The Meaning of "The Meaning of Life"

      If we ask a question and pursue it far enough, we always find our way to a paradox that seems to be at the core of everything. This essay will find its way to that paradox by way of a phrase in common conversation, "The meaning of life." In so doing, it serves as an example of deconstruction, a term used today almost too commonly and incorrectly to have any meaning. Deconstruction is the revelation of paradox at the heart of knowledge. I hope this essay will help show that, far from being passé, deconstruction is always with us and cannot be otherwise.

      Few of us would say with any certainty that we know the meaning of life. But, given the question, "What is the meaning of life?" most of us would at least say that we understand the question, even if we don't have the answer. In this question, the word "meaning" means roughly the same thing as "point" or "purpose" or "value." What is the point of life? What is its purpose? What is life worth? Although we may find subtle differences in the meanings of these various questions, we have some sense that they are still roughly the same question.

      I have no trouble with the wording of the question. I believe I understand it, too. But, perhaps as an English professor, I do find the phrasing of the question interesting—the fact that the favored way of asking it is by using the word "meaning."

      Ordinarily, "meaning" refers to the function of a sign. A sign is something that means something else—aliquid pro aliquo, as medieval scholasticists would say, "something [standing in] for something else"—so that even saying "this sign has meaning" is redundant. From this standpoint, the phrase "the meaning of life" would require that life be a sign. In order for anything to be a sign, it not only must mean something other than merely itself—its meaning must be different from its being—but there must even be somebody, and usually more than one somebody, for whom the sign is a sign and means something. Someone has to mean something by the sign, and, usually, that someone has to mean that something by that sign for someone else. (It is possible that one can mean something by a sign to oneself—as, for example, a string tied around the finger to remind oneself to do something.)

      This, clearly, is not what we mean by "meaning" when we ask, "What is the meaning of life?" The meaning of "meaning" just given, the one tied in with signs, might be called the semiotic sense of "meaning." But in the phrase, "the meaning of life," "meaning" has more of a teleological or judgmental sense to it. In the first case, "meaningful" is equivalent to "interpretable" or "indicating or representing something" or even "translatable"; in the latter, to "purposeful" or "worthy." "My life has meaning" usually suggests that I judge my life affirmatively, that I think it is right to live as I do, and that it is a good thing in general (perhaps even for other people) that I am alive. Conversely, "meaningless" in the first instance simply means "allowing no interpretation," "not indicating anything," "not functioning as a sign"; in the second, "pointless," "valueless," "not worth existing." The question is: why does "meaning" mean these two things? Why, indeed, is the favored way of asking the question about life, "What is the meaning of life?"

      This might just seem like a word-game, peculiar to English, an accident of the language. But a quick review of a few modern languages (such as French, German, Spanish, and Hebrew) shows that the connection between the semiotic and the judgmental senses of the word "meaning" in the phrase "the meaning of life" is not restricted to English. It may be that the phrase belongs to modern times. Among ancient writers, Ecclesiastes, a likely one to consult to see if the question was thus phrased in antiquity, does not seem to ask, "What is the meaning of life?"—he asks, in a variety of Hebrew phrases, "What good is it?" "What does it profit?" "What does it do?" Still, even if this question is a modern one, it is one with which we live. I suspect that the ambiguity in the word "meaning" in the phrase "the meaning of life" reflects a very widespread, if not universal, quality about our thinking.

      The two meanings of "meaning" are not mere homonyms, like the word "leaves" (the tree sheds its leaves; he leaves the room). Surely, "meaning" has these two different meanings, not by accident, but because, in some way, for us, they are really the same meaning; that something that cannot function as a sign seems to have no purpose, and that, the more richly something can bear meaning as a sign, the more valuable and more purposeful it seems.

      In order for life to have a meaning in the semiotic sense, it would have to be produced or used by someone (God? Fate?) to indicate something, probably to someone, who is, in effect, the reader of our lives. This could, conceivably, be ourselves. Indeed, each of us could be both the producer and the recipient of his or her life as a sign bearing meaning. But what meaning could any life possibly have?

      Throughout the Middle Ages, from St. Augustine on, and even in various traditions in the modern world, people have thought of their lives as indeed meaningful signs. The world was God's book, and they, along with everything else in the world, were signs in that book. Thus everything had meaning. As Michel Foucault wonderfully recounts, in the Middle Ages, it was thought that one could learn the "key" to read some of these signs and could use the resulting knowledge. For example, medicinal plants bore signs that actually named the sicknesses for which they were the treatments. A lovely but nostalgic and more knowingly mythical modern version is the sonnet by Charles Baudelaire, "Correspondances," in which all sorts of words, colors, and smells naturally refer to each other in a great harmonic symphony of spirit and sense. But let's come down from the clouds a moment. If the world is God's book, which God presumably both writes and reads, what on earth could the book possibly mean? In order for our lives to be meaningful signs to God, we would still have to mean something other than ourselves. Why on earth would God use us as signs to Himself to mean something that God already knows to begin with? The whole proposition begins to look ridiculous.

      Likewise, if our lives are meaningful signs to ourselves, it still doesn't make sense. What on earth could we mean other than what we already are? (And nothing can simply mean what it is—that is not what meaning is.) The question is complicated by an impossibility of position. If one is reading one's life as a sign for something else, one cannot actually be living, because one's living would have to be interrupted by the interpretation process. Again, life can only have semiotic meaning if it doesn't mean life but rather something else, something that is not life. Thus, experiencing the meaning of life must be exclusively different from experiencing life, plain and simple. Of course, it is not so simple, but let me illustrate this point before we go on.

      It makes perfect sense to ask a person what he or she means by something he or she said. But suppose I asked "What does that fellow mean?" He hasn't uttered a syllable. He is making no gestures. Rather, I mean, "What is meant by that fellow?" "How should I interpret this fellow as a sign?" His presence may betoken a set of facts: the mere presence of the policeman at my car windshield, even before he says or writes anything, means that I have left my car parking there too long. But there can be a nastier side to such interpretation. If a person is taken as a sign, it may be, not because of actions that one foresees that person committing, but because of meanings or values assigned to sensible attributes of the person right from the start. For example, a person is of a different race or skin color, and thus his or her appearance is taken by a racist to mean something—to wit, either evil or inferiority. The point is that none of us thinks of himself or herself as meaning anything, intrinsically. None of us is a sign. To be treated as a sign of something is to be reduced from subject to object. In this case, meaning is demeaning.

      Wouldn't the same be true for life itself? If my life means something, then it can be translated into something else, which is not my life. But I'd rather have my life! Life is life precisely insofar as it does not and cannot mean anything. That is, nothing can be meant by it. No one can mean something by my life. It simply is. Life is being, not meaning.

      So why does it make us feel bad to say to ourselves, "My life has no meaning"?

      To summarize the enigma: Life is good if it has meaning. Life is not life if it has meaning.

      As just noted, this paradox could easily be dismissed if we could simply say that "meaning" is really a pun or a homonym: there are two completely different ideas being meant by what sounds and looks like the same word. The two are, of course, the semiotic and the teleological (purpose-related or judgmental) meanings of "meaning." But these are not so neatly separable. A dollar bill has the value of a certain abstract quantity of purchasing power at any moment. It has this value because it means what it can buy—it is a sign for that purchasability (although it is only in a very restricted sense a sign for an object whose price is one dollar). An action is deemed "meaningful" if it has detectable consequences. But the relation between the action and its consequences is easily analogous to the relation between a sign and its meaning. For example, if I help a blind woman to cross the street, my action is meaningful, in the teleological-judgmental sense. That is, it is good because it has a good consequence (the blind woman's safety). I have undertaken this action because I know that, if I help the woman across the street, she will be safe (at least for the moment, at least I hope). So my action anticipates its consequence, and I perform it because it works for me as a sign of her safety. If I help her across the street, that means to me that she will be safe. Likewise, fire causes smoke; smoke is a sign of fire; if there's smoke, that means fire. But fire does not choose to produce smoke. When we take actions with an eye towards their desirable consequences, then the consequences are simultaneously signs, effects, and purposes of our actions.

      This enigma, you may say, is merely an accident of speech, and is thus trivial. What interests me, however, is that we must have an answer to the question, "What is the meaning of life?"—even if we know that the question cannot be answered. In other words, the meaning of life is that we ask the question of the meaning of life. "Life" is definable as the condition, not in which life has meaning, but in which the living ask questions such as "What is the meaning of life?" This is not the same thing as saying that the unexamined life is not worth living. That is a noble thought, but not what I am saying here. Rather, we are such that everything seems as if it must have meaning. This is connected to the fact that we are language-intensive animals. One of the consequences, from an almost biological point of view, of our ability to have such a thing as "meaning" (that is, to manipulate things and even thoughts as signs for other things or other thoughts) is that, because we can do it, we must do it, or at least we have a strong urge most of the time. If we could imagine a stable state in which we could dwell with no meaning-effects going on anywhere around us, I doubt whether we could call this "life" in any familiar sense appropriate to us as human beings. Such a state, the putative state of the nonhuman or even the inanimate, is only imaginable as an impossible game and not as a commonly considered optional mode of being human.

      Another, more familiar and less biologically-oriented way of thinking of this problem is the observation made by Claude Lévi-Strauss and made famous in Jacques Derrida's critique in De la Grammatologie (Of Grammatology), that the moment when human beings first acquired language must have been all at once rather than gradual—that the whole world went from being nonlinguistic (a state which we cannot now imagine in detail) to being mediated entirely through signs, the world in which we now live, where thoughts and experiences are virtually inseparable from words. Since meaning is what signs do by definition, one may say that, once meaning is possible for a human subject, it is also necessary or at least feels necessary. Ordinarily, we cannot live, or at least do not feel comfortable living, in a world in which some things do have meaning and some things do not.

      A further consequence of the (apparent) necessity of meaning for a subject capable of registering meaning is that, as a corollary, if a thing has no semiotic meaning, it seems to have no teleological meaning either: "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing" means both "it says nothing" and "it serves no purpose." This includes life itself. And yet, life by nature cannot have meaning in order to be life. So life does not have meaning, except in the paradoxical sense that life's meaning is that life has no meaning but requires us to ask the question of the meaning of life.

      This paradox seems to me analogous to other paradoxes which I see everywhere around me. Indeed, far from being an accident of speech or of human language, paradox is at the heart of being itself, at least for us humans, and it would be impossible to say for sure what being would be like other than being human—which is why we are called human beings in the first place—where human is merely the adjective and being is the noun, the name for what we are. Paradox informs every aspect of being. In the rest of this essay, I shall try to give at least a few striking examples of how paradox is everywhere. Accordingly, not only is deconstruction, the discourse of recognizing paradox at the core of things, neither trivial nor passé. Rather, deconstruction is a way of facing up to the unavoidable realities of being. Here are only a few examples of the paradoxes we find everywhere, of the sort that deconstruction helps to reveal.

      1. The world around us is composed of discrete objects, which are either instantly nameable or which can be described and for which new names can be made up. These things, like words, are what they are insofar as they are not other things. Both words and things are points in a space defined by mutual, multidirectional negations. For example, the table is a table insofar as, among things with four legs to prop it up, it is not a cow; among such things that are inanimate, it is not a chair; among things upon which you put other things, it is not a bench; etc. And, among things whose names begin with "ta-," it is not a tape-dispenser, nor a tape-recorder, nor a tale, etc. And yet the boundaries, for both words and things, are always fuzzy.

      An easy example is an historical period. The baroque period in the arts is a period eligible to some sort of definition. Let's take Johann Sebastian Bach as the baroque composer par excellence. Then, is there no element of the baroque before Bach—in, say Buxtehude? Certainly, Bach's sons—C.P.E. and Johann Christian especially—give one a feeling in their works of the waning of the baroque and the move towards that thinning, that reduction to the bare form, a kind of spare and elegant architecturality (like the third period of Pompeiian fresco painting) that rather puts us in mind of Haydn and then of Mozart. But Bach's sons still use counterpoint. Even better: Palestrina's music is composed according to the old theory of modes and contrapuntal voices; Bach was one of the chief innovators of the newer theory of chordal progressions and modulation of tonality. But Palestrina's works obviously have chordal progressions. If you didn't know that Palestrina composed only with intervals and counterpoint in mind, you'd hear his choral works as a series of chords, even though the chords don't quite come in the sequence you might expect. (And thus, oddly enough, Palestrina sounds to us like a harmonic innovator using daringly surprising chordal sequences.)

      When does English-language poetry become "modern" or "modernist"? Does it begin with Ezra Pound? Or with Gerard Manley Hopkins? Or with Walt Whitman? Why not with Christopher Smart? Or the Levellers, some of whom wrote anonymously? For how long have poets been rejecting the "constraints" of "tradition"?

      Is Michaelangelo Renaissance, Baroque, or Modern?

      Ah, but periodicity in the history of the arts is self-confessedly a mere artifact, a convenience for telling the story! I make no claims here to talking about things as they are, other than how people seem either to experience them or to talk about them. But how does one distinguish between a healthy body and a diseased one? Between one ethnicity and another? Between one piece of land and another? Between the forest and the meadow? In every case, once one is fairly in the middle of the thing, the difference is obvious and indisputable; but the edges are indisputably fuzzy. Even the all-important and, seemingly, obvious difference between the living and the dead is not so sharp a line. Different parts of the body die at different moments; some live on for quite some time, imparting the eery aura we all associate with morgues and other places of the dead. We seal the coffin of our loved one shut, in part so that we will not have to keep asking that question: Dead-but how dead?

      2. In recent times—perhaps beginning around in the 1920s and 30s, in the midst of the epoch-making developments of physics, chemistry, and (at first unrelated) medicine—we have become aware of a certain historical and cultural relativity even in the most factual kinds of knowledge—that is, in science. The Copernican cosmology is somewhat more persuasive than the Ptolemaic because the latter, earlier one eventually required Tycho Brahe's notorious epicycles within epicycles in order to describe and predict the movements of the visible planets. The Copernican, heleocentric model is more elegant—it explains and predicts reasonably well without undue complications. I say "somewhat more persuasive" because, of course, Keppler's refinement is more accurate than Copernicus's model, since the planets' paths are really elipses and not circles; and then, since we speak of cosmologies, modern astronomical observation and Einstein's theories have led us into a much richer and more complex idea of the cosmos, in which our own solar system is about as far from a central feature as can be. Throughout the history of science, observations accumulate so as to require a more elegant explanation, and sometimes so as to falsify the previous one altogether.

      But in addition, these paradigm shifts are somewhat linked to the general evolution of culture. Connections can be seen—family resemblances of sorts—between the dominant scientific theories of a particular period and other cultural phenomena: the economic life of the society, its values, its beliefs, and its myths. Ludvik Fleck pointed out in 1935 that people had suspected that syphilis was caused by something carried in the blood long before the syphilis spirochete was discovered and even before the entire theory of germs, or the possibility of observing them with microscopes, were developed. The origin of this theory, then? It was the medieval European myth-system of demonology, according to which a deadly illness was caused by evil spirits entering the blood.

      It may be argued, moreover, that the theory of evolution attained a credible form when European (especially British) colonial imperialism around the world was accompanied by a veritable obsession among scientists at home with racial differences and their defining qualities. This was a time when European countries laid claim at once to large tracts of the world, its people, and its resources and to what they considered a certain moral authority or superiority. The benefits of having colonies were also, in the eyes of the colonists, the moral burden of imparting civilization to inferior races. From this standpoint, an evolutionary theory based on the principle of natural selection seems to provide an especially happy discovery, imparting legitimacy to empires while drawing on the fountain of truth itself, the laws of nature.

      And yet knowing all this about science does not make scientific facts any less true. Despite its connection with imperialism and racist myth, the theory of evolution is right. Today, after many refinements, it is no longer a "theory" in the sense of "hypothesis," something to be proven. It can be seen, almost literally, to occur before one's very eyes in a laboratory. The development of multiple-drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis is an obvious example. One could, in fact, grow a culture of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, expose it to endangering but not totally lethal amounts of a variety of drugs (isoniazid, streptomycin, etc.), and allow it to regrow, and a certain percentage of the final culture specimen would be resistant to all the drugs. So, although evolution may, with historical retrospect, be connected in some way with colonialism and racism, the science of evolution is also verifiable and independent of these cultural conditions, and can only be recruited to uphold racial prejudice or disregard for the poor at the expense of a good and accurate understanding of evolution.

      The larger paradox is that, while we are at an historical moment in which we are keenly self-aware of the history of science and of knowledge in general and therefore have every reason to suspect that the scientific paradigms which enable us to know anything at all will eventually be discarded as inadequate or false, we still need to know something, and thus we still must rely on the scientific paradigms we have available now. Indeed, our very recognition of the historical specificity of scientific paradigms will itself, eventually, be seen as a cultural phenomenon typical of, say, the late 20th century—if it isn't seen that way already.

      This paradox expands even further. In every case in which experience teaches us the humility of relativism, life also demands that we forget this lesson most of the time and behave as absolutists. Otherwise, our relativism would seem to paralyze us. If all knowledge is historically and culturally bound, and yet claims (falsely) to go beyond its historical and cultural limits, then either we can have no knowledge or we must be false to our knowledge about knowledge and accept the falsity of the claims of our current knowledge as if they were true.

      3. Clearly akin to this paradox is the one that has been explored the longest and most agonizingly in the history of Western thought. That is, of course, the paradox of free will and determinism. Both the view that human actions are determined by prior forces and the view that human subjects initiate their actions freely are persuasive ways of understanding actions, and yet they are utterly mutually exclusive. (Here is a binary pair that has no fuzzy boundary.) "Determinism" used to mean what an omniscient and omnipotent God had designed to have happen "from the beginning." This is an inevitable view of history so long as one believes in an omnipotent and omniscient God—those two factors necessitate a predetermined world. Such a belief-system obviously gets us into trouble if it also claims in any way to provide moral guidance or to assign moral blame to individuals. Predetermination of actions is simply incompatible with morality, which is a concept that only has meaning within the model of free action or free choice. One might like to get rid of this problem by simply discarding one of the two properties of God from one's beliefs. For example, God might be all-knowing but might not be all-powerful—God might be unable, for example, to prevent certain bad things from happening even if God knew in advance that they might happen. This is only possible, however, if things can exist which God did not create or whose creation God did not ordain—in other words, it is only possible if we have a polytheistic system—which is pretty much giving up the whole point from the start.

      Alternatively, and in a more modern vein, one must bracket the question as religious and not part of the same conversation as, say, secular laws in civil society, which then could get back the moral responsibility of the individual which they would need to work. But a secular world is still a world that seeks explanations. (This is much like the paradox we started with: we need meaning because we can attribute meaning to signs; we need explanations because we can ask the question, Why?) Modern thought is characterized by the scientific version of the same problem. Are human actions to be understood because of the forces which determined them, as they can be understood scientifically—that is, as causes? Or are human actions free and are human subjects to be held responsible? The more knowledge advances, the more absurd the idea of freedom seems to become. And yet, is not our pursuit of knowledge, of explanations, an instance of the exercise of freedom?

      Once freedom becomes so beset by problems, so do many other modern notions that we hold dear to us. What is democracy? How do we know if democracy is in place? Are the votes an expression of the accumulated free will of individuals, or are they the expressions of larger, impersonal forces, which can easily explain and predict them? If candidates who win elections are invariably the ones with sufficient money to make their names recognizable through advertisement in electronic media, then in what sense can we regard the electorate as "free"?

      Yet the answer is clearly not to sink back into a depression and consider ourselves already determined. After all, we still wouldn't know if that very gesture of melancholy was determined or freely chosen. In the final analysis, we are always free—to see ourselves as determined and without freedom is unthinkable; yet we are also always determined by causes—to see ourselves as free of the causes that determine us is equally unthinkable. And there is no possible reconciliation between these two ways of thinking of ourselves. Even the proverbial oil and water eventually mix better.

      At the moment at which any one of us acts, he or she cannot possibly know the determinants of that action. The determinants are the objects of guess-work, after the fact. Determinants can also be used to make predictions, but one cannot view one's actions as either fulfillments or corrections of predictions at the moment at which those actions are taken. This is the blind-spot in all determinism and what ensures that free will always seems to exist. So, we are continually moving from a conviction in our own freedom in our actions to a re-analysis of those same actions as resulting from determinant forces. This means that every action is both free and determined, and yet never both at once. And the boundary between the little area of freedom in which we take present actions and the much larger universe of events for which we at least could find determinant causes is not a fuzzy boundary, but we don't know exactly where the boundary would be placed—the exact point at which our freedom, bought by our unavoidable ignorance of the causes of our immediate actions, falls into the determined world where it is at least possible to ask why things are the way they are.

      All three of the above paradoxes are, in effect, manifestations of a single, fundamentally paradoxical structure. The two sides of the structure, speaking abstractly, are (1) the world as seen in normal life and (2) the world as seen upon reflection. We normally live as if the world were made of discrete things, but reflection enables us to see the fuzziness at the boundaries. We normally proceed on our beliefs, but reflection betrays the relativity of our beliefs and undermines our convictions (somewhat). We normally act as free entities, but reflection on our actions reveals their determinants. And we only wonder whether our lives have meaning when we reflect upon them. Of course, even here, we have the same paradox: reflection is part of life. It is impossible, then, to articulate the fundamentally paradoxical nature of life without falling into an instance of that paradox while attempting to do so.

      These instances of the paradox which one finds everywhere are only a few. Some other paradoxical experiences may fit in with some elements of one and with some of another, without detracting from a fundamental sense of analogy among them all. For example, am I a body or a mind? Are my thoughts to be understood as neurochemical interactions, or are the neurochemical interactions merely how the thoughts are made? This is clearly a version of freedom versus (mechanical) determinism. It is also a case of fuzzy boundary. If something hurts or my digestive tract is disturbed, it affects my mood, which affects my thoughts. If I have gloomy thoughts, my body becomes lethargic. Yet, if a sickness in my body makes me glum, cheering conversation or music may make me feel a bit better for a short while but will not make my sickness go away; I am more likely to be unable to pay attention to these consolations because the call of sickness is too loud.

      A strong paradox with which we all live partakes of all three of the above types, in some measure. As we grow up, we all inevitably learn the meaning of the word "death." We all know that we, ourselves, will someday die. We are reminded of this constantly, both by the world around us and by our own bodies. Indeed, it has long been considered wise to live every day fully and to the good, as if it were one's last. And yet, as Freud so wisely pointed out, none of us can go about living from day to day without somehow believing in our own immortality. We may say every day that we are mortal, but we cannot say that with the same full conviction with which we would say that we are alive—even though they are practically the same thing.

      I have already argued that life has no meaning. That is, life is being, not meaning; my life is not a sign and thus cannot mean anything without detracting from its status as being. But "life," the term, certainly has meaning, as any sign must have. In closing, I should like to suggest that the paradoxes I have sketched, or rather the single principle of paradox for which one may find analogous instances everywhere—that this principle of paradox is at least part of the meaning of "life." Accordingly, the meaning of "life" requires, in some sense, that we live with these paradoxes, despite the fact that—another analogous paradox—paradoxes are by nature things that we don't like to live with because they defy the fundamental principle of reason known as noncontradiction. I am not recommending what Nietzsche (criticizing Schopenhauer) would call a "Buddhistic resignation." Indeed, paradox seems to engage us in struggle, willy-nilly. But there are other ways of accepting paradox and struggle. We are complicated beings, who in fact live in paradox all the time. It is in our moments of systematic cogitation, the moments when one wishes to write the perfect series of signs, that one must be reminded of the need to make peace with the paradox that is, surely, at the core of the meaning of "life."

Amittai F. Aviram


This page last updated Saturday, September 25, 2004 by the author — amittai dot aviram at gmail dot edu. © 1995 by Amittai F. Aviram.