Summer Ponderings, Existential Crisis, Meaning and Purpose

“Back in touch”

This summer I have not spent much time reading and writing. In other words, I have not done much philosophy. I’ve found myself wondering, “What is the point of philosophy?”, “What is philosophy for?”. Of course, easy and bad answers to these questions exist. The usual solution is to posit some principle which you accept as unconditionally valuable and true and them demonstrating some sort of philosophy as a means to it. For instance, if you think politics or global warming or math or physics is really important, I could probably show you why we need philosophy. But this isn’t, and can’t be a serious way of responding to the initial question, “What is the point of philosophy?” because philosophy has in it the notion that all values and beliefs must be put into question. Therefore, attempting to justify philosophy externally requires either an infinite regress, or a suspension of philosophy. In other words, if philosophy is putting everything, even one’s most deeply held beliefs into question, what can the purpose or value of philosophy be? The answer is not difficult – philosophy is valueable in itself and without it, nothing has value. This truth is preserved in worn out catchphrases like Socrates’ “The unexamined life is not worth living”, and Kant’s “Know thyself”.

But the value of philosophy cannot be discovered through catchphrases anymore than the safe operation of complex machinery. In each case what is in question is a practice much more complex than the simple labels we use to refer it. And if the value of philosophy is knowable only through the practice of philosophy, we should not expect to be able to express it adequately in writing. We should not be able to refer to it, but only engage in it.

And yet, this summer has been a summer of abandonment. Perhaps philosophy is only important and fulfilling as long as one continuously engages in it. But in that case, is it just a cult?

It is not as if I’ve stopped doing philosophy because I’ve found some more worthwhile practice to engage in. Or even to consider engaging in. When people ask me, “What would you do if you weren’t going to grad school?”, I haven’t the slightest idea. Very few professions seem worthwhile enough to engage in today. I can’t help but ask myself – sure, being a railway engineer or an architect or an environmental planner are important, but what serious difference would be made in the world if I took up any of those professions? And – to examine the unjustified assumption therein – what is the point of making a difference in the world? To make it better? Who’s “better”? Is that a desire or an obligation?

The answer I come to in these lines of questioning is that without a transcendent Purpose held above all others the value of which is not put into question, whether that be called God or the universal salvation of humanity or continued progress and the end of poverty or freedom or democracy or preventing global warming, then no purposes or values retain the kind of solidity we unjustifiably want when we try to give our life meaning. Meaning does not actually reside in ends but in ongoing activity, our day to day practices, our vacations, our social, intellectual, emotive life.

It is worthwhile to ask what we mean when we say “X gives life meaning”? Do we mean life means X? It seems rather it means life with the addition of X, life gains the quality of “worthwhileness”. But what is worthwhileness? Is it only the absence of existential crisis!?

In Being and Time, Heidegger argues that we fill our life up with occupations, everyday busyness and tasks, and thereby come to ignore that it is us with reference to which these are meaningful. The ignorance of the self as the locus of value is associated with inauthenticity and avoiding existential angst. So, according to that, worthwhileness looks very much like the stuff we fill life up with in order to avoid the fundamental mood of man’s existence.

So, the opportune question arises – is philosophy merely another means of busyness by which to avoid the unpleasant angst which collects man whenever he cannot preoccupy himself? Is it merely the most enlightened way for those that know of God’s death to wait for their own?

A response that has quite a bit of popularity is a sort of back-to-the-land movement in philosophy: “Theory must be grounded in reality!”. This is stupid for two reasons – first because reality is through and through theoretical, and secondly because traditional philosophy wanted nothing other than to know the really real (i.e. for Plato the most real thing is the forms, and the purpose of philosophy is to become acquainted with the forms). (Contemporary physics is incidentally fully Platonic – they are only interested in the forms matter takes on – its shapes, its properties – what is measurable in essence. The idea that the ideal or the formal is disconnected from the real and “abstract”, spoken from contemporary materialism, is nothing but ideological hypocrisy).

My summer has largely been characterized with trying to get “back to the land” in its own ways – traveling across the country by van (and soon by rail), visiting friends in Vancouver and Victoria, spending time at the cabin. Taking the road less traveled has been the watchword – trying to notice the quality of where I am. Trying to find where we are in history, what is history? What is the past? Where is it for us? Where is the future? Always, always trying to find the future. Doing philosophy by doing, in other words is, perhaps, what I’ve been doing. What have I learned? Not nothing. To start I’ve learned that our time is obsessed with its history, usually only insofar as it can remain mysterious and not understood. Perhaps for us history is characterized by wonder. Perhaps wonder at the non-eternity of the present – even the lingering of the past in the present, the non-ability of the present to cover over everything, demonstrates the contingency of the present and hints at the future.

My summer has been a summer of content. Doing things, seeing people. Although, since I haven’t been working very hard I sometimes find that I have less to talk about. Since the “less” I have to talk about is philosophy, this probably makes me more likable.

As I’m writing this entry, the Dayliner is about to arrive in Victoria station. Summing up then – have I come to any conclusions? The purpose of philosophy can’t be anywhere outside philosophy, but philosophy is over. The obvious solution is to become some sort of teacher of philosophy (they teach dead languages after all), although this solution is nothing like “correct” since it requires positing values like “awareness” and “sharing” which themselves can be interrogated and lack stability. A summer of content leads to less content (cries of “get a job!”).

But then, the solution appears immediate and obvious – the purpose is flourishing. This cannot be argued (although many try). Community’s of reciprocal capability – this is the point of a department/office/social network. The key is, without the recognition that the subject is the value-er, the origin of value, one remains in a continuous search for transcendental justification (philosophy). But since all transcendental signifiers – purposes which cannot themselves be put into question (i.e. God or the salvation of mankind) make the basic mistake of pushing the origin of meaning outside the subject they remain engaged in curiosity, occupying oneself to cover up the angst which is man’s basic emotive attitude towards his own location in the nexus of meaning as value-er.

The main objection to solution as “flourishing” – for the Greeks eudaimonia is not “flourishing” because it applies immediately to the eternal and only derivatively to being-in-activity inasmuch as being engaged in an activity can be thought analogously to be aeonic (eternal time, time of ages) as opposed to chronic (clock time). Counter objection: eternity and the chronic are both contingent modalities of temporality. No reason “being well” must be thought primarily in any particular temporal modality. Today, “well” replaced by value, by normativity. Today eternity replaced by future as primary authentic modality. Today, flourishing must be futuristic – but what is the future today? The past recapitulated? The radical new? (Here – more space for thinking).


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