Philosophy in a Meaningless Life

There is a contemporary turn taking place in attitudes about nihilism. Previous to the publication of my book Laughing at Nothing: Humor as a Response to Nihilism in 2003, it was unusual to find scholars arguing that nihilism is anything other than a bad thing. Traditionally, nihilism has been treated as a problem in need of a solution; something to be solved and “overcome.” Laughing at Nothing broke that mold, arguing for a humorous response to nihilism that involves the possibility of “nihilistic progress”: a vain, unending but positive aspiration toward superlative goals. At the time of its publication, Alena Dvorakova, writing in the British Journal of Aesthetics, criticized my position as one that was distinctively American; the implication being that Americans are somehow unique in their superficial optimism. Today, however, as attitudes have changed, it is no longer only superficial Americans who embrace and endorse nihilism. Nihilism has become an increasingly popular philosophy all over the world.

One of the recent British advocates of nihilism is James Tartaglia, whose book Philosophy in a Meaningless Life: A System of Nihilism, Consciousness and Reality, proposes a systematic account of how philosophy itself can be reinvigorated by embracing life’s meaninglessness. Argumentatively sophisticated, quirky, and often times very funny, Tartaglia’s book is a noteworthy addition to the growing body of literature that characterizes nihilism as something that may act as a stimulus to the active and ongoing pursuit of philosophical thought.

Tartaglia contends that the one issue uniting practical and theoretical branches of philosophy is the question of life’s meaning. It is, he writes, “the keystone of philosophy,” (p. 7) giving special ethical weight to issues that would otherwise be of mere speculative interest.  This question, however, has come to be seen as something of an embarrassment in contemporary circles – especially in analytic philosophical debates where it has largely been dismissed as unscientific and associated with religion. When it is addressed, it is often treated as a social issue, involving the identification of particular goals or purposes that make particular human lives meaningful, rather than as a philosophical issue, addressing the ultimate purpose of human life in general. In his book, Tartaglia wants to refocus attention on the philosophical aspects of life’s meaning, and in so doing provide an unequivocal answer to the age-old question, “What is the meaning of life?” The answer, he tells us, is found in nihilism. Life has no ultimate purpose or meaning. But, he insists, this is not such a bad thing.

Tartaglia’s version of nihilism is of a very particular sort. It is related to the ontological condition of enframement. As humans, we live in a world where we must do things and pursue goals, and so we are naturally concerned with determining what sorts of goals and purposes we should pursue in order to make our lives full, valuable and meaningful. The ideals we aspire toward – both individual and social – erect the framework within which any life operates. They mark out the boundaries within which we identify and strive toward the fulfillment of our projects. “Activities can have a purpose within life because of the context provided by the framework,” (p. 48) Tartaglia writes, claiming that meaningfulness itself is, by definition, a function of purposeful, goal directed behavior. You cannot have meaning without some sort of objective that gives context to your activities. If you take away the objective, meaning evaporates.

Nihilism, as Tartaglia conceives it, denies the existence of meaningful final objectives and purposes, and thus it undermines the idea that the projects within human life can themselves be ultimately meaningful in the grand scheme of things. In order for life to be ultimately meaningful, there would have to be some sort of framework of goals toward which all of our worldly life goals are directed and by which they are justified. However, that framework of goals would, in turn need to exist within some sort of larger framework in order for it to be meaningful, and in turn, that larger framework would also have to exist within a greater framework, and so on. It seems to follow, then, that either there is a final contextual framework that itself exists for no meaningful reason, or there is no final meaningful contextual framework at all. In either case, life within the grand scheme of things lacks ultimate purpose, and thus meaning, and there is no final answer to the question of why we pursue our chosen life projects. Reality, when regarded as a whole, ultimately makes no sense and has no justification. It is groundless:

As such, in contemplating the fact of existence, we come to see that the sense we make of our lives must be ultimately groundless, since our actions can hardly have a purpose in the grand scheme of things, if the grand scheme of things has no purpose and is consequently no ‘scheme’ at all. (p. 36)

This is the “truth” of nihilism, according to Tartaglia: “there is nothing that we ever have to do.” (p. 21). This “truth” has over the course of history spawned a variety of “misguided coping strategies” (p. 41) – including religious devotion and existentialism, humanism, relativism and postmodernism – all of which purport to overcome or solve the problem of meaninglessness through various psychological, social or devotional means. However, none of these approaches to life are legitimate according to Tartaglia because as reactions against nihilism they deny what he takes to be a simple fact about reality: human life is ultimately meaningless, and nothing can change that fact. Nihilism, in this way, is not something that can be overcome. It can only be ignored, denied or accepted.

Even if the “truth” of nihilism is accepted, according to Tartaglia, there are no real practical consequences following from it for how we should live our lives. This is why he considers the issue of nihilism, in a practical sense, “boring.” (p. 7) It has no implications other than potentially freeing non-nihilists from their false beliefs and commitments to illusory final aims . The awakened nihilist is free to do whatever he or she pleases, and there are no positive directives or particular rules of conduct that are entailed by its acceptance. Since nihilism was the truth all along, life goes on just as it always did once this truth is understood.

What I have summarized thus far comprises only one aspect of Tartaglia’s argument in Philosophy in a Meaningless Life. To me, it is the most interesting part, although it does not occupy the majority of the book’s pages. The bulk of the work consists of another argument, loosely connected to the first, which defends philosophy as a tradition rooted in the question of the meaning of life and issues related to “transcendence.”

In Chapter 5, Tartaglia proposes “The Transcendent Hypothesis,” which he writes “is the key to the book” (p. 11). This hypothesis suggests that a world of time and space (what Tartaglia calls an “objective” world), is transcended when it is dependent upon another world that exists outside of that time and space. And further, if something outside of time and space exists, it cannot be studied by science, since science studies only the “objective” world within time and space.

Conscious experience, according to Tartaglia, transcends the objective world and thus itself is not part of the world of time and space. He makes heavy use of a dream analogy to establish his point. When we dream, our consciousness presents us with an objective world (a dream world) within which our own minds/brains themselves do not exist, but which depends upon our minds/brains for its objective existence. In this way, the dream world exists within consciousness, and thus consciousness transcends the dream world, exceeding the boundaries of dreamed time and space. This same relationship, Tartaglia suggests, may hold for all objective, time and space bound worlds (and not just dreams), and if it does, then this solves traditional metaphysical puzzles like the mind/body problem. If consciousness is always “outside” of the objective world of time and space, then it has no objective place within that world and so it would be spurious to try and explain causal interactions between physical objects and consciousness. Conscious experience would transcend the objective, physical world.

There are good reasons to believe this is true, according to Tartaglia. For one, to be conscious of an objective world, there must be a consciousness that is somehow orientated toward that world, rising above it in order to objectify and experience it. Experience itself, then, must exceed the objective world. Second, whether we are consciously introspecting on ourselves or perceiving things other than ourselves, experience itself is always direct (p. 120) and instantaneous, suggesting that raw, conscious experience is not bound by time or space. However, consciousness, in its operations, always necessarily processes and misrepresents experience in objective terms, since it is locked into the utilization of concepts like time, space and universals.  In so doing, it creates an objective “picture of reality,” a representational falsification that “we cannot climb out..but we have no reason to want to.” (p. 121) And we should not want to climb out of our falsified picture of reality, according to Tartaglia because “we have no reason to think that the reality outside [consciousness] is any less meaningless than the reality within [consciousness].” (p. 121)

The general line of thought pursued here is very similar to what Kant argues in The Critique of Pure Reason; and even closer to what Schopenhauer argues in The World as Will and Representation (insofar as Tartaglia emphasizes the misrepresentation of reality as well as its ultimate meaninglessness). However, Tartaglia distances himself from Kant, claiming that whereas Kant “prioritizes the mind,” “the transcendent hypothesis prioritizes the objective world.” (p. 119) What he seems to mean is that for Kant representation is ultimately “mental,” while for Tartaglia, representation “need not be construed as mental.” (p. 119) So, in other words, Tartaglia is not committed to any particular claim about the fundamental nature of transcendent reality. It could be comprised of mind, matter, or something else. We can never know since it always transcends any sort of objective characterization.

Although religious thought attempts (illegitimately, according to Tartaglia) to address the nature of transcendent reality, Philosophy is the only discipline that rationally, systematically and thus legitimately concerns itself with transcendence. Since grand, philosophical questions about the nature of reality and the meaning of life are perennial human concerns not adequately addressed by either science or religion, Tartaglia comes to the conclusion that philosophy must remain a uniquely important area of study. While it can offer no final answers, has no practical consequences for life, and promises to discover very little about the true nature of reality, humans should continue to use philosophy in order to feed a natural desire to explore the realm of transcendence in the only way possible.

This second aspect of Tartaglia’s argument is pursued over the course of five chapters that involve some very complicated (and sometimes confusing) digressions into analytic debates about the nature of consciousness, time, space, and universals. In the end his conclusions are, by his own admission, “completely lacking in consequence for nihilism,” (p. 121) which is a topic that is only returned to in the Conclusion. For me, this made it feel almost as if I was reading two separate books: one on nihilism and another on transcendence. Indeed, there is a sense in which these two aspects of Tartaglia’s bok clash with one another, for as he himself suggests, the second argument opens up the possibility that there is a transcendent realm of meaning, and if this is possible then “nihilism might not be true.” (p. 179) Tartaglia dismisses this as a mere “idle possibility,” akin to worrying “how long is a piece of string?” (p. 180) or whether Heidegger’s death was faked (p. 171). However, I think this is an evasion on his part. After all, Tartaglia writes in the Introduction that the question of life’s meaning is in fact among the most important of perennial philosophical questions. To conclude that it is possible life really does have meaning, but that such a possibility is not worth exploring, undermines one of the book’s main theses.

Nonetheless, I tend to agree with most of the particular conclusions that Tartaglia reaches in Philosophy in a Meaningless Life, the majority of which are convincingly and carefully reasoned. The complaints that I have are matters of style and emphasis. First of all, as already noted, although there is a loose connection between the two main arguments presented in the book, to me it seems as if the connection between them is too loose. I picked the book up because I thought it was a work on nihilism, but was a bit disappointed by the detour into transcendence and the heavy emphasis on contemporary analytic philosophy. While Tartaglia does engage with some of the classic continental (or as he puts it “post-Nietzschean”) philosophers like Heidegger and Sartre, he doesn’t engage with any of the contemporary continental thinkers who have recently written on the topic of nihilism. I was eager to read more about nihilism, and to see the author engage more deeply with the contemporary scholarship on the subject.

Second, while I agree with Tartaglia that philosophy is a uniquely important discipline, I also feel as if he has overemphasized the boundaries between philosophy, science and religion. His intent is to to draw hard and fast distinctions between these various approaches to understanding, claiming that they are all fundamentally distinct. Religion is superstitious and irrational. Science studies the objective world. Philosophy studies the world of transcendence. But all of this fails to account for the simple fact that there are such things as the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of science. Philosophy itself, I believe, is most important as a way of thought rather than as a body of knowledge. Philosophy encourages us to raise new questions and speculations, and in so doing, it overlaps with other disciplines, pushing them further and further in their attempts to articulate the Truth. I agree with Tartaglia that there is no final end to the issues that philosophy addresses and that this is not a bad thing since it encourages us to continue using reason to address our orientation toward the world and to take part in a tradition that has produced important art, literature and other cultural artefacts. However I disagree with his claim that philosophy has no effect on religion or on science. We philosophize about both religion and science – as well as art and other topics – in order to develop and hone our understanding of the issues they are concerned with. Without philosophical questioning and speculation, these disciplines would become stagnant.

Finally, while I, like Tartaglia, consider myself to be a nihilist, I am not as confident as he is in the “truth” of nihilism. While he treats nihilism as a mere description of reality, I think of nihilism as something more complicated. It is a philosophical orientation toward the world rather than a final conclusion that is reached through the powers of philosophy itself. Perhaps because he does not engage with the full history of the concept of nihilism, Tartaglia adopts what I think is a rather thin definition of the phenomenon. And while I agree that the issue of human meaning and purpose is an aspect of nihilism, it is not the whole issue. Metaphyisical/ontological nihilism is one kind, but there are also moral, political, epistemological, existential, aesthetic, religious and other forms of nihilism that don’t fit neatly into Tartaglia’s account. Perhaps a more detailed engagement with the history of, and the contemporary commentary on, nihilism (as noted in my first criticism) would help to give more texture and nuance to the first line of the book’s argumentative strategy.

There is a lot more that I could comment on, but that is just an indication of how thought provoking and stimulating a read Philosophy in a Meaningless Life really is. In this book I feel as if I have encountered a kindred spirit with whom I could productively debate the meaning of life for quite some time.