Saturday, March 03, 2012

What does it all mean?

Thoughts on attending a lecture entitled
"Philosophy and Meaning"

Several years ago I read a small book about a very big subject, The Meaning of Life by Terry Eagleton.  The book surveys various philosophic approaches to the question and in the last chapter Eagleton discusses the view of Ludwig Wittgenstein as expressed in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that the question, what is the meaning of life, is "a pseudo-question as far as philosophy is concerned"(p 162).  This view of philosophy, that it was not  appropriate for discussions of such a question, was one direction being taken in the early twentieth century.  The opposing view of philosophers who do believe that philosophy does have something to say about this question informed the earlier chapters of Eagleton's book.  He even asked if it was meaningful to even discuss the question.  His book raised this and other questions while he surveyed the views of thinkers from Aristotle to Nietzsche on that topic. 
 I mention Eagleton's book because it was brought to mind while I listened to a lecture yesterday afternoon by Clare Pearson, Instructor, Basic Program, the University of Chicago.  Her lecture, "Philosophy and Meaning" discussed what philosophy does have to say about the question of the meaning of life by considering the thinking of some philosophers and others who believe it is possible and useful to provide insight on this very big subject.  In the description of her talk, provided by the University of Chicago, it said that her talk would "explore the ways in which philosophy addresses the question of meaning, and the human search for meaning in life'.  An admirable goal and one that provided a catalyst for my interest.
 Some of the highlights from the talk should suffice to demonstrate that my interest was not unwarranted.  Introducing the subject by discussing the purpose of philosophy and raising the question of the meaning of meaning, the talk began on a serious and interesting level of discourse.  Three aspects of meaning were identified as relevant for this presentation, namely: 1) Meaning as "purpose or goal" for one's life; 2) Meaning as "coherence or wholeness" of being; and, 3) Meaning as "value" or "what good is life? (or, alternatively, what is the purpose of the good life?)"  Having identified this as the approach for the talk, she focused on beginnings, that is Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and, of course, Homer and the other poets.  Each has something to say about this question with the key being, from my perspective, the reaction of Plato and Aristotle to the approach of Homer as portrayed in The Iliad (a "glory ethic" that saw power in immortality) and The Odyssey (a "family ethic").  For Socrates and the other Greek philosophers the preeminent problem was the issue of change (as in the continual change in the world around us) while the answer was found in the use of reason and the positing of ideal forms (Plato).  With Aristotle came a more comprehensive view developed by thorough observation of this world and the development of a sort of self-realization along with the goal of living a life consistent with the pursuit of happiness or the Good.

 The lecture concluded with discussions of enlightenment and modern philosophies of meaning represented by Kant and Nietzsche (with a dollop of Heidegger - and more for those who stayed for the question and answer period after the talk).  Kant it seems, and his thought can be difficult for some, embraced the limitations of human reason and transcended them with his Critiques.  Nietzsche, by contrast, criticized Kantian reasoning and attacked much of preceding Western philosophy by questioning the ideas of permanence, universal truth, and necessity.  For Nietzsche one must create his own meaning.  Doing this requires that you exert your 'Will to power' in an attempt to create meaning.  In his book Eagleton suggests that "it is reasonable to see this as an end in itself, just as Aristotle regards human flourishing as an end in itself." (p 154)  If this is the case Nietzsche's view may be seen as a modern approach to 'self-realization'.
 In conclusion, I was edified by Ms. Pearson's talk and I was inspired to continue to think about this issue by exploring other thinkers who have suggested approaches to the issue, all the while thinking about the issue for myself (see "On Thinking for Yourself" by Arthur Schopenhauer).  Philosophy and Meaning will continue to tempt all who desire to lead  a humane existence and flourish while doing so.

. . . a final thought:
"Philosophy . . . consists in keeping the daemon within a man free from violence and unharmed, superior to pains and pleasures, doing nothing without a purpose, not yet falsely and with hypocrisy, not feeling the need of another man's doing or not doing anything; and besides, accepting all that happens, and all that is allotted. as coming from thence, wherever it is, from whence he himself came; and, finally, waiting for death with a cheerful mind." - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, II, 17

The Meaning of Life by Terry Eagleton. Oxford University Press, 2007.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Penguin Classics, 2006 (180).


Parrish Lantern said...

This sounds like it was a fantastic lecture, that managed to draw you in, need to read some philosophy haven't done so in a while.

James said...

Thanks for your observation. The lecture was fun and as I noted brought to mind other reading I have done on this topic. I included the quote from Marcus Aurelius at the end because I have been particularly impressed by his meditations on this and many other issues. So, if you are looking for some good reading that might be a place to start.