What Do We Mean When We Talk about Meaning?

ISBN : 9780190936907

Steven Cassedy
216 Pages
156 x 235 mm
Pub date
Apr 2022
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A comprehensive journey through the history of "meaning," from antiquity to modern day. The word meaning appears often in our daily lives: religious leaders holding out the promise of meaning for their followers, self-help manuals seeking to demonstrate the power of meaning to enrich our lives, and most frequently people questioning the meaning of life. The word carries a multitude of connotations, from "purpose" to "value" and "essence" to "mysterious truth", but this diversity of understanding is rarely explored. In What Do We Mean When We Talk About Meaning?, Steven Cassedy tells the story of how a word that began by denoting "signifying" and "intending" came to acquire such a broad array of sub-definitions. The book begins with the early Christian thinkers who believed meaning could be "read" from the world as if it were holy scripture, then moves into the philosophers who adapted this notion and eventually the Romantic-era Germans that coined "the meaning of life," a phrase that later traveled to Great Britain, the United States, and Russia. The book also extends into the twentieth century, when "meaning" acquired its greatest power in the realms of religion, psychotherapy, and self-help, all of which helped it to accumulate the fluidity and ambiguity it still displays today.


Introduction. This Shifting, Ubiquitous Word
Chapter 1. The Ancient World Got Along without it till the Rise of Christianity
Chapter 2. Christianity, Scripture, and Reading the World, from Augustine to Bishop Berkeley
Chapter 3. Idealism and Romanticism: From the Language of Nature to the Meaning of Life (or The World)
Chapter 4. Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson Bring the Mystery of Existence and the Sense of Life to the English-Speaking World
Chapter 5. Two Russian Titans Weigh in
Chapter 6. Paul Tillich: Bridge to the Twentieth Century and the Age of Anxiety
Chapter 7. Meaning in the Age of Anxiety and Well Beyond
Chapter 8. Meaning Goes Clinical, Therapeutic, and Popular
Chapter 9. Meaning Bridges the Secular, the Secular Sacred, and the Sacred
Conclusion. The Marvel of Meaning

About the author: 

Steven Cassedy is the author of six previous books, including To the Other Shore: The Russian Jewish Intellectuals Who Came to America (Princeton, 1997), Dostoevsky's Religion (Stanford, 2005), and Connected: How Trains, Genes, Pineapples, Piano Keys, and a Few Disasters Transformed Americans at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century (Stanford, 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.

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