Review : Meaning in Life by Thaddeus Metz

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Thaddeus Metz forensically dissects every possible definition of meaning in human life, to deliver what must be the definitive epistemology of meaning. He exhaustively examines supernatural, natural subjective, and natural objective accounts of meaning. His work, subtitled ‘An Analytical Study’, is in the analytical tradition of Anglo-American philosophy. It’s rather a complex read addressed to the academic philosophy specialist, is very comprehensive, considering in detail no less than 34 different variants of 7 major accounts of meaning, is interesting throughout, but is not always gripping, and is occasionally tedious.

Metz discounts a supernaturalist version of meaning, since we are sure that meaning exists, but not that God exists, and because any God cannot be both perfect and purposive. Supernaturalism, like theism, makes meaning, as it does value, an arbitrary command and removes human agency. We can’t justify theism as writers like John Cottingham seek to do, just because we find no other account for meaning.

Crucially, Metz decides against a subjectivist naturalist account of meaning because it could then include actions of which he disapproves, regardless of whether others might find them meaningful. This is the elitist price of his insistence on objectivity.

Unlike other objectivists like Susan Wolf and Erik Wielenberg, Metz does seek an account for an objective naturalist interpretation of meaning. He does this by advancing his ‘fundamentality’ hypothesis which he finally unveils on page 235. It’s pretty complicated and hedged with qualification, but his strategy appears to be to anchor meaning in the conjunction of rationality and ‘fundamental conditions of human existence’. His appeal is therefore to the objectivity of deductive logic and nature’s ‘physical properties’. This does not fully develop a metaphysical concept which unquestionably prevenes on the physical, eg a home onto a building, music onto sound patterns. It is in this metaphysical that a more general, more widespread, more universally accessible, but necessarily subjective, understanding of meaning arises. The mountain ahead of me can thus mean beauty, or challenge, or refreshment, or conversely threat and awe. My life can similarly generate meaning, both back to myself, and onwards to others.

Metz however takes a much more stringent pragmatic view of meaning. Meaning has to be beyond our own pleasure and animal nature, and to be worthy of great esteem (p60). His definitions focus on objectives and achievements, contribution and virtue exemplars. Meaning becomes a kind of economic cost benefit analysis of life. On this basis, not everyone’s life has meaning, and some lives have more meaning than others.

Meaning is better rendered as ‘interpretation’ than as ‘achievement’ to make it a more universal human good. Ultimately the appreciation of meaning is subjective, arbitrary, and temporal, but this does not undermine its value and importance to human life.

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