We use the word life in too many different ways. It can refer to an individual, to daily living, to the quality of being animate that all beings share, even to the entirety of all the living things on the planet. Most of the time the ambiguity is harmless. But sometimes philosophic discussions bog down because people, without realizing it, are drawing on different senses of this sprawling term.
Here’s a closer look at four of the common uses. It can refer to: (1) the span from birth to death—his whole life; (2) the activities and experiences of daily existence—this makes my life easier; (3) the state or the characteristics of being animate—there is life in her yet; and (4) living things collectively— the evolution of life.
These meanings easily blur into each other. For example, in the statement I’m happy with my life, is life a reference to life span (1) or to the experience of each day (2) or some combination of both? In Life on earth began 3.8 billion years ago, does the word point to the state, the phenomenon, of being alive (3) or to living things collectively (4)?
This last definition—living things collectively—is one of the meanings that I wish we had a separate noun for. In writing this blog I often want to refer not just to animals or plants or microbes but to all of them. But we don’t have a plain word that does that.
Organism might be a candidate but not a strong one. Dating from the 18th century, organism can refer to any living thing, but its focus is on structures and systems. (It is related to organization.) Organism has its place in the laboratory, but it doesn’t work very well for broad references to the totality of life. Unless you’re a scientist, you may not be inclined to marvel at “the wonders of the organisms around us.”
Terms that are more user-friendly than organism have other, and interesting, limitations. Beings would seem to fit the bill. It seems broad enough. As a form of the verb to be, it calls attention to the actual existence of lives. It has spiritual dignity. The trouble is that it refers to humans and occasionally to animals but not at all to plants and microbes. It would be odd to talk about a carrot growing in the garden as a being.
The same goes for creature, as in The forest is filled with interesting creatures. Creatures excludes plants and microbes (unless the microbes are moving around under a microscope and looking large—looking “creature-like”). The on-line Webster’s dictionary gives an interesting example: “Few living creatures can survive without water.” Plants obviously need water, but I doubt they would be covered by this sentence, in the eyes of most readers. Creatures walk, fly, swim, or slither; they don’t put down roots or bloom. Like beings, creatures came into use six centuries ago when plants and animals occupied separate categories of natural philosophy.
In the absence of satisfactory single words that refer to all living things, we’ve turned to phrases. Graceful combinations include the living world and the world of life. But I find these phrases too indirect. They don’t refer to living things themselves directly; they refer to their “world.” So I usually stick with living things. It’s clunky, but it points to all things living and nothing but that.
There is another meaning of the word life that I think needs separating out. This is sense number 3, “the state of being alive.” We have no noun to label the quality of being alive in the way that we can name death as the quality of being dead. We have alive of course as an everyday and precise adjective, but we don’t have a good noun version of it.
There is aliveness, which appears in descriptions of art and fashion. It means that something has exuberance and vitality; it’s used to hype a product. It rarely if ever refers just to the state of being alive.
I use livingness. It’s a rare but real word; it is in the dictionary. True, it’s bland and clunky. But it’s effective enough at naming the characteristic at hand. I’ll stick with it for now.
It’s generally true that the speakers of a language have the words that they need in order to talk about what they want to talk about. The profusion of meanings of the word life probably reflects how intertwined in our psyches most of these meanings are. But it would make our discussions about some big topics easier if we could separate out some of those meanings when we needed to.