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Which Concept is more Fundamental (Existentially

Important), Meaning or Value?

In the beginning was the meaning.


[Some sentences that involve the concepts of “meaning” and “value.”]

Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.

C. S. Lewis (from Till We Have Faces, 1956)

For all the fact my father was a very rich man, he went to work every day. He always taught us the value of work, and that work is fun and good, and everybody should work.

Fred Eaton (of Eaton’s Department Store)

Meaninglessness does not come from being weary of pain. Meaninglessness comes from being weary of pleasure.

G. K. Chesterton

Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life.

Eric Hoffer

Physicists and philosophers have long agreed that motion through absolute space can have no meaning.

Arthur S. Eddington

Protestantism was built on the notion that a text simply means what it says and that any other interpretations are fanciful.

The human mind is generally far more eager to praise or blame than to describe and define. It wants to make every distinction a distinction of value.

C. S. Lewis

The notion that education can be value-free is simply false.

There can never be a state of facts to which new meaning cannot be legitimately attached.

William James

To mix science up with philosophy is only to produce a philosophy that has lost all its ideal value and a science that has lost all its practical value.

G. K. Chesterton

When he who hears does not know what he who speaks means, and when he who speaks does not know what he himself means—that is philosophy.


When men understand what each other mean, they see, for the most part, that controversy is either superfluous or hopeless.

John Henry Newman


The search for an outside meaning that can compel an inner response must always be disappointed: all ‘meaning’ must be at bottom related to our primary desires, and when they are extinct no miracle can restore to the world the value which they reflected upon it.

Bertrand Russell

Aesthetic terms are used in exactly the same way as ethical terms. Such aesthetic words as “beautiful” and “hideous” are employed, as ethical words are employed, not to make statements of fact, but simply to express certain feelings and evoke a certain response. It follows, as in ethics, that there is no sense in attributing objective validity to aesthetic judgements, and no possibility of arguing about questions of value in aesthetics, but only about questions of fact.

A. J. Ayer

[The following is an attempt to apply the indented passage, which has to do with the relation of certainty and truth, to meaning and value.]

The concept of meaning depends on the concept of value. The moment you weaken the concept of value, the concept of meaning is also undermined. Meaning and meaninglessness imply value because it is always from value that meaning is derived. Therefore to say of some value that it is meaningless is a contradiction in terms.

The concept of certainty depends on the concept of truth. The moment you doubt or deny the concept of truth, the word certainty ceases to have meaning. Certainty and uncertainty imply truth because it’s always the truth of something that you are certain or uncertain. Therefore to say that one can’t be certain of any truth is a contradiction in terms.

Wherever we turn we find it taken for granted that there is no real reality (or at least no known reality) and, above all, that there are no objective values. Your view of the universe is programmed into you by your cultural conditioning, your childhood traumas (Freud), your class interests (Marx), or even your selfish genes (Richard Dawkins). Words like truth refer to nothing more objective than that.

Christopher Derrick

To philosophers, the truth of an argument’s conclusions is not related to its validity. The truth or falsity of a proposition is known as “value”, and it is studied as a separate part of logic. Even though value is studied separately, it faces the same dilemma [as logic]. Alfred Tarski, the brilliant Polish-American mathematician and logician, developed a proof of value very similar to Godel’s. His proof showed that any definition of the term “true” (in terms of the language specified “in use”) would result inevitably in a contradiction. Further, he found that when “truth is understood as a property of sentences of the language in question, such acceptance of a semantic term without definition is inevitable”. This is also similar to Godel’s Incompleteness Theory, in that Tarski found that when the term truth was left undefined (incomplete) the contradiction could be avoided.

The world of values is a real world. Otherwise we’re in the position of admitting that we believe and take very seriously all sorts of thing that are unreal, such as that stealing is wrong, heroism is admirable, torture is horrible, sunsets are beautiful, Shakespeare is a good playwright, etc., etc.

The world of thought and of spiritual values, on the threshold of which man has the consciousness of standing, is a real world, an order no less great than the material order, and it is only in this world that we shall find a solution to the otherwise hopeless conflict between man’s spiritual aspirations and the limitations of his material existence.

Christopher Dawson

The faith that writing could give unambiguous expression to ideas is one of the keystones of the modern era. Texts, so long as they were written soberly and read sensitively, were taken as stable centres of meaning. It is now an firm article of post-modern belief that texts are inherently inexhaustible, and therefore inevitably subject to conflicting interpretations.

When words merely express a belief which is about what the words mean, the belief indicated by the words is lacking in precision to the degree that the meaning of the words is lacking in precision. Outside logic and pure mathematics, there are no words of which the meaning is precise, not even such words as “centimetre” and “second.” Therefore even when a belief is expressed in words having the greatest degree of precision of which empirical words are capable, the question as to what it is that is believed is still more or less vague.

Bertrand Russell

[Philosophers in search of first principles that carry authority frequently find themselves being driven back on the experience of value, as is shown in this letter from Bertrand Russell to Goldie Lowes Dickinson, dated July 20, 1904.]

I agree with you wholly that philosophy cannot give religion, or indeed anything of more than intellectual interest. It seems to me increasingly that what gives one the beliefs by which one lives is of the nature of experience: it is a sudden realisation, or perhaps a gradual one, of ethical values which one had formerly doubted or taken on trust; and this realisation seems to be caused, as a rule, by a situation containing the things one realises to be good or bad. But although I do not think philosophy itself will give anything of human interest, I think a philosophical training enables one to get richer experiences, and to make more use of those that one does get.

[Is this a fair, although crudely expressed, statement of “consequentialism,” the theory that the goodness or badness of any action is never inherent, but is solely dependent on the perceived consequences of that action?]

I suppose we can say that there are some things that are wrong because we have agreed to act as if they are wrong for such a long time, and the acting as if they are wrong appears to be right. That’s what an ultimate truth is to me, to be really philosophical here. When something, over and over again, generation after generation, turns out to be destructive and to be perceived as wrong, and rightfully perceived as wrong, meaning everybody agrees to act as if it’s wrong and it works to act as if it’s wrong for 10,000 years, that begins to look like an ultimate truth.


It’s nice to be nice, especially when a lot of people think so.

Thoughts about Meaning & Value

A philosophy which does not accept value as eternal and objective can lead us only to ruin.

C. S. Lewis

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means what I choose it to mean. Neither more nor less.”

Lewis Carroll

A value is a value because I say it is, and not because it is inherently good or inherently reasonable.

Values are willed meanings. They are projections of the self rather than an opening to qualities in the world.

All of us know the meanings of words we can’t adequately define.

The son of a celebrity described his famous father as a “mean spirited, self-centred, jerk,” a view that finds considerable support in a recent biography of the man. Note that the words, ‘mean,’ ‘spirit,’ ‘self,’ and ‘jerk’ are primary words that largely defy definition. But even though the speaker couldn’t adequately define his terms, it doesn’t follow that he doesn’t know what they mean, or shouldn’t use them with confidence.

Conscious enjoyment of living is dependent on our perception of values, significance of existence, and its infinite potentialities. Only faith can bring these things into the cosmos which, without them, is neutral.

Good is incapable of any definition in the most important sense of that word.

G. E. Moore

Truth has to do with the value of the things we know.

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