Archive for the ‘Meaning of life’ Category

Terry Eagleton on The Meaning of Life

December 19, 2009

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.


Meaning from without and within

November 1, 2009

“The meaning of life is whatever you make it” fails to work in practice, because it does not consider the social/cultural aspects that make up an individual. The individual must first overcome their culture, otherwise whatever meaning ‘they make’ will only be a notion of meaning prevalent in that culture, and most likely superficial and disingenuous.

Meaning, if it is to be true, cannot be imposed by the individual on the world; the world must impose it on the individual. An individual must first learn to see the world with new eyes, then they will see a new world that will infuse them with meaning. Meaning must come from without, it must ‘possess’ the individual.

The meaning of life for the possessed is genuine, i.e., it is reflected in the individual everyday’s actions and committments. This meaning is found through a journey or process of skeptical, philosophical exploration and analysis. The journey comes from within. It will involve questioning, critically analysing and undermining societal norms, values and ‘herd behaviour’. Along the journey, much time will be spent in the desert. A new world will be found at the end of this journey and the meaning therein will possess the individual.

The journey toward the meaning of life comes from within. The meaning of life, when found, comes from without.

Life is myth

May 23, 2009

Life is myth, but we have forgotten it as such.

It is anti-social to talk of life as myth, as many negative images and connotations are interpreted. Myth does not mean lack of seriousness, it does not mean an attack on science, it does not mean superstition, it is not anti-materialistic. Myth is how we understand our world.

We live in myths handed down to us; custom is our nature (Pascal). We derive new myths in the context of existing ones.

Us moderns recognising life as myth connects us more deeply to our ancient ancestors who were not shy at all to delve into mythology. It helps us to negate the superiority complex that would have us believe that we understand the world better than generations before. Our ancient ancestors had a much more colourful, dramatic and broad-minded understanding of the world.

Remarkably, many people may agree that our ancestors have lived better lives than us, lives less stressed and full of wonder. Yet they are reticent to associate this better living with better understanding. Moderns are distrustful of the myths though which lives ticked in the ancient world. But could it not have been that these myths provided a better understanding of the world, i.e., a better understanding of the world for living it?

Is not better living the result of better understanding? If better living is not the result of better understanding than exactly what ‘understanding’ are we talking about? What ‘understanding’ do us moderns choose to value and emphasise?

The West lost scientific knowledge as a type of understanding when it lost Alexandria to the Mohammedans. But it did not lose a more important type of understanding, an understanding which is for life. It did not lose its myths.

Today we live in different myths to those of the ancients: progress, consumerism, evolutionary teleology, utilitarian telology, capitalism, scientism, atomical individualism, more-real-than-real mass media, environmentalist cultism, wars involving ‘collateral damage’. Are our myths any better than those of yesteryear? Do they give us better understanding for living? We have long since outgrown our myths, yet we stubbornly cling to them. Perhaps we should re-energize the old myths, perhaps they are better for life?


March 15, 2009

The Philosopher’s Zone chats about Providence Lost?

It is well worth a listen, particularly as providence, despite mystical obfuscation, allows us an alternative view of freedom that is not to do with freedom of the will, but with a recognising of what is necessary in nature. This is a good pointer to Spinoza and the Stoics as a source of practical wisdom.

Genevieve Lloyd says:

What philosophy now has to offer us is something more than what I see as the rather narrow agenda of 20th century analytical philosophy. I’ve nothing against it actually, as a style of philosophy, it’s the way I’ve learned philosophy, and I still have a lot of respect for it. But there’s a lot more there that I think can be a resource now, not just for professional philosophers, but for all of us in our ordinary lives. These texts have a lot to offer.

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how

January 18, 2009

Not a cognitive why, rather an emotional why. Man needs and strives for meaning. Real meaning is meaning for life, it is meaning that moves and sustains us. This life-giving meaning is to be found in the emotions.

Philosophy ought to give us meaning to better navigate though life. Wisdom is  a lady to be known with the heart; she is to be found in the loving attachment to life.

We may know things ‘intellectually’, yet are incapable of acting on that knowledge. The problem is that the implication of such knowledge hasn’t really sunk in.

By ‘intellectually’ I refer to cognitive/rational/propositional beliefs (“knowing with the head”), such as the belief in creedal statements, affirmations, and ideas constructed through logic (*cough*). The communicative medium of influence is primarily the written language.

The other type of belief is emotional/affective (“knowing with the heart”) and deals with implicational meaning. It is intuitive and holistic in nature and developed through the synthesis of various different meanings. It far more influential on behaviour than cognitive belief alone. The communicative mediums of influence are speech, body language and the written language, which includes myth, poetry, metaphor and other figurative language.

Philosophers have traditionally exalted cognitive belief. They have have proposed the cognitive-reasoning faculty as man’s highest endowment. I have condemned other (pseudo-)philosophers for their poo-poo’ing of the emotions and will continue to do so until they wake up to themselves. People are living with the affective, while philosophers are off with the fairies in their cognitive dreamland, their ‘white mythology’.

Further reading

Frontiers of Cognitive Therapy – specifically, p. 37

Cognitive vs Affective – “People do most things based on affection and justify their choices later with cognition.”

Primacy of Affect Over Cognition in Determining Adult Men’s Condom–Use Behavior: A Review – for those of you with no life who are interested in empirical studies. If you bother to read this it is probably a sign that you will never have need of a condom.

Brain in a vat

January 17, 2009

Our desire is pleasure.

If it were possible, we would love nothing more than to have our brain electronically stimulated with pleasurable sensations forever, the brain having being removed from the rest of the body and placed in a vat. The only moral objection to this course of action is really an aesthetic one, concerning the removal of the brain prior to being placed in the vat. The image engendered by the required excision might make one nauseous, as does the sight of blood or the smell of internal organs for many people. We seek bliss, but it is the means of obtaining bliss that we have issue with.

The Christian seeks an eternal brain-in-a-vat experience in Heaven. A brain excision is not an aesthestically pleasing means of obtaining this bliss for the Christian. He would prefer to act out a fictional life of piety in order to earn himself the merit of God.

The Buddhist seeks Nirvana, but desires to avoid all pain and unsatisfactoriness in the process of obtaining it. If we could assure the Buddhist that he would be under anaesthetic and feel no pain during the brain excision operation, he would no longer have any need of the Buddha’s teachings.

But isn’t seeking any form of the brain-in-a-vat experience selfish? Yes and no.

It is certainly selfish to seek the brain-in-a-vat experience for yourself exclusively. However, where did the thought of this desire come from? The origin was both nativistic and social, which means the source of the desire is common to many, perhaps all, humans. So the desire is not exclusively selfish, all people have it. The difference between those who admit the desire and those who don’t is only a measure of honesty.

The meaning of life and the theological perspective

January 14, 2009

I have noticed that most bloggers who write on “the meaning of life” do so from the Christian theological perspective. Whatever you may think of Christian beliefs, you may agree that it is good that these people are thinking about life’s big question.

But is it really good?

Has the ever-abstract reasoning of theology led the Christian away from true sources of meaning? Is asking “what is the meaning of life?” and providing an answer only a symptom of someone who has the lost the meaning their life once had? And how did they lose it?

Has excessive abstract reasoning, theological and philosophical, led the Christian far away from the meaning which comes with simpler, less abstract interpretations of everyday experiences? Has the Christian attempted despairingly to fill this void with God? If so, does this remedy cure the patient or merely cover up the symptoms of the disease? Is God the makeup that makes one feel beautiful while they really feel ugly deep inside?

Philosophy Talk on the Meaning of Life

January 11, 2009

Meaning of Life – a lively, interesting discussion

Aristotle on the good life

January 5, 2009

I have just finished reading Sophie’s World, an excellent introduction to philosophy for teenagers and adults alike. One of the pearls of wisdom it contains is Aristotle’s criteria for a life of happiness and fulfillment:

According to Aristotle, man’s “form” comprises a soul, which has a plant-like part, an animal part, and a rational part. And now he asks: How should we live? What does it require to live a good life? His answer: Man can only achieve happiness by using all his abilities and capabilities.

Aristotle held that there are three forms of happiness. The first form of happiness is a life of pleasure and enjoyment. The second form of happiness is a life as a free and responsible citizen. The third form of happiness is a life as thinker and philosopher.

Aristotle then emphasized that all three criteria must be present at the same time for man to find happiness and fulfillment. He rejected all forms of imbalance. Had he lived today he might have said that a person who only develops his body lives a life that is just as unbalanced as someone who only uses his head. Both extremes are an expression of a warped way of life.

The same applies in human relationships, where Aristotle advocated the “Golden Mean.” We must be neither cowardly nor rash, but courageous (too little courage is cowardice, too much is rashness), neither miserly nor extravagant but liberal (not liberal enough is miserly, too liberal is extravagant). The same goes for eating. It is dangerous to eat too little, but also dangerous to eat too much. The ethics of both Plato and Aristotle contain echoes of Greek medicine: only by exercising balance and temperance will I achieve a happy or “harmonious” life.


The undesirability of cultivating extremes is also expressed in Aristotle’s view of society. He says that man is by nature a “political animal.” Without a society around us, we are not real people, he claimed. He pointed out that the family and the village satisfy our primary needs of food, warmth, marriage, and child rearing. But the highest form of human fellowship is only to be found in the state.

Aristotle’s philosophy is loudly echoed in the movement of Positive Psychology. In his talk, What positive psychology can help you become, Martin Seligman speaks of three “happy” lives:

The Pleasant life

  • Having as many pleasures as you can
  • Learning the skills to amplify them

The Good Life (Engagement) – good refers to Arete, which means excellence or virtue

  • Flow
  • Exercising your strengths in work, love and play to achieve Eudaimonia (flourishing).

The Meaningful life

  • Using your strengths in the service of something (e.g. positive institutions) larger than you

While I appreciate what Positive Psychology (PP) sets out to achieve and think that it is tremendously helpful, I am cynical about the one-sided, happy-happy-joy-joy rhetoric that the movement employs. Things just aren’t that simple. There are darker sides to living that everyone faces, even the most virtuous. If the good life merely involved cultivating and exercising strengths in three distinct areas we would have all followed Aristotle’s advice centuries ago and have no need of PP.

Meditation: the key to the good life

January 4, 2009

Meditation is a form of self-indoctrination or self-hypnosis; a form of encapsulated social influence; that habituates positive thinking, thereby displacing negative thinking. It allows you to take control of your relation to the world by providing your self with the outward social attitudes that the meditation contains. Unlike the indoctrination of religious institutions it ought not be founded on dogma; rather on the accumulation of practical, tried-and-tested knowledge that assists us in positively engaging with the world, dealing with setbacks, and so forth.

Meditations can be used to cultivate many positive emotions, among them:

  • Compassion
  • Loving-kindness
  • Endurance (for tough times)
  • The absence of want and worry
  • Gratitude for what you have
  • Happiness

Buddhists are well known for their meditations which cultivate compassion, loving-kindness, and overcome suffering/unsatisfactoriness. More than enough information about these can be found on the Web.

Seneca stressed great importance on his morning meditation that would prepare him mentally for the vagaries of Lady Fortune:

The wise will start each day with the thought…
Fortune gives us nothing which we can really own.
Nothing, whether public or private, is stable; the destines of men, no less than those of cities, are in a whirl.
Whatever structure has been reared by a long sequence of years, at the cost of great toil and through the great kindness of the gods, is scattered and dispersed in a single day. No, he who has said ‘a day’ has granted too long a postponement to swift misfortune; an hour, an instant of time, suffices for the overthrow of empires.
How often have cities in Asia, how often in Achaia, been laid low by a single shock of earthquake? How many towns in Syria, how many in Macedonia, have been swallowed up? How often has this kind of devastation laid Cyprus in ruins?
We live in the middle of things which have all been destined to die.
Mortal have you been born, to mortals have you given birth.
Reckon on everything, expect everything.