An Existentialist Meaning Of Life Essay, Research Paper
Arguably one of the most pondered questions in philosophical thought has been, “What is the meaning of life?” Humans have been put on this earth with the knowledge of self awareness and the ability to manipulate the environments that they inhabit to a greater extent than any other species on the planet. Ultimately one must wonder what purpose there is to one’s own existence and define what it means for them to be. Presupposing the existence of different human beings in the external world, there would undoubtedly be varying opinions regarding the ultimate purpose of existence. Several key thinkers in modern existentialism provide the necessary framework for establishing a so-called “meaning of life”. Marcel, Sartre, Heidegger and Camus, refer to the theoretical frameworks of subjectivity, freedom, responsibility and purpose, in modern existentialism. With reference to the theoretical frameworks, established by these reputable thinkers, one could propose an answer to the age old question, “What is the meaning of life?”. That being, the meaning of life is “to live a good a good life”.
The existence of the external world and other human beings:
Perhaps Descartes made the most powerful argument in the form of the Cogito, when he stated, “I think therefore I am.” Historically, the certainty of the external world has been called into question, at various times, in philosophical thought. The whole Platonic tradition is one such example. Camus carries this notion a step further by saying, “This heart within me I can feel, and judge that it exist. This world I can touch, and likewise I judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction.” (Camus, pg. 19) Sartre elaborates on this point claiming, “Contrary to the philosophy of Descartes, contrary to the philosophy of Kant, when we say “I think” we are attaining to ourselves in the presence of the other, and we are just as certain of the other as we are of ourselves.” (Sartre, pg. 45) Even if one were to accept Descartes evil genius hypothesis, they would still have to admit that beings in the outside world still affect them. Regardless of whether other human beings are actually “real”or not is irrelevant, since we would still have to treat them as such. The consequences of not doing so would inevitably be similar one way or the other. For example, if I decided to go about shooting everyone at random, claiming that I am the only real human being on the planet, I would inevitably be thrown in a psychiatric prison. Besides, existentialists would not waste their intellectual efforts arguing about the existence of the external world, and beings of comparable consciousness to one’s self, in it. Although this was a central question in philosophy for some time, it is now generally regarded as nonsense. (Madison, Sept. 17, 1998)
The notion of subjectivity:
It is, “logically impossible to deny one’s own existence as a subject.” (Madison, Dec. 2, 1998) There exists the idea in our reality that every individual person is different. Although we may have similar emotions and undergo the same physical processes, we assume that no two people are exactly alike. If this is the case, we can assume that there will be minute differences in the way individuals perceive certain stimuli. Therefore their reaction to that stimuli, whatever it may be, will be different than that of another’s. Sartre claims, “…every truth and every action imply both a human environment and a human subjectivity.” (Sartre, pg. 24) Subjectivity is a key concept in existentialist thought. Heidegger claims that, “the very essence of man is subjectivity.” (Heidegger, pg. 133) Although a key notion in existentialism, this idea has existed for ages, being aptly illustrated in the ancient tradition, as the doctrine of Protagorean relativism. We cannot come to know anything about ourselves, “except through the mediation of another.” (Sartre, pg. 45) This is to say that external observation is required for knowledge. He goes on to say, “Thus we find ourselves in a world which is, let us say that, of inter-subjectivity.” (Sartre, pg. 45) People exist in a world with others perceiving different objective events. (Sartre, pg. 46) “ Man is indeed a project which possess a subjective life” (Sartre, pg. 28) One could logically argue from this, that experiencing different events, will further establish a general difference among individuals, making every human being unique. From this uniqueness, one can conclude that different people will have different ideas about the meaning of existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself….and this is what people call it’s subjectivity…”, (Sartre, pg. 28)
The importance of freedom:
Another key notion in modern existentialism is that of freedom. Gadamer refers to it as the highest principle that humans can strive for. (Madison, Dec. 3, 1998) Heidegger, Marcel, Sartre and Camus all agree that individual persons should not be subjected unnecessarily to the will of other’s that is subjectively considered to be highly undesirable. Slavery and torture are extreme examples, of things that should be considered highly undesirable afflictions, brought on by the will of others. Freedom can best be explained by everything that it is not. (Madison, Sept. 24, 1998) Gabriel Marcel asks the question, “What is a free man?”. (Marcel, pg. 13) The natural tendency is to consider anyone who lives in a so-called “free country” to be free. (Marcel, pg. 17) Marcel would claim many things exist in society that call into question the freedom of human beings. One such example is the notion that we are slaves to technology. (Marcel, pg. 21) For example, people can’t even do math nowadays without the aid of a calculator. (Madison, Sept. 24, 1998) This is the other extreme example of freedom which allows us to ponder it’s nature and limits. If freedom is defined as doing exactly what one pleases, then there would not exist true freedom in our established society. More generally speaking, under this notion, no single person would be considered free. For example, is not possible for anyone to be free from hunger, thirst and ultimately death. We all have to live in a world where we have some means of income to survive. We can’t be free from that unless we reject society and go live off in the middle of nowhere. Even in that case we wouldn’t be free from the wrath of mother nature. The entire concept of freedom is subject to each individuals interpretation of it. However at least one point can made about it. As humans strive for freedom, they must actively assert it. Freedom exists in action, even if it is just as simple as stating it. (Marcel, pg. 22) Consider the following analogy as an explanation to this point. Take the case of a slave who believes that he has probable cause for thinking that he has more freedom than his master. Presuppose that he is given adequate sustenance, as well as shelter, and is not subjected to any sort of violence. His only task is that he is required to clean the house on a daily basis. If he works as hard and as fast as he possibly can, he can usually do the job in two hours. As a reward for doing so, he is given enough money to actively pursue his own interests, to the extent that he desires. His master, on the other hand, must work eight to ten hours, on average, per day, to ensure that he enjoys the same basic benefits as the slave as well as others. However, these other benefits are fairly time consuming and cannot be pursued due to the master’s level of fatigue and previous time commitments. Although the master has control over the slave in this case, who really has more freedom in the end? Freedom in it’s most purest sense is only an ideal that may not be entirely practical in our reality. Just consider the previous example, from subjectivity, about shooting people at random. It is important to have some level of freedom, but to what extent? At some point a balance between pure freedom and it’s opposite must be achieved according to one’s own subjective state.
The idea of responsibility
If everyone was entirely free to what they pleased, there would be no society and complete anarchy would result. This would not be good for the human condition for several reasons. Life spans would decrease, disease and misery would be rampant and undoubtedly those concerned with usurping power would dominate. Thus, freedom must be balanced by the concept of responsibility. We are only alive for a relatively short time, this much we know and must assume responsibility for our own existence. (Camus pg. 66) Human beings must be responsible for choosing the freedom of others as well as their own. (Sartre, pg. 29) Sartre explicitly reiterates this point later stating, “I am obliged to will the liberty of others at the same time as mine.” (Sartre, pg. 52) Although human greed may cloud responsibility, it is still necessary to keep the notion of freedom in perspective. “The principle characteristic of being responsible is this starting something on it’s way into arrival.” (Heidegger, pg. 9) Responsibility can help to ensure that everyone has the freedom to give their lives meaning. Responsibility must be active since, “The four ways of being responsible bring something into appearance. They let it come forth into presencing. (Heidegger, pg. 9)
The quest for purpose:
“Assured of his temporally limited freedom..and of his moral consciousness, he lives out his adventure within the span of his lifetime.” (Camus, pg. 66) By first balancing freedom and responsibility, one can establish purpose and more closely define what it subjectively means to live a good life. Although the exact details of each individual’s purpose may be different, the ends are essentially the same. Everyone should strive to ensure that they live a good life and take efforts to ensure that other individuals do the same.
What is “good”:
“Human’s by nature desire the good”. (Republic VI, 505e) Even though the exact definition of the good may differ depending on one’s own subjectivity, it can generally be explained in that, people try to maximize the amount of good things in their life as opposed to bad. The good has an inherent ability to cause happiness. This can be illustrated in any number of ways. Little argument would be made to the fact, that if I were to win the lottery today, it would be perceived as a good event and would make me very happy. It’s important to know that good things causing happiness are subjective. A slave who is given a light workload will perceive that as a good event and that would make them happy. It’s also important to note that there is a temporal sense to the good. For example, if I were to miss the bus, I would immediately perceive this as bad. However, if I learned that this bus later crashed and everyone was killed, I would then perceive my missing the bus as good. In a more extreme example, a serial killer who gets pleasure out of strangling young women to death and videotaping it, would perceive such an occurance as good. This further emphasizes that the good is highly subjective, depending on one’s own point of view. Logically, nobody would ever wish for bad things to happen to them. For example, the serial killer would probably not want to be in the place of the young woman he is strangling to death at the time. In the temporal sense, he may consider what he did as bad, when he is later sentenced to death for his actions.
It logically follows that the “good” can be said to be whatever an individual perceives as being positive. Although Sisyphus was condemned to roll a stone up a hill for the rest of his life by the Gods, one could only imagine that he was compelled to do this. (Camus, pg. 122) If he gained extreme pleasure from doing this, was he not living a good life, by his own subjective standards? He was free to pursue rolling the stone up the hill and probably didn’t hurt anyone while doing it. If he had no conscious control of his body, then this would be a different story, since he obviously didn’t will to perform this task. In such a case, Camus would be wrong in his assertion that, “we must imagine Sisyphus happy.” (Camus, pg. 123)
What it means to live:
Living is dynamic, being is an active state. (Heidegger, pg. 3) The element of action is central here. (Madison, Dec. 3, 1998) In order live one must actively do something. Camus introduces the notion of quantity into living when he states, “I must say that what counts is not the best living, but the most living.” (Camus, pg. 60) From this it may follow that one must make an active attempt to experience the world around them and actively assert their freedom, being responsible enough to assert that of others as well. He would undoubtedly agree that one cannot sit on the couch, smoke pot all day, and call that living. Under what has generally been established already, this would seem to be highly logical. However, there is a strong objection that could be raised to this argument. Perhaps certain people will not want to experience all life has to offer. Ultimately they may be happy to sit on the couch and smoke pot. Yet it must be noted that they ultimately are infringing on the freedom of those who must pay taxes to support their welfare and drug habits. These people are not acting in a responsible manner to assert the freedom of others by being productive members of society. But consider the following scenario. There exists two people with identical jobs who responsibly contribute to society. All other things being equal, is the one who sits at home watching television, living just as much as one who actively volunteers their time to help others, travels, tries different things and experiences all life has to offer? The answer is ultimately no. Although, one may be content to dedicate one’s life to a single purpose that makes them happy, they cannot claim to have lived more than another with a greater variety of experiences. However one must note that the meaning of life is not simply “to live” or “to live life to it’s fullest potential”. One must seek out the good in the process through their own subjectivity. Therefore the earlier explanation that includes, one must attempt to actively experience the world around them asserting their own freedom, with the responsibility to assert the freedom of others as well, must be footnoted with, in a manner that makes them happy.
The Teleological goal of technology and the question of God:
Technology is a huge aspect of our everyday lives. It is impossible to imagine our lives without technology, since without it, we’d still be living in caves. Technology has many positive aspects to it. It can be used to educate, heal and help. But the fact of the matter is that it can also be used to degrade, hurt and hinder. Basically, for every positive technological application, there can be said to be a negative one. Nothing is inherently evil in many types of technologies. The only exception to this might be weapons technology. Although, one may argue that it can be used to defend, it still has only negative consequences. However, if technology is only used responsibly, then problems will inevitably be kept to a minimum. It would be reasonable to note that humanity has increased it’s technological ability over time and will undoubtedly continue to do so. Technology has enabled humanity to control it’s environment to a progressively greater extent which seems to be it’s main purpose. (Madison, Oct. 1, 1998) In essence it could be said that technology gives us freedom from our own human limitations. It would not be difficult to rationalize that increasing the amount of technology in the world will progressively enable humanity to have greater and greater control over the environment and ultimately the universe.
Although humanity may never prove or disprove the existence of God, his presence still affects much of our thinking. “For in the presence of God there is less a problem of freedom than a problem of evil.” (Camus, pg. 56) The existence of God has been called into question citing the problem of evil. If God exists, then how could he let bad things happen to good people? Perhaps the following analogy can be used to explain. If one was to walk into We have already proven the existence of the external world and other people in it. From this is follows that human subjectivity exists. Undoubtedly this ability for human subjectivity gives us the capacity to reason and know the difference between the good and the bad. Although, as illustrated previously, this has been shown to be highly subject to one’s own point of view. Now, as each individual has their own differing opinions on the good, it follows that they will actively try to pursue these things to make themselves happy. However, they must be free to do so. In cases where pursuit of their own good, infringes on the freedom of others, these actions must not be carried out. Individuals must be responsible enough to pursue the good, and still try to promote the freedom of others. This whole notion involves action and trying to maximize the number of experiences that one can have in reality. This is accomplished in our modern day society by the use of technology. But the inevitable question arises, what is the teleological purpose to it all? Are we striving to make a Utopia here on earth? Using the example of communist Russia, this would seem to be an unattainable goal. (Madison, Dec. 2, 1998) It may be true that this goal is currently unattainable, but what about fifty thousand years from now? If technology keeps increasing at a geometric rate, will we not one day become God-like in our ability to control our environments? (Madison, Sept. 24, 1998) Perhaps this is the ultimate teleological purpose for our existence, to one day become an equal companion for God through technology. Perhaps when God wanted us to become God-like when he created us and our ever progressing evolution will inevitably cause us to end up that way. The teleological purpose of existence is largely unknown. Perhaps this is a suitable explanation.
Objections and Conclusion:
This definition may be too broad and not focused enough for many people to accept. This reflects the obsession with exact objective definitions of phenomena in our society. (Madison, Oct. 29, 1998) This is ridiculous considering a central aim in philosophy is to try and establish certain broad-based universal principles. (Madison, Dec. 3, 1998) There will probably never be an answer to the question that will adequately satisfy everyone. This is a result of the fact that each individual has their own subjectivity to consider when defining their own meaning of life. In the end, perhaps Gorgias was correct when he said, “it cannot be known”. (Madison, Nov. 5/98) Although this answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” may raise many objections, it gives a starting point to consider.
Once it has been firmly established that humans exist in the external world, it is necessary to note that each has a subjective reality. “To exist, is to exist in a world.” (Madison, Sept. 17, 1998) From this, it follows that each individuals subjective reality should not be subject to any unnecessary affliction brought on by the will of another. People must act in a responsible manner to ensure that their own freedom does not hinder the freedom of others. Once these guidelines have been established, one can establish purpose and realize fulfillment for living a good life. Keeping the previously mentioned factors in mind, humans have a purpose to make the world a better place, through their own actions, so that one day we may realize the divine ideal.
Camus, Albert (1991) The Myth of Sisyphus and other essays New York: Vintage International
Heidegger, Martin (1977) The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays Toronto: Harper and Row Publishers.
Marcel, Gabriel (1962) Man Against Mass Society Chicago: Regnery Gateway inc.
Plato Republic Book VI: 505 e
Sartre, Jean-Paul (1997) Existentialism and Humanism London: Random house UK ltd.
Madison (1998) Philosophy 4EE3: Term 1 Class Lecture Notes McMaster University
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