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What Is the Meaning of Life?

Person shining light into night sky where hovers the number 42
Original photo by Lanju Fotografie on Unsplash; author has added "42"

It’s a question that’s only asked by characters in a story, by very young minds inquisitive about the world and their potential path in it, and, of course, those of us experiencing existential crises of some variety or another.

However, the question of the meaning of life rarely arises in philosophy classes. Existentialism is an exception, but even then it tends to be obscured by its own struggle with the history of philosophy. To get at a sense of meaning, you need to pass through concepts like the For-itself, Availability, the Seinsfrage, and Transcendence.

This blog doesn’t pretend to be able to offer an answer to the question, but it will endeavor to show the kinds of nuances entailed in trying to do so. And this is important. Because preparation and asking the question in the right way determine the range of potential answers.

You may be interested in the answer only. Who wouldn’t be? Just cut to the chase, give me the meaning and I can get underway.

The problem with this approach is that

  1. it misunderstands what the question is asking; and

  2. it misses the fact that in order to be able to ask the question, we’re drawing on certain conceptual and cultural resources which determine in advance how we might answer.

This last point is rather complex. So let’s build up to it in three steps.

Meaning Is Not a "What"

In an everyday sense, where we relate to things by virtue of the “referring power” of words, we tend to think that for each usage of a key word in some context, there is an object or concrete idea to which that word refers.

“Look at that book!”

The word “book” most likely refers to an object we can identify as a book. The use of words can even refer to the absence of things.

“Look how the library no longer has many books in the shelves!”

What’s important to note about the question “What is the meaning of life?” is that the word “meaning” is not referring to a thing or single idea as an answer to which we can point whenever someone poses the question.

"The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is 42."
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Interestingly, those looking for some kind of assurance tend towards reducing meaning to a thing or single idea, whether it’s the love of a sport or the proselytizing of a specific view. On the account I've begun to sketch, this philosophical maneuver would be an error, or more specifically, a hasty reduction of what "meaning" is in relation to the question.

So how, then, should we understand the word “meaning” in the question?

Meaning as a Placeholder

To be sure, a placeholder is a thing. But at the very least, it is a thing whose content remains to be filled. This allows some flexibility in determining what meaning might be, while at the same time providing some guidance.

We can think of the placeholder as a kind of regulative ideal, an aim we are trying to reach that also “governs” how we act.

As you may have noticed, there is a bit of a circular relation involved in a regulative ideal. We aim at something yet do understand that at which we aim. At the same time, we have to know to some degree what this aim constitutes in order that we can make our way towards it. The aim, as Aristotle might say, draws us from ahead and thus governs our actions to some extent. (For those interested in the history of philosophy, this dual role is captured in two senses of the ancient Greek word we translate into English as "principle", or arche.)

For example:

If I aim at being kind to others, I might have a good sense of what kindness to others involves yet not fully. My actions are drawn ahead by this aim even though I understand that I am not fully “there”, or not fully knowledgeable about that it means to be kind.

If this circular relation to meaning seems problematic, let me try to unpack it a bit more.

Meaning Involves a Virtuous Circle of Investigation

Every cultural and historical tradition offers resources for answering the question. The problem is that as resources they are open to change and challenge. If we were born in the early 20th century, it is likely that a concern about meaning and the environment would not figure into our worldview. Conversely, if we were transplanted in that era we might take for granted the right of women to vote and to be independent (i.e. not property of their husbands).

So, we cannot begin from scratch. We have to start somewhere. We begin with our resources for thinking, valuing, and living. But at the same time, we leave such resources beholden to the placeholder of meaning. Our resources might require being revised as we make our way towards the aim.

One of my favorite philosophers is Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) coined the phrase

"with and for others".

It's actually a key part of his ethical theory and draws on notions of identity, action, and the role of institutions.

We can use this phrase to provide some content to the placeholder of meaning. In other words, think of the phrase "with and for others" as a regulative ideal that directs us in some way and provides some notion of how we might get there.

What's nice about the word "others" is that it is broad. And we can bring non-human animals and nature into the fold our concerns about how we live and interact.

Dog and cat looking at each other through a glass door
Photo by Alexis Chloe on Unsplash

Here's the important feature that makes the circular relation virtuous:

If we find that an aspect of our resources comes under pressure because it fails to recognize others or some other salient feature of the world, then that may be good cause to re-think that aspect of our resources.

This ensures that we stay true to our cultural and historical lineage, yet remain capable of revising, adapting, or even rejecting (but not forgetting!) some aspects of it that we find are no longer suitable.

Let's return to our example of kindness. I go about acting in the world under a guiding notion of what it means to be kind. But at some point, this understanding of kindness may come under pressure. Perhaps someone takes advantage of me.

A self-reflective, critical process ought to happen. I can draw on other resources — other people, other traditions, etc. — to assess and perhaps revise my understanding. As Graeme Forbes points out when drawing broadly on an ancient Greek tradition:

"Kindness is very important; usually it’s something we could do better at . . . . But kindness isn’t a matter of avoiding all confrontation or inviting others to exploit you . . . . Ethics is the project of trying to balance all [the] demands [of responsibility]. So, you need to be kind to other people while still holding them responsible, standing up for what matters, and insisting on being treated with respect."

So let's backtrack a bit.

Is there is an elegant, theoretical way of putting this (if you find theory elegant)? We can say that the placeholder of "with and for others" is part of a virtuous circle of living and reflecting because:

We use our resources to understand the best way to flourish with others (meaning); yet by virtue of committing ourselves to living with others and the world, those very things are that which may put pressure on us to revise our resources.

I think that is what is at stake if we ask the question about meaning in life with the understanding that it’s not just my life, and it’s not just the life of people who are like me. It’s the life of all living things. And if we want to complicate things even further, we can ask to what extent this purview extends to the past and future lives of others.

* * * * *

The circular relation that I’ve tried to articulate above is what is more or less a hermeneutical way of understanding the question. This simply means that we realize we can’t provide an answer to the question from an absolute point of view of knowing. We have to enter into it bit by bit, realizing that our thought begins from a certain view and most likely has to return to that view in order to revise it as we encounter the unfamiliar and others unlike me.

So hopefully, the next time someone asks inn earnest what the meaning of life is, you'll know it's more than "42" and is something like a placeholder or regulative ideal.

About the Author

I'm a former academic philosopher currently researching and writing on a freelance basis. Much of my work features for The Art of the Bubble and 1.2 Labs. You can follow me on Quora and/or Medium. Or, you can read more of my public philosophy blogs on Philosophy2u! When not writing and researching, it's all about wind and water for me (windsurfing and surfing).

This blog and its content are protected under the Creative Commons license and may be used, adapted, or copied without permission of its creator so long as appropriate credit to the creator is given and an indication of any changes made is stated. The blog and its content cannot be used for commercial purposes.

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