What is meaning in life?
A couple weeks ago we had a visit from David Benatar, who kindly shared a chapter from the new book he was writing. The chapter he shared was on meaning in life, and it was–as much standard analytic philosophy is–pretty narrowly focused on making distinctions and arguing against various perspectives. In keeping with Benatar’s general mood (he famously thinks life is full of too much suffering, so it’s wrong to have children) he depicted meaning in life pretty pessimistically.
(Note: I won’t cite the paper here because it was a draft, but there are some general themes that run through this literature that I’ll discuss.)
Ironically, philosophy is mostly understood as the pursuit of meanings and values–or perhaps the meaning and value–for life and existence, yet few professional philosophers actually devote themselves to this question. Perhaps this is a problem for professionalism, but I suspect it is just that we hate faux-profundity and it’s hard not to sound faux-profound when you ask this question.
Making a difference
The major analytic theorists of meaning in life tend to describe it as the pursuit of an “impact” or “consequence”: they’re tied to a purpose with a goal. For Susan Wolf, for instance, meaning in life is achieved through active engagement in what she calls “projects” that have positive objective value. The major constraint on meaning in life is understood as a problem of the cosmic scale of time and space and our obviously small place in it. Without a God devoted to us each individually, it’s hard to understand how any goal-oriented conception of meaning in life could do much good. No matter how much we achieve, we will be specks in a large and uncaring universe: the death of the sun (or perhaps the heat death of the universe) will wipe away all mundane knowledge and wealth: even the greatest philosophers, scientists, saints, artists, and politicians will be forgotten.
If there is a God, then the only possible meanings are ones decided upon by Him (or Her or It) and they are largely alien to us. God may wish to assemble more souls in Heaven than zir adversary does in Hell; God may wish that each person find a unique and loving bond with zim; or God may wish simply to see how all this creation works out. These purposes are always already someone else’s, though: God’s. Even for the theist, it remains to be seen why God’s goals would or even could bind or guide us, why we wouldn’t feel a bit like Pinocchio once the strings are gone, but we have the additional problem that a creator’s purposes and meanings effectively eliminate the possibility of developing or discovering our own cosmic meanings.
So far, so existential: if you adopt a goal-oriented conception of meaning then life sucks (meaninglessly) and then you die. But it seems like the existentialists have already offered us an alternative. Not just Camus’s existentialism, which really does look like a kind of sour grapes, celebrating the pointlessness of Sisyphus’s punishment because we must, because there’s nothing better to be had. Unfortunately, here is where the Heideggerian tradition of existentialism–with its antihumanism–seems to offer a possibility that is too often ignored: that meanings in life only really make sense as process-oriented, bounded projects.
Let’s start with the “bounded-ness” of our meaningful projects: too often, we follow the Greek adage that one ought “call no man happy until he is dead.” This gives us both an objective and success criterion: one must successfully and actually achieve some set of goals to be happy, to have meaning, etc. But a bounded conception of meaning in life assumes that meanings happen in, well, life. It doesn’t try to transcend the lifespan from birth to death, nor does it accept this as a sour grapes alternative to immortality in an afterlife or the God’s-eye view that can incorporate future generations and the fate of the human race.
This is because projects that supply meaning in life are fundamentally process-oriented. That process sometimes has goal: writing produces a blog post, an academic paper, or a novel, but does that mean that parenting is over when it produces an adult human being? Just as we acknowledge that the lives of the idle rich might be full of ennui or meaninglessness because of their laziness, so too a meaning-granting project isn’t primarily satisfied by the end that it achieves. Indeed, we very often pursue projects that are doomed to failure or incompleteness in a knowing way: we eat carefully and exercise even when we know that these pursuits can only–at best–forestall our inevitable demise.
Benatar is convinced that meaning can only be found in transcendence: that which breaks through the bounds of our existence. That is, he thinks, what we’re reaching for when we ask for life to have a meaning, and it’s usually impossible or very difficult and thus most people fail. But if you reject transcendence, you can still have meaning: you can find it not in the pointing-beyond of transcendence, where one’s life is about something greater that itself, but in the coherence and tensions of one’s projects, which necessarily entails community and intersubjectivity. Calling it a circulating-within the span of birth and death, the way that one’s activities fit with the activities of one’s family and friends and neighbors and fellow citizens.
Put it this way: lots of projects have goals. But projects with goals can never satisfy the demands of “meaning in life” because we finish them but live on. It doesn’t help if you pursue a really big project, one that will continue after your death: at some point, the project will succeed or fail. If it fails, then your life had no meaning. But it if succeeds: your life still had no transcendent meaning, because the project is over and now bounded by the start and completion. So it’s a kind of category mistake to seek meaning in life in the achievement of such projects. This blog post won’t give me meaning in life, because it’ll be done and I’ll get back to other work. But writing: that can give my life meaning. Activities and practices give life meaning: fine, that’s an empirical claim. But what I want to say is that activities and practices give life meaning and they’re the only thing that can.
The Most We Can Ask of Meaning
In this sense, meaning is inextricable from what Martin Heidegger called “world.” “World” is what Heidegger describes by the Greek temple’s capacity to “fit together and at the same time gather around itself the unity of those paths and relationships in which birth and death, disaster and blessing, victory and disgrace, endurance and decline acquire the shape of destiny for human being.” World isn’t just a place, it’s a phenomenological simple: it’s the structure of our spatial and temporal being. There’s lots to hate about Heidegger (seriously, fuck you Martin) but I think he gets this right: meaning in life is just the way that events of value and importance are unified by culture, architecture, language, and habits. Meanings don’t point beyond themselves, they organize and unify the circulation of characteristic events.
Heidegger liked to switch subjects and objects in sentences like this one: we don’t give meaning to things, rather things give us meaning. We don’t have a world or a language; language has us. (Literally: “Language is the house of Being. In its home man dwells.”) Self and world are equiprimordial, which is just a fancy way of saying they arise together, make up a single transactional unit, etc. This is just irritating syntax and I’ll never believe the dumber Sapir-Whorf versions of Heidegger’s project. But: we can embrace the mundane and tarry with the ordinary. We can accept that our lives and projects will end rather than building worlds of meaning that would require us to be immortal.
Moreover, while it’s easy to adopt a transcendentalist position from which this all looks kind of unsatisfying, that transcendentalism is the problem. No doubt: if we want meaning in life to be achieved outside of life, we’ll be disappointed. If we want our human lives to take on a cosmic scale, then it is inevitable that we’ll succumb to the crushing ennui of our failure when we remember our finitude. There’s plenty of theology and metaphysics underpinning that fantasy: an eschatological project that radically alters or ends the cosmos, a desire for all the world to experience my end as the end. This is where maybe Heidegger had a point about the problems that technology and Christianity have created: bad metaphysics can make you suffer. The disappointment was always already unavoidable so long as we adopt the fantasies of mix bad metaphysics with the wrong frame for the question.
From Wendell Berry’s Manifesto:
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Berry’s mad farmer doesn’t actually think the sequoias are his crop: he doesn’t plant them hoping to have an effect a thousand years later. Berry’s farmer is trying to make sense of what it would mean to live a life bounded by the seasons, one that doesn’t reach beyond the circular temporality of sowing, reaping, and lying fallow but embraces such cycles and ecologies as the model for human lives.