Searching for life's meaning

Philosophy is an academic discipline with questions to answer and methods for dealing with them. It also has a two and a half thousand-year-old history with the years marked by the works of great figures. Anyone who wishes to practice seriously as a philosopher has to be familiar with the established questions, methods and texts. At the same time, however, philosophy is too important for its fruits only to be distributed among its own professionals. Almost every intelligent person will ask themselves about the origins of the universe, the meaning of life, the existence of God, the possibility of an after-life, the nature of good and bad, and so on. These are unmistakably philosophical questions and philosophers should try to relate their own concentrated efforts at answering them to the loosely structured reflections of people in general. Knowing how to live well The historical meaning of the term philosophy is love of wisdom (philo-sophia). Beginning in the third century BC the Stoics distinguished between 'philosophy' and 'discourse about philosophy'. The first concerns living wisely, recognising things for what they are, appreciating the opportunities and limitations that life offers and dealing justly with others -- knowing well and acting well. 'Discourse about philosophy', by contrast, aims to understand the fundamental concepts and principles of natural science, logic and ethics. Stoics and members of the other ancient schools engaged in such abstract discourse; but their main concern was to devise ways of living that embody wisdom and the love of it -- philosophies. So it was with Augustine in the 5th century and with Descartes in the 17th. Yet present-day professional philosophers are for the most part only interested in technical discourse: philosophical theories rather than philosophical life. This restriction is a great mistake, I believe, and is due to the strong influence of scientific thought whose main concern is the physical composition of the world.

If these radical and subversive critics are right then searching for meaning in life is like hunting for unicorns - both are pointless activities based on empty myths. Yet reflective people continue to ask questions about whether their lives, or life in general, has meaning. Like the ancients, the medievals and the moderns, I take these questions very seriously, much more seriously than I take the declarations of nihilism. But in order to refute the claims of the subversive critics one must first understand them.
Marx wrote that "the various philosophers have only interpreted the world differently what matters is to change it". In this he was seeing a truth but through a distorting lens. It is important to understand the nature of reality but it is also necessary -- and humanly speaking more important -- to know how to live well. It is not part of the philosopher's vocation to change the world but it may well be part of his duty to change himself. And when those who are not philosophers periodically adopt a philosophical stance they too must ask how they should live. Philosophy must make contact with the ancient aims of becoming wise and virtuous. Christian authors such as Augustine developed the idea of original sin to explain the darkening of the intellect and the disturbance of the passions. They suggested that such flaws make it difficult for us to achieve enlightenment, but they had no doubt as to the objective value of wisdom or virtue or of their necessity for living a meaningful life. Indeed there has been agreement upon this necessity throughout the first two thousand years of philosophy. Subversive critics Currently, though, there are some who reject this entire tradition as resting on false (or even incoherent) assumptions. If these radical and subversive critics are right then searching for meaning in life is like hunting for unicorns - both are pointless activities based on empty myths. Yet reflective people continue to ask questions about whether their lives, or life in general, has meaning. Like the ancients, the medievals and the moderns, I take these questions very seriously, much more seriously than I take the declarations of nihilism. But in order to refute the claims of the subversive critics one must first understand them. According to these radicals we have rightly lost confidence in the values that we once shared; in the institutions of society and in intellectual, moral, aesthetic and spiritual authority - in short the familiar package of elements that constitute a fairly stable social and cultural order. The critics' challenging and unsettling thought is that we have left all that behind us, and we are now in circumstances of profound uncertainty. Sometimes this is expressed in terms of the imagery of fracture and disintegration: fragmentation of reason, fragmentation of public culture and a resulting confusion of perspectives. We find ourselves in what we have become used to hearing described as to describe as a 'post-modern condition', one in which the possibility of discussion of human purposes is undermined by apparently ineliminable features of contemporary thought: the absence of values, or extensive and irresolvable disagreement about them. Put another way, we have lost and cannot any longer construct a human philosophy, an account of our nature that has extensive implications for the conduct of individual and social life; a way of thinking about what we are which is directly relevant to how we ought to live. There are narrowly drawn, rich and powerful philosophies, and there are looser, broader more encompassing philosophies. One kind is the religious world view offered by Christianity; Marxism is another obvious instance. Liberalism also counts in this reckoning as a type of philosophy.Certainly, its post-modern critics regard traditional liberalism as part of the philosophical and ideological history of the West, and view it as rooted in untenable rationalistic ideas. There are several grounds on which systems of value and meaning have come to be rejected. One claim is that ways of thinking that have dominated western culture for the last two and a half millennia conceive of the course of human history as having some kind of significance or value (and often as ascending or declining). Obvious instances of this are ideas of sacred history; for example, the 'developmental' view found in Hebrew scripture and taken up and extended by Christianity. Thus, Augustine thinks in terms of the sequence of creation, fall, incarnation, atonement, redemption and so on. Likewise we can see a de-Christianised version of the flow of events in nineteenth century thinkers who interpret the human condition in terms of an intellectual, cultural, or political narrative. Postmodern critics contend that we simply cannot deceive ourselves into thinking that human history has any kind of significance, providing clues as to what we are and how we ought to live. A related criticism insists that there is nothing to look to save the facts laid bare by science; and mindful of subjectivity, there may not even be this. At best there is a continuing process of chemico-physical interaction between bits of matter. Any effort to find a perspective that goes beyond this is impossible, be it the transcendental viewpoints of religion or of pure reason. Even the latter is undermined by the idea that science and social criticism have taught us that there is only a valueless material universe to which human imagination has added the myths of rationality. A third criticism rejects attempts to discover defining features of human nature. Such efforts have taken various forms including the theories of eighteenth century Scottish thinkers. While these authors rejected pure rationalism in favour of observation and conjecture, they nonetheless supposed that human nature may be universal, and that on this basis a theory of value might be advanced. Unsurprisingly, postmodern critics argue that this retains the form of untenable essentialism, assuming an objective 'human nature' by which one might understand individuals and society. A final criticism is targeted at the very idea that reasoning about conduct and values could prescribe policies. At best reason is the organisation of desires; all it can do is co-ordinate preferences and work out means to their satisfaction. David Hume drew this conclusion when he wrote that reason is and can only be the slave of the passions, and his 'instrumental' view has been adopted by most contemporary ideas of individual and social choice which eschew any ambition to try to decide what we should desire or what we should want. New narratives, and diminishing returns Notwithstanding these claims [of post-modernism], however, it is significant that we still seek unifying and ennobling visions. We live in an age that is supposed to be post-ideological, yet all around one can see attempts to re-construct old narratives or to fashion new ones. No quarter passes without somebody producing a book on the modern mind, or the condition of society, and although these are often pessimistic they are also struggling to try and answer the questions of who we are, of what we have become, and of where we ought to be heading. The issue, therefore, is whether such efforts are in vain. Augustine of Hippo, by Sandro BotticelliConsider the situation in the area of creative culture. Postmodernist thinking has taken grip among art theorists raising the interesting question of where art, architecture, literature and music go "after" philosophy. If one thinks of the history of European painting, for instance, it has long been an intellectually rich field, being informed at various stages by changing notions of the human person, the natural world and so on. It is not possible to study the work of artists like Giotto, Poussin or Claude Lorrain without seeing in their paintings certain interpretations of landscape as a bearer of significance, be it a different set of meanings in each case. This is obviously true of religious art, but secular painting has also been resonant with moral and philosophical conceptions of human beings and their place in society and nature. People regularly ask such questions as whether we can still make inspiring art. The fear behind this is that somehow we have nothing 'meaningful' to say. Without an animating conception of humanity, portraiture is just a decorative form of documentation. If there is no idea imbuing the human image with meaning then all we have is a likeness, a mere resemblance. These worries are legitimate and they have call forth at least three responses to the purported loss of ideology. The first involves going as in the past, but in a romantic spirit, doubting that one can really ground practice in a defensible philosophy. For example, one may continue with the tradition of producing official portraits. Without philosophical conviction, however, this is apt to fail as serious art. Contemporary portraits of western political, religious, cultural or professional leaders are generally lacking in symbolic significance and have little, if any, cultural resonance. There is neither awe or mystery; nor much sense of the artists' recognising the distinction between an office and the occupant of it. In the past, official portraits were most often celebrating (or challenging) a role. The individuals were thought to be elevated by the office, and official portraiture aimed to depict its authority. Nowadays we find it near-to-impossible to think in such terms. It is no surprise, therefore, that portraits of heads of state are reduced to the status of pictures of affluent men and woman of a certain age. The response of the romantic is to play with ideas of status and office, bringing in various icons of these, but this is nostalgia-driven entertainment. The counterpart in building-design is perhaps more familiar: picking up features of Classical, Gothic and other historical styles, but without really believing in any philosophy of architecture. The second response is one of self-conscious (and often self-congratulatory) irony. Whereas romantic affirmation involves entering into the spirit of an older order, even though one cannot believe its ideological presuppositions the way of irony imposes no demands upon the intellect or the imagination. It is simply a form of play. Without believing in its philosophical foundations, or even aspiring to believe in them, one keeps quoting the forms of past culture. This attitude is prominent in contemporary art and literature where authors deploy -- with self-announcing irony -- the devices of certain genre. However, the practice of cultural quotation is subject to diminishing returns. If one simply draws from the stock of cultural forms without adding to it, and is in turn drawn upon, a process of continuing impoverishment is established. Consider again the case of architecture and how in cities like Los Angeles the practice of making ironic reference to the styles of the eighteenth century has led very quickly to architects quoting recent postmodern buildings. Thereby the resources are diminished and the meaning of the original inspiration is lost. Reform and renewal: role of the arts and professions The final response, and that which I favour, is one of reform and renewal. Standing firm in the face of postmodern criticism one questions whether the things that have been held to be problematic really are so, asking what precisely the problem is about transcendentalism, why universal humanism is untenable, and so on. And having been bold enough to challenge the various postmodern orthodoxies one may then consider the possibility of re-establishing confidence in some of the central philosophical and moral ideas of Western culture. More precisely I believe we need a re-articulation of older conceptions of human nature, human values and public culture. In the first instance this may be a task for philosophers, but the various intellectual disciplines and the elements of deep culture such as the arts and the professions have an essential role to play if a sense of value and meaning is to become prevalent once more. Certainly one cannot operate as if "modernity" had not been, and nor should one simply ignore the points made by postmodern critics. Reform and renewal are recurrent necessities in any living tradition: naive premodernism is not an option; and the idea of a Golden Age untroubled by scepticism is a fantasy of the ignorant. But before we try to finesse older ways of thinking we need first to show that they are not bankrupt. There are I think two ways in which one might do this. One proceeds by example. If compelling instances can be produced of things having value then nihilism is refuted. Any complete refutation of this sort would have to proceed area by area and value by value. Here there is a very important role for practitioners within the various traditional professions to make explicit the rationale for each and its contribution to human well-being. That is not something I can do here but let me say something, all too brief, about the second way of proceeding. This is to show that our best understanding of human affairs is one in which questions of value and meaning arise both for individuals and for communities. Some questions about values are psychological and sociological. Biographers and historians are interested in the ideals that motivated people; and periodically there are surveys of social attitudes designed to keep track of changes in morality. These are empirical questions to be investigated and answered by sophisticated social science methods. But however successful these means may be, all they can tell us about are people's attitudes and behaviour. They cannot settle the many particular questions that people ask about what is good and bad, right and wrong; and nor can they settle the more abstract question of what it is for something to be good or bad, meaningful or meaningless. It is part of the human form of life to deliberate and act in accord with reasons -- to find meaning. Still, one may ask where is meaning to be found and what is to be made of the fact that to the extent that answers may be forthcoming they are likely to be many and different? Here I return to Aquinas and to the four-fold causal analysis. No explanation is adequate that fails to identify material, formal, efficient and final causes, and moreover none is wholly sufficient until it shows how each is related to the other in a complete explanation. It is sometimes said that fundamental science has displaced causal analysis with statements of lawlike regularities, but apart from anything else these operate as explanations within a presumed framework of more familiar causes and effects, central to which are such ideas as agency, direction of process, material, medium, and so on. Causality is what holds the world together, and just as it binds and shapes the action of particles and fields, of elements and compounds, of microbes and animals, so it unites and directs the actions of human beings operating as individuals and as members of groups. This might sound like a reductionist thesis akin to the materialism I complained of earlier, and it would be if all causality were material; but just as the forms of causality are several so are the levels at which it operates. What it means to talk of the material or formal cause in the case of water is one thing, of wine another, of an artwork a third, of a an action or policy a fourth and a fifth. Just as cause is an analogical notion, so too are matter, form, agent, and end. There is an old Latin saying agere sequitor esse: acting follows upon being, or as a thing is so it acts. That is true of human beings no less than of chemical substances but with the difference that within the broad framework of our common given nature it is for us to determine what we are, or what we shall become. This is our glory as self-determining creatures, but it also our burden. We cannot simply say let nature take its course, for it belongs to human nature to choose what course to take. Happily, however, we are not without guidance, for previous generations have made the same journey and trod the same pathways, encountering the same dangers and distractions, and finding the same values and meanings. Social institutions represent the accumulated experience of our predecessors who seeing recurrent human needs and interests divided the task of securing individual and common goods. That is the origin of the professions, and it also provides the main forms of vocation. A human being in search of meaning is less likely to find it by renouncing the patterns of the past than by adopting and adapting them. These traditions are organised forms of labour and it is within them that human beings as creative agents have the best chance of discovering both meaning and fulfilment. Certainly we do not live to work, but equally life without work would be as empty as form without matter. And having recognised the necessity of work we may then ask about its purposes, and pursuing reasoning about ends we will quickly be led from instrumental to intrinsic goods; at which point Mozart's observation appears not as a strange remark from the past but as a statement of an important dimension of human existence: "We live in this world to compel ourselves industriously to enlighten one another by means of reasoning, and to apply ourselves always to carrying forward the sciences and the arts". I suspect that this conclusion is one with Dr Escola would also have agreed. At any rate I hope so. John Haldane is professor of philosophy at the University of St Andrews, Edinburgh. The above article is an extract from The Fourth Rafael Escola Memorial Lecture given at the University of Navarre in April this year and entitled, "Vocation and Profession: Finding Meaning in Work."


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