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Meaning in Life is Not Propositional

Answers to the "meaning of life" question sit wrong because the question was ill-formed in the first place.

Pamela J. Hobart
Pamela J. Hobart
3 min read
Meaning in Life is Not Propositional

Most people behave and speak as if life is (or, at least, could be) personally meaningful. But direct questions about meaning are hard to answer well. Why?

Candidates for meaning in life

Imagine someone attempting to answer "what is the meaning of your life?"

  • Perhaps he starts off talking about his work, and "impact" and also money. He adds that he loves his family.
  • Perhaps she leads with her love of animals, but also her elderly parents, and her desire to have children someday.
  • Perhaps they talk about traveling, and their church, but also reading and caring for their home.

If those answers sound fine to you, then you're probably a normie. But if you're... more like me and my clients, you're only left with even more questions.

  • So what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for "meaning" then?
  • Is the meaning of life money, work, or family?
  • Is it learning or caring or serving?
  • All of the above? None of the above?
  • Is that thing really meaningful? What's missing? What if you never get it?

What's wrong with "meaning of life" questions

Meaning in life exists. People seek it, and many succeed. To deny the existence of meaning in life would make a mockery of ordinary lived experience.

(Explaining why meaning is merely illusory would be much harder than to explain why it's difficult to discuss, as I'm doing here).

Answers to the "meaning of life" question sit wrong because the question was ill-formed in the first place.

The (existing) referent of "meaning in life" is simply non-propositional: meaning is not capturable in discrete statements, even when meaning-making is going very well.

To put it another way, "what is the meaning of life?" is not a question like "is there snow on the ground?" To determine whether there is snow on the ground, you can look up what "snow" is, look at the ground, touch it with your fingers, take a picture to show a meteorologist, etc.

"What is the meaning of life?" is more like asking "how does orange look?" The sentence has superficially appropriate structure, but no set of words can adequately convey the (true) answer.

You can say things like "bright" and "sunny" - not wrong, but those aren't orange, now are they. Some circumstances are more likely to produce an orange experience in humans than others, though there is variation too. You could list hex codes or wavelengths but that wouldn't really do the trick.

When people answer questions about the meaning in their lives, they veridically report facets and founts of meaning. Like orange-describers, meaning-reporters report on something real - a property that partially coextends with other, simpler properties. Like orange-describers, the descriptions fall critically short.

You don't then assume "orange" doesn't exist because it's impossible to describe in words. You just (correctly) infer that it's a different sort of thing.

Meaning exists at some elusive and individualized nexus of cognition, emotion, and embodiment. So it's hardly surprising that meaning is not clarified through speech, only obscured.

Meaning questions make the search for meaning worse

It's all fine and good when The Folk exchange words about the "meaning of life" - because they all already viscerally understand that they're only gesturing towards the real thing with attempts to verbally characterize what's meaningful.

But for those who remain unsettled about meaning in life, this kind of conversation (tragically) tends to make matters worse, not better. (And these are the people who are most likely to be asking!) Looking too hard at the meaning-contributing things causes their mostly visceral/intuitive/emotional luster to fall away.

As you go down the list of possible meaning-makers, asking "is that thing REALLY meaningful?" the answer always comes back as a "maybe not." Work may lack ultimate impact, money isn't nothing but it isn't everything, friends and family are doomed to death as surely as you are.

Some things accompany a sense of meaningfulness more reliably than others, but that doesn't mean that they are the meaning. More people have found meaning in their families than in literally watching paint dry, for instance. Does that mean that "family" is the meaning of life? It stands awkwardly alone - just like all the other possibilities. "The meaning of life is love" … wat.

Repeat it with me: Meaning in life is not propositional. Anything you could describe in a sentence just isn't it.

If you go looking for a neat, simple meaning, you aren't going to find it. Instead you'll be like that person looking for their keys under the streetlight, blind to the fullness of the night.

Pamela J. Hobart Twitter

Philosophical Life Coaching in Austin, TX. Also mother of 3, Miata driver, and DIY manicure aficionado.