There has been much philosophical debate about ‘The Meaning of Life’, a phrase which analytic philosophy tends to regard as meaningless, or at least not worth considering. But there also seems to be some confusion between the idea that ‘Life’ has a meaning and what it is to lead a meaningful life. The former seems to refer to life in general (‘why are we here?’, ‘why do living things exist’, do they have a purpose’) that is, to refer to Life as an object rather than asking what it is for an individual subject to feel that life is meaningful. Seen in that way, the transition between asking a question about an external fact and asking a question about personal experience seems absolute. They are surely different types of question. But once we pluralise the sense of the subjective experience of meaning in our lives and extrapolate from our own experience to the apparent, and asserted, experiences of others, the two fields of factual identification and personal perception begin to overlap like the areas of convergence of circles in a Venn diagram. If life is only meaningful to me because this or that project which I am engaged in makes it so, that says nothing about ‘The Meaning of Life’ in general terms, even if the projects concerned can themselves be shown to have significance beyond the fact of my interest in them. But if these projects are shared with others, and those others also can be observed to be engaged in meaningful activity in engaging with them, and if we can collectively assert this sense of meaningful activity, then the sense of ‘meaningful’ is not limited to subjective experience but can be seen to apply to collective experience. This, it might be argued, does not extend the sense of ‘meaningful’ to Life in general, but merely expands the subjective domain into the cultural sphere: a collective subject does not become an object.
From where, then, does the shared sense of meaning as something beyond us arise? Can it encompass Life beyond particular projects which may be seen as part of human cultural activity? If a person is interested in horse-riding to the extent that it shapes important parts of that person’s life-activity, and if this is shared with others in a horse-riding club, and other related activities, and so gives meaning to the lives of those people, could it also be said to be meaningful for the horses? The answer to such a question in this context doesn’t depend upon being able to know what is meaningful for a horse, but upon being able to extend the human sense of ‘meaningful’ to life in general. Nor does it depend upon particular meanings being transmissible across human cultures and beyond them to other life forms. But it does depend upon being able to talk meaningfully about the way all life interacts to give significance to the things we do and the experiences we gain from doing them. The sense of an individual having a soul, which is the mirror of meaning, and of human cultures having souls mirrored in cultural customs and artefacts, is the same sense in which meaning is inherent in life for the human species. The commonality of story themes across different cultures which take on specific cultural forms while retaining an archetypal integrity, suggests the universality of meaningful discourse at a deep structural level for human beings. That many of these stories contain animals who interact with humans, and often involve other than human persons, also extends meaningfulness in ways that do not limit it to one species.
So we can say that the ‘meaning’ of Life is contained in meaningful activity that potentially includes all life-forms which together express the collective soul out of which individual souls are composed. Meaning, then, inheres in cultural values, not only in the sense of ‘high’ cultural artefacts of human society, but in the activities of all living things as they go about their everyday enactments of ways of being. What Wittgenstein called the ‘release into life’ is what makes it meaningful, and defines the meaning of life and naturalises it so the quotes around the word are no longer necessary. Meaning emerges from the subject-object relationship at every level and so where the gods are reflected in our practices that acknowledge them -consciously or not - and this is why they are both subject and object for us, both with us in our world and beyond us in a world of their own, in the interplay between Thisness and Otherness where meaning is generated.