Is there a difference between the meaning of "meaning" as in "the meaning of life" and meaning as in "meaning of a proposition"?

In the first case, one is referring to motivations and purposes, and in the second, to the semantics of propositions, and the "aboutness" of thoughts, as opposed to syntax and logical structure (i.e. relatively simple mappings between linguistic and logical structures on one hand and facts about the world on the other).

How is the use of "meaning" in the first context related to the use of "meaning" in the second? I assume that there is a more fundamental meaning to "meaning" which related the two, and this would help us better answer questions of the type: "what is the meaning of life?", "what is the meaning of the universe?", etc....Is the real challenge in finding the "meaning of life, the universe, and everything" simply one of finding or constructing an adequate mapping?

  • 1
    Motivation and purpose are linguistic terms for concepts that are in the very same sense meaningful as propositions that are terms for concepts. The main difference is that the emotional and aesthetic aspects are quite obvious and stronger as usual in the first case. But the proposition "It is good to do x." becomes similar in the moment "x" and the situation are getting concrete. Your life is always concrete, propositions can be abstract. But as long as they are, they have no meaning. Think of Hegel!
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 7:16
  • In "the meaning of life (or universe)" we read "meaning" as : aim, purpose. To assume that e.g. the universe "acts" as a message that someone send to ... someone other, somwhere, is the only way to assert that the two usages of "meaning" are related and have a common origin. Is this so ? Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 11:13
  • There is one connection not yet mentioned: teleosemantics (plato.stanford.edu/entries/content-teleological), where semantic content is naturalized using the notion of a biological function/role. Similarly meaning of life could be naturalistically explained in biological terms, as the function of an organism, or something like that.
    – Johannes
    Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 0:16

1 Answer 1


Excellent question. The semantic function of 'meaning' .. assigning value or implication to a stated proposition .. can be the same in both abstract and concrete scenarios. But with abstract concepts (like 'life') it is far more difficult to establish clarity because there are so many valid possibilities. All language is essentially a mapping, words mapped to underlying definitions by convention. Useful results of that mapping grow more difficult as subject matter is further abstracted.

That's why metaphor is often a powerful tool to make abstract notions more understandable. By its own definition (Lakoff, 1980) it maps the abstract to the concrete.

Can't help but turn to Wittgenstein's classic quote: "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world" Tractatus, 5.6 (1921). This provides a famous example of the use of meaning in philosophy, while shedding light on both langage and it's role in mapping value among abstract concepts. It's hard to talk about meaning without using it in a sentence. Even for Wittgenstein.

Also need to give Kant a nod on this one. His nominal definiton of 'truth' in Critique of Pure Reason "agreement of knowledge with its object" CPR(A) Part 2, Transcendental Logic III, is equally telling. Here Kant again demonstrates the importance of semantic mapping, in pursuit of understanding. In his framing, as I understand it, the predicate of an analytic proposition provides immediate elucidation of a subject, while a synthetic prosposition expands that meaning by relating the subject to other subjects. In either case, we are still mapping A to B, in order to establish meaning of the subject, or more specifically, to clarify knowledge. There is certainly more to the story from Kant, but since I am still deep reading CPR, I best stop here. I am just at the edge of my understanding of his Categories.

In modern terms, I'd argue it's about creating context, a critical obligation for those who traffic in the understanding of abstract notions. Philosophers, for example. Hope this helps.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .