This is part 5 of a 5-part series, “Don’t Ask about ‘the Meaning of Life’ (An argument in five blog posts)”.
Part 5. Epilogue: The meaning of life and the crisis of reason.
Is the question of the meaning of life even a meaningful question? That challenge was posed by positivist philosophers, who in their eagerness to identify truly scientific questions, capable of verification by empirical observation, dismissed whole classes of inquiry as meaningless. The positivists were right, in a way – the question of the meaning of life is a meaningless question – but in recognizing that they were not so much announcing a new discovery, as springing a trap positivists themselves had set. The trap was the dismissal of all moral evaluation as merely the expression of personal feeling.
This trap was built with the materials inherited from their predecessors in modern philosophy. The key figure in this story, as in so much else of modern philosophy, was David Hume. Hume embraced, and made others face, the inevitable consequence of the rationalist’s view of instrumental reason, that the mind cannot know the purposes or natures of things – or even whether there are purposes and natures of things – and so moral conviction cannot be grounded in knowledge of what things are. Given the continued power and success of science, it was only a matter of time before someone made the positivist move: to re-characterize science, formerly thought of pursuing the natures of things, as the formulation of empirically verifiable laws, with the concomitant relegation of all evaluative judgment (moral, aesthetic, and theological) to the expressions of feelings, technically irrational and meaningless.
Through much of modernity, even through early positivism, the question of the purpose of life was so powerful as to reassert itself even as the conception of reason grew ever more antithetical to it. Pascal responded to the early modern conception of scientific rationality, showing its limits in light of the “reasons of the heart,” and even coopting instrumental reason (in his “wager”) to reassert the question of how one is to live. Kant resisted Hume’s skepticism, trying valiantly to relocate ethics, metaphysics and even religion itself within the scope of rational inquiry. And as we have seen, in response to positivist conception of reason, Kierkegaard embraced the irrationality of religious faith as the very sign of its superior sort of truth. But in doing so – in accepting the positivist conception of rationality – Kierkegaard so subjectivized the question of purpose as to frame it in new terms, no longer as an intelligibly grasped purpose or goal or chief good of life, but as a personally felt, and extra-rational, meaning of life.
I think the reflections here and in the previous posts suffice to show that the emergence of the question of the meaning of life is not just a trivial semantic shift, superficially covering the persistence of a common, underlying question within a stable, coherent conceptual framework. The shift in the formulation of the question embodies a shift in the actual question being asked, which reflects a dramatic change in the general conceptual framework assumed by those questions – a dramatic change in the assumptions made about the world, about the human condition, about rationality, and about the kinds of questions that can intelligibly be asked. The question of the meaning of life just is not, and should not be confused with, the question of the end of man or the purpose of life. The two questions entertain different sorts of answers, give rise to different associated questions, and make different assumptions about the nature of man and reality.
In the face of this realization, we seem to face three options about how to proceed in talking about these questions and their relationship:
Option 1: We can ignore the differences, and continue acting as if the new and old questions are really different versions of the same question. This seems to have been the default approach, but it is, we now see, untenable.
Option 2: We can celebrate the shift, adopt the new question, and bid good riddance to the old question. Presumably there are some who would embrace that option; I will leave it to them to defend.
Option 3: We can find the new question problematic, and recommend not asking it, and work to recover the old question. The argument I’ve presented points strongly in this direction.
A fourth option is worth entertaining, but won’t be explored here. The 20th Century development of Catholic social and moral teaching suggests that it is at least possible to believe that the old question (the question of purpose) is more important and fundamental, while judging that the new question (the question of meaning) has a cultural purchase which cannot be ignored. Certain documents of Vatican II, and then the major writings of John Paul II, suggest an intentional strategy to use the meaning question to reawaken the older question of purpose – a development of the Catholic intellectual tradition that deserves further study by philosophers, theologians, and intellectual historians.
Joshua P. Hochschild is the Monsignor Robert R. Kline Professor of Philosophy at Mt. Saint Mary’s University.