I had, for a while, been playing around with the idea of writing a book called “The Meaning of Life.” It has several parts, to wit: a chapter on the way that the humanities, in contrast to the sciences, focus on meaning not explanation, that is, are not interested in identifying causes of events or behavior, but instead on identifying the significance (the import) of events and behaviors. This way of distinguishing the humanities from the sciences goes back (at least) to Dilthey, but seems worth revisiting at the moment given the current crisis of the humanities.
The second impetus for the book—and one I am going to try to focus on for the next few posts—is the insistence by a wide variety of figures (ranging from Hannah Arendt and Charles Taylor to Foucault, Agamben, and Esposito) that a polity that takes “life” as the highest good inevitably (and I want to stress this neccesitarian insistence in their claims) ends up a death-dealing machine, inhuman to the core, the source of the Terror, or genocide. Contrasted sharply to Ruskin’s insistence that “the only wealth is Life” and Martha Nussbaum’s advocacy for political arrangements that enable “flourishing,” the enemies of life (if I may melodramatically call them that) insist that “life” must be subordinated to a value that transcends it—otherwise the devotion to life becomes monstrous (shades of Frankenstein). In short, we must have something more precious than life, something we would even give up life to preserve if life is not to be a source of death. And, by a similar logic, life itself is meaningless if it is not in service to something more important than life. So that’s how the question of meaning gets entangled in the notion that life (mere life or “bare life” in Arendt and Agamben’s terms) is not sufficient. (On some days I think of the potential title of this chapter as “What Will Suffice?”—with two passages from Yeats and Wallace Stevens as epigraphs, along with my favorite Biblical saying: Sufficient unto the day is the evit thereof.”)
The third chapter of this triptych of a book would be my William James/ Wittgenstein essay on “Action as Meaningful Behavior.” That essay is a more concrete consideration of the ways we ascribe meaning to the things we do. It’s about, in other words, meaning-making processes—or, if you prefer, the resources our language affords us to deem something significant.
So, a promissory note: on Wednesday, I will start in on the anti-life folks. Because tomorrow I have to go to a funeral. I have been to more funerals in the last two years than in my whole prior life combined. My advancing age, of course, but surely also a stimulant to thinking about the meaning of life.