The Good Life and Sustaining Life: Vague Words and Well-specified Questions

Certain philosophical terms have been slowly creeping into business culture and everyday speech, terms such as ‘meaning,’ ‘value,’ ‘direction,’ and ‘purpose,’ without its being possible, with any clarity or analytical rigor, to pin down their meanings. Calling a project ‘meaningful’ implies that one is drawing a line between projects that are not meaningful and those that are. Suggesting that one’s life is headed in the ‘right direction’ may, albeit only obliquely, suggest that there are right or wrong ways in which your life could head and thankfully, in this case, it is going the right way. And though it may sound good to say that one is doing something of ‘value’ with one’s life or that one ‘has a sense of purpose,’ the listener invariably has to crane his neck and work his ears in order to squeeze out any genuine content from these utterances.

Much of this talk, I suggest, suffers from vagueness and nominalism and quickly results in conversation-stopping. The adjective ‘meaningful,’ for instance, is vague in the sense that it is difficult to pin down what it is referring to in any given context. Yet it is as if the one making such a claim were a nominalist, believing that calling something X were enough to make it so. If I say something has a purpose, then the error is to think that, as a matter of fact, it has a purpose. It may or it may not; quite possibly, the claim may be well wide of the mark.

The error is easy to see in the case where I call myself a dog: calling myself a retriever does not, on its own, make me one. Similarly, identifying oneself on LinkedIn as an ‘Experience Change Accelerator Adviser’ does not, on its own, make one that either. Just as drawing a stickman doesn’t make one an artist, so designating something as ‘valuable’ doesn’t necessarily make it such.

Both vagueness (neither of us knowing what exactly any of this means) and nominalism (calling something thereby seeming to magically make it so) contribute to conversation-stopping. It is as if, in any number of discussions, someone’s claiming that a project is meaningful is the end of the discussion with warm congratulations to all around in lieu of its being the beginning of an inquiry into whether, as a matter of fact, it is meaningful and what, if anything, makes one thing meaningful and another not. The claimant may be muddled, confused, or simply dead wrong.

Granted, even though we could provide a painstaking conceptual analysis of, e.g., ‘has meaning,’ ‘is meaningful,’ ‘a meaningful life,’ ‘full of meaning,’ ‘meaninglessness,’ and so on, we would still have to deal with all the vagueness, misuses, and abuses of these various concepts in the context of ordinary life. We would be far better off–such, at any rate, is my proposal–putting aside all of these concepts for the time being in order to enter onto clear and simple conceptual terrain.

There are two reasons why this proposal makes sense. The first–’negative’ in the precise sense that it allows us to avoid various conceptual hurdles–is that concepts such as ‘good life,’ ‘sustaining life,’ and ‘consonance’ are not overly freighted with vagueness or with nominalist assumptions. Therefore, they can be definitionally pinned down, something I will seek to do shortly. The second–’positive’ inasmuch as they set up a clear, intelligible framework with which to understand our lives–is that they can furnish us, as it were, with all we need in order to lead the sorts of lives that are well worth leading.

Putting these vague terms aside, we can then set foot on a path which leads into a vast clearing with fresh eyes, open ears, and light tongues. Let us do so now.

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There are three interconnected questions into which I will be inquiring:

1. What conceptions of the good life are available to us in the modern age

2. How is it possible to sustain any human life however that life might be

3.  How can one sustain a particular conception of the good life in a manner that is consonant with this way of life?

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