May 19, 2007    Philosophy

Meaning of Meaning

“Life has no meaning.” Most people would project a depressed feeling to this statement. Suppose John paints a big circle on his wall, and Jane asks, “What does the circle mean?” John replies, “No meaning. I just felt like it.” The lack of meaning, in this case, does not tempt us to project one. Why then, are we inclined to project a negative emotion to the pronouncement that life has no meaning?

Meaning of meaning is an interesting question. As with any word, there is no singular definition of it that would satisfy all instances of the use of the word “meaning”, but in this specific expression, “meaning” implies something that makes our lives worth living. We might be tempted to categorize two types of meaning; one is literal, a mechanism of representation, and the other is significance, a matter of value. But this is not necessary. All meanings have different degrees of significance implied in them. This is clear when you watch babies learn how to use words. If they did not sense any significance or urgency, they would not bother learning language at all. Every attempt to use a word, especially at that age, is driven by a great sense of urgency and significance. The fact that we learn to use language presupposes the significance behind our every utterance, however insignificant it may seem. It is just a matter of degree.

What it also presupposes is that meaning is never personal, but always sociocultural. Suppose John says to Jane, “This may not mean anything to anyone else, but it means a lot to me,” and shows her an acorn. He explains to her that his father brought it back from Japan after serving in World War II, and gave it to him when he was five years old. His father died a few years later in a car accident. The significance John feels personally is a product of the sociocultural context that he lives in, without which this “personal” value could not exist. The largest share of this value comes from the relationship between John and his father. The fact that it involves his father already contradicts the definition of “personal”. World War II and the location from which the acorn was brought, have their own cultural meanings which contribute to his “personal” meaning. If he were not capable of understanding what “father” is, did not know what “World War II” was, and had never heard of “Japan”, then it would be impossible for him to see any value in this acorn.

Let’s suppose that John is indeed incapable and unaware of those things, which essentially means he lacks the capacity to use language. This does not necessarily prevent him from enjoying or appreciating certain things in life. For instance, he might look at a cute bunny and smile. He might love watching the sunset. This brings us back to my first question. Someone who does not see meaning in anything, is not necessarily depressed. You might say, “The sunset has meaning to him. So, his life does have meaning.” There is nothing wrong with this statement, but it is you who is seeing this “meaning” in him. What matters is whether he sees meaning or not. We can all admire a talented musician who makes millions of dollars a year, but if he himself does not see meaning in all that he has, it is meaningless. By the same token, does John in this particular circumstance, see meaning in his own life? It is like asking if a dog sees meaning in its own life; there is no answer to that, because the question itself is misguided.

We can all look at the sunset and feel it’s “beautiful”. The meaning of it can come only after we interpret our experience. If we did not interpret what we experienced, “meaning” has no place. In other words, without interpretation, the question of “meaning” has no sense at all. To interpret means to put our experience in a sociocultural context, which is the act that creates meaning. Therefore, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as “personal” meaning. Meaning is always necessarily sociocultural.

This means that any significance or value that we perceive and interpret is also sociocultural. As in the example above, the value of the acorn is in fact sociocultural, not “personal”. If I want to feel that my existence has value or significance, I have to assume that the society and the culture to which I belong have value or significance. This ultimately means that I have to believe in the value or the significance of the human race. Since meaning, value, and significance are ultimately sociocultural, without the human race being valuable, significant, and meaningful, it would not be possible for my life to be the same.

In one of my essays, I suggested that we should live like there is no tomorrow for the whole human race. Living like there is no tomorrow for me personally, isn’t enough. The implications are different in the two scenarios. Suppose I were a billionaire and terminally ill. My doctor tells me that I will die tomorrow. I might donate my billions to a worthy cause in hopes that I would be remembered as one of the greatest philanthropists in history. On the other hand, suppose the doctor tells me that a huge asteroid is hitting the earth and the whole human race would be pulverized tomorrow. Why would I bother donating my money? Why would anyone bother accepting my donation anyway? In this hypothetical comparison, we become aware of how much we rely on the human race to give meaning to our own existence. In short, we become aware of how any “meaning” is ultimately sociocultural.

Once we realize that “meaning” is a sociocultural construct, the statement, “Life has no meaning”, has a different meaning. If we were to extend “life” to all living beings, it becomes clear that life indeed has no meaning. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that the question of “meaning” has no sense in relation to life. A life driven by a sense of meaning, purpose, and significance is therefore a rat race. A meaning of life, a sense of purpose or significance, is a holographic image that our culture projects in front of us, which we take as real, and spend our whole life chasing.