What is the Meaning of Life?

by Bill Meacham

Copyright © 2006, William Meacham. Permission to reproduce is granted provided the work is reproduced in its entirety, including this notice.

I wrote this in the fall of 2006 in hopes of its being published in Philosophy Now, a popular journal of philosophy. The assignment was to write less than 400 words on the topic.

The phrase "the meaning of life" is, strictly speaking, meaningless. Meaning pertains to signs (words, phrases, gestures, etc.). The meaning of a sign is that to which it refers, that which is brought to mind when one perceives the sign. But life is not a sign. Why, then, do we speak of the meaning of life? A sign points to something other than itself. Thus, a sign and the thing signified are connected. Perhaps the connectedness of signs and their significands reminds us of our connectedness with the world around us.

Human beings, so far as we know, are the only beings who are self-conscious enough to reflect on themselves and notice both their essential connectedness and their essential isolation. Certainly we are social beings and cannot be fully human without community. But each of us has an interiority that is uniquely one's own and cannot be shared with others. We find ourselves alone but thrust into a world of others, each of whom is alone as well. The search for meaning in one's life is a search for a connectedness that can never fully overcome the essential isolation of the "for-itself" that each of us is. Beyond the connectedness that is the ground of our being there is a connectedness that we strive to achieve.

Striving, of course, implies purpose. One strives toward a goal, and the purpose of the striving is to achieve the goal. This, I think, is the key to understanding the phrase "the meaning of life." It is not meaning, strictly speaking, that we search for, but purpose.

And it is not the purpose of life in general for which we search, but the purpose of our own life, life in its particularity, the life that each of us must live. (Must, because nobody else can live that life for us.) So we find ourselves in the world searching for why we are here. Structurally, the purpose of our life is to find, or perhaps construct, that very purpose itself!

Lest this seem entirely too self-referential, we can state it in another way. We are rooted in what Vaclav Havel has called "the miracle of Being." We are each given a task to perform, and it is the finding of that task and then the performing of it to the best of our ability that is the true purpose of our life.

The reference for the Havel quote is "The Need for Transcendence in the Postmodern World", http://www.worldtrans.org/whole/havelspeech.html

About the Author: Bill Meacham lives in Austin, Texas, USA and is an independent scholar in philosophy. You can contact him at bmeacham@bmeacham.com.