Philosophy and the Meaning of Life
Pub Date: September 2004
Extent: 256 pages
Having reviewed many books of popular philosophy, I have come to form a fairly low opinion of the genre. Some specimens are clearly aimed at injecting "depth" into dinner-party conversation; others offer self-help maxims in the guise of profound wisdom. Philosophy is presented as a form of cultural capital, a means of impressing or seducing. We are invited to share the secrets of the enlightened few - and wow the ignorant many.
All the more pleasant to come across a work of popular philosophy that is simple, serious and devoid of ostentation. The question of "the meaning of life" has long been a byword for pretentious rambling. It takes some nerve to tackle it in a brisk and no-nonsense fashion. Julian Baggini describes his work as "deflationary", because it "reduces the mythical, single and mysterious question of 'the meaning of life' to a series of smaller and utterly unmysterious questions about various meanings in life". This sounds like a worthy undertaking. Nevertheless - and here I reveal myself as one of the pretentious ramblers - I think there is more to the original question than Baggini's paraphrase captures.
Baggini's inquiry is, in his own words, secular and rational. It accepts the Darwinian story as the most plausible on offer, and draws the familiar conclusion that human life has no ultimate purpose. Baggini invokes a famous simile of Jean-Paul Sartre. We are not like paperknives, designed to fulfil a determinate function. We are more like bits of flint found on the beach, which can be put to many uses without being essentially "for" anything. Meaning, in other words, is not something that belongs to life as such; it is something that we give it, through our own free will. To pretend otherwise is what Sartre called "bad faith". Those who live in bad faith shirk responsibility for the creation of meaning, taking refuge in the illusory security of faith, tradition or social status.
The discovery that human life has no meaning outside itself filled the original existentialists with an emotion sometimes likened to vertigo: a heady mixture of terror and euphoria. Camus described life as "absurd"; Sartre spoke of "anguish, abandonment and despair". This is not Baggini's style. From his "deflationary" perspective, all that angst is just an exaggerated reaction to the disappointment of equally exaggerated hopes. We denizens of the floating world no longer expect life to have any transcendent purpose, and so we are quite happy to accept that it has none. In any case, why should a meaning we make up for ourselves be less valid than one that is "built-in"? Post-it notes have an undeniable use, even though their original inventor had no idea what it might be. Baggini's existentialism is what you might call existentialism-lite. The philosophy of Sartre has outgrown its adolescent hysterics and settled comfortably into middle age.
Yet existentialism-lite has its darker side, as Baggini sometimes seems to admit. We may be free to give our life any meaning we choose, but this meaning is "valid" only in so far as it is recognised by others. Not for us the insouciance of Bunyan's pilgrim, who, secure in his love of God, could afford to "care not what men say". We care desperately what men - and women - say, because there is no longer any higher court of appeal. Failure in this world is absolute. The checkout girl is just a checkout girl, the tramp just a tramp. Modern capitalism has given bite to Sartre's hard doctrine that "man is nothing else . . . but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is". The terrors of hell have been replaced by the terrors of social and sexual failure.
Baggini quite rightly wants to distinguish "true" or "inner" success from its outward validation, and bemoans the endless jockeying for status that dominates our culture. But do his own naturalistic premises entitle him to this lofty stance? What measure of true success does he have to offer, other than the collective judgement of society? At one point, Baggini equates true success with "becoming who we want to be". Remove the transcendental perspective, however, and why should anyone want to be anything other than what society deems valuable? If value is not cosmic, then it is social. The alternative to God is not a world of self-creating Nietzschean supermen, but universal conformity.
In any case, the idea that we create meaning for ourselves has never had much currency outside the fantasies of admen, self-help gurus and existentialist philosophers. I imagine that most people are like each other, going through life with the perturbing feeling that its meaning lies just beyond their grasp. If a sense of meaning does occasionally come our way, it is usually experienced as something unsolicited, unexpected and hard to put into words. Anyone who can tell you the meaning of his or her life - let alone claim to have created it - is a humbug.
Baggini is scornful of mysticism, seeing in it nothing more than the glamorisation of ignorance. This is why he wants to replace the big, mysterious question concerning the meaning of life with a series of smaller, unmysterious questions concerning various meanings in life. These are supposed to exhaust the big question, or at least that part of it which has any sense. This kind of "deflation" has long been a favourite technique of positivist-minded philosophers. Bertrand Russell argued in a similar vein that we cannot legitimately ask for the cause of the universe as a whole, but only of particular objects within it. However, even if it is in principle impossible to answer such "global" questions, it does not follow that it is impossible to ask them. We do not get rid of metaphysical puzzlement by declaring it logically out of bounds. The question of the "meaning of life" is of this kind. It cannot be answered, at least not in any ordinary sense, nor can it be dissolved into a series of more mundane questions. And yet it retains its power to disarm and perplex.
What's It All About? does as much as a secular, rational inquiry can do to elucidate the meaning of life. And, in the process, it reveals how little this is. [sartre.org]