Disputed Question on Meaningful Existence

Whether there is, beyond any of the particular meaningful activities of life, a meaning as such that makes them all meaningful?

It would seem not, for

1.) That which is made meaningful by something other than itself is only instrumentally good. But experience shows that there is some particular good of human life which is not merely instrumentally good, e.g. excelling at one’s job, or in one’s spiritual life, or enjoying happiness.

2.) Meaning as such cannot be the object of desire but only some particular meaningful object, e.g. God or the Revolution or enjoyment. And so even if there were some such object beyond the particulars, we could not desire it and so it is superfluous to posit it.

3.) To posit anything that is “as such” beyond the particulars is to posit separate ideas, but there are no separate ideas apart from particulars for several reasons: (a.) Things in reality exist in different ways from things in themselves, e.g. sugar and snow show that a white thing can be both sweet and not sweet, while white as such cannot be. (b.) If two things differ essentially, the knowledge of one cannot give us knowledge of the other. But the particular X and the X itself differ essentially, therefore it is pointless to posit a meaning itself that cannot be known, or give any knowledge of the value of particular acts. (c.) This question is primarily a matter of action. But in practical matters we posit nothing which will not make a difference in action, and to know about meaning itself does not help us to discover any particular meaningful thing.

Sed Contra: To seek for something transcending the meaning of particular acts is a spontaneous and universal human desire and so cannot be entirely reduced to something other than itself. See Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age  pp 676 et seq. and or Tolstoy’s articulation of Ivan’s fundamental question of his life in The Death of Ivan Illich.

I Respond:

The linguistic field of the English meaning, its cognates, and negations is extraordinarily broad and rich, but, as a consequence, it lacks precision. Most significations of meaning involve some termination of a power or intention, and so can  indicate the purpose of something. We are here asking a question in the moral order (even if it has ontological overtones) and so we consider things meaningful so far as they are morally desirable or valuable. And so the question is equivalent to whether there is that which is valuable or desirable in itself beyond particular desirable things.

The active power to desire follows upon the awareness of things, but not every awareness leads to desire. The awareness of abstract realities does not lead to desiring the abstractions as such (except in an accidental sense when we seek them as objects of knowledge) but to the desire for the concrete realities that either exist or can exist. And so if the valuable or desirable in itself is an abstraction, then it cannot be sought as such.

Now the purpose of abstractions is to identify what is essential in some multitude, and so all are essentially categorical. But being as such is not categorical, and so neither is it an abstraction. Again, being cannot be abstracted because every abstraction involves the separation from some being. Again, the reality of the concrete in opposition to the abstract is peculiar to sensible things, where a necessary component of the object known depends on the existence of the subject (since the disposition of the organ contributes something to the thing which is known, though not the totality). In knowing being, however, even when one judges it about a sensible thing, one does not know an object that depends in any way on the subject. In knowing being as such, therefore, the mind must relate to it as non-abstract but essentially real, and so simultaneously causes a motion of desire towards being. This is the good as such, a reality that is distinguished from goods as particular or universal, abstract or concrete.

Thus the tendency to the good as such is distinct from any particular valuable or desirable thing. This primordial tendency of the will is the foundation of all other valuable things, and so of anything meaningful. To the extent that we do not have a confidence in the fundamental goodness of being, that is, a reality itself as fundamentally attuned to, corresponding to, and perfective of human desire, no other particular good can have any meaning at all.

From this the answer to the first is clear.

To the second: Particulars are concrete instances of abstract universals, and so the valuable as such is not properly speaking a particular thing. The opposition between particular and universal or abstract and concrete are not adequate categories for the reality in question, but are peculiar to the sensible or natural as per se sensed.

To the third: All of these are fine critiques that abstract ideas do not have concrete subsistence, but this is beside the point here.

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