Garrett Thomson


English Professor of Philosophy at The College of Wooster, Author and Editor

Author Quotes

Stories have a meaning, which is not reducible to the sum of the meanings of the sentences that compose them. Can we compare the life of a person to a story or text?

The Absolute must be conceived as a process.

The evaluative aspects of our everyday lives depend on the intentionality and phenomenology of perception or appreciation.

The goal itself cannot be the meaning. It might be a potential cause or source of meaning… the cause of happiness is not what happiness consists in.

The meaning of life must be in the living of it. This is because, (a) in a sense, the meaning of one’s life is oneself, and (b) it is the person that has primary non-instrumental value. The individual has value and, consequently, so does his or her life and so do the processes that constitute that life. The finite processes of life have meaning, without the need of the Absolute.

The Nine Mistakes [about ways to think about the meaning of life]: (1) Only the infinite has meaning; the finite can only have meaning insofar as it participates in the infinite. (2) The meaning of life consists in some goal or purpose. (3) The meaning of life is happiness. (4) The meaning of life must be invented. (5) Life cannot have a meaning if the universe is entirely composed of matter, as science teaches us. (6) The sole or primary purpose of evaluations is to guide our choice of actions, and value judgments are reducible to reasons for action. (7) The meaning of a person’s life cannot extend to things beyond the boundaries of his or her mode of living. (8) A person’s life does not having meaning because only linguistic items can be meaningful. (9) The meaning of our lives consists in our living in accordance with a self-determined life-plan.

There are countless dimensions of interpretation, and this is why it is a mistake to refer to the meaning of one’s life as if there were only one.

Traditionally, the relation between the divine and the human is that the divine confers meaning on our finite and otherwise petty lives. The idea… is that the divine has qualities that are meaningful because of our possible response to them. In other words, rather than starting from the divine and understanding the meaning of our lives in terms of that, we should start from meaningful activities, such as contemplation and worship, that constitute an appropriate response to the divine, and from this, try to make sense of the divine.

We are in danger of confusing the purpose with the process. The meaning of life would not be the goal, but rather the process.

We are not merely instruments, either for our own goals or for those of God. This is why it is a mistake to identify the meaning of life with a goal…. This does not imply that our own goals are not and should not be important to our lives… just that they are not the meaning of life in themselves.

We connect meaningfully to other people by appreciating their value, by recognizing their interests as valuable and by acting appropriately. By making their interests our concern, we develop `we’-consciousness. In this way, we can transcend the boundaries of our own lives.

We construct our phenomenological experience of the world, but not the world itself. We construct a meaningful experience of life, but that does not mean that we invent meaning.

We may conclude that the claim `Either there is a plan or else the existence of life is pure chance’ presents a false dichotomy. We’re not trapped into having to agree either with Teilhard or Monod. We can disagree with both.

We should not feel that something else gives life meaning, even some transcendental purpose… The religious aspect of life needs to be re-conceptualized to avoid the error of turning life into only a means to Heaven, Nirvana, or union with God.

While the theory of evolution spells out how the changes take place, any concept of a cosmic plan would specify why.

A meaningful life is also not one that has merely instrumental value to some goal, even if the goal is divine. This suggests two important conclusions; First, meaningful activities are those that have a certain kind of non-instrumental value, and a meaningful life is one that consists of such activities. Second, derived from this, the meaning of a life must be in the living of it, or rather in the way it is lived. These are important conclusions, because they apply even if God has a purpose in mind for us and even if there is an everlasting afterlife. Even if there is a goal worth struggling for, the meaning is in the struggle.

A meaningful life would be one which serves or has some kind of purpose, and a meaningless life would be on that is pointless or purposeless… `Whose purpose?’

A Reason, or universal self-consciousness, transcends the awareness of oneself in potential conflict with others, because it consists of awareness of oneself and others as existing in the universal infinite Spirit. Reason sees nature as the expression of the infinite Spirit.

Betterment does not require the best as a goal. It only requires the idea of improvement.

Evolution is not necessarily a reductive theory: it does not explain away or reduce meaningfulness and value, any more than it explains away or reduces mathematics, economics, or even sociobiology itself. It aims to provide a naturalistic explanation of biological characteristics, including the capacities that enable us to recognize value and meaning. Giving a causal explanation of the origin of capacities is not the same as giving an account of the relevant meaning or content.

Having criticized the idea that God gives life meaning by assigning a purpose to us collectively or to each one of us individually, this does not mean that God is irrelevant to the meaning of life. It does not exclude the idea that part of the meaning of life consists in the contemplation or worship of the divine…

In summary, goals or end-states are not intrinsically valuable, even though they direct and explain action. Although having aims or goals is an important and unavoidable aspect of life, it is a mistake to confuse those goals with non-instrumental value because this would imply that activities are merely instrumentally valuable. It is the goals of our activities that are instrumentally valuable; they are valuable to achieve because they lead to further worthwhile activities.

Making the meaning of life depend on the Infinite threatens to deny the meaning of a purely finite life. We have rejected the assumption that only the infinite or the unlimited or the Absolute has meaning, or that finite things can have meaning only in relation to the Absolute.

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English Professor of Philosophy at The College of Wooster, Author and Editor