The background

The meaning of meaning

What do we mean by meaning?

Very generally there seem to be two main ways of thinking about meaning. There is the need to find meaning in one’s own life. These are the things that make living worthwhile. For some people this might be having purpose or direction, and having a life that, for whatever reason, results in a sense of fulfillment. Some philosophers have called this terrestrial meaning.

Having a clear idea of one’s values and ideals is possibly connected with this sort of meaning, as is having a role where one feels valued. It might also be to do with setting and achieving life goals, or even simply feeling that one’s life makes sense and that it has coherence.

On the other hand cosmic meaning refers to the more spiritual and supernatural dimension and the question of the meaning of life. Is there an overarching plan for the universe and some force that is responsible for this? Are coincidences just that – random coinciding events – or do they have a deeper significance?

Having a religious faith might well provide answers to questions about the meaning of life for many committed believers. But for others who are troubled by these questions, they might worry about the point of it all and be preoccupied by fears of nihilism: that life is without objective meaning, or intrinsic value.

So the concept of meaning will mean different things to different people. For some the concept of ‘purpose’ might encapsulate it well enough, whereas for others it might be more related to ideas of coherence and authenticity. It’s likely that there are as many different conceptions of meaning as there are people to conceive of it.

What is clear is that the idea of meaning is an abstract concept and extremely hard to define. It’s exasperatingly intangible. Attempting to define it using words, as I have been, feels like trying to describe a beautiful piece of music to someone who hasn’t heard it. However many words you use you can never really get anywhere near to describing it accurately.

And yet meaning is so completely and utterly essential for us as human beings. Indeed many existentialist philosophers believe the question of the meaning of one’s life is the most important question any individual will ever have to answer.

In this blog I will be focusing on the first of the meaning systems, that of terrestrial and personal meaning. I hope that people will find ideas in this blog that will inspire them in their quest for personal meaning, and support them on their journey as they attempt to answer that most important of questions for themselves.

In terms of cosmic meaning, my aim in this blog is not to attempt to solve the mystery of the origins of the universe or to discuss the question of why we are here. Neither is it to challenge those who have a religious understanding of the origins of life. Mankind has been attempting to answer these questions since it first walked the earth and I don’t think I have anything of much value to contribute to this debate. I am not a physicist or astronomer and neither do I have a particularly strong religious disposition.

As far as cosmic meaning goes, all I would say is that one should respect the beliefs of others, keep an open mind and, most importantly, embrace the mystery. Once we are comfortable with the uncertainty we might see that, just occasionally, not knowing everything can actually be a strangely beautiful thing.

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