Sunday, March 27, 2022

Steven Cassedy's "What Do We Mean When We Talk about Meaning?"

Steven Cassedy's books include To the Other Shore: The Russian Jewish Intellectuals Who Came to America (1997), Dostoevsky's Religion (2005), and Connected: How Trains, Genes, Pineapples, Piano Keys, and a Few Disasters Transformed Americans at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century (2014), which won a gold medal in US history at the Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPY). He retired as a Distinguished Professor of Literature and Associate Dean of the Graduate Division at the University of California, San Diego, in 2018 and now lives with his wife Patrice, a playwright, in Riverdale, Bronx.

Cassedy applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, What Do We Mean When We Talk about Meaning?, and reported the following:
What’s on page 99: I’m discussing Tolstoy’s War and Peace and how the hero, Pierre, struggles to find something that he can call the smysl (meaning) of life or of his life. Having always been skeptical of Tolstoy’s moral philosophizing, I show how Pierre’s efforts, like those of the male hero of Anna Karenina, always fall short of the mark.

I’m not sure a browser opening to page 99 would get a good idea of the central thesis of my book. At this point in the book, I’ve already established a history of the concept of meaning as used in such phrases as “the meaning of life.” In the chapter that includes page 99, I discuss Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, more for the impact that English translations of their works had on the use of the phrase “meaning of life” in English than for a discussion of the two Russian giants in their own right. By the end of the chapter, the point is really that, while it might be difficult to find a coherent definition of smysl (the Russian word translated into English as “meaning”) in Tolstoy, the phrase “meaning of life” was closely associated with him in English-language discussions of his works.

The aim of my book is to demonstrate that the English word meaning, as used in the “metaphysical” context that I discuss, is richly ambiguous. Because of its association with signifying, it suggests the notion of interpretation, that is, if there’s something that we call “the meaning of life,” then we may gain access to that something through an act of decoding or interpreting. Because of its association with intention (“What’s the meaning of what you’ve done?”), it suggests purpose and value. Virtually no one who uses such expressions as “the meaning of life” ever pauses to define the word meaning. That, I propose, is because the ambiguity and polyvalence of meaning is its essential property. In the end, it is almost always suggestive, not determinative.
Visit Steven Cassedy's website.

The Page 99 Test: Connected.

My Book, The Movie: Connected.

--Marshal Zeringue