What Does It All Mean?

What Does It All Mean?

Mark Kingwell

Human beings can´t help but ask the big philosophical questions, even if they know that the answers will come up short.

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I take as my title a question that outlines the modest theme I will pursue: the nature of meaning itself. Like many philosophers, I am fond of titles that are questions--or, at least, of titles that end with question marks, which is not always the same thing. A colleague of mine was once advised that everything in his book called The End of Metaphysics could be rendered true, or anyway less false, if he added a question mark to the end of it. The end of metaphysics? Could be, could be. Indeed, why not? But we have to be careful with those face-saving question marks, because they can look like a failure of nerve--the functional equivalent of a scholarly book´s subtitle, which, broken over the crisis of faith symbolized by the two-story full stop of a colon, tempers the enthusiasm of a bold, snappy title with some dull, informative, backpedaling phrase. You know the kind of thing I mean. Title: A Civil Tongue. Subtitle: Justice, Dialogue, and the Politics of Pluralism. (That one is mine.)

The question at hand, you´ll notice, has not been weakened with a soapy subtitle. It is, to all appearances, a genuine request for information, a question it is possible to hear actual people actually asking. True, those people are very likely to be, variously, children, the mad, the anguished, the ironic, and the damned. Moreover, the question is an uneasy question, shot through with anxiety. But one of the duties of a philosopher is to ask questions that, for good reasons and bad, are pushed to the margins of everyday life by the pressures of time and routine sanity. I say that as if I had a firm grasp on what it means to be a philosopher, and as if I were confident that I have a good answer to the question I´m asking. But like so many members of my odd profession, I am ever only half-convinced--if that--that I know what I´m up to.  

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