Philosophers Should be Keener to Talk About the Meaning of Life, by Kieran Setiya

Saudade (Longing), by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior, oil on canvas, 1899. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Philosophers ponder the meaning of life. At least, that is the stereotype. When I risk admitting to a stranger that I teach philosophy for a living and face the question ‘What is the meaning of life?’, I have a ready response: we figured that out in the 1980s, but we have to keep it secret or we’d be out of a job; I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you. In fact, professional philosophers rarely ask the question and, when they do, they often dismiss it as nonsense.

The phrase itself is of relatively recent origin. Its first use in English is in Thomas Carlyle’s parodic novel Sartor Resartus (1836), where it appears in the mouth of a comic German philosopher, Diogenes Teufelsdröckh (‘God-born devil-dung’), noted for his treatise on clothes. The question of life’s meaning remains both easy to mock and paradigmatically obscure.

What is the meaning of ‘meaning’ in ‘the meaning of life’? We talk about the meaning of words, or linguistic meaning, the meaning of an utterance or of writing in a book. When we ask if human life has meaning, are we asking whether it has meaning in this semantic sense? Could human history be a sentence in some cosmic language? The answer is that it could, in principle, but that this isn’t what we want when we search for the meaning of life. If we are unwitting ink in some alien script, it would be interesting to know what we spell out, but the answer would not have authority over us, as befits the meaning of life.

‘Meaning’ could mean purpose or function in a larger system. Could human life play that role? Again, it could, but yet again, this seems irrelevant. In Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s books, the Earth is part of a galactic computer, designed (ironically) to reveal the meaning of life. Whatever that meaning might be, our role in the computer program is not it. To discover that we are cogs in some cosmic machine is not to discover the meaning of life. It leaves our existential maladies untouched.

Seeing no other way to interpret the question, many philosophers conclude that the question is confused. If they go on to talk about meaning in life, they have in mind the meaning of individual lives, the question of whether this life or that life is meaningful for the person who is living it. But the meaning of life is not an individual possession. If life has meaning, it has a meaning that applies to us all. Does this idea make sense?

I think it does. We can make progress if we turn from the words that make up the question – ‘meaning’ in particular – to the contexts in which we feel compelled to ask it. We raise the question ‘Does life have meaning?’ in times of anguish, or despair, or emptiness. We ask it when we confront mortality and loss, the pervasiveness of suffering and injustice, the facts of life from which we recoil and which we cannot accept. Life seems profoundly flawed. Is there meaning to it all? Historically, the question of life’s meaning comes into focus through the anxiety of early existentialist philosophers, such as Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, who worried that it has none.

On the interpretation that this context suggests, the meaning of life would be a truth about us and about the world that makes sense of the worst. It would be something we could know about life, the Universe and everything, that should reconcile us to mortality and loss, suffering and injustice. Knowledge of this truth would make it irrational not to affirm life as it is, not to accept things as they are. It would show that despair, or angst, is a mistake.

The idea that life has meaning is the idea that there is a truth of this extraordinary kind. Whether or not there is, the suggestion is not nonsense. It is a hope that animates the great religions. Whatever else they do, religions offer metaphysical pictures whose acceptance is meant to bestow salvation, to reconcile us to the seeming faults of life. Or if they do not supply the truth, if they do not claim to convey the meaning of life, they offer the conviction that there is one, however hard to grasp or articulate it might be.

The meaning of life might be theistic, involving God or gods, or it might be non-theistic, as in one form of Buddhism. What distinguishes Buddhist meditation from mindfulness-based stress-reduction is the aim of ending suffering through metaphysical revelation. The emotional solace of Buddhism is meant to derive from insight into how things are – in particular, into the non-existence of the self – an insight that should move anyone. To come to terms with life through meditation for serenity, or through talk therapy, is not to discover the meaning of life, since it is not to discover any such truth.

Albert Einstein wrote that to know an answer to the question ‘What is the meaning of human life?’ means to be religious. But there is in principle room for non-religious accounts of meaning, ones that do not appeal to anything beyond the given world or the world revealed to us by science. Religion has no monopoly on meaning, even if it is hard to see how a non-transcendent truth could meet our definition: to know the meaning of life is to be reconciled to all that is wrong with the world. At the same time, it is hard to prove a negative, to show that nothing short of religion could play this role.

Philosophers are prone to see confusion in the question ‘What is the meaning of life?’ They have replaced it with questions about meaningful lives. But the search for life’s meaning will not go away and it is perfectly intelligible. I cannot tell you the meaning of life or give assurance that it has one. But I can say that it is not a mistake to ask the question. Does life have meaning? The answer is: it might.Aeon counter – do not remove

~ Kieran Setiya is a professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His latest book is Midlife: A Philosophical Guide (2017). He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts. (Bio credit: Aeon)

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

O.P. Recommends: M.M. Owen on Martin Buber’s I and Thou

‘A Father and Child’ by Andrei Osipovich Karelin, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In this excellent essay, M. M. Owen explores Martin Buber‘s idea that ‘when we encounter another individual truly as a person, not as an object for use, we become fully human.’:

I and Thou argues that within this elementally networked reality there are two basic modes of existence: the I-It, and the I-Thou. These two stances make up our basic ‘twofold attitude’. In the I-It mode, an ‘Ego’ approaches another as an object separate from itself. This type of engagement is driven by a sort of instrumentalism; the object is engaged primarily as something to be known or used, and its nature is always mediated through the subject’s own self-regard. From the I-It stance, we don’t engage with things in their entirety. Instead, we engage with a web of distinct and isolated qualities notable for how they are useful to us. Buber regarded this kind of self-centred outlook – typified, in his view, by proto-existentialists such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche – as a grave error.

By contrast, in the I-Thou relationship, rather than simply experiencing another, we encounter them. A subject encounters a fellow subject’s whole being, and that being is not filtered through our mediated consciousness, with its litter of preconceptions and projections. ‘No purpose intervenes,’ as Buber put it. The I-Thou stance has a purity and an intimacy, and is inherently reciprocal. In relation to others, he argued, we can step into an intersubjective space where two people coexist in (and co-contribute to) what he called the Between. In this Between lurks the vital, nourishing experience of human life, the real sacred stuff of existence. As he put it: ‘All real living is meeting.’

Read the full essay here

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If Work Dominated Your Every Moment Would Life be Worth Living? by Andrew Taggart

Working Woman, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Imagine that work had taken over the world. It would be the centre around which the rest of life turned. Then all else would come to be subservient to work. Then slowly, almost imperceptibly, anything else – the games once played, the songs hitherto sung, the loves fulfilled, the festivals celebrated – would come to resemble, and ultimately become, work. And then there would come a time, itself largely unobserved, when the many worlds that had once existed before work took over the world would vanish completely from the cultural record, having fallen into oblivion.

And how, in this world of total work, would people think and sound and act? Everywhere they looked, they would see the pre-employed, employed, post-employed, underemployed and unemployed, and there would be no one uncounted in this census. Everywhere they would laud and love work, wishing each other the very best for a productive day, opening their eyes to tasks and closing them only to sleep. Everywhere an ethos of hard work would be championed as the means by which success is to be achieved, laziness being deemed the gravest sin. Everywhere among content-providers, knowledge-brokers, collaboration architects and heads of new divisions would be heard ceaseless chatter about workflows and deltas, about plans and benchmarks, about scaling up, monetisation and growth.

In this world, eating, excreting, resting, having sex, exercising, meditating and commuting – closely monitored and ever-optimised – would all be conducive to good health, which would, in turn, be put in the service of being more and more productive. No one would drink too much, some would microdose on psychedelics to enhance their work performance, and everyone would live indefinitely long. Off in corners, rumours would occasionally circulate about death or suicide from overwork, but such faintly sweet susurrus would rightly be regarded as no more than local manifestations of the spirit of total work, for some even as a praiseworthy way of taking work to its logical limit in ultimate sacrifice. In all corners of the world, therefore, people would act in order to complete total work’s deepest longing: to see itself fully manifest.

This world, it turns out, is not a work of science fiction; it is unmistakably close to our own.

‘Total work’, a term coined by the German philosopher Josef Pieper just after the Second World War in his book Leisure: The Basis of Culture (1948), is the process by which human beings are transformed into workers and nothing else. By this means, work will ultimately become total, I argue, when it is the centre around which all of human life turns; when everything else is put in its service; when leisure, festivity and play come to resemble and then become work; when there remains no further dimension to life beyond work; when humans fully believe that we were born only to work; and when other ways of life, existing before total work won out, disappear completely from cultural memory.

We are on the verge of total work’s realisation. Each day I speak with people for whom work has come to control their lives, making their world into a task, their thoughts an unspoken burden.

For unlike someone devoted to the life of contemplation, a total worker takes herself to be primordially an agent standing before the world, which is construed as an endless set of tasks extending into the indeterminate future. Following this taskification of the world, she sees time as a scarce resource to be used prudently, is always concerned with what is to be done, and is often anxious both about whether this is the right thing to do now and about there always being more to do. Crucially, the attitude of the total worker is not grasped best in cases of overwork, but rather in the everyday way in which he is single-mindedly focused on tasks to be completed, with productivity, effectiveness and efficiency to be enhanced. How? Through the modes of effective planning, skilful prioritising and timely delegation. The total worker, in brief, is a figure of ceaseless, tensed, busied activity: a figure, whose main affliction is a deep existential restlessness fixated on producing the useful.

What is so disturbing about total work is not just that it causes needless human suffering but also that it eradicates the forms of playful contemplation concerned with our asking, pondering and answering the most basic questions of existence. To see how it causes needless human suffering, consider the illuminating phenomenology of total work as it shows up in the daily awareness of two imaginary conversation partners. There is, to begin with, constant tension, an overarching sense of pressure associated with the thought that there’s something that needs to be done, always something I’m supposed to be doing right now. As the second conversation partner puts it, there is concomitantly the looming question: Is this the best use of my time? Time, an enemy, a scarcity, reveals the agent’s limited powers of action, the pain of harrying, unanswerable opportunity costs.

Together, thoughts of the not yet but supposed to be done, the should have been done already, the could be something more productive I should be doing, and the ever-awaiting next thing to do conspire as enemies to harass the agent who is, by default, always behind in the incomplete now. Secondly, one feels guilt whenever he is not as productive as possible. Guilt, in this case, is an expression of a failure to keep up or keep on top of things, with tasks overflowing because of presumed neglect or relative idleness. Finally, the constant, haranguing impulse to get things done implies that it’s empirically impossible, from within this mode of being, to experience things completely. ‘My being,’ the first man concludes, ‘is an onus,’ which is to say an endless cycle of unsatisfactoriness.

The burden character of total work, then, is defined by ceaseless, restless, agitated activity, anxiety about the future, a sense of life being overwhelming, nagging thoughts about missed opportunities, and guilt connected to the possibility of laziness. Hence, the taskification of the world is correlated with the burden character of total work. In short, total work necessarily causes dukkha, a Buddhist term referring to the unsatisfactory nature of a life filled with suffering.

In addition to causing dukkha, total work bars access to higher levels of reality. For what is lost in the world of total work is art’s revelation of the beautiful, religion’s glimpse of eternity, love’s unalloyed joy, and philosophy’s sense of wonderment. All of these require silence, stillness, a wholehearted willingness to simply apprehend. If meaning, understood as the ludic interaction of finitude and infinity, is precisely what transcends, here and now, the ken of our preoccupations and mundane tasks, enabling us to have a direct experience with what is greater than ourselves, then what is lost in a world of total work is the very possibility of our experiencing meaning. What is lost is seeking why we’re here.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Andrew Taggart is a practical philosopher and entrepreneur. He is a faculty member at the Banff Centre in Canada, where he trains creative leaders, and at Kaospilot in Denmark, where he trains social entrepreneurs. His latest book is The Good Life and Sustaining Life (2014). He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Bio credit: Aeon)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

He Died as He Lived: David Hume, Philosopher and Infidel, by Dennis Rasmussen

As the Scottish philosopher David Hume lay on his deathbed in the summer of 1776, his passing became a highly anticipated event. Few people in 18th-century Britain were as forthright in their lack of religious faith as Hume was, and his skepticism had earned him a lifetime of abuse and reproach from the pious, including a concerted effort to excommunicate him from the Church of Scotland. Now everyone wanted to know how the notorious infidel would face his end. Would he show remorse or perhaps even recant his skepticism? Would he die in a state of distress, having none of the usual consolations afforded by belief in an afterlife? In the event, Hume died as he had lived, with remarkable good humour and without religion.

The most famous depiction of Hume’s dying days, at least in our time, comes from James Boswell, who managed to contrive a visit with him on Sunday, 7 July 1776. As his account of their conversation makes plain, the purpose of Boswell’s visit was less to pay his respects to a dying man, or even to gratify a sense of morbid curiosity, than to try to fortify his own religious convictions by confirming that even Hume could not remain a sincere non-believer to the end. In this, he failed utterly.

‘Being too late for church,’ Boswell made his way to Hume’s house, where he was surprised to find him ‘placid and even cheerful … talking of different matters with a tranquility of mind and a clearness of head which few men possess at any time.’ Ever tactful, Boswell immediately brought up the subject of the afterlife, asking if there might not be a future state. Hume replied that ‘it was possible that a piece of coal put upon the fire would not burn; and he added that it was a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist for ever’. Boswell persisted, asking if he was not made uneasy by the thought of annihilation, to which Hume responded that he was no more perturbed by the idea of ceasing to exist than by the idea that he had not existed before he was born. What was more, Hume ‘said flatly that the morality of every religion was bad, and … that when he heard a man was religious, he concluded he was a rascal, though he had known some instances of very good men being religious.’

This interview might show Hume at his brashest, but in the 18th century it remained mostly confined to Boswell’s private notebooks. The most prominent and controversial public account of Hume’s final days came instead from an even more famous pen: that of Adam Smith, Hume’s closest friend. Smith composed a eulogy for Hume soon after the latter’s death in the form of a public letter to their mutual publisher, William Strahan. This letter was effectively the ‘authorised version’ of the story of Hume’s death, as it appeared (with Hume’s advance permission) as a companion piece to his short, posthumously published autobiography, My Own Life (1776).

Smith’s letter contains none of the open impiety that pervades Boswell’s interview, but it does chronicle – even flaunt – the equanimity of Hume’s last days, depicting the philosopher telling jokes, playing cards, and conversing cheerfully with his friends. It also emphasises the excellence of Hume’s character; indeed, Smith concluded the letter by declaring that his unbelieving friend approached ‘as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit’.

Though relatively little known today, in the 18th century Smith’s letter caused an uproar. He later proclaimed that it ‘brought upon me 10 times more abuse than the very violent attack I had made upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain’ – meaning, of course, The Wealth of Nations (1776). Throughout his life, Smith had generally gone to great lengths to avoid revealing much about his religious beliefs – or lack thereof – and to steer clear of confrontations with the devout, but his claim that an avowed skeptic such as Hume was a model of wisdom and virtue ‘gave very great offence’ and ‘shocked every sober Christian’ (as a contemporary commented).

Boswell himself deemed Smith’s letter a piece of ‘daring effrontery’ and an example of the ‘poisonous productions with which this age is infested’. Accordingly, he beseeched Samuel Johnson to ‘step forth’ to ‘knock Hume’s and Smith’s heads together, and make vain and ostentatious infidelity exceedingly ridiculous. Would it not,’ he pleaded, ‘be worth your while to crush such noxious weeds in the moral garden?’

Nor did the controversy subside quickly. Nearly a century later, one prolific author of religious tomes, John Lowrie, was still sufficiently incensed by Smith’s letter to proclaim that he knew ‘no more lamentable evidence of the weakness and folly of irreligion and infidelity’ in ‘all the range of English literature’.

In the 18th century, the idea that it was possible for a skeptic to die well, without undue hopes or fears, clearly haunted many people, including Boswell, who tried to call on Hume twice more after their 7 July conversation in order to press him further, but was turned away. Today, of course, non-believers are still regarded with suspicion and even hatred in some circles, but many die every day with little notice or comment about their lack of faith. It takes a particularly audacious and outspoken form of non-belief – more akin to the Hume of Boswell’s private interview than to the Hume of Smith’s public letter – to arouse much in the way of shock or resentment, of the kind that attended the death of Christopher Hitchens some years ago. (Indeed, there were a number of comparisons drawn between Hitchens and Hume at the time.) The fact that in the 18th century Smith endured vigorous and lasting abuse for merely reporting his friend’s calm and courageous end offers a stark reminder of just how far we have come in this regard.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Dennis Rasmussen is an associate professor in the department of political science at Tufts University in Massachusetts. He is the author of The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought (2017). (Bio credit: Aeon)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Simone de Beauvoir’s Political Philosophy Resonates Today, by Skye C Cleary

Simone de Beauvoir is rightly best known for declaring: ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.’ A less well-known facet of her philosophy, particularly relevant today, is her political activism, a viewpoint that follows directly from her metaphysical stance on the self, namely that we have no fixed essences.

The existential maxim ‘existence precedes essence’ underpins de Beauvoir’s philosophy. For her, as for Jean-Paul Sartre, we are first thrown into the world and then create our being through our actions. While there are facts of our existence that we can’t choose, such as being born, who our parents were, and our genetic inheritance, we shouldn’t use our biology or history as excuses not to act. The existential goal is to be an agent, to take control over our life, actively transcending the facts of our existence by pursuing self-chosen goals.

It’s easy to find excuses not to act. So easy that many of us spend much of our lives doing so. Many of us believe that we don’t have free will – even as some neuroscientists are discovering that our conscious will can override our impulses. We tell ourselves that our vote won’t make any difference, instead of actively shaping the world in which we want to live. We point fingers at Facebook for facilitating fake news, instead of critically assessing what we’re reading and reposting. It’s not just lazy to push away responsibility in such ways, but it’s what de Beauvoir called a ‘moral fault’.

Since we’re all affected by politics, if we choose not to be involved in creating the conditions of our own lives this reduces us to what de Beauvoir called ‘absurd vegetation’. It’s tantamount to rejecting existence. We must take a side. The problem is, it’s not always clear which side we ought to choose. Even de Beauvoir failed to navigate through this question safely. She adopted questionable political stances: she once, for example, dismissed Chairman Mao – responsible for the murder of over 45 million people – as being ‘no more dictatorial’ than Franklin D Roosevelt. De Beauvoir’s philosophy of political commitment has a dark side, and she personally made some grave errors of judgement, yet within her philosophy, there’s an opening to address this issue.

In The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947) she argues that to be free is to be able to stretch ourselves into an open future full of possibilities. Having this kind of freedom may be dizzying, but it doesn’t mean we get to do whatever we like. We share the earth, and have concern for one another; if we respect freedom for ourselves, then we should respect it for others, too. Using our freedom to exploit and oppress others, or to support the side that promotes such policies, is inconsistent with this radical existential freedom.

With oppressive regimes, de Beauvoir acknowledged that individuals usually pay a high price for standing up to dictators and the tyranny of the majority, but demonstrated concretely – through her writing and political engagement – the power of collective action to bring about structural change. An intellectual vigilante, de Beauvoir used her pen as a weapon, breaking down gendered stereotypes and challenging laws that prohibited women from having control over their own bodies. She authored and signed the Manifesto of the 343 in 1971, which paved the way for birth control and abortion in France. Her most famous work, The Second Sex (1949), sparked a new wave of feminism across the world.

Today more than ever it’s vital to recognise that freedom can’t be assumed. Some of the freedoms that de Beauvoir fought so hard for in the mid-20th century have since come under threat. De Beauvoir warns that we should expect appeals to ‘nature’ and ‘utility’ to be used as justifications for restrictions on our freedom. And she has been proved correct. For example, the argument that Donald Trump and others have used that pregnancy is inconvenient for businesses is an implicit way of communicating the view that it is natural and economical for women to be baby-making machines while men work. However, de Beauvoir points out ‘anatomy and hormones never define anything but a situation’, and making birth control, abortion, and parental leave unavailable closes down men’s and women’s ability to reach beyond their given situations, reinforcing stereotypical roles that keep women chained to unpaid home labour and men on a treadmill of paid labour.

In times of political turmoil, one may feel overwhelmed with anxiety and can even be tempted with Sartre to think that ‘hell is other people’. De Beauvoir encourages us to consider that others also give us the world because they infuse it with meaning: we can only make sense of ourselves in relation to others, and can only make sense of the world around us by understanding others’ goals. We strive to understand our differences and to embrace the tension between us. World peace is a stretch, since we don’t all choose the same goals, but we can still look for ways to create solidarities – such as by working to agitate authoritarians, to revolt against tyrants, to amplify marginalised voices – to abolish oppression. Persistence is essential since, as de Beauvoir says, ‘One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation and compassion.’ De Beauvoir is surely right that this is the risk, the anguish, and the beauty of human existence.Aeon counter – do not remove

~ Skye C Cleary is a lecturer at Columbia University, the City College of New York, and Barnard College, and is the managing editor of the American Philosophical Association’s blog. Her latest book is Existentialism and Romantic Love (bio credit: Aeon)

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!