In his Preface to the Critique of Pure Reason
, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) declares: “It always remains a scandal of philosophy and universal human reason that the existence of things outside us … should have to be assumed merely on faith, and that if it occurs to anyone to doubt it, we should be unable to answer him with a satisfactory proof.”1
But, later, in Being and Time
, Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) responds: “The ‘scandal of philosophy’ is not that this proof has yet to be given, but that such proofs are expected and attempted again and again.”2
Twentieth-century existentialism owes much to Heidegger’s “existential phenomenology,” which rejects metaphysical speculation regarding what lies “outside” the mind in favor of a phenomenological approach to the question of meaning. Phenomenology invites us to set aside assumptions about what is objectively “real” and instead pay attention to the specific contours of our immediate existence. We will find, Heidegger says, not a world bifurcated into objective matter and subjective perceptions but rather an immersive totality already familiar to us—a meaningful world full of value-laden items and human-centered projects. In this sense, to be a “thing” at all is always to be a meaningful thing situated in a web of human relations. There are no “things” outside of this immersive experiential totality, just as there are no “selves” apart from the world of things—Heidegger dares us to search our own experience of reality and conclude otherwise.
The phenomenological turn in existentialism is widely influential, but, as we will see in what follows, Kant’s “scandal of philosophy” keeps coming back.3
We begin with a recent debate between contemporary philosophers Susan Wolf and Steven Cahn, which frames the question of meaning in life in precisely the scandalous manner that Heidegger resists. In investigating the roots of their debate, we not only gain insight into why this scandal arises again and again in the history of Western thought, but we also become better able to evaluate the theoretical and practical success of the answer to this scandal that phenomenologists such as Heidegger propose. As we will see by the end, the problem is not that phenomenological existentialism lacks theoretical clarity, but rather it lacks a repertoire of techniques by which its non-dualistic account of meaning-making can be enacted in daily life.
The Ins and Outs of Meaning in Life
In a formula that philosopher Susan Wolf has stated in multiple publications, “Meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness.”4
In other words, the conditions for a meaningful life require that I be personally fulfilled by activities that are objectively valuable or worthwhile. As Wolf explains, the first half of the equation speaks to the subjective dimension: “A person is actively engaged by something if she is gripped, excited, involved by it.”5
The second half gestures toward the objective:
That a meaningful life must involve “projects of worth” will, I expect, be more controversial, for the phrase hints of a commitment to some sort of objective value …. What is clear to me is that there can be no sense to the idea of meaningful lives without a distinction between more and less worthwhile ways to spend one’s time, where the test of worth is at least partly independent of a person’s preferences or enjoyment.6
She admits that she herself has no philosophical theory to explain what might count as an objective value, but she nonetheless sees the objective component as necessary, unless we are willing to admit that devoting ourselves passionately to a trivial activity is “meaningful.”
Several critics of Wolf have predictably retorted, “Why not?” Or, as Steven Cahn says: “Why not allow others to pursue their own ways of life without disparaging their choices and declaring their lives meaningless? If a person finds delights that bring no harm, such a discovery should not be denigrated but appreciated.”7
A meaningful life is, for Cahn, precisely a life that I find meaningful—i.e., a life that I find personally fulfilling, regardless of whether what I am doing is “really” trivial or not.
Many people, I would predict, will side with Cahn in this debate. Given that no one, Wolf included, has a satisfying definition of what counts as an objective value, then it seems that we should hesitate before judging that other people’s life projects are not worthwhile. Nonetheless, Wolf’s equation does provoke a compelling question: If meaning is only
the subjective experience of personal fulfillment, and if we let go of the objective dimension altogether, then do we not concede to nihilism in the end? That is, if meaning lives and dies with humans, or other sentient beings, then a universe devoid of sentience is still a cold, dead, meaningless place. Cahn himself seems to admit this, when, at the end of his commentary on Wolf’s thesis, he cites the book of Ecclesiastes: “Even if a man lives many years, let him enjoy himself in all of them, remembering how many the days of darkness are going to be.”8
Live meaningfully while you can, this quote suggests, because death will erase us all in the end.
The debate between Wolf and Cahn helps lay out several dilemmas that arise when questions of meaning are framed by an implicit (or explicit) understanding of subject–object dualism. If we agree with Wolf that some activities or projects are objectively meaningful, then not only we are tasked with deciding what counts
as objective meaning, but we face larger epistemological issues of how we know anything “objectively” at all. Yet if we agree with Cahn that meaning is purely subjective, then we face not only the specter of nihilism but a wider range of metaphysical issues regarding the status of so-called subjective reality. The remainder of the chapter contextualizes the above claims in greater detail, surveying key episodes from the intellectual history of Western philosophy, from seventeenth-century empiricism to twentieth-century existentialism and phenomenology.
As we will see, Western philosophy is stuck in a loop, at least in terms of the subject–object dualism that underlies the Wolf–Cahn debate and seems to restrict existential inquiry more broadly. Again and again, the Western tradition returns to the troubling realization that we can describe our own internal experiences with some degree of certainty, but we are at a loss when asked to confirm whether the external world itself in any way resembles our impressions of it. Although neither Wolf nor Cahn wishes to entangle the question of meaning in the epistemological and metaphysical difficulties outlined below, nonetheless their debate is informed by these dilemmas and the subject–object dualism that generates them.
Dilemmas of Objectivity
One way to satisfy Wolf’s requirement that meaning in life be grounded in objectivity would be to turn to religion. For example, if we believe that there is one true God who created us for a reason, then we may understand Wolf’s formula as saying that meaning arises when I derive personal fulfillment from carrying out the worthwhile purpose that God intended. The value of this God-given purpose would be, as Wolf says above, “at least partly independent of a person’s preferences or enjoyment.”9
This underscores a key feature of the subject–object
divide as usually understood in Western discourses: whereas matters of personal taste are not debatable, questions of objective truth do have right and wrong answers. Ultimately, the foodie cannot fault the fast food junkie for liking what she likes, but the saint can indeed tell the sinner to go to hell.
Western philosophers have often aspired to this level of objective certainty in their investigations into the nature of truth and reality. For example, the great thirteenth-century Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225–74), building on everything he inherited from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE), states: “A judgment is said to be true when it conforms to the external reality.”10
This medieval insight likely still captures many people’s everyday intuitions about what it means to make a claim that is true or false. Philosophers today would call it the “correspondence theory” of truth. It means, roughly, that when I declare something to be true, then what I say ought to reflect conditions in the real world—when I tell you that the flower is yellow, then the flower should “really” be yellow. If, to the contrary, the flower is not “really” yellow, then I am either lying or wrong.
The correspondence theory of truth quickly raises epistemological issues: How do I know what conditions are like in the external world? For example, where I see yellow, a honeybee sees ultraviolet. Which one of us is right? What color is the flower “really”? In the eighteenth century, Kant made the once-radical claim that what people can know is directly correlated to their mental and sensory capacities. In other words, what human eyes cannot see will remain outside the bounds of human experience, and likewise what human minds cannot conceive will be beyond the grasp of our knowledge. As this shows, the correspondence theory is strained if our perceptions of the external world are not reliable.
We will return to the consequences of Kant’s philosophy later in this chapter. For now, I would like to emphasize the ethical and political
issues at stake if we set Kant aside and appeal instead to what has been called “direct realism” or “naïve realism.” This is the notion that, regardless of the honeybee, our minds generally do give us an accurate picture of conditions in the external world. The well-known analytic philosopher Simon Blackburn declares that some version of direct realism is “the natural view of people everywhere, and of philosophers when they are off-duty.”11
However, he continues, this view “remains naïve until it is buttressed by explanations of how experience may change while things do not, how illusion is possible, how colours and sounds can be regarded as properties of things independent of us, and so forth.”12
In other words, although we may puzzle for now over the question of whether a flower is yellow or ultraviolet, we should not let this sway us toward far-fetched philosophical theories—sensible people are realists.
Nonetheless, contemporary continental philosophy and critical theory do raise legitimate concerns about the underlying motives driving claims to objective truth. As some will argue, the so-called objective perspective does not give us direct access to the external world so much as it gives us insight into who is in power in specific social contexts. Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844–1900) comparison of truth claims to power grabs13
influenced the constructivist theories of Michel Foucault as well as a range of critical studies in areas such as feminism, queer theory, and race theory. As theorist Nina Gregg writes: “The critique of science made by radical feminists finds that objectivity, when elevated to the status of sole criterion of truth, masks interests in its claim to neutrality, devalues people’s experiences and perceptions of reality, constitutes an invitation to domination, and claims for science an authority which disguises power as truth.”14
We need only recall the pseudo-scientific appeals to biology used to define “race,” rank people by skin color, and thereby justify the slave trade, in order to understand the real and bloody consequences of disguising power as truth.
To respond to this critique, contemporary science needs more advanced epistemological tools than naïve realism. One attractive feature of scientific truth claims is that they are fallible
, that is, subject to revision in light of new evidence. Can an answer to the question of meaning in life arise from sophisticated and responsible scientific investigation? This is the premise of E. O. Wilson’s 2014 book The Meaning of Human Existence
, which aims to give an “ultimate” explanation of human purpose as this might be understood in the biological sciences:
In biology, how-and-why explanations are routine and expressed as “proximate” and “ultimate” causation of living processes. An example of the proximate is this: we have two hands and ten fingers, with which we do thus and so. The ultimate explanation is why we have two hands and ten fingers to start with, and why are we prone with them to do thus and so and not something else. The proximate explanation recognizes that anatomy and emotions are hardwired to engage in certain activities. The ultimate explanation answers the question, why this particular hardwiring and not some other? To explain the human condition, thereby to give meaning to the human existence, requires both levels of explanation.15
He clarifies that his understanding of “meaning” in human existence does not refer to any pre-given (or God-given) purpose but rather to the level of self-awareness we have achieved thanks to our particular evolutionary path—our ability to do what we mean, as it were, and to mean what we do:
A spider spinning its web intends, whether conscious of the outcome or not, to catch a fly. That is the meaning of the web. The human brain evolved under the same regimen as the spider’s web. Every decision made by a human being has meaning in the first, intentional sense. But the capacity to decide, and how and why the capacity came into being, and the consequences that followed, are the broader, science-based meaning of human existence.16
Under these conditions, Wilson’s ultimate explanation of the human condition is simple enough: “Humanity arose as an accident of evolution, a product of random mutation and natural selection.”17
Though we may wish otherwise, he says, “there is no evidence of an external grace shining down upon us, no demonstrable destiny or purpose assigned us, no second life vouchsafed us for the end of the present one.”18
But, in this, he finds existential significance: “We are, it seems, completely alone. And that in my opinion is a very good thing. It means we are completely free.”19
Given our freedom and our current level of scientific achievement, Wilson is optimistic: “Laid before us are new options scarcely dreamed of in earlier ages. They empower us to address with more confidence the greatest goal of all time, the unity of the human race.”20
So, as it turns out, the human condition is a product of chance evolutionary processes, and human purpose lies in exerting meaningful control over our future. Although I am sympathetic to Wilson’s agnostic, naturalistic worldview, I find his existential conclusions unsatisfying. When I raise the question of meaning in life, I am hoping for more than a declaration of human freedom against the unthinking forces of nature. Moreover, I do not share Wilson’s strong rejection of religiosity or his confidence in dismissing all phenomena usually consigned to the category “supernatural.” I am especially disturbed by his suggestion that the ultimate goal—which he defines, somewhat ominously, as “the unity of the human race”—requires the eradication of religious belief and religious believers. He draws an analogy to parasitic infestation: “Destructive inborn traits of social life can be viewed as a parallel of the physical presence of parasitic organisms, and the cultural diminishment of their impact as the lessening of a tolerable dogma load. One obvious example of the latter is blind faith in supernatural creation stories.”21
Of course, he does not suggest physically eradi...