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Tallis in Wonderland

On The Meaning(s) Of Life

Raymond Tallis searches for meaning, and finds several.

T.S. Eliot once reported a conversation with a taxi driver about celebrities he had had in his cab: “Only the other evening I picked up Bertrand Russell, and I said to him: ‘Well, Lord Russell, what’s it all about?’ And you know, he couldn’t tell me!” The shock of the man-in-the-street discovering that one of last century’s greatest philosophers could not deliver on what has often been seen as a central preoccupation of philosophy is manifest. Even if philosophers cannot solve their self-inflicted problems (see my ‘The ‘P’ Word: Does it Matter if Philosophy Does Not Make Progress?’, in Issue 113), surely they should be able to help us to make sense of things? High time, then, that this column should turn to the biggest of the Big Questions: ‘What’s it all about?’ More specifically, ‘What’s the meaning of life?’

What’s The Meaning Of ‘Meaning’?

Cue at once a characteristic disappointment. Instead of immediately answering the question, the philosopher’s first instinct is to question the question. What is meant by ‘meaning’ in this context? What’s more, why do we imagine that there should be a (single) meaning of life – or at least a point where all the local meanings, specific to different aspects and different times of one’s life, converge, as the lines converge to the vanishing point of a perspectival painting? Life, necessarily, has multiple meanings, corresponding to our many needs, desires, purposes, and roles. How could there possibly be a state in which love of one’s family, friendship, duty to others, sexual passion, satisfaction with an all-consuming vocation, the joy of hobbies and other pastimes, or thinking about philosophical problems, all add up? And is it likely that ‘The Meaning’ would then be universal, speaking to all humans – woman and man; old and young; healthy and sick; rich and poor; privileged and enslaved; believers and infidels; Fifth Century subsistence farmers and Twenty-First Century computer geeks; headmistresses and nomadic tribesmen? It seems unlikely, therefore, that there is a single meaning, or even a set of meanings that apply to all lives, or even to all aspects of a single life. And if there were, why should philosophers, as opposed to scientists, farmers, or come to that, cabbies, have privileged access to it? Prophets, with their hot-line to deities giving them unique knowledge of the purpose of the Creation, the intentions of the Creator in creating human beings in whose eyes all people are at least potentially One People, and the way to achieve the deferred completion of meaning in an eternal after-life, seem more qualified to address the question, so far as it can be asked, irrespective of whether one believes their answers. Or theologians and priests, who claim special access to the mind of God through their knowledge of, and reflection on, the documents in which God’s thoughts (insofar as He is willing to share them) are inscribed. But philosophers? How do they qualify?

Well, philosophers spend – or should spend – much of their working lives trying to get straight about topics such as the fundamental nature of reality (space, time, causation, substance, consciousness, and so on) and the foundation and limits of knowledge, and teasing out the principles underlying what counts, or should count, as ethical behaviour and a life well lived.

Unfortunately, that’s not how things usually work out. Philosophers’ arguments are never-ending, and their conclusions provisional, disputed by other philosophers. Metaphysics may seem remote from the fabric of daily meaning, while metaethics rarely gets down to the nitty-gritty of real life dilemmas and temptations.

This at least is how it appears to the unsympathetic majority, who are content to pass their lives in ignorance of what Philosopher A said about Philosopher B’s position on C’s response to D on the counterfactual theory of causation or the limits to utilitarianism. If Socrates really said “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and if in a secular society the only way to examine your life is to argue like a philosopher with yourself and others, then it is puzzling that most lives are (a) unexamined but nonetheless (b) certainly worth living to those who live them and those by whom they are loved. Besides, irrespective of whether we deliberately examine our lives, our lives will from time to time examine us, without the mediation of professional thinkers.

So the likelihood of philosophers filling any void created by the retreat of faith and the marginalisation of prophets and priests in secular society seems remote. Perhaps, however, philosophers can still make themselves useful by clarifying the nature of the question that’s being raised when we ask about the meaning of life. What often seems like pedantry, even frivolity, may in fact be the scrupulousness of true seriousness. So a philosopher might ask you: do you expect the meaning you’re seeking to be a set of propositions – perhaps a secular doctrine to replace the religious one? Or is meaning instead to be found in special experiences – in love or being loved, in art, in abstract thought? Are you expecting meaning to be found in a role you take on, or in a project that binds your days together? Do you see meaning as inseparable from a sense of purpose, or emerging from a desire to serve others, even in making the world a better place than it might have been without you? In short, is meaning an object of knowledge or something to be lived? Or, digging deeper, do you imagine The Meaning of Life to be something conferred or embraced, given or freely accepted, discovered or created, universal, or entirely personal?

And that’s just for starters. Look at the word ‘meaning’. It is a participle, suggesting something ongoing, a journey rather than arrival at something like the conclusion at the end of an inquiry or proof. The ‘-ing’ is a warning of transience: meaning cannot be static, never mind sustained or universally present. The very idea of ‘The Meaning of Life’ suggests something distinct from the ‘life’ pertaining to it – separated from it by an ‘of’. If meaning is something we make (as when we mean something), it has to be endlessly re-made, unlike something given, which we can simply draw on.

Where it is passively received, meaning may not be all that elevated. There is meaning that comes with ordinary pleasure, although a succession of pleasures may seem to add up to less than the sum of its parts. Scoffing an entire bag of boiled sweets may be less gratifying than savouring a few doled out at intervals. And meaning may be found in things that, far from being elevated, are, from the point of view of others, undesirable. Sadists, or the monstrous wealth-extractors who have damaged the lives of so many others, or the power-mad, do not suffer from lack of meaning. Their unrelenting obsessions and the satisfactions, disappointments, and frustrations that accompany them, fill their lives wall-to-wall with a coherent meaning, at terrible cost to others.

Eternal Meaning(s)

earth eye
Image © Vadim Dozmorov 2016. Please visit vadim.crevado.com. Photo © Scott P. Mitchell 2016

You may by now be getting restless. The question is not, surely, about what meanings we may find in life – which may be mere distractions, pastimes that simply pass time – but what meanings we ought to find.

The ‘ought’ here is not intended in a narrowly moralising sense. It implies ‘in the light of what we know of the human condition’; for example, how insignificant we are compared with the universe uncovered by our knowledge, or with the crowds in which we pass our days, and how brief are our lives. What kind of meaning could withstand living with such truths? What could survive a clear and continuous awareness that our all-consuming passions, our preoccupations, our achievements even, all that we have loved and cared for, will fade or be erased?

There is an obvious answer waiting in the wings. It is a meaning underwritten by a Supreme Being who created all things great and small and who offers eternal life to counteract the tragedy of mortality. But that was not what the cabbie was after. After all, Lord Russell was not wearing a dog collar, and, anyway, the cabbie had heard these promises since childhood, and probably didn’t take them seriously. So perhaps he was expecting philosophy, in the person of his ennobled fare, to take on the mantle of theology.

This is not entirely outrageous. Philosophy and theology for a long time were interwoven, and it was only after the scientific revolution that they parted company so decisively in the West. Theology enjoys the advantage of having in its starter pack certain assumptions arising from whichever revealed religion it seeks to interpret and defend. If, however, God-talk is regarded as wishful thinking (however profound) rather than truth, and sometimes a force for evil rather than good, then the advantage is lost, and the field is cleared for philosophy to find meaning. Yet this is a task from which Anglophone philosophy, in the tradition that Russell did so much to promote, has largely shrunk, partly out of distaste for something that might seem like lay preaching, but perhaps also because of a feeling that answers to questions about the meaning of life, even if the questions can be clarified, are not to be arrived at by arguments but through living. Take this passage from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logic-Philosophicus (1922):

“The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem. (Is not this the reason why men to whom after long doubting the sense of life became clear, could not then say wherein this sense consisted?)”

But there is still a role for philosophy. In his book, Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man (1962), Wilfrid Sellars spoke of philosophy as the endeavour “to see how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” This endeavour has a special urgency given that, as Ernest Gellner pointed out in Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and its Rivals (1994), “The world in which men think seriously, and to which serious thought refers, is no longer identical with the world in which one lives one’s daily life.” The seemingly purposeless universe is not so much a refutation of the densely woven meanings of everyday life, as a challenge to find a new way of understanding the place of our consciousness in the world it has uncovered. This may not result in a statement as to what ‘it’ is ‘all about’, because there isn’t a single ‘it’, nor one lot of ‘about’.

So there. Incidentally, Lord Russell’s 1903 essay, ‘A Free Man’s Worship’, is not a bad place to start, whether you’re a philosopher or a cab driver.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2016

Raymond Tallis’s latest book The Mystery of Being Human: God, Freedom and the NHS was published in September. His website is raymondtallis.com.

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