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The Meaning of Life

What’s the meaning of all this?

Brenda Almond on the pursuit of wisdom.

Often, when people look for meaning in life, they turn first of all to religion and then, if that fails to convince, to philosophy. Sometimes they try to suppress the questioning by engaging in frenetic activity, whether quasi-martial or quasi-marital. But thinking tends to intrude even on these activities and – contrary to received opinion in the academic world – philosophy is a ‘people’s activity’. That is to say, philosophy in the sense of a quest for meaning in life – some way of understanding the odd but undeniable fact of our individual and self-aware existence – is part of the human mind set. This is especially so when a person is confronted by any of the biological rites of passage of the human animal – birth, sex, reproduction and death. But even in the quieter less dramatic modes of existence, the question ‘What is it all for?’ forces itself into the reflective consciousness.

Although I, personally, was taught as an undergraduate not to interpret it this way, I would now say that philosophy is the name people give to this passion to make sense of human existence, to find meaning in life. And understanding it like this, I would say that philosophy is the quest for order, plan, purpose and method in face of the arbitrary contingency that confronts us in our strange and vulnerable embodied existence.

For the ancients, this search was identified with the pursuit of the Good, the True and the Beautiful. The twentieth century has tended to prefer more modest and more prosaic goals: to expand knowledge – and to be able to say what knowledge is; to build ideals – and to find out how to give concrete expression to those ideals in political and social systems. However, the century has been conspicuously more successful in the first of these goals than the second. It has been more at home in the area of knowledge than in the area of ethics and, as a result, its command of technology has found more and more deeply corrupt applications in both war and peace. Perhaps worse, where it does give lip-service to ethics, it is to an ethics divorced from moral sensitivity.

But in whatever way the quest manifests itself, it belongs to everyone, not only those marked out by their learning or intelligence. I once tried to express this truth by imagining the words of the wise woman of folk-lore – the kind of musings that come to us on the night air, seeming not to be our own, but those of someone other and wiser than ourselves. I can hardly do better than to quote her. Speaking of the way in which the fruit of this kind of reflective, truly philosophical, thinking can become part of the common mind – the common store of wisdom that has the power to outlast the individual – what she said was this:

“ … that, really, is what philosophy is: not an esoteric discipline, but the common endeavour of the human race to understand and come to terms with its own perilous, fragile and ultimately ephemeral existence.”1

I should perhaps say again that I was not brought up to think of philosophy in this way, coming early under the influence of the empiricist and logical positivist A.J. Ayer. And yet, paradoxically perhaps, Ayer himself ended his career and indeed his life, with a book to which he gave the title The Meaning of Life (1990). Of course, this was no deathbed conversion – quite the contrary, it was in fact a typically mischievous parting gibe at what I have just described as the popular view of what philosophy is. But I find a great irony in the fact that, for philosophers who, like Ayer, turned to ordinary usage – the way the ordinary person uses a word or phrase – as the arbiter of meaning for all kinds of philosophical purposes, the one piece of ordinary usage they were inclined to treat with contempt was the ordinary person’s understanding of what philosophy is. As a result of that contempt, professional and academic philosophy has become identified at the end of the twentieth century with a choice in the area of knowledge, between irrationalism and empty logic-chopping, and in the area of morality, between moral nihilism and a shallow utilitarianism.

Against these prevailing trends, it is only possible to repeat that the true mission of philosophy is, after all, the pursuit of wisdom – an understanding which is in keeping with the initial and etymological meaning of the word. It is also in keeping with the origins of western philosophy, and the distinction set out by Aristotle between two kinds of wisdom: abstract or intellectual wisdom and practical wisdom. As for the latter, Aristotle saw that the scope for practical wisdom extended both to politics and to personal life. Today, there are many who would agree that these are interconnected: that the personal choices people make – of lifestyle, partner, career, residence – have unavoidable implications for the public choices related to these private decisions. So wise private choices make for at least the possibility of a public life governed by wisdom, while large-scale carelessness in the personal life of individuals can lead to the disintegration or unravelling of the social fabric.

But these private areas are important, too, in their own right. For it is in close personal relationships that many people find meaning for their own lives. Of course, that sense of meaning and purpose can also be found in identification with a cause or a political movement. But both of these are distinct from intellectual, abstract or contemplative wisdom which was, for Aristotle, the highest goal. Aristotle’s preference fits, however, with the perspective of some Eastern philosophies – that human bonds and human causes are distractions from the mind’s ability to focus on the permanent and the eternal.

So in which of these areas is it best to pursue the coveted goal of a meaningful life? In the area of practical wisdom or in that of intellectual wisdom? I would guess that some of the readers of this publication would opt for the second. They may be right, but it has to be recognised that that is a difficult choice, and perhaps not for the majority. But I am not averse to agreeing that there may be a gender bias here – that this may be a judgement reflecting peculiarly ‘female’ values. This gloss on the matter is supported by the observation that the fulfilment generated by close human relationships – in particular, between men and women, parents and children – didn’t feature in Aristotle’s list of alternative modes of happiness – material comfort, fame or philosophy – and as far as I know, no-one has ever drawn attention to the omission.

But whichever direction one prefers, and for whatever reason, it has to be admitted that contemporary western philosophy has very little to offer in the way of reflection or insight in relation to either practical or philosophic wisdom. Instead it tends to be constrained in a narrow professionalism that detaches itself deliberately from the world. Perhaps this point was most tellingly illustrated recently by certain philosophers who demanded a ‘no politics’ convention for a philosophy email list, in which correspondents kept returning to impassioned discussion of the Kosovo conflict and the morality of the NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia. Philosophers, it seems, still prefer to stick to tired and familiar academic debates while the world burns. Well, personally, I have always found that an unacceptably narrow view of how philosophers should occupy their time. And this is why I feel a sense of resistance when seminar discussion takes in phrases like ‘making a move’ or ‘running a line’ – phrases which subtly point up the analogy between philosophy and intellectual games like chess, and play down the concept of philosophy as a serious engagement with real issues.

But, of course, we do still continue on the whole to teach our students to be critical rather than trying to encourage them to be wise; to perform moral gymnastics rather than to take seriously the search for a meaningful life. All the same, I have come to think that being wise may well mean looking to the past and being willing to learn from it, rather than parroting dubious refutations of philosophers’ arguments. For in the end, it is only by learning to transcend the narrow limitations of one’s own epoch – both to look backwards and to think forwards – that there can be any hope of gaining some sense of what we like to call ‘the meaning of life.’

© Professor Brenda Almond 1999

Brenda Almond is professor of moral and social philosophy at the University of Hull. She has just been elected to the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

1 Exploring Philosophy: the philosophical quest, by Brenda Almond, Blackwell, 1995, p.212.

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