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Thoughts on Terry Eagleton's "The Meaning of Life"

Updated on July 22, 2012

In The Meaning of Life, Terry Eagleton explains that “the meaning of life is interestingly close to meaninglessness”. This leaves people free to apply meaning to their own life experiences, beliefs, and lives as they wish. This is completely postmodern in that people are able to create meaning for themselves. Everyone is free to choose their own beliefs and if they are unable to find something suitable that already exists they may imagine and design their own. Yet, life would only be meaningless if people refuse to assign it any meaning. There may be no external meaning to life. The only meaning in life may be what people bring into their own individual lives. This seems to be consistent with Eagleton’s “hat” and “pain” analogy.

Eagleton spends a great deal of time arguing over the meaning of meaning. He describes how meaning may be expressed through signs, symbols, acts, and structures. However, I think he spent far too much time explaining linguistics and semantics as compared to meaning. People express and understand meaning in their own ways. People who speak the same language may not fully comprehend one another. Analyzing language and communication too in-depthly may merely hinder it by causing greater confusion. If people only converse over what everything means they will never be able to actually say anything of pertinence. That is why language exists with words representing symbols that everyone can understand. Ambiguity serves a purpose in communication, but perhaps it should distinctly be the philosopher’s job to destroy the ambiguity of language.

Eagleton spends a lot of time discussing how difficult it can be to identify meaning. Yet, he barely touches on things of worth and meaning which are highly ineffable. How many things of beauty, wonder, and joy are simply indescribable not for lack of vocabulary but lack of words. There are certain things in life which are simply too intense or perfect to express in words. Just because people may not be able to express the meaning of something does not make that thing meaningless. Is it not possible that the most meaningful things or experiences in life are the ones that are unutterable or overwhelmingly inexpressible?

Why do some people feel the need to define everything so explicitly that there is no room for interpretation? Eagleton certainly seems to have a desperate need to do this. However, people are free to their own interpretations of meaning. This may be seen as a fault of language. On the other hand, it may be seen as an example of individual subjectivity which cannot be denied. Everything a person believes and the meaning that they assign to things is all based on their past knowledge and experiences. These things help define who a person is and what they will believe and help form a basis for how a person will interpret something. In the end people will seek or not seek the answer to the meaning of life as they choose.

Personally, my feelings on this topic have been altered, modified, and slowly evolved as I have lived through more experiences and gained more information on the subject. I assume that this shall continue to be the case as I follow my chosen path through life. Eagleton has offered me various ideas on the subject of the meaning of life. In the end I shall decide through my own interpretations what that meaning truly is. You should too.


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