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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Does Death Rob Our Lives of Meaning? by Richard Pettigrew

Headstones in Gettysburg National Cemetery 2 (cropped), photo 2016 Amy CoolsIn the previous post, we met the argument with which Epicurus hoped to cure our fear of death and, with that, our fear of everything else. But we found it wanting. Epicurus assumed that only that which can harm you may be feared; and only that which causes pain can harm you. But we saw that both of these assumptions are false. Along the way, we met one specific reason to fear our death, namely, its effect on those we love. But I suggested that, while this might justify certain responses to the fact of our own mortality, it does not seem to support the sort of response that people often report – the halting existential terror felt in the pit of the stomach. This sort of response, it seems, comes from somewhere else. In this post, we consider a conjecture as to its source: I fear death, you might think, because the fact that I will die robs the things I do in my life of their meaning or their value or their worth. This, if it were true, would justify the feeling of vertigo and emptiness that comes when we reflect that we will die. To remind ourselves that all we have done is meaningless is to have the basis for all we do pulled out from under us.

As so often, Bill Watterson’s six-year old philosopher, Calvin, has been here before us. In the first pane of one comic strip, Calvin is at his school-desk: “Miss Wormwood, I have a question about this math class”; “Yes?”; “Given that sooner or later, we’re all just going to die, what’s the point of learning about integers?” Calvin’s thought seems to be based on an assumption that many of us make about what makes it worthwhile to do the things that we do in our lives. We assume that an activity can only get meaning or value by contributing to some larger goal that we pursue. Death, then, robs our lives of meaning or value by interrupting our ultimate over-arching goals before they can be fully achieved.

But this is based on a mistaken view of how things get their meaning or their value or their worth. Of course, some things get their meaning from how they contribute to some larger project (the philosopher Kieran Setiya calls these ‘telic activities’). I sharpen my pencil in order to draft this blog; and if I don’t finish the blog, the pencil sharpening becomes devoid of worth – doing it will have added no value to my life. I make a birthday card for a friend in order to make her laugh; if I drop it down a drain on my way to her party, there was no value in the making of it. But other things I undertake not because they contribute to a larger project – or not only for that reason – but because I value them as they are; they are, for me, sources of value in themselves (Setiya calls these ‘atelic activities’). For example, this blog might be part of a larger project I have to think through the effect on our lives of knowing of our own mortality. But I don’t value writing it only for its contribution to that goal. The process of thinking through these questions is itself something of value for me; something that gives my life meaning in and of itself. I might listen to my friend’s woes as part of a larger project of supporting her and living my life as connected to some extent to hers; but I value each particular part of that project, each evening talking to her, and not just because of their contribution to the whole; they are ends in themselves. What’s more, as philosopher Frances Kamm points out, much of what gives value to our lives is not any activity, such as thinking through a philosophical issue or connecting my life to that of my friend, but a way of being, such as being wise or being virtuous; and these ways of being are complete in themselves whenever you have them. The value that being wise or being virtuous add to your life does not increase the longer you live, though of course the longer you live, the more chance you have of achieving them.

In another comic strip, Calvin is sitting with his friend Hobbes, the tiger, under a tree. He turns to Hobbes: “I don’t understand this business about death. If we’re all going to die, what’s the point of living?” After a moment, Hobbes replies: “Well, there’s seafood.” And he’s right. Much of what we do in life – spending time with friends or family, taking in the beauty of the natural world, writing, reading, campaigning, or eating seafood – we value for its own sake. We don’t value it because of its contribution to some larger project that is curtailed by our death, thereby robbing our actions and lives that contain them of meaning. So, this aspect of death – that it truncates some of our projects, and frustrates some of our goals – gives us cause for sadness, perhaps, or disappointment or regret; but not fear, and not halting existential terror in the pit of our stomach. After all, there’s seafood.

~ Richard Pettigrew is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Bristol. He completed his PhD in mathematical logic in 2008. Since then, he has worked in logic, philosophy of mathematics, the epistemology of uncertainty, and the theory of rational choice. (Bio credit: OUPblog)

~ This piece was originally published at OUPblog

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