What Makes a Life Meaningful?


I guess this is going to be the question that I will ultimately be trying to answer for my Senior Thesis, and what a way to try to culminate my experience at college. But the way I figure it, why not go for that question?

Why not try to take on a topic that is especially challenging. Challenging for many reasons. First, it can become so cliche; everyone has a way of answering the question. Secondly, because to answer it in a meaningful way is extremely difficult.



This question started to take its form when I was writing a final paper for my Aesthetics class. In his book, "Art as Experience," John Dewey explains his notion of an aesthetic experience. An aesthetic experience is one which is demarcated from usual experiences as being especially important. Its an experience. Scoring the winning basket for your team. Playing a song which you have practiced a numerous amount of times in a recital for your peers and parents. These experiences have the ability to become an experience. An aesthetic experience involves a person moving to solve a meaningful problem. The solving of this problem is not merely a point in time; it is a consummation. It is a summary of all that has come before it. This experience enriches further experience. It transforms the way a person experiences the world by expanding the connection a person has to it.

My paper in this class wanted to bring attention to the experiences which we dont consider to be aesthetic experiences, the ones which seem to slip so easily out of our minds, the everyday experiences. These experiences, I attempted to explain, gain their meaning when the aesthetic experience occurs. However, the aesthetic experience could not be achieved unless these everyday experiences supplied the necessary connections which could be enriched. In other words, in order to have amazing experiences you need to set yourself up for them.

This does not seem to be overly controversial. However, what sorts of experiences does one seek in an attempt to gain meaningful aesthetic experiences? This is where Dewey's views on morals will come into play. Dewey's ethics entails a view which is not concerned with achieving certain values or dogmas. Views which attempt to espouse these things are unable to equip intellect with the ability to encounter a new situation with an open and reflective attitude. While certain values can be favored through reflection, one can never say for sure if a certain way to go is always the right way.

Dewey's focus is on the reflection that must occur and the evaluation of values and their place in certain contexts. What sorts of experiences are worth striving towards? Those that stand up to reflection, an open reflection that takes everything into account. Dewey says himself that "the business of reflection in determining the true good cannot be done once and for all." This is important. A person is an organic entity, constantly moving, constantly encountering new problems. To assume that we somehow can reach some point where we can sit back and relax is just denying what it means to live in this world.

My senior thesis will then use these ideas in an attempt to answer the question of what a meaningful life is. A person lives meaningfully by having experiences which enrich the further experiences that they do have. The experieces that they do seek out are good not by some dogmatic value, but through reflection. It is the test of true reflection which the values must stand up to. Through seeking out these kinds of experiences a person sets themselves up for the kinds of experiences which stand out above the rest. These are the kinds of experiences which give emotional content to prior experiences, they give meaning not only to prior but to further experience. They are also themselves part of the learning process. They help to cement important connections in the mind by giving them meaning.

It is the oscillation between these two kinds of experiencing which has the ability to make a life meaningful. And as a person continues to grow, their general everyday experiences begin to become aesthetic in nature compared to past experiences. They have grown into an individual whose experiences are meaningful in general. They are living a meaningful life.

Mitchell Sahlfeld

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