This is the third column in a four-part series by Helena de Bres on academic philosophy and the meaning of life, published weekly; read the rest here.
“I assume you’re here for The Meaning of Life?” I asked on the first day of classes a few falls ago.
Sixteen heads bobbed over a regiment of crisp new notebooks and pens cocked for action.
“That phrase is a bit misleading,” I said. “When most people hear it, they think of large-scale questions like ‘What does it all mean?,’ ‘Why are we here?,’ ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ The assumption is that there’s some deep order built into the universe that we might uncover and comprehend.”
I felt the glue of 32 eyes on my person.
“But over the past couple of centuries the idea that the universe has an inherent rational purpose has lost ground,” I continued. “So in contemporary philosophy questions about the meaning of life have given way to questions about meaning in life: questions about what makes particular lives meaningful. For instance: What gives a life depth, purpose and enduring value? What makes living worthwhile rather than futile?”
“Why did you call this class The Meaning of Life, then?” someone asked.
“People don’t use the phrase Meaning in Life so much,” I lied. “It’s unclear what it means.”
The real reason was that I was following what my colleague calls “the Cole principle.” Professor Cole taught a class called “Nineteenth-Century European Literature” for ten years and about three very earnest people took it across that whole period. Then he changed the title to “Smart Women, Bad Choices” and the waitlist stretched from his office to, roughly, a small hamlet on the Massachusetts-Connecticut border.
Another thing I wasn’t telling my students was that the decision to teach this particular course was something of a desperation move on my part. The question “What gives a life depth, purpose and enduring value?” wasn’t theoretical for me that fall; I’d spent 95 percent of my free time thinking about it for the previous two years. My panicked ruminations focused partly on the point of life, partly on the point of philosophy and partly on whether those two things could ever come together in my own particular case.
Sometimes my problem seemed to be that I’d lost a stable grasp on what philosophy was. I mean, I had a grip on it at the everyday level. I was giving lectures and grading papers in an academic discipline a student once described as “like computer science had a baby with poetry.” But was that activity really philosophy or some toxic simulacrum of it?
Other times, it felt like my doubts weren’t about philosophy’s nature, but its value. When a philosopher has misgivings about the value of philosophy, they’re not just asking “why,” but “why why?,” which is fancier. It’s possible, if you’re talented, to take this up a further notch and ask “why why why?” As Bernard Williams wrote, “philosophy is not at its most interesting when it is talking about itself.” But it’s also possible to reply to such doubters, “why why why why?”—don’t panic, I’m stopping now—and that was my current attitude. Surely it’s cheating to throw everything into fundamental doubt except your own profession?
It’s a little meta to teach a philosophy class on meaning in life when many of your doubts about the possibility of the latter reduce to doubts about the value of the former. My motivations were somewhat obscure to me, but I think I was engaging in a kind of experiment. I wanted to see whether I could employ the type of philosophy I was familiar with to make genuine progress on a large-scale human question that was highly personal for me. Was I trying to use the resources I had to address my problem, or was I trying to force the issue to breaking point? I figured that by mid-December I’d have worked that out.
Analytic philosophers avoided the subject of meaning in life till relatively recently. The standard explanation is that they associated it with the meaning of life question they considered bankrupt. But it’s surely also because the subject conflicts with some of the core tendencies of the analytic tradition. “What gives point to life?” is a sweeping question that invites the synoptic approach associated with continental philosophy, not the divide-and-conquer method favored by Anglo-Americans. The question also wears its angst on its sleeve, making it an awkward fit with the dispassionate mode employed in the mainstream academy.
But over the past couple of decades we analytics have turned to the question, with the result that we now have a sharply laid-out set of takes on the matter. The standard way to approach the topic is via a distinction between subjective, objective and hybrid views of meaning. Roughly, subjectivism says your life is meaningful if you have the right kind of attitude to it, objectivism says you need to be engaged with objects of attitude-independent value and the hybrid view says you need both.
I organized my seminar around this distinction and shoved a set of crisply argued journal articles under its umbrella. Then I widened the net to include some non-analytics: Emerson, Schopenhauer and Camus. Then I opened it still further, to a set of writers, critics and sages: Tolstoy, Julian Barnes, David Foster Wallace, James Wood, Thich Nhat Hanh. Finally, I added a poem to each class, as a kind of aperitif/digestif.
This syllabus looked like nothing I’d ever taught before: it reminded me of a set of undercover woodland animals piled up inside a trench coat. I didn’t have a pedagogical strategy for explaining how it was all supposed to fit together, how work so diverse in method, style and attitude could play nicely when jammed into the same small room. My syllabus was effectively screaming this question, alongside the question it was more obviously addressing. It felt like a dark joke. What, my Word doc jeered at me, you’re going to fix the problem of everything your intellectual tradition leaves out just by scotch-taping it back on?
What was interesting was that my students didn’t seem to have a problem with it. They were eager to use everything. Maybe this openness was born of their inexperience, maybe it sprang from their own wells of desperation. As you might expect of a class with this title, a good half of the clientele were undergoing dramatic forms of suffering. One was afflicted with allergies to almost any kind of food, constant cramps, chronic fatigue, random fainting, inflamed joints and—news just in!—possibly shingles. One had recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder; another had three close friends end their own lives in high school. Even the most offensively healthy of the remainder talked of heartbreaks, anxiety, anguish, night terrors.
The first question when any of this came up in class, as it often did, wasn’t is this philosophy? For one thing, in the thick of the discussion, none of us cared whether it was or not. For another, more or less everything on the syllabus suggested that it was. Sure, the readings made that suggestion in different modes, but they were clearly on the track of the same general set of concerns. And the very fact that the style of approach sometimes felt in tension with the subject matter added a certain depth to the enterprise that felt illuminating.
A couple of things happened for me almost immediately in this class. One was that I found I was having a really great time. Another was that, though I’d gone into the course wondering whether academic philosophy and I should engage in a process of “conscious uncoupling,” once we got rolling I barely thought about that. I was finding our discussions too absorbing.
As we packed up our laptops in the final meeting, I felt a fuzzy form of gratitude. For what? There was the class material, of course—a neatly laid-out theoretical landscape, some interesting ideas and arguments, some resonant literary takes on life to return to in a cool (or hot) hour. But that didn’t really capture it. My feeling didn’t seem to be about the content of this particular class. It was—what? More general? More universal? More abstract?
Oh my god, I thought, I’m grateful for philosophy.
My relationship to my vocation has probably been more troubled than that of most of my colleagues. I’ve spent more time doubting and disliking philosophy than is ideal for someone in my line of work. But teaching this class reminded me of three things I’ve always loved about it.
One is the overarching method that Adam Smith identified with philosophy: the introduction of “order into the chaos of jarring and discordant appearances.” Organizing your experience into a comprehensible structure is often therapeutic, even if the experience’s content is grim. Another is the general attitude to life that Socrates said philosophy starts with. If you can keep your wonder about your version of the human predicament alive, approach your distress with interest alongside alarm, you have a good chance of shrinking it by just that much. Finally, there’s the practice of applying that method, with that curiosity, in conversation with your fellows, in person and on the page. To do that is to participate in a tradition of reasoning about human lives that extends beyond you, including whatever professional deformations you’ve picked up along the way.
I’d lost track of this, as I retreated into my shell of career dissatisfaction, skipping academic conferences, avoiding the journals, rolling out my classes on autopilot. I’d forgotten what it felt like to take a philosophical question that truly matters to you, use everything you and others have to approach it, and do that with other people who genuinely care about it too. It’d be both false and schmaltzy to suggest that my belated grasp of all this has eliminated my ambivalence about my profession, which I’m no doubt stuck with at this point. But one thing it has done is reduce the sense of distance I used to feel between what others seemed to want from philosophy and what I believed it was giving me.
Read the next and final installment of Helena de Bres’s column here.