapable of pursuing intelligent discourse with rival “communities of meaning.” And if so, it would be pretty important to the collective peace that we eliminate the “meaning” question from public debate, and simply “agree to disagree” peacefully. Even more importantly, if we were to suppose that any of these culturally-relative “meanings” were legitimate, how would we establish their legitimacy in the absence of reference to any external, universal axioms? On the other hand, if we were to suppose that “meaning” is ontologically prior to the community, and that different philosophical communities are actually attempting to approximate a pre-existing, overarching “meaning,” then the landscape would be different. Then it would be unreasonable to ask them to quit discussing and exchanging their reasoning about the meaning of existence, and we would have, at least in principle, some means of judging between them.
Well, empirically speaking, philosophical and religious “communities of meaning” certainly seem to behave like they think they can keep up a running debate on the subject; but again, that was a merely empirical observation, not an analytic judgment. More importantly, I could not see how my students could feel satisfied if I answered that way. To say, “Different communities have different views” seemed not only patronizing, but also thoroughly unhelpful. My students already knew what communities do. They did not need me to tell them, and it’s doubtful they’d have raised the question in the first place if they thought I’d simply slough it off by pleading cultural relativism. They could rightly point out that the various “communities” holding to different views of the meaning of existence are not happy to leave it there, and that they seem to feel pretty strongly that something much bigger is at stake. Worse still, my students could point out that I was evading a major analytical implication of their question, namely that the concept “meaning” here referred to “existence” itself, not merely to any provisional or contingent state of local communities. They could rightly call me for bailing out.
In other words, it seemed clear there was no way to honour the terms specified in their question without understanding “existence” to imply some sort of truly universal meaning. It would not be enough if this “universal” meaning were simply a product of human judgment, even if we could ever get the entire human race to agree on it because, of course, it is not impossible for the entire human race to be wrong. Nothing in the increase of numbers of adherents guarantees the infallibility of a belief: a meaning accepted by the entire human race might be as arbitrary as a meaning propounded by only one person. In fact, it could be the case that there is no meaning to the universe at all – that it is the product of nothing but impersonal, accidental processes – and that all so-called “meanings” are merely fictions by which we keep ourselves from facing the abyss.
So what my students were really asking with their question is whether there is an ontologically-prior meaning to existence, not merely a universally-held attribution of meaning. The “meaning,” whatever it was, would have to have come to exist prior to the existence of its referent, whatever we might take that to be. The implication 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. The condemnation it would place on all such answers would be that they all dismiss the idea of an ultimate, prior meaning, opting instead for the comparatively trivial observation that human beings seem to feel the need of to imagine or impose some kind of artificial semblance of meaning on an existence which is, in its deepest nature, ultimately random and meaningless. In short, the question was whether there existed a prior meaning to be discovered, not whether or not people happen to like to imagine meanings for existence.
Meaning Beyond Universal Existence
But this issue of the ontologically-prior implicit in their 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.” But who or what could “intend” in the way required? Intention cannot be attributed to inanimate forces. We do not say, “The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 meant to destroy the city,” even though that was its effect. Likewise, we cannot say, “Chance meant for us to become the sorts of people we are today,” even though that’s what we are. Surely all such claims are mere anthropomorphisms. To attribute meaning to random events may make for good literature, but it makes for lousy philosophy, because it assigns intentionality to things which cannot possibly have it.
No, only intelligent agents can intend: purpose and personality go together. In order for something to have a “meaning” there must be a “meaner.” Yet we have already seen that not all persons are adequate candidates for generating such a “meaning,” since it is not being predicated of a private life or of a specific community, but of “existence” in toto. That rules out all private persons as determinants of their own “meaning,” and in the same stroke rules out all of their particular “communities of meaning,” as all of these are contingent beings who have come to exist prior to any determination of their own. Furthermore, as we have already seen, the phrase “of existence” in the original question presupposes something prior to the existence of any and all particular persons, and the existence of such persons is one of the things that it is supposed to explain. Thus no answer that merely cites the “meanings” chosen by specific persons or communities can avoid circularity.
It seemed inescapable that in order for my students’ question to keep its intelligibility it had to be taken to refer to a person of universal scope, one capable of “meaning” something by the generation of “existence.” At this point we were able to see why the writers of our textbook had felt compelled to open with questions about the existence or non-existence of the Divine Being, and we realized that the writers’ choice of subject matter was less arbitrary than we had first supposed. It was really the question they had framed in the first place, the question that my class had taken up, that had forced their hand. Given the assumptions analytic to the question, there was nowhere else for their discussion to go.
Now, having analyzed the question to the point of understanding its implications, we were in a position to make a better judgment about its legitimacy in the first place. We could ask, “Are we well-advised to ask ‘Is there a meaning for existence?’” The answer turns out to depend on what we already believe about the nature of the reality in which we exist. For the question itself forces us to respond in a particular way. It requires us to respond in an intelligible sentence, predicating something meaningful of existence. The response will have to be articulable and communicable, the sort of grammatically-complete proposition that could be understood and debated by rational others. It will require reference to a universal, personal, intentional agent ontologically prior to the referent in the word “existence.” In other words, it can only be answered with reference to some sort of Divine Being.
Meaning as Unintelligible
Now, let it be said here that nothing we had derived so far from our conceptual analysis showed that the question was legitimate in the first place. It could indeed be the case that the question, “Is there a meaning for existence?” necessarily assumes all the criteria we had derived for it – intelligibility, articulability, and so on, and even the existence of a Divine Being – but even so, this goes not one step in the direction of proving that the question itself is intelligible. Quite so. We would have to concede that there is another option. Perhaps there is no such “meaning.” Perhaps the people who ask such a question, including my students, simply have failed to recognize the radical contingency of the universe, and the impossibility of meaning entailed by naturalism. Perhaps they are simply caught up in a self-reinforcing collective delusion, ant thus cannot see that they are irrationally presupposing the cogency of their request, whereas no such “meaning” could possibly exist. It seems quite nonsensical to expect “meaning” 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. Perhaps the thing to do is to debunk the question rather than to attempt to answer it.
But if this is the case, then we now have to drop the concept of “meaning” altogether; for it has now been exposed as a delusion, and it is highly doubtful that we are safe to think that cultivating delusions regarding the true nature of reality is ever really adaptive or beneficial in the long run. Of course, dropping “meaning” is a very real option. Epistemological naturalism, or secular materialism, if you prefer it, surely argue for that solution; though I have never personally met a naturalist or materialist who did not find it expedient to ‘taxicab’ his or her belief system, taking it only so far as was comfortable, then bailing out when its full implications loomed on the horizon. For, as Joel Marks has cogently argued in this very 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 the abolition of the concept of “morality” as well; and in practice, this appears to be too much for a decent person even to entertain. (Though it is impossible to see why, on the basis of strictly naturalistic suppositions, such a statement should prove offensive, I suspect it is very likely to be just that. Nevertheless, we may all be very thankful that naturalists and materialists are themselves usually much better people than the consequences of their own worldviews will warrant them in being.)
But if “meaning” is really an unintelligible concept as it applies to existence, or life, or the universe more generally, then how are we to respond to a question such as that posed by my students without counseling despair? One way, of course, is to Monty Python our way out of it: we could heap scorn on the question itself perhaps making an exhibition of our intellectual superiority as “knowing fellas.” The risk, of course, is that bright students will see through the ruse, and will call us to account for our certainty, and that even those who are not immediately aware of the bluff will feel personally insulted. Another strategy might be to claim that though we live in a purely naturalistic universe there is a meaning for existence – however, we don’t happen to know what it is. That might help us to avoid counseling despair, but ultimately it seems even less satisfactory than the first option, as our listeners would surely wonder how we could possibly claim to “know” what we were simultaneously confessing we do not “know.” Finally, pretending that the question hasn’t been asked or that it doesn’t really matter is not terribly likely to work. Not only does it articulate one of the longest-standing concerns of the human community at large, it also has an august pedigree in philosophy. But what to do with it?
For those readers who still wish to ask the question, “Is there a meaning for existence?” the upshot is this: we cannot even ask that question without first granting that the answer will 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” at all. Neither will an answer that, while intelligible to one “community of meaning,” fails to register as intelligible in a more general discourse on meaning. 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, it must also be such that it pre-exists the existence of the other things it defines. And it must also account for the implication of intentionality inherent in the concept of “meaning.”
For those who remain skeptical about the foregoing conceptual analysis, I invite you to join the game. Before you, you have the steps of analysis my class and I followed: I invite you to prove us wrong. Examine the logical steps we took and the criteria we decided were analytically necessary. Pick it apart, and see 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. I eagerly await your responses.
There is also more to be done with the question itself, of course. The foregoing conceptual analysis does not even attempt to unpack the issue of what specific “meanings” can be posited for the “meaning of existence” question, 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.
© Stephen L. Anderson, PhD. 2011. A version of this article was first published in Philosophy Now 88, Jan. / Feb. 2012.
“Dr. Anderson finds new meaning daily in his conversations with the talented students of his high school Philosophy classes in London, Ontario, Canada.”