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The Question of the Meaning of Life: Answerable or Unanswerable?

Jeffrey Gordon wonders what it would mean to have meaning.

“We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of course there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer… The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem. (Is not this the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the meaning of life became clear to them have been unable to say what constituted that meaning?)” Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

For all its apparent importance, the question of the meaning of life is most strange. For the vast majority of people outside academe, it is the defining concern of philosophy, the issue that provides philosophy’s raison d’etre. Academic philosophers should hesitate before dismissing this view with a smile of polite embarrassment, for there is surely a broad but defensible sense of the question in which all philosophy is, indeed, about nothing else. The defensible sense is the conception of philosophy as an attempt to understand the human condition and our place in the universe – the attempt, in short, to answer the three questions that Kant believed to comprise all philosophy: What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope? But the fact is, this putatively definitive philosophical problem had rarely been addressed explicitly by any thinker before the nineteenth century, when Nietzsche and Kierkegaard made it their preoccupation. And although it would seem foolhardy or perverse to deny the importance of the question, exactly what is being asked and what might constitute a compelling answer have been notoriously elusive of clarification. In addition, the problem of the meaning of life seems to generate a multitude of paradoxes. In Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett’s poignant metaphor of spiritual crisis, Gogo asks Didi what will happen to them when Godot at last arrives. It soon becomes clear that neither has any idea, that the sole focus of their relentless hope is shrouded in utter obscurity. Are we not precisely in their condition whenever we wonder how our lives will be changed once the meaning of life is revealed? The above quotation from Wittgenstein alerts us to a similar paradox. Having felt perhaps for years that his life is deprived of meaning, a person now feels the meaning restored. But when we inquire of him just what this newfound meaning is, he’s inevitably unable to say. Here is a kind of knowledge or wisdom we are inclined to regard as of the utmost importance, and yet we may well be at a loss to say what difference it will make to our lives once we acquire it, and we will be unable to express the knowledge when we possess it. What other enduring philosophical problem is so scuttled in paradox and confusion?

Does human life have a meaning? If so, what is that meaning? How should I change my life to comport myself toward it? My purpose in this article will be to understand what these sentences mean. First, I will set out the difficulties we encounter in dealing with ‘the problem of life’. Then I will try to uncover the experiential source of these problems, in order to account for the difficulties in resolving them and in order to clarify their sense.

Difficulties of the Question

“Does human life have a meaning?” It seems reasonable to assume that a meaningful question points in the direction of a promising line of inquiry. But it is far from clear what promising line of inquiry this question can initiate. It may be suggested that what I want to know in raising the question of life is whether there is some larger scheme of which human life is an essential part. This may be called the religious conception of the question, since arguably one of the greatest psychological assets of the theistic tradition is to provide exactly this grand schema, with the apparent intention of assuring us that our lives do indeed have meaning. Indeed, thinkers as philosophically far-flung as Kierkegaard, Tolstoy and William James have understood the quest for meaning in just this way. In this understanding of the problem of life, the question prompts exploration of a possible divine plan or some rational order immanent in the universe such as Hegel proposed, and the role of human life in that plan or order.

However, even before we consider what this plan or order might be and how we could be certain of it, we can see that from a strictly logical standpoint such an answer would be self-stultifying: if human life can be meaningful only if it is part of a larger pattern of meaning, then by parity of reason, that larger pattern must derive its significance from its place in a still larger scheme, and so on to hopeless infinity. Our search for the meaning of life would thus be eternally deferred. Even if we could know that another life awaited us in the hereafter, this knowledge could not resolve the problem, for the meaning of the afterlife would remain a mystery, which would have to be resolved before we could be certain of the ultimate meaning of this one. So this cannot be the fruitful line of inquiry the question would hope to initiate. (My paper in The Modern Schoolman, LX, 4, 1983, presents this argument in greater detail.)

Some may say that the infinite regress I am pointing out here is not nearly so damaging to the religious conception of the answer as I am claiming it is, for it does not follow from the fact that one can keep searching for a yet more comprehensive schema that one must do so in order to establish meaning: a religious believer may see no need to exceed the bounds of the hereafter in order to determine the meaningfulness of this earthly sojourn. Heavenly bliss may be meaningful enough.

But the fact that one may be content to stop the regress at a certain point does nothing to undermine its destructive logical force. That a great many people have found deep consolation in the idea of an afterlife cannot be denied. That these same people were satisfied to stop their search for meaning there is also undeniable. But the question of the meaningfulness of the afterlife remains despite the fact that they are content not to raise it. On the contrary, their satisfaction with this vision of the whole may give us insight into their aesthetic or emotional needs and commitments. Perhaps it is not meaning they seek, but a kind of emotional fulfillment – the sense that the world is hospitable, or the assurance that they are loved. But the fact that they end their quest with the afterlife does not get us any closer to understanding what would make the afterlife meaningful. As we observe the characters in Waiting for Godot it occurs to us that the failure of Godot to appear might well be a blessing to them, for were Godot at last to come, they would be forced to confront the question of precisely in what sense they are saved. If we can establish meaningfulness only by being part of a larger framework, then once presented with any such scheme, we have no logical recourse but to embark on a search without end.

If a larger schema does not logically end our quest, perhaps then, in asking the question of life, we are searching for the internal order of the whole, as we might do in trying to determine the meaning of a play, to borrow a thoughtful analogy from John Wisdom in The Meaning of Life, p.221. ‘What is the meaning of life?’ might, then, really mean, ‘What is the order in the drama of time?’ Is life a tragedy, or is it a comedy, or is it the sort of tragicomedy depicted in the works of Kafka and Beckett?

However there are also serious problems with this new candidate for the direction of our inquiry. Unlike this question of the meaning of the play, this question about life seems to be a request for a kind of knowledge. But what would it mean to know that human life is a comedy or a tragedy, or a random mixture of elements of both? And how would such knowledge be confirmed?

Perhaps someone will argue that we complicate matters unnecessarily by suggesting that our question is a search for knowledge. Perhaps it is not a certain, verifiable fact that we seek, but rather a plausible story, a persuasive and satisfying picture, a comprehensive interpretation, such as we would seek in searching for the meaning of the play. But suppose we contrive such a picture or arrive at such an interpretation – indeed, suppose we attain knowledge after all – why must my conviction that life is (say) tragic establish its meaningfulness? Albert Camus judges human life to be absurd because of the incompatibility between the human desire for rational order and the silence of the world: “I said the world is absurd, but I was too hasty. This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world.” (The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, 1958, p.21, translated by Justin O’Brien.) If this is an accurate rendering of our condition this is certainly tragic, for it makes of the human struggle an exercise in abject futility. But in this case, the tragedy of human life, far from establishing its meaningfulness, would derive from its absurdity.

So we must distinguish betweenmaking sense of life and uncovering the source of its meaning. To pronounce that human life is a tragedy would be to make a certain sense of it, but not necessarily to attest to its meaningfulness. As Wisdom admits, it is possible that there is no order in the drama of time, that the story of humanity is a disarray of tragic and comic elements. To see this would still be to make some sense of it all, to find ‘the meaning of life’ in Wisdom’s use of the term. But this demonstrates the limitations of his use of the term, for surely the absence of order would challenge rather than establish the meaningfulness of life.

It is not merely the genre we are searching for when we ask the question of the meaning of life. If we could discover that life is a tragedy or a comedy, we would still have a further question. We would still want to know whether the tragedy or the comedy has meaning, or whether, on the contrary, it is tragic or comic precisely because it is meaningless.

If a question is to be meaningful, it must be possible at least to conceive of an answer to it, Wittgenstein asserts: “If a question can be framed at all, it is also possible to answer it.” (Tractatus §6.5.) Even so, it soon becomes clear that the obstacles to our conceiving an answer about life do not end with those detailed above. For instance, if I feel the need for an answer, I must be convinced that this is not a matter that each person must decide on wholly subjective grounds; for if I thought it were merely a subjective question, I would have no cause for perplexity. I would understand that the meaning of life was as near to hand as my own resourcefulness allowed it to be – that is, whatever I chose to constitute the meaningfulness of life would by that token make life meaningful (for me). So my existential disquietude is a sign that I am searching for an answer susceptible to objective validation. But here our embarrassments multiply. For if I am fortunate enough to find an objectively justifiable source of meaningfulness, it can serve my purposes and silence my doubts only if it is a source of meaning I can appropriate as my own – in short, subjectively endorse. It will be altogether useless to me if the objectively sanctioned meaning is one that I cannot find personally fulfilling. Suppose, for example, that I were to learn that the objectively true purpose of human life, the pursuit of which alone can establish its meaningfulness, is to commune with God. But suppose further that the concept of God seems so abstract that the prospect of such communion is wholly empty for me. Of what possible value could knowledge of the objectively valid source of meaning have for me then? Kierkegaard puts this point well in his Journals: “What good would it do me to be able to explain the meaning of Christianity if it had no deeper significance for me and for my life –what good would it do me if truth stood before me, cold and naked, not caring whether I recognised her or not, and producing in me a shudder of fear rather than a trusting devotion?” (p.44)

Perhaps then in asking the question of meaning I seek assurance that the significance with which I subjectively endow my commitments is objectively confirmed. As Sartre points out in Existentialism Is A Humanism, we all valorize something. Perhaps what I seek therefore is some affirmation that I have made the right choice – that what I take to be most important is, indeed, defensibly so. But still, the necessary condition of my accepting this objective confirmation is that it accord with my values. So the meaningfulness of my life, my belief in the worthwhileness of my commitments, is in no way enhanced by its having this objective sanction: far from reforming my subjective values in face of my discovery of the objective meaning of life, I will use my subjective values to test the cogency of that objective meaning. It seems, then, that I seek neither a subjective nor an objective meaning in raising the question of life. But in that case, what sort of answer will do?

Experiencing Meaninglessness

These many confusions are indications of a deeper perplexity, I think. We need to return to the origin of the question in our experience in order to uncover the source of these difficulties and to see the true nature of the problem of life in its original presentation, its primary meaning.

The question of the meaning of life is less likely to be conceived in wonder than in a mood of disquietude. It is not asked seriously in a spirit of disinterested intellectual curiosity or grateful life-affirmation. Rather it emerges when one’s sense of the meaningfulness of life has been deeply shaken – when one fears that life, or at least one’s own life, is without meaning. The typical intonation of the question may be more revealing than the words. “What can it all mean?” may have more in common with a sigh than with a grammatical question. It’s an announcement that the foundation of one’s sense of meaning has been undermined. The question declares that the bulwarks are crumbling, that they seem now to have been the fabrications of a remarkably comprehensive self-deception: How could I have believed that this repetitive, pallid daily routine had the slightest significance? What besides the mere fact that this life is mine had convinced me that its victories and losses counted for something? If the nihilistic condition becomes more severe, these questions cast a pall over every observation and every encounter. Why is that woman so elegantly dressed, so punctiliously made up? What foolish vanity possessed her in her elaborate preparations? Why is that man chasing the ball so intently? Can he really believe that any importance whatsoever attaches to his returning the serve? Why are those people laughing so gaily? Is there not something false, desperate, in those guttural eruptions?

Camus writes of a man in a telephone booth whose animated dumbshow he observes from a distance. Why, he asks, is this man alive? Is not the entire human scene undergirded by a thoroughgoing tacit conspiracy of interlocking deceptions? In Heidegger’s Being and Time (1962), das Man is the conspiracy of the nameless, the everyone and no one, to assure a universal tranquillized flight from the anguishing demands of authentic individuation. Is not the principal accomplishment of das Man this most fundamental social contract – the unspoken compact we enter into to protect ourselves from the isolating and crippling realization that there is no significance whatsoever in either our individual or our collective presence on this earth?

Granted, this mood sustained over days and weeks, or incorporated into one’s manner of being, is an extreme state. But is there anyone for whom this kind of alienation is wholly unfamiliar? Still, most of us most of the time dismiss such thoughts as expressions of a passing perversity. What, then, allows this mood to entrench itself when it does? What are the conditions for a preoccupation with emptiness and futility?

Our premonition of the meaninglessness of life is a case of our capacity for disinterested reflection serving a personal will for release. Weary with life, we wish to withdraw from it, and intellect furnishes an irrefutable justification for doing so. The significances with which we invest our daily agitation are of strictly human invention; they are not shared by the dog in the chair falling into the slumber of boredom, nor by the feverish soldier termite protecting its hive against assault, nor by the placid angel strumming its harp in the clouds. And my deeply felt personal significances begin with the birth of my consciousness and end with its dissolution – never to be shared, never to be repeated. It is also my distinctly human point of view that allows me to perceive what is pitiable in another’s situation, what is triumphant in a person’s self-overcoming, what is humorous in someone’s pretensions. And it is my individual subjectivity that enables me to experience without mediation the urgency of events in my own life.

But I am not confined to the borders of my familiar subjectivity, and I am not confined to the human perspective either: I can abandon the familiar co-ordinates of my inner life; and I can in imagination remove myself wholly from the human scene – experience the uncanny, in which the most natural human sympathy appears alien, unjustifiable, de trop. It is not only Hamlet who can inhabit a perspective from which all the uses of this world seem weary, stale, flat and unprofitable; and not only Macbeth for whom all human beings can seem fools on their way to dusty death. And when I am seeing the world as Hamlet sees it and people as Macbeth sees them, no argument can convince me to rejoin the everyday fold, for any such argument will presuppose some human values that remain for me in unresolved suspension. If I am told, for example, that in indulging these thoughts I allow my talents to rust, that I abrogate my opportunity to contribute positively to the welfare of society, I can only smile, for nothing has established for me the value of the society I would serve; and nothing could. David Hume wrote that when similar reflections depressed him, he’d leave his philosophy books and have a game of backgammon with his friends. An impulse to self-preservation may urge me to follow Hume to his backgammon board, but while this is a perfectly legitimate motive, it furnishes no reason for me to go. In summary, one day life was charged with meaning, and the next day meaning was sucked from events like sap from crippled trees. In both the fullness and the void, I myself seem to be the source. And for this reason no rescuing rope can be hurled from the rich, energetic external human world to the dry flat world of my disengagement: there is no one in the latter world who can conceive a reason to catch it.

But why would anyone become so disengaged in the first place? Surely the answer must vary from person to person. In any case, this is a question for psychologists. For us as philosophers it is enough that we recognize that once this disengagement is in place no case can be made against it, for any such case will pre suppose at least one of the values that have been put in question.

The question, “Does life have a meaning?” is an announcement of this condition of disengagement: it is an expression of disillusionment, a marking of loss. Events that had been shot through with charm and excitement are now as dry and colorless as winter grass. Doubts about the very meaningfulness of life are a most natural expression of this state of affairs. What I am proposing here is that the meaning of the question of meaning is exhausted in this expression of mourning for the purpose no longer felt. But since it is after all a question we are asking, we are bewitched into believing that we are seeking a kind of knowledge in asking it, although we remain at an embarrassing loss to say what this knowledge could be. We are mistakenly led to think of the meaning of life as a datum, a fact, a possible object of knowledge. Yet meaningfulness in relation to life connotes not a propositional content, but a manner of being.

We find ourselves in a similar linguistic situation when we use the quite natural expression, ‘a meaningful relationship’. Although we have no difficulty distinguishing meaningful relationships from those that are without this characteristic, we would be just as disconcerted as we are by the question of the meaning of life were someone to ask of our avowedly meaningful relationships just what their meaning is. This is because the word ‘meaningful’ in the phrase ‘a meaningful relationship’, as in the phrase ‘a meaningful life’, expresses a quality of experience, a sense of depth or richness, and nothing more.

If after being deprived for some time of life’s excitement, richness, and charm, these qualities return to our sense of life, swelling events again with their honey, it is as natural for us to mark this resurgence by speaking of the renewed meaningfulness of life, as it was to mark the deprivation by speaking of the loss of meaning. But since excitement, richness, and charm are not cognitive properties, we have nothing to say in answer to the question, “In what now does the meaning of your life consist?” All we could point to in face of this challenge are the very features of our life that had seemed before our conversion to be without meaning: the beauty of a beloved companion, the warm good humor of our friends, the brisk enlivening autumn air. The only difference is that we are once again inhabiting the life we had merely been observing from a dispassionate distance.

Truth is subjectivity, Kierkegaard taught (see Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 1846), and by that he meant that what is important in the commitments that define us is not the demonstrability of the objective truth of our beliefs, but the originality, passion, and depth with which we appropriate them. In this he provided an apt analogy to our present concern. As Kierkegaard forswore any interest in objective demonstrations of God’s existence, so are we now, with meaning restored, wholly indifferent to the fact that no objective proof validates the significance of our vital choices. Investing our life once again with our passion, we no longer have a motive to raise the question of its meaning. For the investment of passion is its meaningfulness.

Our engagement in life always dances astride the abyss of our possible fall. Meaning is a kind of grace. The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the question.

© Prof. Jeffrey Gordon 2009

Jeffrey Gordon is Professor of Philosophy and NEH Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Humanities at Texas State University.

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