Ambivalent philosophizing

February 18, 2011 | By | 16 Replies More

I love thinking about the meaning of life But do I really? Sometimes philosophizing (including contemplating recent advances in understanding human cognition) seems to be a curse, and I think that I wish that I would just be able to quit thinking about all those “deep” questions and just live life. But do I really?

The inner compulsion to philosophize is both a blessing and a curse. I am usually convinced that it enriches one’s life. As Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living. But how much time and energy should we spend examining life instead of living it?

One of my favorite passages on this topic of ambivalence toward philosophizing was written by David Hume in Part IV, Book I, page 268 of A Treatise of Human Nature (the edition I am quoting is the Second Edition, edited by L. A. Shelby-Bigge (Oxford: the Clarendon Press, 1978)).

But what have I here said, that reflections very refined and metaphysical have little or no influence upon us? This opinion I can scarce forebear retracting, and condemning from my present feeling and experience. The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another. Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, into what condition shall I return? Whose favor shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? And on whom have I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and began to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, inviron’d with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.

Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some application, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterates all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to the speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.

Hume follows up this passage by recognizing his need to philosophize to be both a natural inclination and a natural sentiment (page 271). He notes that staying away from his speculations makes him “uneasy” and that if he distracts himself with worldly diversions for too long “I feel I should be a loser in point of pleasure; and this is the origin of my philosophy.” (Page 271). He expresses his humble hopes that he may “contribute a little to the advancement of knowledge.” (Page 273). He had earlier in the book observed that a skeptic “still continues to be reason and believe, even though he asserts that he cannot defend his reason by reason.” (Page 187).

Based on the above, it should not surprise one to hear that it was David Hume who concluded that: that “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” (Book II, Part I, Section III).


Category: Meaning of Life

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (16)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. MikeFitz17 says:

    Erich: Your urge to philosophize is probably like your urge to make and listen to music. You just got to do it. It's a basic part of who you are.

    I, too, sometimes question whether I would be happier if I did not brood and ruminate so much. I philosophize a hell of a lot, most of internally or in the pages of my journal — activities that do not exactly result in a hectic social life.

    But then I realize that I don't have much choice. Brooding and ruminating and speculating about life and existence are essential parts of my personality. When you're as introverted as me, it's just what you do.

    Sometimes I ask myself this question. Which would I rather be: popular, "fun" and happy, but extremely superficial; or introverted, socially awkward and unpopular, but "deep" and interesting?

    When I was in high school, I always chose the first option. What teenager doesn't want to be popular? Now, many years later, I realize that popularity is bullshit, and that superficial people are the most boring. Regardless of anything else, I realize none of us have any choice in the matter. You are what you. So go ahead and own it. Proudly.

  2. Jim Razinha says:

    I've never understood why people ask the question about a "meaning of life" and how other people think they can answer it. I'm just not wired that way. To me, life is just life. I live it, and enjoy it and it sure beats the alternative.

    And MikeFitz17, I don't get your two options: popular, “fun” and happy, but extremely superficial; or introverted, socially awkward and unpopular, but “deep” and interesting. Why does popular, fun or happy equate to superficial? And why is deep and interesting not fun, happy or popular?

  3. MikeFitz17 says:

    Jim: You wrote:

    In which case, I say: I envy you. I write these words in all sincerity. Since you probably don't stew and brood, this means you are much freer to enjoy your life. But, as you admit, this is how you're wired. Some of us, as I stated earlier, have no choice but to think about life's meaning.

    As a result, those of us who ask such questions waste a lot of time worrying about stuff we can't control, or embarking on journeys that are the intellectual equivalent of a dog chasing its tail. But occasionally this tendency also means going on some very intellectually satisfying journeys, even if they center on questions that are impossible to answer.

    Jim, you also wrote:

    I based my generalizations, Jim, on my own experiences with people I know, as well as messages conveyed by the popular media. Popular people are those who are attractive in all senses of the word — good looks, fashionable clothes, an outgoing and "fun" demeanor. I know several people like this and they are a joy to be around — as far as it goes, of course.

    Popular people are also popular, I submit, precisely because they do not challenge the prevailing group think of whatever community to which they belong. So, yes, much of social popularity consists of triviality, gossip, superficial crap, an agreement with conventional wisdom, and a disinclination toward asking hard or "deep" questions that make others feel uncomfortable.

    Conversely, those who ask tough questions that challenge the prevailing orthodoxies are, I submit, unpopular.

    If Ronald Reagan personifies "popular" and superficial, then Jimmie Carter — with his penchant for stating politically unpopular truths — personifies the opposite of those two qualities.

    But why do certain people ask the hard questions and deliberately court unpopularity? Because, by nature, I believe, they are misfits, they have a chip on their shoulders, they brood too much, they're too introverted. This gets at what I wrote above: this is simply how they're wired. It's who they are.

    Whatever the reasons, these unpopular folks provide an important counterpoint to our society's relentless quest to conform and to play follow the leader.

    In the antebellum South, how popular were the whites who helped slaves escape to the North via the Underground Railroad? Not very popular, I submit.

    During World War II, how popular were Germans who opposed the Nazis and sheltered Jews? Again, not very popular, I submit.

    In our society, we rightly honor those who speak truth to power, who go against the grain and ask uncomfortable questions that challenge society's received truths and prevailing myths. But before such folks are honored, they usually go through a period where they are marginalized and ostracized, treated as pariahs or much worse.

    This is one of the ideas I was trying to get at in drawing the line between popular and trivial, versus "deep" and unpopular.

  4. Jim Razinha says:

    I think I understand what you were trying to say, but I'll respectfully disagree with the pairing of popular and trivial – in my opinion that's a superficial judgment. No argument that hard questions are usually unpopular.

    I passed through my teen angst and deep introspection stage long ago (somewhat unrelated but typical, I flirted with an admiration of Ayn Rand like so many others of the same age), but grew out of it pretty quickly. I've posted about my inability to "get" literature, movies and art (, which might give some background on how I've come to view these matters.

    I'll also have to think on the notion that some "have no choice but to think about life’s meaning." I guess it's the same, though opposite, type of wiring that I've got going on…but I'm not sure. I almost always have a choice to think on something or not (with an occasional unpleasant memory forcing its way to the forefront being the abnormality), but I suppose the way I look at things analytically might be something about which I have no choice.

  5. TheThinkingMan says:

    Who says examining life is not living it?

    Perhaps the true purpose of living is examining the purpose of life.

    But the big truth here is that you must find your own purpose, and your own truth – based of course on the facts and principles that exist already before you.

    Do not be afraid to tear down preconceptions and build personal convictions.

    If you don't do that, well, you are hardly living.

  6. Jim Razinha says:

    I view "purpose of life" as fallacious because it implies some design or supernatural influence when 3.8 billion years of evolution has resulted in what you see (so far) and ascribing a "purpose" to a general concept as life which began those billions of years ago is rather pointless. What is the purpose of that rock? What is the purpose of a hydrogen molecule? Now, determining the "purpose" of telomeres or hair follicles or bipedal motion as they relate to life is not pointless. Nor are "how did life begin and how did those beginnings develop into what we see today and what might it evolve into in the future?"

    I took a sociology class in high school and my answer to the question "Why do we exist?" was a smart a** "to die". 30+ years later, I think I nailed it. But I think I'd also like to revise that original answer to "to die…eventually…after a long life in which I learned as much as I wanted to about whatever I wanted, passed knowledge to others, enjoyed the company of my family and others, raised productive children,…and I'm sure I'll add more as I age and different things vary in importance."

    • Erich Vieth says:

      In my somber moods, here's the "meaning" of life (this is Shakespeare, of course):

      To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, [emphasis added]

      Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

      To the last syllable of recorded time;

      And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

      The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

      Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player

      That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

      And then is heard no more. It is a tale

      Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury

      Signifying nothing."

      — Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28)

      What an incredible piece of writing. It powerful affects me every time I read it.

      I'm more and more convinced that "What is the meaning of life?" only looks like a question because it is syntactically ordered to appear like a question. The deeply ineffable problem is exposed when one asks "What is the meaning of 'meaning?'" This is the place where words lose all efficacy, it seems. This is that place where intelligent people stop talking and start doing things like helping others in need, reading to their children and many other sorts of things that are best appreciated by doing them rather than discussing them.

  7. Karl says:

    I agree that real meaning of life is not ultimately found in the words that describe/discuss/debate what individuals can or should value about human experience.

    Ultimate meaning of even the words that describe/discuss/debate what individual can or should value about human experience are tied directly to both being and doing.

    What brings about wars on this planet? Its not darwin's struggle of the fittest (unless you totally prefer man's inhumanity to man), its the human pride and huberis that makes one collective group push their ideas/leadership upon others, for their own advantage and to the misfortune of others.

    What brings about positive change that makes other people want to truly love their neighbor as themself?

    Nothing that is "physically" human does this, only ones' chosen human ideals, human values and human relationships can do this.

    This is not something that evolution as a physical materialistic concept can interact with in a positive way.

    The struggle and will to survive that supposedly is part of the evolutionary "value" system makes it certain that the only form of "human government" that will survive will always corrupt itself absolutely if given the opportunity to do so.

    Yes, people can "be" as loving as they can be to the significant people that matter most to them, but the truly significant meaning in life comes from ongoing positive relationships with those people that don't matter that much according to your "human value" system.

    Why do I describe/discuss/debate matters with people like "Dan, Jim, Brynn, Erich and Rosa?" Its not because I have something (ideas/knowledge) that they need. They do not need my preferred way of looking at the world.

    I have something to show every person that I disagree with about something on this planet. They have every right to find their individual meaning in life anyway they so choose, but when that meaning conflicts with my worldview, collectivism and human organization will never accomplish anything but warfare of one variety or another.

    Love forgives and covers a multitude of sin (human wrongs). Belittling and berating should be beneath someone who says they take the higher ethical road.

    Those who publically point their fingers at individual specific peoples errors and shortcomings only reveal their own insecurity about themselves.

    However, those collective groups that hold to their rights to impose their ideas/values and will upon others are the reason we still have pirates and crooked politicians in this world.

  8. MikeFitz17 says:

    Erich: I cannot agree more that the Macbeth's soliloquy quoted above is extremely powerful. It is, after all, Shakespeare writing at the top of his game.

    But as a worldview, it means little to me. Macbeth's soliloquy is an existential rant; it represents the words of an emotionally exhausted man on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

    It is in this scene that Macbeth has just learned of the death of his wife, forcing him to realize that his entire world is crashing down around him. Spurred on by his wife, Macbeth has committed a series of ghastly murders in the name of ambition, and now he knows that justice awaits him.

    I disagree with you, though, that the question, "What is the meaning of life" is a question in name only. I believe it is a legitimate question worth pursuing because of the things this question forces us to think hard about — in the same way that running laps around a track and doing push-ups are legitimate physical activities because of what they force our bodies to do.

    And for some of us we simply cannot help asking this question. It's an inherent part of the fact that we are a species of primate with big, convoluted brains equipped to imagine far into the future, as well as to retain and access vast collections of memories.

    In sum, such tools make us realize that our time on this earth is finite and that we owe a debt to past and future generations.

    I'm not saying we should dwell on questions related to life's meaning in a morbid or obsessive manner. Not at all. Life is precious and finite. It is a gift. Enjoy it, I say, especially the small moments, like reading a book to a small child or taking a hike in park or reconnecting with a friend.

    In their own way, these moments provide very rich and satisfying clues to the question of life's meaning.

  9. Jim Razinha says:

    Darn that disconnect in my brain; I wish I could see power in that writing, but I can't. I do however like that last part: "It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing." And I like your last sentence, Erich. Nice summary.

    And Karl,

    I have something to show every person that I disagree with about something on this planet. They have every right to find their individual meaning in life anyway they so choose, but when that meaning conflicts with my worldview, collectivism and human organization will never accomplish anything but warfare of one variety or another.

    Do you really need to tell everyone you disagree with them? I do understand you in one respect, because I know I have to restrain myself at times when I get in a contrary mood. But I certainly can't connect the dots as to how differing from your worldview results in the singular path you prescribe (warfare).

    Oh, and please check your definition of collectivism. The DI writers are about as individual and diverse as I've ever met. I see nothing indicative of collectivism or a collective mindset in what I've read here. If you can point out to me where such is the norm and explain why you think so, I'd like to read (or re-read) the posts/comments to see where you're coming from.

  10. NIklaus Pfirsig says:

    As an existentialist, I find the concept of "the meaning of life" to be a bit absurd. My take on this is that most people seem to have a need to justify their own existence, and to this end, they surmise that existence must have some functional purpose.

    It seems that many people have difficulty understanding my viewpoint. They seem to equate a reason for existing with a reason for living. I have often been asked how I can have a reason for living with out believing in a reason for existence.

    The answer is a simple one. My reason for living is a powerful curiosity, a strong desire to experience anothther moment, another day To me, life is not a journey, but an exploration.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Albert Camus began his book, The Myth of Sisyphus, by asking why one would not commit suicide.

      “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer [the questions of suicide].”

      I found Camus' question to be provocative as a college student, less so now. A philosophy profession once gave me his answer: "Because I find life interesting now. And as long as it is interesting, I won't commit suicide."

  11. MikeFitz17 says:

    Erich and Nicklaus: I am really enjoying this thread. I think we're coming to grips with some interesting ideas. I'd like to add a few more thoughts to this discussion. Here goes:

    Regarding the question, "What is the meaning of life," I right away come up with two different ways to look at it.

    The best-known way is the most grandiose. It is usually a religious idea that is premised on the fulfillment of some type of prophecy or divine plan. The Christian interpretation of the life and death of Jesus is one of the best examples of this viewpoint. Jesus *had* to be born and he *had* to die the way he did in fulfillment of the Scriptures, according to traditional Christian theology.

    Then there is the less grandiose, but no less important, idea that all human beings, regardless of their station, were put on this planet for a reason. Stripped to its baldest form, this is the idea behind feudalism: We are born into this world to serve certain preordained masters.

    I acknowledge there are lots of good reasons, both in terms of logic and evidence, to reject both of these interpretations of life's meaning.

    But those reasons alone are not enough to convince me that questions pertaining to life's meaning are pointless or absurd.

    Indeed, I would argue that the quest for meaning in life is a necessary condition for anything of true scientific, political, cultural, or social value getting done in this world.

    Maybe this quest for finding meaning in one's life is an evolutionary adaptation, a psychological trick of nature that nonetheless enables us to join with others in achieving things that would've otherwise been impossible.

    A few examples:

    Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP's strategy for prevailing in Brown v. Board of Education. Marshall achieved this victory, in part, because he truly felt he was the one whom destiny had picked to win this case and help desegregate America's schools.

    The same goes for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his leadership of the Civil Rights movement. MLK truly believed, according to his own words and his biographers, that he had been chosen by a higher power to make America into a better, fairer, more equal place.

    MLK's leadership of the movement did not emanate from the quest for a more interesting life. Instead, it was about knowingly accepting great hardship and sacrifice, and repeatedly risking his life and the lives of his family members in the service of a great cause.

    If you had told MLK that the question "What is the meaning of life" is pointless and absurd, I wager he would have vehemently disagreed. And for good reason, in view of the shit storms he had to endure to achieve what he did.

    The same goes, I submit, for the people of Libya who are risking their lives daily in the quest for a democratic government, as well as for the hundreds of Libyans who have already died trying to oust a despised dictator.

    And it's just as true for the thousands of public school teachers, firefighters, cops and other public service employees who've been rallying in Madison, Wisc. to defend their rights to union representation.

    I would be the first to acknowledge that the quest for meaning, or a belief in one's personal destiny, can be terribly abused with tragic results.

    Every megalomaniacal tyrant, from Lenin, Stalin and Hitler, to Mao and Pol Pot, and every crazy cult leader, from Jim Jones to David Koresh, has seen himself as an agent of history, or some other higher purpose, as have their followers.

    Nonetheless, the point I am trying to make is this: the quest for meaning in life is a very powerful force — a force that has affected our lives in profound ways too numerous to count.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      MikeFitz: Maybe we're not so far apart. I'm suggesting that we come up short when we try to articulate a "meaning of life," but that our lived-lives can be rich with meaning.

  12. Jim Razinha says:

    Back to my contrast: "meaning of life" and "meaning of a life".

    There is a distinct difference between the two; I contend contemplating the former is pointless. The latter? Subject to interpretation.

Leave a Reply