The Meaning of Meaning

Following are excerpts from the chapter The Meaning of Life from the book The Big Questions by Robert C. Solomon:

"What is the meaning of life? This is the big question -- the hardest to answer, the most urgent and at the same time the most obscure. Careful thinkers often avoid it, aware that the question is vague, that the meaning of the word 'meaning' itself is ambiguous, that the answers are not always literal truths that can be defended by argument and reason. Yet it is reason that makes an answer possible, and it is reason that makes the question necessary.

The Meaning of Meaning

... First we should ask, what is the meaning of "meaning" in this question? Sometimes, the meaning of something (a sign, a word) is what it refers to, something beyond itself.... Thinking of meaning this way, we would say that the meaning of each our lives is what our individual lives refer to. But what would this be? One might say that each of our lives in some sense refer to other people around us... or one might say that each of our lives refers to the larger community, to the nation, or to humanity as a whole. Or one might say that our lives refer to our Creator, so that the meaning of life is God. But the concept of "reference" becomes stretched very thin here, and one might as well object that a life doesn't refer to anything at all. It just is.

... We can say that particular words and signs refer, but they do so only within the context of a language, a community of shared meanings.... Reference is a contextual affair, and so it is in life, too. The meaning of our particular acts can be explained by reference to goals and conventions... But can we similarly explain the meaning of our whole lives? A rare person does dedicate his or her entire existence to a single goal -- winning the revolution or finding a cure for cancer -- but most people are not so singleminded, and their lives don't have a meaning in this easy-to-define sense. But this doesn't mean that their lives lack meaning. In linguistics, we can ask the meaning of the word "pepino," but we cannot intelligibly ask for the meaning of the whole language. The question "What is the meaning of Spanish?" is nonsense. So, too, we might say, asking for the meaning of life as a whole is nonsense.

... It is worth noting that linguists now insist that meaning must be found within the context of language. A word has meaning not just because of its reference, but more importantly, because of its sense in the language. Thus, we might say, by way of analogy, that the meaning of life is to be found in the context of our lives -- the sense they make and the sense we give to them -- rather than in reference to anything outside of life. Devotion to God answers the question of the meaning of life insofar as one actually lives for God.... Ironically, nihilism -- the view that life has no meaning -- can also provide life with a meaning, if one actually dedicates one's life to the proposition that life has no meaning.

... The question of meaning of life is not one of those questions that require or allow for a specific answer. Indeed, it is more of a metaphor that is required, an image, a vision of life in which you see yourself as having a definite role, a set of reasonable expectations, and -- what makes this so important -- your vision in many ways determines the life you will lead."

Comments

Komal said…
I think when people talk about the 'meaning of life', they are talking about the purpose of it. It's a question of whether there is teleology or not. It's not very well-phrased, but that seems to be the intention.
Komal said…
Something like Aristotle's final cause, applied to humans:

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-causality/