Review of Thaddeus Metz’s: Meaning in Life

Thaddeus Metz is Head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. He grew up in Des Moines, Iowa and received his PhD from Cornell University in 1997. He is probably the most prolific scholar working today on an analytic approach to the meaning of life.

Metz’s directs his new book, Meaning in Life, primarily toward scholars, although any serious student of the subject can follow along if they are willing to put forth the effort. The book results from ten years of systematic research into what I consider the single most important philosophical question. Metz states on the first page that he believes “the old saying that the meaning of life lies in the search for it.” If meaning is found in the search for it, then Metz has lived a meaningful life.

The book is divided into three parts. In the first part he considers the concept of meaning itself. He argues that both parts of a life and the whole of a life can exhibit meaning, and that meaning is a good distinct from other goods like pleasure or happiness. In the second part he examines supernaturalist theories of the meaning—the idea that a god or soul is the key to the meaning of life. Such theories are motivated by the idea that meaning requires an engagement with some perfect or ideal value. But Metz denies this idea, arguing that life can be meaningful even in the absence of a perfect ideal. Still he does admit that a god or soul would probably enhance life if they indeed exist.

In the final part of the book Metz begins by rejecting subjectivist, naturalistic accounts of meaning. He then proceeds to reject the major objectivist, naturalistic accounts of meaning: 1) attraction to objectively good things; 2) utilitarian actions that make the world a better place; and 3) engagement with mind-independent goods in the physical world.

Metz then offers his own account of meaning in life. He approaches the question by asking what if anything the good, true and the beautiful—classic sources of meaning—have in common.  Is there some single property which makes the moral, the intellectual, and the aesthetic worth admiring or striving for? Is there something that the lives of a Gandhi, Darwin, or Beethoven might share that confer great meaning to their lives?

Metz answers that the good, the true, and the beautiful confer great meaning on life insofar as they are physical properties that have a  final, intrinsic value. In other words, ethical, intellectual, and aesthetic actions are intrinsically worthwhile because they make it possible for individuals to transcend themselves. But how do moral, intellectual, and artistic activities allow for self-transcendence and, simultaneously, give meaning?

To answer this question Metz proposes his own theory of self-transcendence: “The good, the true, and the beautiful confer great meaning on life insofar as we transcend our animal nature by positively orienting our rational nature in a substantial way toward conditions of human existence that are largely responsible for many of its other conditions.”

Metz explains this focus on fundamental conditions by considering the difference between a well-planned crime and moral achievements such as providing medical care or freeing persons from tyranny. Moral actions, unlike immoral ones, respect personal autonomy, support other’s choices, and confer meaning. Intellectual reflection helps explain human nature, as scientific knowledge explains external reality. Similarly, great art illuminates profound human experiences like love, death, war, and peace.

One might object that reading trashy fiction or pondering that 2 + 2 = 4 involve reason and focus on fundamental conditions, but do not confer meaning. Metz replies that substantial effort is necessary to fully meet his standard, and that is missing in the above examples. In addition, progress is also necessary for meaning. Not simply doing, knowing, or making what was done, known, or made before, but the bringing forth something new. Metz concludes that we transcend ourselves and find meaning “by substantially orienting one’s rational nature in a positive way toward fundamental objects and perhaps thereby making an advancement.”

This is a carefully and conscientiously crafted work. It is not an easy read, but it is a substantive and enlightening one which will reward the dutiful reader. It demands a careful read and we commend Professor Metz for this wonderful piece of scholarship.

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