Ask the average person what philosophers do, and they’ll probably tell you that we seek the meaning of life. Philosophy is defined as the love of wisdom, and presumably wisdom is the kind of deep understanding required to understand the eternal verities; those profound mysteries whose importance we mark by the use of capital letters: Truth, Justice, our Purpose and our Fate.
Truth be told, philosophers – at least those working the Anglo-American tradition which predominates in Australia – actually have little interest in the question of the meaning of life. The most prestigious kind of philosophy is instead a very technical, abstract and dry enterprise concerned with the analysis of concepts, with logic and with standards of reasoning. I don’t wish to disparage this kind of philosophy. In fact, though its connection to everyday life is often hard to discern, I have no doubt of its importance. If we are to make progress in discussing moral questions, or in analysing economic, cultural and scientific issues of relevance to social policy, we need to be able to argue well and to think clearly. Philosophy can aid us in this task.
However, as a glance at the self-help section of a bookshop, not to mention the phenomenal success of an endless parade of "new age" cranks and frauds, makes clear, the yearning for meaning is strongly felt, perhaps more today than ever before. The decline of traditional religions, at least in the prosperous West (with the inexplicable exception of the United States) has left more and more people with a vague sense that something is missing from their lives, some higher purpose. If philosophers – and not just philosophers, but also thoughtful scientists and academics in other disciplines – do not help us to understand what we seek when we seek meaning, and how we might find it, then the field will be left to the sellers of snake oil.
One reason why philosophers no longer concern themselves with the meaning of life may be that the theological background which made sense of the question has dissipated. Once upon a time, no matter what our religion, we all shared a sense of the world as containing meaning in its very order and design. But today this idea no longer seems plausible. Ever since what the German sociologist Max Weber spoke of as the "disenchantment of the world" by modern science, we think of the world as simply brute matter. Increasingly, we come to see life itself, even human life, as merely a chemical process, and thought as the activation of neurons.
If there is still meaning in the universe, it is not inherent in its matter and form. Instead, it is more plausibly thought of as imposed by minds, whether the mind of God or human minds. This latter, non-theological, option might seem to threaten a radical relativism or nihilism, but it need not. It may be that because of the kind of animal we are, human beings find much the same kinds of things moving and appalling, awesome and sublime. An evolved sense of right and wrong, justice and awe need not be inferior in any way to a God-given one. Human nature, scientifically explicable though it certainly is, might nevertheless be the source of all the meaning we need.
How might these – admittedly rather vague – speculations guide us in our search for a meaningful life? Human nature can be investigated with the tools of modern science, and what we find when we engage in that enterprise is that we humans find certain sorts of activities much more deeply satisfying than others. A worthwhile human life has space in it for all kinds of things, including play and frivolity, but a life devoted to play and frivolity alone isn’t satisfying. Those of us in the developed world lucky enough to have escaped the daily struggle for survival and for a minimally decent standard of living often look to consumer culture for satisfaction, but in doing so we risk getting onto a kind of treadmill. We buy – clothes, electronics, whatever it may be – because (as the advertising industry keeps telling us) we think that these items can make us happy. Of course, the novelty of our purchases soon wears off, and we return to the mall for another fix. A plethora of studies, by psychologists and economists, return a unanimous verdict: consumption does not produce happiness.
In response to the failure of consumption culture to produce lasting satisfaction, we are increasingly seeing people embracing the voluntary simplicity movement: trading income for time. Downshifters, as they are known in America, cut back their work hours in order to have more time for family and friends, hobbies and leisure. No doubt the voluntary simplicity movement has a great deal to offer. But does it offer meaning? Meaning, in this disenchanted world, is subjective meaning; does the voluntary simplicity movement actually satisfy the yearning for a purpose in life in full?
More than 2000 years ago Aristotle argued that the highest, the most fulfilling, life was a life devoted to contemplation. Julian Barnes, in his novel A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, seems to have reached a similar conclusion. His novel finishes with a vision of heaven, in which each person is given the opportunity to do exactly what he or she wants. Sooner or later everyone gets bored. But the scholars, engaged in their endless debates, last longest: intellectual activity palls slowly compared with other kinds of satisfactions.
Not everyone can be a scholar, of course. But it may be that all of us who are lucky enough to escape the daily struggle for survival can engage in inherently meaningful activities which have just the same structure as intellectual enquiry. Scholarly work is so satisfying because though it is cumulative, there is no prospect of completing it. We can learn more and more, without ever seeming to make a dent in our ignorance. Because its results accumulate, it is ever-changing, but because it is endless we are never faced with the question: what now? Few everyday activities have this kind of structure. Most hobbies eventually pall because they alter little. Even such immensely satisfying activities as raising a family have a time limit built in: sooner or later the children move away, and their parents find themselves with more time on their hands than they know what to do with.
What kinds of activities might be inherently meaningful; that is, possess the right kind of structure to satisfy our deepest yearnings? These activities must have a point beyond them, so we feel that we are contributing to something beyond ourselves. But they must be open-ended. Apart from scholarly work, the most plausible candidates are art and political and moral engagement. In both, we engage with a world of values; in both, the results accumulate (all going well) but in both there is always much more to be done. A truly meaningful life may be a life that is, in some part at least, devoted to one or more of these activities. If that’s right, then philosophy may not just be able to help us address the question of the meaning of life. It may also be part of the answer.