We all learned in grade school that nouns were words that referred to or named a person, place or thing. Verbs were the action words or the words which expressed a state of being. On the surface, this distinction seemed both clear and straightforward. For many, however, the distinction was muddied a bit when we were introduced to the notion of the gerund: a verb used as a noun; e.g. “Swimming is good exercise.” As a gerund, the present participle of the verb “to swim” had morphed into the name of an activity and as the name of something it became a fixed notion and lost some of its sense of action. In its journey from “swimming” the verb to “swimming” the noun, some of the sense that “swimming” was something a person did rather than some sort of “it” to be talked or written about receded into the background. Actually swimming requires no talking or writing (which, by the way, are also two things which we do).
The gerund is absolutely essential for any sort of conversation that refers to human action or anything else that happens for that matter. Most of the time, this switch from action word to noun and back again is a good and helpful thing but at other times the loss of actual action in the noun form can lead to fundamental misunderstandings of some of life’s most important issues. Consider, for example, the difference between “making a living” and actually “living.” We have all heard sentences where both senses of the word “living” might even be implied at the same time;e.g., “He’s just doing it to make a living.” (Read: he’s making a living but is not fully living.) Similar observations might also be made about words like “loving” or “dreaming” and what is lost when they become gerunds.
In this short, essay I’d like to suggest that the gerund “meaning” is one of those terms whose journey from verb to noun is fraught with dangers especially when placed in a phrase like, “the meaning of life.” This very simple phrase expresses something like: “meaning” is a something with specific content and that this content is something a person does or does not apprehend. Those who apprehend this content are thought of as knowing some specific information or facts about life’s meaning–they posses the gnosis. “Meaning” the gerund (noun) is a something and as such can be present or absent by varying degrees. “Meaning” now has its own hypostasis through a process of grammatical reification.
The verb “to mean” is usually defined as the act of intending to convey a particular notion or to signify something. As a verb it is something we DO rather than something which IS. We intend to convey a notion or feeling to others or even to our selves. If I were to say that I was “meaning,” I would be saying that I was in the process of intending to convey or signify this or that.
If we forget that words, like “meaning” not only have verbal roots but are themselves present participles, we run the risk of seeing them like any other noun and as such a word which denotes specific content. This is the mental trick we do when we pose a question like, “What is the meaning of life?”. Those of us particularly taken with this question can easily begin a search for “the meaning” as if that “meaning” were an object.
In losing a sense that “meaning” is a gerund and no simple common noun, we no longer apprehend that “meaning” is first and foremost a word which signifies the human act of intending to convey or signify. “Meaning” is first something that we humans do and only secondarily a body of knowledge we come to discover. It is not just around the corner like the long lost Holy Grail whose discovery will save us from meaninglessness. Rather it is the single and shared act of our intending through the choices we make and the action we take. “Meaning” in this sense is to be made not discovered.
The meaning of life is the act of our intending–no more and certainly no less than that. The meaning of life is our act of intending what we do in our engagement with the world around us. It is the intentional choices we make and act upon in both in life’s good times and most hopeless moments. The way to meaning is to act with intention and not to know with certitude. Herein lies our existential challenge and our existential responsibility.