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.

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