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.

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*All views and opinions expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily express those of Ordinary Philosophy’s editors and publishers

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

~ 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!!

Anxiety and Depression: An Experiential Account

Anxiety and depression have been recurring themes throughout my life, ravaging my emotional life now and again and causing me quite a bit of trouble when they do. It’s often called ‘Mixed anxiety-depressive disorder‘ when people are generally prone to suffer from both at once, and is actually quite common, about 8 in a 1,000 people. There’s still some debate among professionals as to whether this tendency should have its own diagnostic category, or whether these are really two separate health problems people just often have together for other reasons. Anyway, the clinical distinctions not really what I’m interested in today, though I’m very grateful to professionals who have helped me get through it in the past. I’ve been diagnosed with this and one or the other separately at different times (more often anxiety), and the descriptions and risk factors are present: a family history of anxiety, depression, and other mental issues, substance abuse, lack of socialization in youth, emotional and behavioral characteristics, and so forth. But I don’t think of myself as a broken person, or as having a ‘condition’, or as a victim, or anything like that, because I’m really a very lucky person who has lots of joy, and love, and beauty in my life. I’m also a very optimistic and happy person generally, often goofily so, who loves life. I just think of myself as having certain darker tendencies that I need to deal as they arise, placing myself in a more nurturing and peaceful environment as my emotional state requires.

Its prevalence in my life has been lessened significantly for many years now, since I’ve been in a loving, stable, supportive relationship with one who has a most beautifully healthy and balanced mind. (Such a ray of sunshine and constant comfort to me!) I’ve also learned many tools over the years to keep it at bay, instilling habits and practicing behaviors that keep me from falling back into that anxious state. I recently listened to a talk by Temple Grandin describing how important it is for people with emotional and other issues to diligently practice good, learned social behaviors, and I was struck by how well her recommendations for some autistic people fit with the set of practices I’ve developed for getting through an episode and staving off another one. Like many on the autism spectrum, anxious-depressive people can suffer from debilitating social awkwardness that makes it difficult to conduct one’s public life successfully. However, anxiety-depression is not a constant state like autism or some other emotional disorders: rather, it’s more like a recurring medical condition which requires diligent care and healthy practices to lessen the frequency and impact of flare-ups. Since I hadn’t dealt with a major anxious-depressive episode in such a long time, I had forgotten to be diligent with my good habits, and some stressful circumstances combined in such a way as to kick off a new round. Anyway, it’s been gradually coming on for months, and within the last month or so, I’ve experienced the worst of this particular episode. It really does derail one’s life in so many ways, causing one to miss opportunities and lose jobs, relationships, a sense of purpose, and hope, and so much time and energy that could be spent productively or simply enjoying life is wasted on the enormous effort of just trying to get by and not screw up another day.

This time around, though, I want to openly, publicly describe what it’s like to experience anxiety-depression while I’m actually going through it. Once I’ve gotten through an episode, I’ve always avoided thinking about it at all. It’s just too easy to slip back in again if I dwell on it, and I want to avoid the whole thing like the plague because it’s really, really awful. So I’m not writing about it to be depressing, I assure you, I wouldn’t ever try to spread that feeling to anyone! And this is not a complaint, either: again, my life is full of beauty and joy and love, and I know I’m one of the fortunate ones of the earth, living without real poverty, disease, or oppression, and living with the most beautiful man I’ve ever known. But I thought an account of the experience might be of interest to three groups of people. First, to those who have friends who suddenly seem distant or ‘weird’ and they’re at a loss to understand why (perhaps some of my friends feel this way about me!). Second, to the medical professional or researcher who just might stumble on this account and value these tidbits of information, who knows? But this is mostly written for others like me who have their own struggles with anxiety-depression, because they (perhaps you, dear reader!) know the loneliness that accompanies this state, a really crushing, deep loneliness, and maybe you’ll read this and feel as if you have an ally and companion.

When I first recognized I was not just ‘in a mood’ that day, but had slipped back into an anxious-depressive state, it was because I realized I’ve been, gradually, avoiding more and more people and events. ‘Avoiding’ becomes a habit, a way of life, when you’re anxious and depressed, because like so many times before, I find that my emotions, normally so useful and meaningful, have gathered into one large, undifferentiated, super-sensitive mass in the center of myself, easily wounded, flinching at the merest touch.

So dramatic outbursts, quarrels, and gossip of friends, family, and co-workers, which I normally might find amusing or interesting, whose jokes and teasing I normally find funny or silly, whose clique-ish behavior I normally view as a natural expression of the clannishness of human nature, whose criticisms I would take in stride and learn from, are all transformed into sources of pain. The rational, friendly, easygoing side of myself recognizes, as always, that these traits and behaviors are interesting and often delightful foibles of human nature. But in my anxious state they’re alienating, and appear to be destructive attacks, indicative of the darker side of human beings who seek to exclude and tear each other down. Social events are often, therefore, overwhelming, protracted exercises in excruciating awkwardness. In the very worst episodes in the past, I’d want to avoid almost everyone, even strangers, since they’d inevitably bring up a painful subject, or I’d feel them look at me oddly, or even worse, they’d ask me what’s wrong; it was just too painfully tedious, embarrassing, and confusing for me to explain. But this time around, I mostly just feel the need to avoid everyone except strangers and the nearest, dearest, and gentlest people I know. The presence of the near, dear, and gentle are comforting, and strangers are company with whom I can remain delightfully anonymous. Even as the anxious-depressive state subsides, I still, as always, remain cautious for awhile with relationships and other situations in my life, until the episode is a distant memory and I feel my robust self again.

But this avoidance is never because I want to separate myself from people, it’s precisely the opposite: I long for companionship and a sense of belonging all the more as the sense of alienation grows. All that avoiding leads to such a deep sense of loneliness, that the divide between myself and everything else feels like I’ve been physically ripped apart from the world I need. The ache is physical, sometimes just as a tightness in my chest or like muscles straining around and behind my eyes and throat, sometimes involving my whole body. Other times (thankfully, not so much this time around!) my heart skips or beats out of rhythm, accompanied by a strange hot wave that flows out to my hands and feet, and a sudden wave of dizziness that lasts from a few seconds to a several minutes at a time. These opposing needs, to avoid pain and to grasp for human connection, is extremely confusing, and leads to an awful, awful self-consciousness. I’ve always had a shy side to my personality, but is blown up into a such a all-pervasive self-consciousness that I feel immensely awkward most of the time. I mean, how can you talk or act naturally when you want to flee, and cry, and embrace, and explode, or some combination of these, all at the same time whenever you’re with people?

This leads to the incredibly odd, frightening, awful sense of being separated my own personality.

It’s not as if I feel like I’m totally disassociated from myself, or that I have a split personality, or anything like that. It’s just that the parts of myself that I know and like and love best, the personality that I identify with, is not accessible, or is just not coordinating at all with my anxious self. My emotions so askew that I don’t and can’t react in a natural way. So conversations feel forced, and because the ordinary emotional responses that prompts human interactions are working together, I often can’t think of a single thing to say besides trite commonplaces, and the awkwardness builds up to unbearable levels. I’m a person who’s no good at small talk anyway, preferring more direct and in-depth conversation, and not particularly big on pop culture either, so I don’t have the these handy discursive tools to hide my confusion behind. (I guess I could ‘fake it’ and, weekly, try to memorize examples of pop culture to talk about, but I’m not so good at this sort if dissembling either, dammit.) My usual, easygoing self finds it easy to ask questions about what my companion of the moment is up to, what they care about and what it’s like, and what experiences we share. But my anxious self freezes and can’t readily formulate questions, because the flurry of conflicting emotional responses leads to such confusion that organized thought becomes almost impossible. So I flee and hide, or I blurt out a long enough series of commonplaces that the mere appearance of conversation gradually assuages the awkwardness, or, if I’m really lucky, the other person just wants to talk to a good listener.

Because I don’t feel the ordinary sense of connectedness to other people at these times, I lose my sense of belonging to a community. I get the feeling, even, that I have no place in the world, that I’m not needed by anyone, that talents that I once thought I had don’t exist, or that they don’t have any value for anyone else. So in this anxious-depressive state I feel adrift, with no sense of purpose, and I start to spin my wheels. Making decisions is nearly impossible when every effort feels pointless, futile, when I’m certain that there isn’t a thing I can do that’s meaningful to anyone. This general feeling of being disconnected from people as well as from my own personality and sense of purpose also leads to a general spacey-ness. It becomes very difficult to pay attention to people when they’re talking, or to stick with a task and finish it, or to even to take in and understand an idea or system of much complexity. Concentration becomes a matter of will, but much of the time, the will to concentrate is just not there because being present in the moment is scary. Any given moment is just too full of people and circumstances likely to trigger more pain. And so, I am ashamed to say, I become selfish and withdrawn, and I hate it. All I really want, at these times, is to find the will and the strength to be happy, busy, and engaged with the rest of the world once again.

So that’s what it feels like to be in the throes of anxiety-depression. I suspect this all sounds very dark, and it does feel that way. But as I write this, and even in my worst moments, I recognize that what I experience at these times is only what the world is like in my own mind at the moment, and not what it’s like ‘out there’.

And even when all else appears dark, it’s also part of my personality that I love the feeling of being alive! Not just the joy of experiencing the rest of the world, but the actual feeling of seeing with my eyes, of moving my limbs, of the sensation of something touching my skin, of the life in my body, and I retain this feeling even when I’m at my most depressed. In this way, among others, I am incredibly lucky. I also feel that having these experiences gives me an understanding and strong empathy for people who have a hard time in the world. I feel the deepest sympathy for those who are depressed, like me, but don’t have this visceral love of life to sustain them through the worst times. I also sympathize with socially awkward and disconnected people of all sorts, who are sometimes shunned or even mocked by emotionally healthy, balanced people who just can’t understand (lucky them!) the actual experience of how hard it really is to be unable to connect to others.

Just the act of writing this down is such a relief! I hope this has been a help and not a burden to you, dear reader, and I thank you for making it all the way through such a somber account. It helps me feel a sense of control over my own mind, which is almost inaccessible to me when I’m anxious and depressed, and helps me to distance myself from those dark feelings that surround and choke me at these times. And if you, like me, are burdened with anxiety and depression sometimes, I hope, once again, that reading this makes you feel that you’ve found a friend.