In Douglas Adams
The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy,
the answer to the meaning of life was “42” (Adams, 1985)1
which essentially makes it a mathematical question rather than a metaphysical
one, though it would be negligent not to acknowledge that there are those who
feel that mathematics and metaphysics are one and the same, and who can prove
outline the meaning of life mathematically (Class, January 8, 2018)2.
What kind of question is it then? What exactly is it asking?
Terry Eagleton in his short book The Meaning of Life: A Very Short
Introduction suggested that the question itself is flawed, as “meaning is a
matter of languages, not objects” (Eagleton, Ch.1 p. 2)3.
But is it not the function of language to communicate a meaning, even to
intangible concepts? How else would we communicate or learn about things like ennui
is difficult to pin down what the question is asking is because it evokes a
different significance to each person it is asked of. In our first class on
January 8, 2018, we were all asked what we thought the answer to the question
was, and while many of us came up with similar answers, many did not. This
seems to indicate that the question means something different to each person
who heard it. As Terry Eagleton pointed out, when the word “meaning” is used,
it is usually to signify, to intend or to indicate something (Eagleton, Ch. 2,
p. 4), so when we ask, “What is the meaning of life?”
prior to the industrial revolution there would have likely been a single answer
but realistically, could there have been any other? Christianity had a very
firm hold over the thoughts, politics and lifestyles of the western world, and
deviance from that rhetoric could have extreme consequences. People are now
free to explore and embrace other belief systems and ways of looking at the
Universe in a way that they have not been in centuries. This necessarily adds
more depth and dimension to what is being asked.
this paper, I will argue that the question, “What is the meaning of life?” is
asking whether someone feels that they have a greater purpose to their lives. Eagleton
states that while language is that which enables the question to be formed, it
is also language with is the source of much of the confusion around it
(Eagleton, Ch. 1, p.7). It is true that there could be myriad interpretations as
to what the question is asking, yet people generally understand that it is asking
what purpose they feel their lives have, and this was illustrated quite nicely
in class (January 8, 2018).
mentioned above, much of the confusion around the question could stem from the
fact that the language it is asked in is itself unclear. Asking questions in different
ways can elicit completely different answers, because each question is posed in
a particular context and each time the question is reframed, the context is reframed
along with it (Eagleton, Ch. 1, p.p. 4-5). It is therefore important to ask the
question in the right way to unearth the right answer (Ibid, p. 4). That seems
like stacking the deck to ensure the answer is the same one the querent is seeking.
next problem in the question of the meaning of life is the word ‘life’ itself.
According to Eagleton, we can impose meaning upon life, but it cannot have meaning
on its own as it cannot have a purpose any more than the human body can; it has
a function sure, but that is a different thing altogether (Eagleton, Ch. 1, pp.
1, 2, 8, 9). When people consider the meaning of their lives, they are not doing
so in the context of how their bodies function and move them around (Ibid, Ch.
2, p. 5). While it may be important to walk or drive to the store to get cream
for coffee, it is not the purpose that most people think when they are asked
the question. While it is possible that there does not need to be some kind of
supernatural source to this meaning (Ibid, pp. 8, 10), it is unlikely the
meaning falls within the mundane.
of a philosopher’s job is to alight upon the proper meaning of a word or words by
weeding through its myriad definitions and contexts (Eagleton, Ch. 1, p. 4),
but even philsophers have been unable to agree on what the meaning of life is,
or even what the question is. Most English speaking (English?) philosophers
feel that it is not even possible to answer such a question (Ibid, p. 2). It is
also not unlikely that even if there were a definitive answer to this question,
way may never know what it is (Ibid, p.1). While we are shown through mythology
and spiritual beliefs what is supposed to matter to us (Eagleton, Ch.1, p. 8), there
is still a need to weed through the words and language used to decipher that meaning.
mere fact that life is finite could add a great deal of meaning to lives that
already seem hollow and vapid, no matter what externals we try to fill them
with (Eagleton, Ch. 2, p. 5). Human life is short and attempting to find some
greater meaning to it may very well be a response to its impermanence; a way of
denying it, a way of compensating for it. And that may very well be the case
for those who do not feel that there is any purpose to life beyond living it. If
they are nothing else however, our lives are the stories we tell of ourselves,
and with any good story, the meaning of it does not until the ending to unfold,
rather it exists in that space between the beginning and the ending (Eagleton, Ch.
2, p. 11).
it is a reaction to the fleeting nature of human lives, or due to spiritual
believes (or lack thereof), it seems clean that when the question is asked “What
is the meaning of life?” it is generally understood to ask if they feel that
their existence has any deeper significance or purpose. What that significance or
purpose might be is dependent on the person being asked. Whatever the answer to
that question might be, it is likely that it lies in within the actual search
for meaning in life (Eagleton, Ch. 1, p. 3).
1 The answer to the question
“What is the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything” appears several times
throughout the book and series. Therefore, for ease of citation, I have elected
to reference the book in its entirety.
meaning of life in relation to the number 42 was illustrated on the blackboard in
class, but I do not know the name of the student who did this.
3 The electronic version of
Eagleton’s book that I used did not include page numbers within each chapter.
For ease of citation, I have imposed my own pagination, starting at 1 at the
beginning of each chapter, citing as follows: Eagleton, Ch.#, p.#.