The meaning of life?

We must first recognise that the concept of ‘meaning’ is socially constructed. Meaning does not exist in and of itself. (Might I add that ‘meaninglessness’ does not exist in and of itself). We must recognise this term for what it is at the most fundamental level: a social-linguistic construct. This most basic fact is more often than not overlooked when considering the question, ‘What is the meaning of life?’

Recognition that we are talking about something inherently ‘social’ ought to mean we remain in the realm of the social when we ask questions of it.

The meaning of life is given by society. The term ‘society’ can conjure up an image of the unwashed masses imposing their tyrannical regime on poor, unsuspecting, innocent you. Let me be absolutely clear in this: YOU are an intrinsic, significant part of the society that constructs your meaning of life. It is not thus ‘you versus society’ or ‘society versus the individual’. The individual or self is itself socially constructed.

Before I dwell more deeply into the notion of a socially-constructed meaning of life, let us hear some alternative viewpoints…

Albert Camus suggests that the meaning of life is ‘life itself’, i.e. personal experience. However, humans by nature reflect (as opposed to experience) and Camus does not give this aspect of existence the attention it deserves.

Soren Kierkegaard believes the meaning of life is subjective. It is a faith-based, passionate commitment to a truth which is an objective uncertainty. Idealistically, he is correct in regards to passion. However, some interpretations of Kierkegaard are misleading in that they suggest that society plays no role (or indeed forms a dichotomy to) constructions of individual, subjective meaning. We can learn from Hegel in recognising that our particular time and culture plays a significant role in the construction of personal meaning.

I suggest that ‘society without you’, ‘society versus you’ and ‘society with you’ are just three aspects of the one society involved in the construction of meaning. Furthermore, phenomenology has nothing to say in regards to the meaning of life, because reflection on meaning comes much later than phenomenon.

So what is the meaning of life? Frankly, it is something which you will need to construct/imagine/reflect in the context of broader society. You may accept and place yourself within an existing narrative such as Christianity or philosophise your way to a new meaning. Use your imagination (Kant) and take in stories, philosophy and history of your culture (Hegel) with authenticity (Heidegger) and as an individal (Kierkegaard, Nietzche). Recognise both your facticity (the facts about you) and transcendence (your freedom not to interpret yourself in a particular way in relation to those facts) (Sarte). Be passionate about the truth and meaning for you (Kierkegaard, Nietzche), not pessimistic (Schopenhauer) or escaptist (Plato, other wordly religion). Take this life and this world by the balls and do something to shape and improve it (Marx).


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