Seeking an outside-of-life meaning as a category mistake

By SeekerFive

A very nice comment by @kjensenstudio pushed me to enlarge upon what I meant by suggesting, in a previous post, that “life is the condition for meaning and meaningfulness, rather than something that needs a single, permanent, or predetermined meaning.” Although I attempted to do so in a long-winded reply, I also want to share my attempt here.

So I am first of all thinking — AP2 having initially raised the topic in his post “The Meaning of Your Life” — about how we sometimes feel as though there is no point to life. Maybe this is your own life, or maybe this is human life in general. (It could be more expansive than human life, but I think our concern or despair is usually connected to feelings about our own life, all humanity, or something in-between.)

Or, the concern may be more intellectually focused. This can happen when we try to find, intellectually, an understanding of what it’s all leading toward, what the point of everything is, what good it is, and… cannot seem to find one. We die, those we love die, the Earth gets swallowed by the sun, the universe patterns out into heat death. It can feel and seem that there is no ultimate purpose, point, or meaning to life, whether one’s own life or life more widely.

I keep coming back to the thought that this conclusion often results from, or at least involves, a kind of “category mistake,” where we try to predicate a meaning of the “thing” — life — which makes meaning possible.

Projects, relationships, et cetera, within life, have meaning. They matter to us, some for the sake of other things, others intrinsically.

Life, in contrast, is a “condition” — a cause or ground, whether one or many — making it possible for such things to exist and mean. Life is not one of the things that lie within it, as do our relationships and projects, requiring or having a definite meaning fixed from without or obvious in its intrinsic personal importance to us. In in that sense it would be a mistake — an implicit miscategorization — to ask what life itself means or assume implicitly that it has or requires such meaning, and to conclude that it’s all pointless when no such meaning is found.

I also wonder whether perhaps we fail to notice this mistake, in part, because we may indeed find overall guiding meanings for everything within our life (meaning, that is, for all of our projects, relationships, and so forth), and we speak of these large guiding meanings also as “life’s meaning,” “the meaning of life,” and phrases of that sort. And indeed such overall guiding meanings can in truth be called life’s meaning. It is not wrong, I think, to call them that.

At the same time, there is an important difference between those meanings, on the one hand, and on the other hand a meaning supposedly assigned to life from without, a meaning which is undermined when we search for it outside of life itself. Our lives allow us to have greater meaning; they are conditions that make meaningfulness possible and the conditions within which encompassing purpose (meaning) is possible. One’s life may need to “have a point,” yet that point grows from within it and is not negated by life’s finitude, uncertainty, and instability. Even so, it may sometimes feel that way, and such feelings should be met always with compassion and understanding, whether the feelings are our own or those of another.


Besides writing, SeekerFive creates visual art and designs under his Leaf Town brand. Some of these can be seen on Instagram @leaftowndesigns, https://www.instagram.com/leaftowndesigns. Currently he is emphasizing face mask designs.

Images by (and property of) SeekerFive unless otherwise indicated.

8 thoughts on “Seeking an outside-of-life meaning as a category mistake

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  1. 🙂 This morning I have been writing in my own blog about similar stuff: principles and models to be exact, so I´m still full of enthusiasm reading this and, if I may quote from the post:
    “Our lives allow us to have greater meaning; they are conditions that make meaningfulness possible and the conditions within which encompassing purpose (meaning) is possible. One’s life may need to “have a point,” yet that point grows from within it and is not negated by life’s finitude, uncertainty, and instability. Even so, it may sometimes feel that way, and such feelings should be met always with compassion and understanding, whether the feelings are our own or those of another.”

    Here you speak of life as a condition, a kind of framework, that is what I understand. Could we say it is a “cast”, a “mould” maybe? A certain structure we can play within, fill with actions, behaviours, feelings and thoughts? And create the individual experience of life.
    In my discoveries, past intellectualizing, I have found out that it is necessary to know “how life works”, the principles of it, in order to fill this mould/ framework/ cast / structure with meaningful stuff. In order to play, work and love as we see fit. Just like it is necessary to know the principles of aerodynamics to make a model of a plane.

    Purpose and meaning are however two different things that can coincide, not always. I live in multilingual surroundings (think, speak, read, write in different languages), and I have searched for the definitions of these words through different languages and people of very different backgrounds that use it. Often used as synonyms, yet they are not, that can be confusing sometimes. The point of life (another expression) is only there from the inside-out, i.e. each of us can attribute it and it changes as we change and grow.

    Life´s finitude, uncertainty and instability are also attributes and concepts…. thoughts actually. And we feel what we think. So… the thoughts of uncertainty (triggered by something from outside, as opposed to meaning that comes from inside out?) produce complementary feelings, is my idea. Thoughts on instability produce feelings that accompany them and so on….
    We feel what we think and these two eventually create the meaningful experience of life. Or create experience that lacks meaning to the individual.

    The only constant in (a meaningful) life is change, and maybe we do not control all of the changes, we are in charge of acting on a thought or not. This choice can contribute to more meaningful experience.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi D., it’s interesting you were thinking about something similar. You bring up the figures of framework, cast, and mould. I think what I mean by a condition differs from this. The figures that come to mind for me seem to be ground, field, and space. My impression is that I’m saying something less than you are, and also something a bit different.

      Like

  2. I like how you outlined the difference how projects/relationships have meaning, and can be related to life’s meaning, but the meaning of life is a miscategorization…. I have been stumbling around the meaning of life but always in the realm of how it can’t/(or shouldn’t?) have a meaning, and I think this helps me see that. Thanks for sharing some good food for thought 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Your post reminded me of Monty Python’s ‘The Meaning of Life’. In a sense life is like that, a series of events that can seem unconnected and meaningless, but with the cause or ground as you call it, each can have its meaning.

    I fear I may not have written as clearly as the thoughts seemed in my head!

    Liked by 1 person

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