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Meaning in LifeReview - Meaning in Life
by Thaddeus Metz
Oxford University Press, 2014
Review by Mark Zlomislic, Ph.D.
Nov 17th 2015 (Volume 19, Issue 47)

Metz's new book Meaning in Life is a result of ten years of research into the question of meaning IN life.

Metz divides his book into three parts. In the first part he analyzes the concept of meaning itself. He argues that both parts of a life and the whole of a life can exhibit meaning, and that meaning is a good distinct from other goods like pleasure or happiness.

In the second part Metz analyzes so called super-naturalist theories of the meaning--the idea that a god or soul is the key to the meaning of life. Metz denies this idea and argues that life can be meaningful even in the absence of a perfect ideal.

In the third part Metz rejects subjectivist, naturalistic accounts of meaning so that he can tell us about why an objectivist, naturalistic accounts of meaning is the correct one to have. In his words, "roughly the idea that a life is (particularly) meaningful insofar as exercises reason in a robust, sophisticated way and orients it  towards basic conditions of human existence."

He claims, "great meaning in a life comes from using rationality to positively engage with these kinds of "deep" facets of human life." This theory, Metz thinks, "better than existing rivals in the literature, captures intuitions about the good, the true and the beautiful as central to meaning, intuitions that are salient in the Anglo-American philosophical literature, which I have principally addressed so far."

So Metz is giving us a theory of life by looking at the closed circuit of "Anglo-American philosophical literature" and then making a universal pronouncement on what meaning actually is.   This is precisely my issue with his approach. A more apt title would have been "An examination of meaning in the literature of Anglo-American philosophy"

Metz analyzes what makes a person's life meaningful through the filter of analytic philosophy.

He begins by examining what (if anything) all the conditions that make a life meaningful have in common. This move ends up giving us yet another theory of meaning in life.

For Metz, the emphasis lies on the word IN rather than the word OF. Since there is no one meaning OF life, there must be meaning IN life.

 Meaning is reduced to an analytic synopsis that misses the question of meaning and the question of life.

In his words, "meaning in life is a matter of intelligence contoured toward fundamental conditions of human existence."

 In terms of Metz's writing and research, Hasko von Kriegstein is correct when he claims that "Thaddeus Metz's Meaning in Life is a magisterial treatment of this important topic as it is discussed in contemporary analytic philosophy."

As Masahiro Morioka has clearly shown, "One of the most basic presumptions of Metz's objectivism is that we can compare one's meaning in life with the other, by observing their lives from the outside, and can reach the conclusion that one life is more meaningful than the other. I have grave doubts about this way of thinking."  

My response to Metz's book is simple.

The epistemology of meaning misses the existential question of meaning.

Meaning is always already subjective.

Take a home renovation project for example. For the past three months (depending on who is counting), I have been sanding the old staircase of our old house. I could, following thinkers like Camus and Nagel, conclude that I am ultimately engaging in an absurd activity; much like the Greek hero Sisyphus who was condemned to roll a boulder up a hill, only to watch it come down again and again for eternity. Why absurd you ask? And what does philosophy have to do with sanding a staircase? More than meets the sandpaper, so to speak!

The staircase is more than a hundred years old. It is well built and a testament to the quality of the work done at the time. Yet, a century ago, someone was doing exactly what I am doing now-sanding wood. I do not know if they were thinking of Sisyphus. The sanded wood was stained with a deep walnut hue. Fifty years later, the wood was sanded yet again and then painted a modern ivory. The people who lived in the house before us stripped the paint and then sanded the wood again staining it American colonial. Tired of the stained wooden look, I found myself sanding out the stain to reapply a postmodern ivory, which is really a medieval white.

As Camus might ask, 'What is the point of all this repetitious effort?" Instead of seeing sanding as something that wears you down, cramps your fingers and clogs your lungs with dust, one might look at the grain and learn patience, discover the value of process and find hidden treasures.

While sanding, I found a penny from the 1900's that the first owner had hidden in the staircase. Apparently, he was also a philosopher with a sense of humor. Here was a gift from the past to reward my strenuous effort. I let my own gift hidden in a crevice within the staircase. I paid the penny forward and attached it to a note, a time capsule, a wisdom bubble, that read, "How meaningful is your life, if you are doing the same thing I did, fifty years ago?" One would hope that in what we do, we recognize for the first time, what we have been unable to see. This is where joy and wisdom open, never to depart; at least, not until the next project.

The existential question of meaning will always surpass the epistemology of meaning.

Metz was onto the existential question of meaning when he spent time with his son and family.

He wavered as he tried to capture meaning IN a book by researching the topic for ten years.


© 2015 Mark Zlomislic

 

  

Mark Zlomislic is professor of philosophy at Conestoga College, Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada


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