Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Meaning of Life

The other day I was struck by the notion that I should blog on the meaning of life. Exactly why I am not sure since I usually don't think about it unless forced. The reason for that is probably that what I hear from others is some jazzed up religious nonsense. I suppose the fact that I am having a hip replacement surgery on Super Tuesday might have been the reason. How do you avoid thinking about death when you go into surgery? And contemplating one's death morphs quite naturally into a consideration of what life is about.

The question, "What is the meaning of life?" is not normally answered in empirical terms. The same is true of the question, "What is the meaning of death?" I Googled the phrase "the meaning of death" and got Death is the irredeemable loss of consciousness. This is an empirical fact but is not the sort of answer we are looking for. A site interested in the scientific and philosophic understandings of the meaning of death offered
-Death is an enfeebled form of life
-Death is a continuation of life
-Death is perpetual development
-Death is waiting
I confess that I don't have a clue what any of these things mean.

One thing you do not find in discussions of the meaning of life or death on the internet is an explicit characterization of what the writers mean by "meaning." This is an important omission. If you have read my blog, The Meaning of Meaning, you know that the word "meaning" has a number of senses (i. e. meanings). The one of interest to us here is "significance." When you ask "What is the significance of life?" and "What is the significance of death?" you will, I think, be lead to think about different things than if you think about the meanings of life and death and your thinking will, I believe, be a bit more productive.

When I used Ask.com to search for entries matching the search expression "meaning of life," I got a book (What Its All About?, the title of which is ungrammatical for there is no way that a construction like that can be interpreted as a question. Not surprisingly, this book takes up religious topics. There are explicitly religious urls (Meaning of Life Ministry) and (Life's Greatest Question?), which is also ungrammatical unless the author means to question whether or not some unidentified other question is the greatest question. The third result (Soon you will understand .... the meaning of Life) is sort of fun. It gives a "divine recollection" Talmudic approach. It starts off saying
The Talmud teaches:
Just before a baby is born,
an angel shows it everything there is to know
and learn on Earth.
Then at the moment of birth,
the angel touches the infant’s upper lip,
and the child forgets everything.
We spend the rest of our lives
remembering what the angel showed us.
Plato famously took the view that acquiring knowledge consisted of Divine Recollection or Illumination.

Religious views of the meaning or significance of life are just too easy for they are necessarily supernatural in nature and no one can say anything supernatural that can be proved. However there is another approach to the question of what life means (what is the significance of life) that is empirical and rings true to me. My last philosophy paper at Rice University was on Martin Heidegger's concept that humans (Dasein) are a throwness (into being) toward death (Geworfenheit zum Tod). I struggled with this paper to the point that I called the professor and said I was totally stuck and he said to just cut and paste what I had typed and turn that in. Everything would be fine he intimated. Instead, I had an epiphany as to what Heidegger meant and knocked out 12 pages, wadding up just one (which is what I did when I was blocked or stuck) in the process. There were times I could fill a room with wadded up paper.

The thesis that man is a throwness into being toward death needs no sophisticated exegesis. We normally have no recollection of our earliest years. At some point we come to be aware of ourselves. I don't remember that event and I doubt that you do either. We just find ourselves here. And we find that we and all that is around us is in motion. We grow. We do things. We are going forward as beings in the world. At some point we realize that where we are headed is toward death.

When we are young, the fact that we are headed toward death usually has no significance. However, as we mature (I think some never do mature) we come to realize that our time on earth is limited. If we are women we know we have this biological clock that ticks off the hours until one cannot conceive children. But any of us who are trying to accomplish something are to some degree I think, hurried up in this process by the certain knowledge we will die.

I was sure that I would never make it to retirement since I was a boozer and smoker and was overweight. I quit the first two -- easily as it turns out -- and from time to time would reduce my weight. I am now 69 and know that my time is limited. Now that I have a granddaughter I seem to be focused on maximizing my time with her. I love sports, especially Ohio State sports, and there are championships to be won and I want to experience as many of those as I can. I want to see as many great movies as I can. I want to be with my wife and daughter and son-in-law as long as possible. And I want to see a Democratic President and Congress straightening out the colossal disaster that has been visited on the country by Bushilla. Something impelled me to blog. It was guilt I think. It was due to my realization that I was wasting my time, the limited time I have before I die.

The unassailable fact is that we are here without having asked to be here and having no clear recollection of when or how we got here though we are told about the birds and the bees at some point. And we know we will die. This is a general answer but that is the best one can do. However, each of our lives can come to have meaning (significance) as a function of what we do while we are here. The meaning of your life consists entirely of what you make of it.

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Blogger Lavanya said...


I'm a language teacher in India and I enjoy reading your blog. It's both insightful and interesting. And I'm truly impressed by your energy. Good luck with the surgery.

BTW, there's a typo on the sidebar, under 'about me' - Thr Language Guy. :)


7:50 AM

Blogger Bilbo said...

Being a relatively fluent German speaker, I was intrigued by the expression "Geworfenheit zum Tod," yet despite your excellent discussion of the idea, I'm still finding it a bit mind-warping. You can probably smell my brain smoking from there! Best of luck with your hip replacement surgery tomorrow...I hope all goes well and that I'll have the pleasure of continuing to read your blog for a long time to come. Best wishes, Bilbo.

9:26 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Thanks, Bilbo. It is hard to wrap one's mind around it to be sure. "Throwness into death" isn't all that great in English. But if I am right, what Heidegger said isn't that hard to comprehend. You can see why I struggled with my paper.

All the phenomenologists were hard to understand. I translated one of Husserl's tomes once.

9:50 AM

Blogger Le vent fripon said...

I think a person who can do something with his life that makes his life seem meaningful to him is very lucky or perhaps just plain wise. This may be easier or more difficult depending on the specific circumstances, though. For example, if I had to work at McDonalds every day and then go home to an unhappy mariage, I might turn to religion for meaning.

Good luck with your hip.

12:54 PM

Blogger Alvin said...

Hi Professor,

I'm a reporter working on a story about linguistics and politics, and I was hoping to speak to you.

I would be very grateful if you could contact me at alvinschang@gmail.com.



4:33 PM

Blogger Andrew Christ said...

For me it's easier to decide what the meaning of my life is rather than decide what the meaning of life is. ~Andy

10:36 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Exactly, Andrew. It is when you ask: "What ios the meaning of life (in general)? that you come up with an unanswerable question.

2:06 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

Hope surgery went ok. I too was boozer smoker. How would you advise one to go about losing weight and keeping it off?

2:53 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Losing weight requires a powerful motivation -- being single and deciding that one wants to start attracting outstanding women worked for me once. Another time it was to get in shape for a trip to Yellowstone, a trip I suggest to everyone. You have to find something you want more than food.

3:55 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

i agree with you in that 'what is the meaning of life?' is an unanswerable question. unanwerable in words and concepts. the same as 'who am i?'

i realised recently that i am (without any doubt) not any thing that i can look at, do, touch, or think about.

what am i? i dont know. so what is the meaning of my life? to find out who i truly am.

keep questioning things.

be well

7:19 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

The only reliable measure of who you are and of the meaning of your life is what you do with it. We are know through our deeds, I believe I have read somewhere. However your life has no intrinsic meaning any more than a cow does. The meaning is extrinsic -- a function of your actions in the world. Or so I believe.

7:47 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

and all that is is a belief. who has the belief? who learned it? who was there within to witness the beliefs we harbour change?

so you think that what other people think of us is who we are?

ponder what all these experiences, beliefs, and reputations will mean when we are on our deathbeds trying to hold onto life, what will these things mean then????

if you answer with logic rather than imagining living the actual situation you have already failed the question.

10:03 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great posts, makes me think as lot about questions of life and living it to the fulliest, feeling that it has a sense...

10:54 AM


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