Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Logic of Existential Meaning

“When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.”
- Charles Darwin (1).

Darwin of course was unjustified in his belief; fear seems to be the most universal of emotions both for human beings and the greater animal kingdom. This emotion though is not simply reserved in human life in the struggle for existence; we feel fear and anxiety when we make choices about the direction of our lives. This is our struggle for meaning. The current piece will focus on discourses of and relevant to that struggle and concepts surrounding it. Linking discourses diverse as logic and the Abrahamic religions to find the structure of this struggle.

In ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’ Wittgenstein argued that: “Propositions cannot represent the logical form: this mirrors itself in the propositions” (2).Thus the logic of a symbolism be it language or mathematics cannot be found outside of that symbolism. Because the logic of that symbolism is its very structure, its schema. The “propositional sign cannot be contained in itself” (3) but a “sign determines a logical form only together with its logical syntactic application” (4).

Language is according to Wittgenstein a series of atomic propositions about the world; its symbolism is a picture of the world, of reality and everything that is the case. The truth-argument which a proposition makes is its picture of the world; the truth-value is determined by the ability to provide proofs for the validity of the picture.

Further argument put forward in the Tractatus, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (5), therefore in following this argument so far Wittgenstein conceives a linguistic limit in our understanding of the world. But he further stipulates that “For an answer which cannot be expressed the question too cannot be expressed. The riddle does not exist.”(6) I.e. if you have a question there is an answer, “most questions and propositions of the philosophers result from the fact that we do not understand the logic of our language…And so it is not to be wondered at that the deepest problems are really no problems” (7).

During the second part of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein turns his attention from logical symbolism and the rules by which philosophy must separate sense from senselessness to questions about the meaning of life, ethics and religious mysticism.

“The world and life are one” (8), we would be mistaken if we thought Wittgenstein felt the sense of the world and therefore life was found inside the world and life. That the Schema of the world would be found in the totality of its particulars, this logic would correlate with the rules set out for a logical symbolism. But we cannot gain from Wittgenstein such consistency of logic.

“The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value - and if there were, it would be of no value.” (9)

It is in this sense that Wittgenstein dissolves the question of meaning in life, opting out by two common techniques used in inadequate philosophical systems. Firstly to look for life’s meaning outside of life and in conjunction with or separately neglects the internal logic of the philosophical system to render meaning meaningless. It is with this respect that Wittgenstein has similarities with both the theologian and the absurdist, in strake contrast to his grammatical theory of meaning.

The impulse of the theologian or mystic is to seek otherworldly explanations for worldly questions. Karl Marx famously summarised this impulse as such during the introduction of his “Critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right”:

“Religious suffering is the expression of real suffering and at the same time the protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, as it is the spirit of spiritless condition. It is the opium of the people” (10).

Marx goes further to assert that “abolition of religion as people’s illusory happiness is the demand for their real happiness” (11). According to this view of religion it functions as a mere placebo-worldview, where one finds substitutive satisfaction in sacrificing this world for the sake of the after-world. Sigmund Freud went as far to characterise religion as a mass delusion or social neurosis. “Neurotics” he wrote “create substitutive satisfaction for themselves in their symptoms, but these either create suffering in themselves or become sources of suffering by causing the subjects difficulties in their relations with their surroundings and society” (12). From the angle of aesthetics, whether an individual chooses to engage in such delusion is completely their own choice as western secularisation has largely removed the state’s powers of coercion in such affairs. Recently, with the growth of Pentecostalism though, and other fundamentalist Christian sects, there have been renewed pushes to reclaim those powers for religious application. With the aim of correctly understanding Human life the religious view is a misdirection of analytical focus and thus damaging in our pursuit of answers to our riddles.

In response to this Agnosticism or Atheism is the application of Occam's razor, “if a sign is not necessary then it is meaningless” (13). The existence or non-existence of god is irrelevant from the standpoint of human life. If we engaged in the entertainment of such abstractions we place ourselves on a metaphysical treadmill, ‘what comes before alpha?’ only to redefine alpha and ask the question yet again.

Therefore religious faith offers up no answers for the inquisitive mind. Søren Kierkegaard, a Christian himself, defined faith as absolute belief in the absence of reason on the basis of the absurd. “For he who loves god without faith reflects on himself, while the person who loves god in faith reflects on god” (14). Abraham believed in the absence of all evidence that god would spare his Isaac upon the mount of Moriah. He first sacrificed his critical capacity along with his ethic duty to Isaac and his own emotional bond as father to son. Choosing to follow his duty to god, thus we have the archetype of the religious man. One surely recognises this condition in the modern suicide bomber.

On all grounds the religious impulse is a condition of poverty offering no answers, just resignation to an unseen father figure and a supposedly loving relationship founded upon silence. Leaving behind the road to Damascus we come upon the second failing of Wittgenstein and that of inadequate philosophical systems. This is to deny the logic of a system to render meaning as meaningless. Philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and the absurdists are guilty of this failing.

According to early work of Sartre consciousness is immaterial thus the rules of cause and effect that govern in the material world have its causation chain broken when an individual’s volition is in play. Man is the embodiment of freedom, man chooses his path with a free will and therefore determinism is just an incoherent philosophic attitude of self-deceivers.

The anti-determinism of the existentialist leads to their advocacy of subjectivism. Individuals with their immaterial consciousness interpret objects of the intersujective world and then act upon them. Because human action is subjective there is no objective human nature and no objective meaning thus life is intrinsically meaningless. Subjective meaning is affirmed on life by the action of the individual. Thus man’s existence precedes his essence:

“If indeed existence precedes essence, one will never be able to explain one’s actions by reference to a given and specific human nature: in other words, there is no determinism- man is free, man is freedom” (15). With this in mind the Existentialist declares “I am thus responsible for myself and for all man, and I am creating a certain image of man I would have to be. In fashioning myself I fashion man”.

The existentialist states that because man is responsible for himself (and humanity) he is in anguish. He is in anguish because as soon as he commits to any act he feels the responsibility for himself and humanity. The existentialist does not claim to have moral authority over humanity his subjectivism doesn’t allow objective virtue; he declares “if I regard a certain course of action as good, it is only I who choose to say that it is good and not bad” (16). There is nothing for the existentialist to reference in the process of choosing right or wrong; the choice falls to what he can live with by being responsible for its results on him and humanity.

Humanity during the reign of terror sent alleged royalists to climb the scaffolds. Jean-Paul Marat felt his actions were that of a philanthropist, cutting off five or six hundred heads for the benefit of humanity. In the philosophical system of the Existentialist the moral merits of this action are neither objective nor universal. What Sartre does judge though is whether or not the action is authentic or in bad faith. If one blames others for their own action and denies responsibility that action is inauthentic or done in bad faith.

The Existentialist sees that human condition is that of free commitment. God doesn’t exist therefore humanity is in a state of abandonment with no transcending beings or priori’s to guide us. Sartre commits to the notion of individual freedom as the only human priori but denies that there is any human nature as a priori because there is only a “human universality of condition” (17). This is a sceptical argument like ‘the sun rises every morning but how will we know if it will rise tomorrow’ or in our case ‘Man acts in certain pattens but how do we know he will tomorrow? ” Thus because of the uncertainty of our condition human-beings live not only in anguish but in despair, ‘if I take action in support of a goal, how do I know others will act in support?” This means that despair is the emotion that man feels because he acts without hope. To summarise, the point of Sartre’s existentialism is to give humanity its divinity as its own creator and along with this divinity its responsibility.

There is a certain contradiction in this thought, that of a false objective subjective dichotomy. The actions and experiences of every particular individual never seem to add up to the totality of what is the human experience. If each individual is tied to the concept of existence precedes essence it becomes an objective fact of human experience, not simply a subjective phenomena. The Existentialists are right in saying that man lives in anguish, because we have choices and responsibility for those choices. For whom he is in relation to the external forces. But they are wrong to preclude the idea of an objective meaning of life. If each particular individual’s life is made up of a series of choices about the values to which they affirm and live for then the root purpose of humanity in the objective sense is the struggle for purpose - for our meaning.

Part of this failure by the Sartrean existentialists is that their ontological inquiries were carried out under a kind of bad faith, under the illusion of a particular semi-moralistic theory of authenticity and bad faith. Their conceptualisation of causality in relation to the individual could not touch upon the notion of conditioning or the zone of proximal development because any such thing would negate individual responsibility as part of our nature of being. Individual agency is a component of the human condition but not to the extent envisioned by the French existentialists, death for one is normally a decisive decision but not one we make.

The inevitability of death futures highly in discourses surrounding the notions of human life and it’s meaning. In “At the Gravesite” Kierkegaard likened the nature of death's influence on life to scarcity in economics. If a merchant dumps a shipment of products at sea because the market is already saturated with a high supply it creates an artificial scarcity which increases the price of the remaining product. If we did not die and life was infinite, then life according to Kierkegaard would be of little value. This adds an extra dimension to our anguish because our ability to affirm life and what we consider worthy values is finite and scarce. Camus believed that this was not our first concern; firstly we must concern ourselves with whether or not the value in life is valuable at all.

The first question of a rational person in Camus’s mind was to be or not to be, the question of suicide. He very tactfully at the start of ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ stated his belief that life should be lived and that suicide is absurd in itself, lest some unlucky soul become connived of the correctness of his arguments before fully completing the text. To understand Camus's ideas we must understand he detested being called a “philosopher of the absurd”. Expressing his motivation and in ‘The Enigma’ Camus wrote “Thus one becomes a prophet of the absurd. Yet what did I do expect reason about an idea with I found in the streets of my time?”(18). As one understands now Camus’s work function more as a meditation and open debate then a complete system of thought. He linked ‘absurd reasoning’ with that of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology in that it “declines to explain the world, it wants to be merely a description of actual experience” (19). The Absurd is best characterised as a mood of a nihilistic nature marred by the disunity of universal and particular. This disunity is the same objective (universal)-subjective (particular) dichotomy which rendered life’s meaning in the existentialist systems meaningless.

It was an idea that captivated a generation, but unlike Kierkegaard they found faith deficient, not accepting it as an answer to the question of absurdity. Like Nietzsche who found god dead upon his throne, behind the stone walls of heaven, Camus sought a way beyond the crisis of “our darkness nihilism” (20). If an individual finds absolutely no meaning in life then from some perspectives they should kill themselves. But suicide would be an absurd answer, to choose death is to affirm a value in absolute nihilism and thus commit a self-contradicting act. There is no absolute nihilism as such a thing is non-existent. Equally there is no eternal absolute meaning like that of the Hegelian dialectic in the nature of life which unifies and dictates both objective and subjective meaning - there is no ‘objective’ standard of subjective values such a thing is absurd. Camus true to his inconsistent logic of the absurd chose to ‘rebel’ against the meaninglessness by asserting his own relative value, all of course equally absurd. If we are to judge Camus’s conclusions I’m not sure that we could fault him. His premise was not to explain our nature of being in the objective sense but rather actual experience, though he almost achieves it all the same. From the stand point of understanding our ontological condition as human beings, he shows the absurdity of nihilism while also the inconsistency of eternal abstractions. But Absurdism misses the simple addition of the subjective conditions into its universal commonality of condition, or its mega-structure.

To miss this mega-structure, to find the notion of life’s meaning incomprehensible is to do so upon the notion of its inventible incomprehensibility. In actuality we have a great body of empirical data, the annals of history and our own personal experience with which to answer the question, what is the meaning of life? Its answer is situated within the structure of empirical data; the meaning of life is imbued in the very structure of life. It is the very struggle for purpose and the affirmation of values, whether or not one individual agrees with another’s subjective affirmations is irrelevant from our perspective of ontological investigation, from objective meaning. For our nihilistic mood we shall turn to psychoanalysis for some elucidation. According to the theory of Jacques Lacan during clinical practice the patient supposes a secret knowledge on the analyst. During the processes of analysis the subject starts to ‘de-suppose’ the analyst, realising they have no secret knowledge. Losing faith in their dependency on the analyst they are forced to realise their own unconscious desire to remain dependent on the neurosis. The patient is therefore forced to recognise the place of personal agency in pursuit of mental health. Whatever reservation one has in regards to Lacanian psychoanalysis, the concept helps to illustrate the nature of our question, that there is no secret knowledge, we already know but merely have to assert our agency to resolve the existential crisis and the mood of absurdity. If, of course, that is what we want at all.

Written by Mathew Toll.


1)“The Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin, (Penguin, London 1985), page 129.
2)“Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” by Ludwig Wittgenstein, (Dover, Mineola 1999), proposition 4.121, page 53.
3)Ibid, proposition 3.332, page 42.
4)Ibid, proposition 3.327, page 42.
5)Ibid, proposition 5.6, page 88.
6)Ibid, proposition 6.5, page 107.
7)Ibid, proposition 4.003, page 45.
8)Ibid, proposition 5.621, page 89.
9)Ibid, proposition 6.41, page 105.
10)“Writings of the young Marx on Philosophy and Society” (Anchor Books, Garden City 1969), page 250.
11) Ibid.
12)“Civilization and its Discontents” by Sigmund Freud, (Penguin, Suffolk 2004), page 56.
13)“Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” by Ludwig Wittgenstein, (Dover, Mineola 1999), proposition 3.328, page 42.
14)“Fear and Trembling” by Søren Kierkegaard, (Penguin, St Ives 2003), page 66.
15)“Existentialism is a Humanism” by Jean-Paul Sartre, http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/works/exist/sartre.htm.
18)“Selected Essays & Notebooks” By Albert Camus, (penguin Aylesbury 1979), page 144.
19) “The Myth of Sisyphus” by Albert Camus, (penguin Aylesbury 1983), page 44.
20) “Selected Essays & Notebooks” By Albert Camus, (penguin Aylesbury 1979), page 145.

(written mid 2006).

1 comment:

Mathew Toll said...

When I first wrote this essay I posted it on a number of forums and e-zines, here is a few links that show the response it got: