The Meanings of Meaning

If you tell people that you’re interested in philosophy, inevitably someone will ask you about the meaning of life. Although the question might predate The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ancient philosophers in the Greek, Indian, and Chinese traditions didn’t raise it. Personally I adhere to the aphorism that it’s best not to puzzle over the meaning of life, but instead work to create a life of meaning.

We can find the same distinction between the meaning OF life and meaning IN life within modern psychology. For instance, Michael F. Steger (who works just up the road from me at Colorado State University) has done quite a bit of research on meaning in life. His model of personal meaning involves three things:

  • A cognitive aspect of having an understanding of how the world works and of your place in the world
  • A motivational aspect of having long-term, overarching purposes that structure your goals and activities
  • An evaluative aspect of feeling that your your life as a whole is significant and worthwhile, that it matters

These are aspects of mind and behavior that you can work on through reflection and self-improvement, so I’m all in favor of them.

By contrast, asking “what is the meaning of life?” leads to endless puzzles: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why does the universe contain not only inert matter but also living things? Why does the universe contain human beings? What is the purpose of humanity as a whole? Does the universe itself have a telos to which humanity contributes? And so on. Although such questions might be interesting to ponder in one’s idle or more speculative moments, I don’t find them very productive of creating meaning in your own life, in the lives of the people you care about, or in your community.

Naturally, your mileage might vary. :-)

2 thoughts on “The Meanings of Meaning

  1. Out of a pattern of well chosen explorations it is possible that a continually evolving emergent may appear — which might romantically and justly be thought of as Quest. Such an emergent cannot be designed ahead of time, but after a time it may become possible to trust the process by which it is generated.

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