In his attempt to look for a concept of meaning or meaningfulness common to the major theories or conceptions of a meaningful life, Thaddeus Metz suggests, after failing to find such a common concept, that these theories or conceptions are united by family resemblances, for they all address some of the questions in a group of related questions. He does not explain how the questions are related or what determines whether a question should be put in the group; he gives us only examples of such questions (“questions such as the following: how may a person bring purpose to her life, where this is not just a matter of pursuing happiness or acting rightly? How should an individual connect with intrinsic value beyond his animal nature? How might one do something worthy of great admiration?” (“The Concept of a Meaningful Life”, American Philosophical Quarterly, 38, pp.150-151)). But even if he had explained in some way how these questions are related, he might still not have explained why they are all questions about meaning or meaningfulness.
According to Susan Wolf, a meaningful life is “one that has within it the basis for an affirmative answer to the needs or longings that are characteristically described as needs for meaning” (“Happiness and Meaning: Two Aspects of the Good Life”, Social Philosophy and Policy, 14, p.208, italics added). And the concerns that she thinks people have when they are troubled by the problem about meaningfulness are “whether their lives have been (or are) worth living, whether they have had any point, and the sort of questions one asks when considering suicide and wondering whether one has any reason to go on” (p.209). Should we then say that what explains why the concerns can all be expressed by questions that are asked in terms of the concept of meaning is that the questions can all be used to express needs for meaning? We can certainly say that, but it does not seem to get us very far, for the term ‘meaning’ is used in ‘needs for meaning’. We still have to explain why it is that what these questions express is needs for meaning rather than needs for something else.
The best answer, I suggest, is that all the concerns are related to the meaning of the word ‘meaning’ (and its cognates). Or more precisely, all the concerns people have when they are troubled by the problem about meaningfulness are related to the meaning of the word ‘meaning’ when it is used in some other contexts as well as in the context of thinking or talking about the meaning or meaningfulness of one’s life.
To see the plausibility of this suggestion, we can first consider linguistic meaning, that is, the meaning of ‘meaning’ when the word is applied to linguistic items such as words and sentences. As a matter of fact, it is not only in English that the very same word is used in both ‘the meaning of a life’ and ‘the meaning of a sentence’ (or ‘the meaning of a word’). In each of the other major languages the same word is applied to both a life and a sentence: in German, it is the word ‘Bedeutung’; in French, ‘sens’; in Spanish, ‘sentido’; in Italian, ‘significato’; in Portuguese, ‘significação’; in Russian, ‘значе́ние’; and in Chinese, ‘意義’.
Linguistic items can be evaluated as having meaning or not having meaning, or as being meaningful or being meaningless. It is good for a linguistic item to have meaning, and bad for it not to have meaning. Some may think that anything that is meaningless is not a linguistic item. Let us grant that, for instance, a meaningless string of letters from the English alphabet, such as ‘rytwe’, is not really a linguistic item, but it is clear that a grammatical but meaningless string of meaningful words, such as Noam Chomsky’s famous example of ‘Colorless green ideas sleep furiously’, is a linguistic item ¾ it is a sentence. Sometimes a linguistic item is not literally meaningless in the way Chomsky’s example is, but it is still considered meaningless or nonsensical in the context in which it is used because it does not fit in with the context and does not provide information it is supposed to provide, such as when someone utters ‘I think Epictetus was cooler than Jesus’ as an answer to the question ‘Are you coming to my party tonight?’.
One reason why a meaningless linguistic item is bad is that it hinders, or at least fails to facilitate, communication and understanding. In other words, it fails to fulfill its proper function. Another reason may be that it is an aberration in something that is otherwise orderly and systematic. That is, a meaningless linguistic item is disagreeable. There may be other reasons, but here I need only to point out the fact that linguistic meaning has an evaluative aspect; when we apply ‘meaning’ or ‘meaningful’ to a linguistic item, we are making an evaluative judgment. Likewise, when ‘meaning’ or ‘meaningful’ is applied to a life, the resulting judgment is also evaluative. Accordingly, when a person asks the question ‘Does my life have meaning?’ or ‘Is my life meaningful?’, she can be expressing her concern about the evaluation of her life.
When we evaluate a linguistic item as having a meaning, we certainly do not mean that it has the meaning that all other linguistic items have. There is simply no such thing. In most cases, each linguistic item has its own meaning, or is meaningful in its own way. Like meaningful linguistic items, meaningful lives can be meaningful in very different ways, though it is not as clear that there is no such thing as the meaning of life (this is why some people are looking for it). And when a person looks for the meaning of her life, she is not looking for a generic meaning that all lives have in common ¾ even if there was such a meaning.