For the past few years, I have been at work on a book about the word meaning in such expressions as “the meaning of life,” “searching for meaning,” “ultimate meaning,” “higher meaning.” Several features of the word, apart from its ubiquity in popular and academic circles, struck me: (1) it is seldom defined and is thus given to ambiguity; (2) its meaning is slippery; (3) the English word is by nature different from its near-equivalents in other European languages because it is a verbal noun and thus at least suggests agency: something carries out the act denoted by the verb to mean. Nonetheless, the English word in these often metaphysical senses has absorbed nuances and semantic elements from near-equivalents in German, French, and Russian.

When I turned to the English-language work of Paul Tillich, I noticed that his use of meaning, at a time when the popular press in the United States featured the word heavily, was almost promiscuous. I noticed, too, that (1) Tillich almost never defined the word and (2) he was clearly using it in multiple senses. These senses ranged (to mention just a few) from “comprehensibility,” to “value,” to “direction,” to “ultimate concern,” to “God.” Aware that Tillich never wrote a word in English till he immigrated to the United States at the age of forty-seven, I wondered whether his use of the German near-equivalent, Sinn, in his pre-American days, might offer a clue to his use of the English meaning. The German word is actually in certain respects quite different from the English in that, first, it is not a verbal noun and, second, it originally had to do with “direction,” “goal,” “purpose,” in addition to “sense,” as in “sensory” or the five senses. Only more recently did it acquire the notion of “meaning,” as of a word or story. In some of his early theological and philosophical writings, the frequency with which Tillich uses the word Sinn, alone and in combination words, is almost comical—in one instance, 73 times over a stretch of two-and-a-half pages. In his theology generally as well as in his use of Sinn specifically, before his American period, Tillich drew on a range of philosophical and theological traditions. Sinn is, not surprisingly, hugely polyvalent in these writings. Once he began to write in English, I believe, Tillich wittingly or unwittingly began to use the English meaning in ways that reflect the verbal origin of the word. In my article, I have suggested that the English word brought about a fairly significant change in Tillich’s understanding of faith. In his German period, faith was understood as an active directedness, on the part of the human subject, toward an external object (God, an unconditional absolute), but in the American period faith became the active force that grasps us. One of the words Tillich uses for the force that grasps us is meaning, which, owing to its status as a verbal noun, can be viewed as possessing agency.

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