|Cueva de las Manos, Argentina|
The title of one of Thomas Nagel's popular books reads at first sight like a question to be answered: 'What Does It All Mean?' But the word 'All' has undertones of something more perverse. I wrote to Professor Nagel that, as one turns the pages, the meaning of the title seems to turn into to a cry of despair. Yes, he replied, I had recognised the double entendre.For many people, a lack of meaning is no slight problem. Some experience it as a living death, while others would rather die than surrender their meaning. At the same time, there has been a curious retreat of meaning in our day. It now lies beyond the interest of many people – even, sometimes, beyond the interest of dictionaries of philosophy. Historically, however, it has been an important philosophical question.
What is meaning? There are many kinds of meaning: existential meaning, psychological meaning, linguistic meaning, semiotic meaning, and various meanings besides. There is, too, a classic book on the subject: The Meaning of Meaning. The professor of philosophy Gilbert Harman notes that, in the theory of language, meaning can mean three things: the place which an expression has in the language, the thought which it communicates, and that for which it is used.
One may say much the same about the meaning of life. One's meaning is about finding one's place in the universe, bringing one's own self to full expression, and achieving one's goals and purpose. All three, in fact, are aspects of one and the same: I experience meaning when I know and feel my place in the big, wide whole – in the context of everything. Aristotle noted, 'Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life – the whole aim and end of human existence.' We may note his emphasis on 'the whole'. The meaning of life is not partial. Rather, it encompasses everything.
What, then, is 'the whole' of it? It has been the tragic tale of countless people, that they held a meaning which was later exposed as being only partial – in fact, was found to hold no real meaning at all. They found their meaning in a cause which was destroyed, in a relationship which ended, even in things which later proved to be ruinous.
Some philosophers suggest that there may be no real problem with that. The professor of philosophy Thomas Nagel writes, 'Perhaps the trick is to keep your eyes on what's in front of you.' The fleeting meanings of the moment are all that we need – we just shouldn't think on it too hard. This may seem to have some appeal, except for two reasons: we sense that meaning is not something we should ever lose – it ought to be timeless, absolute, not a victim of the vagaries of life. But more than this, if meaning is partial or fleeting, we may bring others into bondage to our own petty meanings (of which more in a moment).
MEANING IS MORE
Meaning may be found in many things: in a lover, a family, an ambition, a culture. Various ideas, too, may play a focal role in our lives: economics, social evolution, science, or politics. And this gives us a clue as to what we do when we find a meaning. We find it within the systems we create. Consider for a moment that this universe is, in the words of the Buddhist expositor Lama Govinda, an inseparable net of endless, mutually conditioned relations'. It is, in a sense, beyond all systems – so our systems of meaning may be understood to be 'regions of relations' within this infinite expanse.
But now, a problem arises. If we step outside of our 'regions of relations', our meanings will evaporate. There is no meaning outside the system. All is well while I measure my meaning, say, by the well-being of the roses in my garden. Yet if I step outside of this, to ask what life is about beyond it, I find no answer. Until, that is, I find a new and a bigger answer.
It is a fundamental feature of meaning, then, that it always requires something more. It always requires something which lies outside of my given system of meaning. Every closed system can be imagined to be larger. The entrepreneur Adam Toren gives us this timely reminder about meaning: 'It is bigger than this!'
Seen like this, we may call our quest for meaning an infinite progression. It must be more, and more, and more. And as the horizons of our systems of meaning expand, so we come to realise that, ultimately, meaning must be unbounded. Ultimately, meaning is found in the 'infinite expanse' – without those constructions which confine it and reduce it to mere 'regions of relations'. Ultimate meaning only reveals itself to me where systems of meaning are destroyed. Meaning is found, in an important sense, only where the quest for meaning is abandoned – or perhaps one should say, fulfilled.
This, presumably, is why the 'larger' meanings of our world have such an allure: they incorporate our smaller meanings, which fail to answer our search for 'more'. Larger meanings are systems which lie outside of the confines of our own muddling purposes. This is why a Napoleon, or a Hitler, or a Stalin can exist. They offer a meaning which is more.
Or a God. However, God may be understood not only as the guarantor of my own system of meaning – 'God told me to do it,' or 'I was obeying God' – but God may be seen as the purpose beyond all purposes, before whom all contrived meanings dissolve. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote, 'God is being-itself, not a being.' God is not entangled with our own small designs.
THE LOSS OF MEANING
Destiny, culture, ideology are schemes of meaning so large that one can barely imagine anything larger, that might lie outside of them or beyond them. Not even famine or war or genocide may defeat such systems, so large may they become. This presents us with a sobering thought on the 'more' of meaning. If our meaning is not to be found in the whole of the infinite expanse of relations, or in something which transcends our meaning, our meaning may well lead to disaster.
There are other dangers which lie in a loss of a larger meaning. More than anything, my own loss of meaning may reduce the meaning of others. One is able to view others only in terms of the meaning – the 'regions of relations' – which one has traced for oneself in this world. This means that everything, and everyone, must be understood in terms of my own meaning.
When a woman becomes a student of sociology, she may comment at a cocktail party, 'Sociology explains all that.' When a businessman owns a nature reserve (and remains a businessman at heart), he will run his nature reserve as a business. If an economist becomes a president (and remains an economist at heart), he will treat the nation as an economy. One president said that untimely deaths were bad for the economy.* The earth quakes, wrote King Solomon, when a slave becomes king – presumably because the slave sees the world in terms of the master-slave relationship, and cannot see its meaning beyond such terms.
The flight of 'meaning' today, from our social and philosophical debate, has much to do with the fragmentation of our society. As we have developed a complex social diversity, so we have lost touch both with our world as a whole, and with one another's worlds. Increasingly, we have needed to focus on smaller meanings. And all too often, when these smaller meanings dissolve, we seek to preserve them and protect them. And if they should represent my total system which I cannot see beyond, I may choose any means to keep them: petty fraud, white lies, implied threats, even worlds of fancy in my mind which do not exist. But the world is bigger and more beautiful than that. In the words of Graham Ward, professor of divinity at Oxford:
The system is a self-contained whole within which everything is made meaningful.
*President Thabo Mbeki, who was trained as an economist.