Terry Eagleton on The Meaning of Life

Eagleton says, “The meaning of life is a subject fit  for either the crazed or the comic, and I hope I have fallen more into the latter camp than the former.” From this statement, we can expect that his analysis will be superficial at best, trivial at other times. He does not disappoint.

First he misinterprets and denies the question of the meaning of life with some idol worship of Ludwig Wittgenstein*. Then he joins the bandwagon of celebrity atheists in their parody of religious believers. He cites Nietzsche, but buffoon-like, refers to Will to Power (not written by Nietzsche).

Eagelton generally treats the question impersonally, as though it were merely the result of cultural forces. Priority is given to the formative analysis of the question, rather than the exploration of perspectives on its content (i.e. its meaning to different people). Caught in the grasp of Wittgenstein and The Prison-House of Language, he naively presumes that for the meaning of life to be a genuine philosophical concern it must be an objective entity, and communicable according to rules of ‘ordinary grammar’. Later in the book, he turns away from these mistakes, though not admitting their origin in narrow-minded theories of language.

The meaning of the question, rather than its form, is finally explored in the back pages of the book. He even gives attention to the question in the context of the intentional life of the individual. Subjectivity, which should have been there from the start, makes a belated appearance – Hurrah!

After reading this book, I am tempted to generalise that literary theorists cannot qualify to analyse and answer such big questions. Their eyes are too coloured by the parochial theories of literary criticism. Most of them judge subjectivity deficient in some way, yet they don’t see the log in their own eye.

2 Stars (out of 5)

You can get the first chapter of the book here: Question and Answers

*The question, “what is the meaning of life?” is a violation of a prescriptive Wittgensteinian ‘ordinary use’ of language. However, Wittgenstein’s ‘ordinary use’ prescription is ordinarily ignored by ordinary people, on every ordinary day! (Wittgenstein does not have a box or theory for this use of language, he therefore dismisses it as “meaningless” — what a dodgy fellow)! It is individuals who give the question meaning, not narrow-minded theories of language. The question is not confined to any single interpretation and method of enquiry. How we interpret the question says a lot about us as individuals, our values, etc.


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