Can we assign meaning to things?

Photo by Mark König on Unsplash

One of the essential “splits” in philosophy is that between realists and anti-realists. Essentially, the realist says that a thing has a meaning of its own, independent of and prior to whatever one might think about it. The anti-realist, on the other hand, says that things have no meaning except for the meaning that one gives to them. The difference between the realist and the anti-realist therefore has to do with the “location” of meaning relative to thought. The realist says that the meaning of things comes before our thought, so that our thought is accountable to it. The anti-realist, on the other hand, says that the meaning of things comes after our decision to think about them in some way.

This issue comes up with respect to the question of the meaning of life. Does our life come with a pregiven meaning, a meaning that is independent of what we think about it? Or does our life only have meaning if we assign a meaning to it? The realist would say the former, whereas the anti-realist would say the latter.

Here is an argument for thinking that true meaning is only possible if it is not something we make up:

(1) A thing can only have meaning for us if we choose to think about it in a certain way.
(2) But a thing cannot have lasting meaning for us unless it recommends itself to us as having a certain meaning.
(3) Therefore, a thing can only have lasting meaning for us if its meaning is something we discover rather than fabricate.

Premise (1) recognizes that the meaning of something for us is a matter of how we think about it. For example, my Bible has a meaning for me that it does not have for my cat. I would not sit on it, whereas my cat does not have any qualms about sitting on it. This is because I think about it in a certain way that she does not. I ascribe a certain meaning to it which she does not. Since she is only a cat, the only meaning the Bible can have for her is that which corresponds to her interests: e.g., it is something comfortable (or not) to sit on or to rub her snout against.

Premise (2) emphasizes that the ascription of meaning to a thing is not the whole story. The thing itself also has to be capable of sustaining or bearing the meaning which we ascribe to it. For example, I cannot take an empty to-go cup of coffee to be the most precious thing in the world to me. I can treat it as such for some time, perhaps cleaning it very carefully and putting it on a pedestal in my home, decorating and dedicating a shrine to it, putting pictures of it in my wallet, and so on. But eventually I will realize that this thing cannot be the most important thing to me. It simply is not worth the effort that I am putting into valuing it. Eventually, I will realize that this is a meaning which the thing itself cannot support. It does not recommend itself to me as meriting this meaning-ascription.

The conclusion of the argument (3) is therefore the following. The meaning of things may not be obviously given. We have to make choices about how to understand and to think about things. Taking a stance toward some thing is like assuming a certain position relative to an object in space: the object is only visible from some point of view or other; and only if we take a stance toward some object can it have a meaning for us. But at the same time, not just any stance will do. Some objects reveal themselves as being incapable of supporting certain stances one might take toward them. In other words, it is also necessary that a thing recommend itself to us as having the meaning that we give to it. Our meaning-ascription has to be “confirmed” by the object in some way. And in this way, it becomes obvious that the truly meaningful things in life are those things whose meanings we did not invent but rather discovered. The truly and lastingly meaningful things are precisely those things whose meaning impresses itself upon us when we are ordered in the right way to see them, rather than those things we try to make meaningful. Something is only truly meaningful if we do not invent its meaning.

And this is something we all know in experience. One can try to make a relationship work with a person for whom one feels nothing, but it will never be as meaningful or as enjoyable as the relationship with a person with whom one simply “finds oneself” in love. One can major in anything one pleases at university, but nothing will ever be as meaningful as that about which one simply “finds oneself” passionate. These are ways in which the truly meaningful is precisely that which we discover and not that which we invent.

I have a PhD in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary.