The Anxiety of Loss and the Anxiety of Meaning: Part Two

farewell to summer

This is a two part series. Part One, “Anxiety and Loss”, posted yesterday.

Part Two: Rationality and the Anxiety of Meaning

 

While one formal characteristic of human life—that of desires and ends—prompts the anxiety of loss, we can see now how the other, rationality, renders us vulnerable to the anxiety of meaning. Rationality involves reflection on our ends that in turn can bring about the anxiety of meaning. In reflecting on them we may either approve or disapprove of them. We may, for example, take our ends to be valuable and thus delight in the bliss of pursuing conscious valuable life. But we may also fall into despair in realizing that ends we held valuable and labored to secure are in fact of no value. Thus, one may realize that a project one was committed to (e.g., promoting communism or nation-building), is, in fact, misguided and valueless; such realization can be devastating. However, such realizations do not in themselves constitute the anxiety of meaning. Rather than residing in the realization that one end or another has no value, the anxiety of meaning consists in recognizing that such realization is always a possibility; that just as I realize now that my enormous efforts to become a Sudoku champion were in vain because I see no value in being a Sudoku champion, similarly, it is always possible that I may realize that my other ends are of no value. Even worse, realizing we cannot ground values in reasons, leads us to recognize that value and worth cannot be secured and fortified; that it is always possible to lose sight of that which once seemed of worth to us. For, after all, rational justifications are finite, and if we are asked to provide them in support of the value we see in our ends, they will eventually give out and we are left without rational grounds to hold these ends valuable. Our very capacity to rationally reflect on the value of our ends, then, leads to the realization that our values are never fully grounded and secure.

 

If the story of Job symbolizes loss, Ecclesiastes epitomizes meaninglessness. When King Solomon lamented “vanity of vanities; all is vanity” he was a man with as much confidence, achievement and possession as one can hope for. Hence, clearly, he laments not the loss of that which he loves and values but rather the absence of worth and value; the waning and depletion of value from the world. In the absence of value, King Solomon asks “(w)hat profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?” This question expresses the anxiety over whether what we toil for might be without worth at all, and therefore pointless.

 

So far we have seen that the anxieties of loss and meaning are bound up with our rational being; they are not mere accidents, but they are also not essential. They are, for lack of a better term, un-essential or un-rational aspects of human life; connected to our rationality through rationality’s negation—and hence internally linked to rationality and its intrinsic shortcomings. With an understanding of the shared un-rational nature of these anxieties, we can now see how they relate deeply to one other: each anxiety both excludes the other and promises redemption from the other. A person agonizingly anxious of loss may envy her stoic friend who sees less value in his ends and consequently suffers less from the prospects of their loss. And vice versa, he who depressively conceives of no meaning in life may wish for his friend’s deep immersion in her values. Each sees hope in the condition of the other; the one wishes to value more, the other to value less, and we can imagine one oscillating between the two poles of anxiety in a wish to find the middle way between them. This is the doctrine of the mean in relation to the form of our practical life.

 

Accordingly, it appears, the human lot is at best to find the mean between these poles, or at least to oscillate gently between them. We may think about finding the right balance between the two anxieties as a virtue—a mean between two vices. But what assures us that we will not lose our grip of the mean and slip back to one of the extremes? Even in maintaining balance, we are vulnerable to the anxiety that nothing secures this balanced state; that it is forever subject to changes beyond our control. A famous Chasidic proverb by Rabi Nachman of Breslav goes “the whole world in its entirety is a very narrow bridge.” If a man spends his life on a narrow bridge, leading nowhere (it is the entire world, after all), it appears that there is no better thing for him to do than to maintain balance and forever live in fear of falling down to the abyss of either of the anxieties. Is this truly the best we can hope for? Is there no way to transcend this precariousness human condition?

 

The rest of Rabi Nachman’s proverb may suggest that there is another way. Here is the full proverb:

The whole world in its entirety is a very narrow bridge.

And the most important thing is not to be afraid at all.

The transcendence offered by Rabi Nachman is one in which there is a sharp awareness of the inescapable human condition, but at the same time, an insistence that we must not live in fear. The promise resides not in running away from the human condition but in a cleared-eyed recognition of it. But once we recognize it, how can we avoid being afraid?

 

I shall conclude with an answer suggested by Job and King Solomon. Job, right after having lost almost all his loved ones and earthly possessions, says: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Coping with loss, and the possibility of loss, comes with an awareness that all of it comes from God and is thanks to God. This awareness allows one to see a point in the loss since it is not a mere outcome of human fragility but a part of God’s intention. It is by virtue of realizing this that one can overcome, or at least live with, the anxiety of loss: the loss is one part of God’s plan and hence, though it may torment us, it is a constituent of the good. As long as we trust in God, we are not afraid. King Solomon’s lamentations end with the words “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole of man.” In other words, we can feel safe that the world and our ends are valuable if we trust in God. It is through the fear of God that we are freed of our anxiety of meaning. The ends given by God’s commandments are of value we cannot doubt as long as we have faith. In faith, the world cannot be bereft of value and meaning. Through faith, Rabi Nachman’s imperative is fulfilled. One can stand in the world, which is nothing but narrow bridge, with confidence, and without fear of being engulfed by the two essential human anxieties.

 


Amichai Amit is PhD student in philosophy at the University of Chicago. His research concerns the foundations of ethics and normativity. He also has strong interests in the history of philosophy (ancient and German idealism) and existentialism. He previously received an MA in Philosophy from Tel-Aviv University.

The Anxiety of Loss and the Anxiety of Meaning: Part One

 

AdobeStock_86826565.jpeg

This is a two part series. Part Two, “Rationality and the Anxiety of Meaning”, posts tomorrow.

Part One: Anxiety and Loss

It is of our very nature as rational animals to reflect on our life. We do not only pursue ends, but also ask whether our ends are good and whether our life as a whole is going well. We might say that our rational practical capacity, the capacity to question and justify our ends, allows us an ethical life. By virtue of our reason we may amend our ways and also live with the knowledge that our life and the ends we pursue are as they should be. However, along with the ethical light bestowed by reason come worries unique to rational beings like us. Being able to question our ends opens the possibility of doubt and skepticism about the worth of those ends and the worth of our life as a whole. And with our comprehension of the possibility of change comes the worry that we may lose that which is of worth. In following the light of reason we are haunted by the shadows of anxiety.

 

Human reflection on anxiety has always accompanied the rational reflection on the good life (ethics). However, it sometimes appears that unlike the rational contemplation of human life (ethics) that has given rise to systems of thought, the shadowy realm of anxiety is formless and particular; subject matter for the human imagination and artistic creation, rather than for rational systematic philosophy. But since anxiety comes with practical rationality, it is forever marked by the contour of reason. Though anxiety may lack the internal rational articulation of ethics, it bears eternal witness to the rational anatomy of ethics. In what comes next I propose that from our nature as rational animals, i.e., beings with both desires and reason, follows two essential kinds of anxieties: the anxiety of meaning and the anxiety of loss. The anxiety of meaning concerns the apprehension that our life and ends are meaningless and worthless. The anxiety of loss concerns the dread that whatever is of worth, may—and eventually will—change and degenerate.

 

But before I show in what sense these two anxieties are essential and follow from our rational nature, an important distinction is in order. Anxiety is not identical to fear and has a different relation to our rationality. In attempting to distinguish between ‘fear’ and ‘anxiety’ it is often said that fear has an object (say, a menacing stray dog), and anxiety does not; fear is a response to a real threat, whereas anxiety isn’t. In other words, while fear is infused with reasons (“the stray dog is about to attack me, this is why I’m afraid!”), anxiety isn’t. This distinction provides a negative understanding of anxiety; namely, through its not being in the space of reasons, i.e. its being non-rational. However, it is less often noted that anxiety is entirely tied with reason, and while it has no object (or content) of its own, it arises from the form of our practical reason. What do I mean by the form of practical reason? I mean that which pertains to practical reason regardless of any specific ends (contents). Thus, regardless of what one’s pursuits in life are, as an agent one must have pursuits, must have ends; must have desires. Bereft of desires one has no reasons to act at all (consider clinical depression). Accordingly, having desires, we may say, is a formal characteristic of creatures like us. Another formal characteristic comes from our rationality. As noted earlier, as rational agents, we also reflect on our ends, both to see whether they are attainable (and how) and to see whether they are worthy. Accordingly, the capacity to rationally assess and evaluate one’s end and the means to one’s ends is a formal characteristic of our practical being. We see then that these two aspects of human agency, desire and reason, are formal aspects in the sense that they hold regardless of one’s actual objects of desires. Whether one desires to be a lawyer, a priest, spend time with one’s family or watch football, qua rational agent one has desires and reason – both capacities constitute the form of human agency. In light of this, we see that anxiety, unlike fear, transpires from the very form of human agency. The anxiety of loss transpires from having objects of desire (ends), the anxiety of meaning from being able to rationally consider our ends.

 

I now turn to elaborate on the two essential anxieties. Desiring, for finite creatures like us, comes with the perennial risk of loss. As conscious beings, we are conscious of this risk as internal to our human condition. We are aware of it as a formal characteristic of our life. As such, rather than being a mere unfortunate fact of human psychology, the anxiety of loss is bound with the form of human life; even the happy life. Part of human happiness consists of desires, most importantly, of care and love, for people, ideas and projects. For instance, family, friends, community and vocation, constitute such central objects of care and love, and in their absence we consider life deficient. These are some of the core objects of human desire (ends) and few would voluntarily opt for life bereft of them (though this is perhaps not at all a matter of choice). But along with having these ends comes the realization that we can lose them. Traditionally, the figure of Job poignantly symbolizes the fragility of human life—how a good life, a life rich with family, friends, and possessions, can always fall into pieces. Being finite beings we always stand in danger of losing that which is precious to us and so, a painful shadow lurks even in the happiest life. The consciousness of our fragility and constant risk of losing (or never getting) what is good in our lives is the anxiety of loss.

 


Amichai Amit is PhD student in philosophy at the University of Chicago. His research concerns the foundations of ethics and normativity. He also has strong interests in the history of philosophy (ancient and German idealism) and existentialism. He previously received an MA in Philosophy from Tel-Aviv University.

 

Interview with James Dominic Rooney, OP, Summer Session Participant

study.JPG

This post is part of a series of interviews with our incoming class for the “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence” 2017 Summer Seminar. James Dominic Rooney is Dominican Priest and graduate student in Philosophy at Saint Louis University. Valerie Wallace is Associate Director, Communications, for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

 

Valerie Wallace: Where are you from?

James Dominic Rooney: I am from Ohio, originally, but more recently of St. Louis, MO.

 

VW: What are your research areas? Why?

JDR: I am interested in metaphysics, Eastern and Western medieval philosophy, and philosophy of religion.

I’ve always been fascinated by the most general, fundamental questions of philosophy, such as the nature of casuality, what exists, or basic truths we often take for granted. Much of this explains my interest in metaphysics. Metaphysics as I conceive of it follows on Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas: it is the science of being-as-being, or the structure of reality. While this can seem esoteric, empirical science appears to require metaphysical assumptions, and I am interested in how we should decide between metaphysical theories that might have ramifications for fundamental physics (quantum mechanics, etc.) or other sciences like biology.

Because of my interests in metaphysics, I have found a lot of interesting resources in medieval philosophy both in the Latin West and in China (Confucianism). Both of these traditions have a view of metaphysics as the science of wisdom, knowing the ultimate causes of everything. We tend to divide theoretical and practical concerns far apart, so that scientific inquiry is neither morally good nor bad, and is just beside the point of leading a fulfilled life. But I think the Chinese and Latin philosophers point to a different vision of wisdom: philosophy (and the wisdom it seeks) is not only a kind of theoretical knowledge, but importantly connected to a way of life. This perspective seems to me often forgotten or unpracticed in contemporary philosophy, let alone society. I think we could all benefit from rediscovering how to acquire wisdom.

 

VW: What are you most looking forward to about this summer’s seminar?

JDR: I look forward to having the opportunity not only to learn from some of the top scholars in their respective fields, but to be able to have personal discussion with them alongside other graduate students. The best and most lively work in philosophy seems to me to originate in these kind of discussions.

VW: What are your non-academic interests?

JDR: I am fond of art-house movies, calligraphy, bonsai trees, skiing, and being generally outdoors. But my aesthetic interests are really just a mature compensation for my love of computer games.

CFA for UChicago Undergraduates: “Speaking of Character” with David Brooks, Anne Snyder, and Candace Vogler

Speaking-of-Character-Photo

Speaking of Character

May 27th, 11-3:30 (coffee and pastries at 10)
Open to University of Chicago undergraduates, by application.

Many different cultures treat developing good character as one of the central challenges in human life. Your character draws together strengths that help you to pursue and promote good reasonably, avoid bad responsibly, and participate in the collective movements toward common good that shape the social world in which you find yourself. Good character is, as one says, a proof against rewards–a good person does not, for instance, betray her friends or her firm for the sake of personal advantage. Good character is supposed to help people set their priorities, to think well about good courses of action they might pursue here and now, experience sorrow over genuine losses, joy over real triumphs, and more generally to live wisely and well.  With background reading by two philosophers, we will gather to think and talk about character in a one-day seminar.

David Brooks became an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times in September 2003. He is currently a commentator on “The PBS Newshour,” NPR’s “All Things Considered” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He is the author of “Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There” and “The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement.” In April of 2015 he came out with his fourth book, The Road to Character, which was a #1 New York Times bestseller. Mr. Brooks also teaches at Yale University, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

 

Anne Snyder is the Director of The Character Initiative at The Philanthropy Roundtable, a pilot program that seeks to help foundations and wealth creators around the country advance character formation through their giving. She is also a Fellow at the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, a Houston-based think tank that explores how cities can drive opportunity and social mobility for the bulk of their citizens. Prior to jumping to the Lonestar state she worked at The New York Times in Washington, as well as World Affairs Journal and the Ethics and Public Policy Center. She holds a Master’s degree in journalism from Georgetown University and a B.A. in philosophy and international relations from Wheaton College (IL). Anne has published in National Journal, The Washington Post, The Atlantic Monthly, Philanthropy Magazine, Orange County Register, Center for Opportunity Urbanism, The Institute for Family Studies, FaithStreet, Comment Magazine, Verily, Humane Pursuits, and FareForward.

 

Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Principal Investigator on “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life,” a project funded by the John Templeton Foundation.  She has authored two books, John Stuart Mill’s Deliberative Landscape: An essay in moral psychology (Routledge, 2001) and Reasonably Vicious (Harvard University Press, 2002), and essays in ethics, social and political philosophy, philosophy and literature, cinema, psychoanalysis, gender studies, sexuality studies, and other areas.  Her research interests are in practical philosophy (particularly the strand of work in moral philosophy indebted to Elizabeth Anscombe), practical reason, Kant’s ethics, Marx, and neo-Aristotelian naturalism.

Who is invited: UChicago undergraduates, by application only. Visit hydeparkinstitute.org/speaking-of-character for more information and to apply.

Contact person: zloveless@hydeparkinstitute.org

Interview with Molly Ogunyemi, Summer Session Participant

Ogunyemi %282%29.jpg

VW: Tell me about your research.

MO: My primary interests are in interdisciplinary studies that can contribute to scholarly dialogue and mutual enrichment between philosophical anthropology and other sciences. (For example psychology, neurosciences, communication sciences and managerial sciences).

I am intrigued by themes of unity and coherence in lives, narrative philosophy, virtues and habit formation, and the philosophy of psychotherapy techniques.  I would like to develop youth formation programs. The main philosophical themes behind my research in recent years are topics of virtue, happiness, meaning of life, unity of life and narrative self-understanding as a tool for self-improvement over time.
During conversations with many people, both at work and in casual settings, we often raised questions about the meaning of life and happiness. I had studied philosophy out of personal interests as a medical student and even more for a few years after medical school while working in different hospitals. My interests in these topics led me to enroll in short courses in philosophy during my holidays in a private institute outside my university. I came to see the importance of having a deeper understanding of the human being in his totality in order to be able to offer solutions to age-old problems which are still actual today. These include questions about one’s personal identity, finding meaning in life, the benefits of virtues for living a happy life and the motivation to continue working on difficult tasks or in uncomfortable situations in view of a greater good which is achieved from persevering in those activities. I realized that studying philosophy as I did was not an option that everybody around me had and I decided to dedicate more time to this study with the hope of transmitting whatever I learn to others who study different sciences or conduct highly specialized research which gives little opportunity for detailed philosophical instructions.
In addition, I think that the need for interdisciplinary studies is ever increasing and urgent since the development of particular sciences that promote human flourishing requires understanding the human being as much as possible.

VW: What are you most looking forward to about this summer’s seminar? 

MO: I am looking forward to learning from the speakers and my co-participants and to sharing my experience with people who approach topics that are my primary research interests from different perspectives. It will be interesting to meet some of the speakers whose writings I have read. For example, I have read and studied the works of Dan P. McAdams for my doctoral thesis.

VW: What are your non-academic interests?

MO: My hobbies include reading novels, singing, sewing, cooking and talking with people and listening to them. I also enjoy taking part in aerobic exercises, volunteer work/service projects in rural areas. I enjoy excursions, discovering new places and learning about cultures that are different from mine.

 

April 21-22: Join us online for these Keynotes for the workshop Practical Truth: Reflections on the Aristotelian Tradition

poster2_aristotle-April-2017-web

Join us online for these Keynotes of Practical Truth: Reflections on the Aristotelian Tradition:

IS PRACTICAL TRUTH A CHIMERA? QUESTIONS FOR ANSCOMBE
Anselm Mueller, Trier University | University of South Carolina
4:30 pm EST, April 21, 2017

THOMAS AQUINAS, THE BEARER OF PRACTICAL TRUTH, AND THE RATIONALITY OF ACTION
Stephen Brock, Holy Cross University | University of South Carolina
4:00 pm EST April 22, 2017
For more information about this workshop including the speaker list, schedule, and to live-stream the keynotes, visit https://virtue.uchicago.edu/aristotle

https://virtue.uchicago.edu/aristotle

Interview with Timothy Reilly, Summer Session Participant

timothy_reilly_profile_page.jpg

This post is part of a series of interviews with our incoming class for the “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence” 2017 Summer Seminar. Timothy Reilly is Postdoctoral Research Associate in developmental psychology at the University of Notre Dame. Valerie Wallace is Associate Director, Communications, for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Valerie Wallace: Where are you from?

 

Timothy Reilly: I’m an Indiana native, originally from Muncie. I began my studies in Bloomington, Indiana, completed my doctorate in California. After that I returned to Bloomington, moved to Muncie, and finally arrived at Notre Dame. I still miss the scenery and weather of the Bay Area, though I am enjoying life back in the Midwest.

 

VW: What are your research areas? Why?

 

TR: My research addresses moral development and positive development from a variety of perspectives. My training is primarily in the fields of developmental psychology and the learning sciences. My graduate research focused on purpose, self-development, and well-being in the transition to adulthood. My current research is a survey and interview study of virtue in laboratory research and ensemble music, as part of a larger project on virtue in practices.

 

I engage in this work in order to understand how best to foster a wide array of individuals’ potential and self-development. In this, I seek to understand both the general patterns that are beneficial, broadly speaking, and the need to account for particularities in individuals’ needs, interests, and capacities. Originally this interest in potential focused on talent development. More recently, however, my interests have been drawn to the centrality of relationships, within families, schools, and other institutions, in facilitating or frustrating self-development and well-being. I am especially fascinated by the way that, for many, the self is most fully expressed, and is most fully fostered, in service to transcendental ends.

 

VW: What are you most looking forward to about this summer’s seminar?

 

TR: I am looking forward to the opportunity to engage with scholars who bring a variety of perspectives. It is important to me to continually ask new questions and to push at the boundaries of my knowledge. I am especially interested in discussing various conceptions of how virtue is developed and discussing the forms that self-transcendence and well-being take at different points in development and in different domains.

 

VW: What are your non-academic interests?

timothy_reilly_profile_page.jpg
TR: Outside of my work, I enjoy swimming, cycling, and hiking. I also enjoy reading and board games.