Meaning in the Age of Nihilism

In 2000 I wrote a few hundred words on "The Age of Nihilism." Some years later that descriptive title is far more apt than before. Like a poison gas settling down over a battlefield, nihilism has, at least for the moment, begun to cloak or threaten so much of contemporary life and thought.

Meaning in the Age of Nihilism
Meaning in the Age of Nihilism - John Zerzan

The old “meaning of life” question seems to have a new urgency, unless it’s too late to explore it. Adorno provides a stunning response to the meaning of life/point of living query: “A life that has any point would not need to inquire about it. The question puts the point to flight.”[1]


A pointless life is a relatively new phenomenon. Terry Eagleton poses the meaning-of-life question in the context of 19th century British literature, observing that a shift occurred in about 1870. Before that date, writers like Jane Austen and William Thackeray rarely referred to it, whereas after 1870 Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, and others addressed it with some urgency.[2]Unsurprisingly, this cultural turning point coincides with the decisive ascendancy of industrial life in England (a worldwide first). At base, today’s meaninglessness is a function of machine existence. Viktor Frankl, referring to the individual as “a being in search of meaning,” goes on to note that “today his search is unsatisfied and thus constitutes the pathology of our age.”[3]


A contagious nihilism accompanies the crisis all around us. The absence of meaning and value is seen in rising suicide rates, epidemic addictions, suicide bombings, and rampage shootings, and so much else in the landscape of no community. Because social life is based on the meaning it provides for its participants, social life itself is visibly waning.


Albert Camus famously opens The Myth of Sisyphus with the question of suicide: whether life is worth living. Many have the means to live, but no meaning to live for. The columnist David Brooks cites this example: “We ask students to work harder and harder while providing them with less and less of an idea of how they might find a purpose in all that work.”[4]


Freedom is a struggle for meaning which is itself a dynamic force, according to William James, Viktor Frankl, and others. The drive to find or create meaning and value is a perpetual task, and at the heart of every human endeavor. In a mainly non-alienated world, this effort was possibly far less needed, compared with our civilization, where experience is de-grounded. We no longer feel at home in this massified, mediated world. We talk so much about meaning because meaninglessness is far advanced into all our lives. Yet it’s very hard to confront. A common response is nervous laughter at Woody Allenish jokes or Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.


The meaning of life is meaning, but just where do we find that? All this varies hugely on the individual level. Women and men may see their own lives very differently from the inside. What we value can change at various points in our lives. Millions of self-actualization books and videos are sold; some check out Quality of Life approaches, or flock to hear the vague nostrums of the Dalai Lama. The approved idea is that the meaning of life is primarily an individual or personal affair––a severely limited, failed orientation.


Philosophy centers on the question of meaning; but this, too, has failed. As countless philosophical works attest, many if not most philosophers conflate the question of meaning with a close study of language and how it works.[5]During the past century, it has been generally acknowledged that meaning can’t be considered apart from language;meaning is widely viewed as essentially a linguistic phenomenon. Meaning can only be approached and encompassed by means of one’s(preferred) semantic theory; this method reduces philosophy to questions of signification, such as, how can we be sure what a given sentence says?


Philosophers such as Gottlob Frege, Michael Dummett, and Ludwig Wittgenstein dealt with meaning only in a narrow, formal sense, suggesting that we abandon it as misleading and study instead the way language is used. But Jan Zwicky, also a philosopher (and poet), avers that Wittgenstein never abandoned “the intuition that deep matters of value in some way fall outside the scope of language.”[6]She goes on to say that “a significant part of the meaning of words rests in wordlessness.”[7]


Language itself is value-laden; grammar calls the tune in fundamental ways, as I’ve discussed elsewhere.[8]Whatever can be represented can be controlled. Poet Stéphane Mallarmé responds to this constraint exquisitely: “Meaning is a second silence deep within silence; it is the negation of the world’s status as a thing. This ever unspoken meaning which would disappear if one ever attempted to speak it….”[9]This unspoken, lived meaning defies reification and language games. Foucault was wrong: not all life is built around language.


Life takes place in this world, not on a page or a screen. It isn’t fully possible to live the right life in a wrong world, even if we assert that the meaning of life is a life of meaning. In this destructively disenchanted context, some of us find meaning in commitment to a project, a goal of liberated life. Studies and surveys continually point to the obvious, that those who lack meaning   tend to be less happy with every aspect of their lives.[10] Meaning has a physical aspect. There is a healing force there.


It is also valid to realize that meanings must be sought and found by each of us, in an active engagement with life. Relationship is the greatest single source of well-being, and the key to overcoming nihilism. Love and friendship are likely the most powerful motivators to do anything at all. Life cannot be without meaning to anyone who loves. Conversely, the nihilist does not change diapers.


It’s said that the meaning of it all is to be found in moments. I think of how a stranger’s smile can light up my day. To mean is to be present, present to the moments, transparent to presence. The recognition of what is important for its own sake. Meaning is irreducible. All of this is the meaning.


This is not the right world and everyone knows it. There is a longing, a need, and as Adorno has it, “the need in thinking is what makes us think.” And this “need is what we think from, even where we disdain, wishful thinking.”[11] Mark Rowlands puts it well: “Any satisfying account of the meaning of life must be capable of redeeming life.”[12]




[1]Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics (New York: Continuum, 1973), p. 377.


[2]Terry Eagleton, The Meaning of Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 34.


[3]Quoted in Dennis Ford, The Search for Meaning (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), p. 12.


[4]David Brooks, “Inside Student Radicalism,” The New York Times, May 27, 2016, p. A21.


[5]e.g. Stephen R. Schiffer, Meaning (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972); Ruth Garrett Millikan, Varieties of Meaning (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004); Stefano Predelli, Meaning Without Truth (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Vincent Descombes, The Institutions of Meaning (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).


[6]Jan Zwicky, Lyric Philosophy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), thesis 118.


[7]Ibid., thesis 261.


[8]“Language: Origin and Meaning,” in John Zerzan, Elements of Refusal (Columbia, MO: C.A.L. Press, 1999); “Too Marvelous for Words,” in Zerzan, Twilight of the Machines (Port Townsend, WA: Feral House, 2008).


[9]Quoted in Peter Schwenger, “The Apocalyptic Book,” Mark Dery, ed., Flame Wars (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), p. 64.


[10]e.g. J.L. Freedman, Happy People (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978).


[11]Adorno, op.cit., p. 408.


[12]Mark Rowlands, Running with the Pack (New York: Pegasus Books, 2013), p. 100.