Colin McGinn: The Meaning of Life — Grammatical Life

IMG_0767Excellence Reporter: Prof. McGinn, what is the meaning of life?

Colin McGinn: I prefer to say that life is meaningful rather than that it has a meaning. It has a grammar, but no semantic interpretation. There is coherent form, but there is nothing outside human life that confers meaning on it (God, the Universe, Truth, the Good).

What are the components of this grammar?

It has an intellectual component, an aesthetic component, and an athletic component. For me these are mainly philosophy, music, and tennis (though other intellectual, aesthetic, and athletic components play a part). These are essentially activities—rule-governed creative activities. Not observing but doing. Philosophy follows the rules of logic, music is based on repeating patterns, games and sports have their constitutive rules. Yet all are creative, requiring effort and dedication (as well as talent): they are freedom disciplined by form. Nothing outside of them gives them significance; they are meaningful in themselves.

As you acquire mastery of language during childhood and later, so you work to acquire mastery of these categories of life-grammar. You try to speak and write well: similarly, you strive to have intelligent thoughts, good musical technique, and a beautiful backhand. This involves learning from others as well as constant practice. It requires internalization and externalization, competence and performance, inner knowledge and outer act. Living well is a skill.

It is important to combine these components, not to focus on one and neglect the others. Each thrives in combination with the others. A day is like a paragraph that brings these elements together—or a long well punctuated sentence (think Jane Austen). The intellect must be productively engaged, music played, a sport honed. Then the day will be grammatical and not ill formed—meaningful not nonsensical or incomplete. The human language faculty combines semantics, syntax, and phonetics; the human life faculty combines thinking, art, and sport. There is nothing outside language that gives it meaning (nothing “transcendent”), and yet it is meaningful; and there is nothing outside these human activities that gives them meaning, and yet they are meaningful. Meaningfulness is immanent, in the thing itself not hovering over it.

And just as we are born to speak meaningfully, so we are born to live meaningful lives—we are miserable otherwise. (Indeed, I would say that speaking meaningfully is part of what makes life meaningful: for language is implicated in thought and communication, and is itself a wonderful thing.) These strivings for meaning are part of our innate nature, so that the potential for meaningful lives is in us from the start. To what degree we can achieve these aims, as the world currently exists, is another question.


~Colin McGinn was educated at Manchester University (Psychology, BA and MA, 1972) and Oxford University (Philosophy, B Phil, 1974). He went on to teach philosophy at University College London, Oxford University, and Rutgers University, with visiting positions at UCLA and Princeton. He has published 25 books and many articles and reviews, including Moral Literacy: Or How to Do the Right Thing, Ethics, Evil and Fiction, Philosophical Provocations, and Sport: a Philosopher’s Manual. He has written for many publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The LA Times, New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, Nature, and others. He has been interviewed many times (e.g. by the Times of London) and appeared on several TV shows (e.g. Bill Moyers). He has worked as a philosophical advisor to George Soros. He is an internationally acclaimed philosopher and teacher. Presently, he is Chief Philosophical Executive of the new consulting company Philosophical Applications.

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