Thinking of Things, Season1, Episode 10:

http://www.thinkingofthings.com/blog/meaningnessoflife/

The Meaningness of Life
Towards a sincere being.

Immanuel Kant: Always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as means to your end.”

This season has been about meaning, and it has been about formations and transformations and how these are connected. And it has been about meaningness, discussed in many and roundabout ways without spelling out what it is. It is time to concretise what is meant by meaningness, as well as to summarise the season.

Thinking Of Things is a way for me to investigate ideas and to spark conversations with those who read, and those who don’t. As such it has been a succesful season, with many conversations in person, email, comments on the posts, and on social media. For the purpose of a line of thought is not its conclusion. The purpose is the line of thought itself, and that it may not end. The word conclusion is a misnomer in this sense; to conclude signifies an end, while in reality it signifies a continuation, a new beginning. A reached conclusion is boring and meaningless without the follow-up question: so what? And thus, with your help, we continue our line of thought together. This is the concluding episode of the season.

I want to express my gratitude towards Notme. I have written this season during one of the most transformative periods of my life, so much so that the conclusions of some episodes changed into their polar-opposites during the writing process. Hence the two voices, one from before called “Me” and one in the process of transformation called “Notme”. Notme has been the voice of a plethora of people at different levels of closeness against whom I have wielded my arrogance and preconceptions. Voices which have been, and still are, absolutely necessary for my ongoing transformation as a human being. In this sense, this season has been endowed with a meta-level.

A piece of knowledge which I have gained during this process is the realisation how deeply influenced I am by the historical context in which I find myself, a context by the name of modernity.1

Modernity will be the focus of Season 2, but for now I need the concept of the project, which is an integral part of modernity. Modernity is a period characterised by the competition and interdependence of different projects, such as capitalism, nation states, science, emperialism, and the humanist project. A project encapsulates and combines the concepts of transformations and the notion that change is progress. The heart of what Notme, and now I, call meaningness lies in the project. As we shall see there are different kinds of projects and not all contains meaningness.

This episode contains two main threads: firstly to summarise the season so far, in order to then try to understand and explain meaningness.There is absolutely no need to read the previous episodes in order to follow this one; this episode is self contained. Tthis season merely tracks my path to these insights, which is but one path amongst many. Your’s is a different path. The fact that I link to previous episodes throughout this post should be seen as nothing more than a mere courtesy. 

Three definitions of the word meaning were discussed in the first three episodes:

1. Cosmic Meaning
Cosmic meaning2, is the significance events have on a cosmic or metaphysical level and it was dismissed as irrelevant. Whether there is a cosmic significance to my being in the world, or whatever happens to me, can have absolutely no bearing on my life. God or no God, cosmic plan or not, destiny, fate, determinism or whatever, in the end it is up to me to live my life, make my own decisions and interact with my surroundings and fellow creatures how I see fit. I am not calling myself neither a theist nor an atheist, since God’s existence is irrelevant. To not acknowledge God’s importance is also a strategy to subvert its power over me: Power needs recognition to exist and by not recognising cosmic meaning as important in my life I subvert it. The dismissal of cosmic meaning is an inherent part of modernity.

2. Meaning of stuff
The meaning of stuff3, on the other hand, is quite significant to how I perceive the world. We are biological and social creatures, and our perception of the world, both physical and abstract, depends on our biology and social context. This decides the way we categorise our surroundings, turning stuff into separate items. The way we differentiate between rocks, pebbles, and boulders; between milk, yogurt, butter, and cream; between men, dolls, boys, women, girls, trees, bushes, statues, statutes, rules, institutions, circles, and rectangles.

These categories are learnt and we learn them during our cultural upbringing, and we learn not only to discern and categorise, to create taxonomies, but also how to feel about each category, how to understand each and all of them. These categories and their attached emotion are what form a cultural prejudice and the set of them all is what forms a cultural world view. The deconstruction of cultural categories is inherent in a part of modernity often called the postmodern4, and is to some extent a part of what constitutes meaningness.

3. Meaningness
Now to meaningness5. And the project. Simone de Beauvoir tells a story as an example of a life-project in the essay Pyrrhus & Cineas. It is a story of the Greek general, and later king, Pyrrhus of Epirus (319-272 BC) and one alleged conversation he had with his friend and adviser Cineas while planning a military campaign. It goes something like this:

Pyrrhus: “First we conquer Greece.”
Cineas: “And then what?”
Pyrrhus: “Then we take over Africa.”
Cineas: “And then what?”
Pyrrhus: “Then we go to Asia and conquer Asia Minor, Arabia”
Cineas: “And then what?”
Pyrrhus: “Then we go all the way to India.”
Cineas: “And then what?”
Pyrrhus: “Oh, then I rest.”
Cineas: “But why, then, don’t you rest now?”6

What Pyrrhus is about to embark upon stands as an example of a project, a personal project of world dominance–but is it also an example of meaningness?

The film-maker Woody Allen recently described the reason for his own project:
Woody Allen: “If I don’t solve it, it’s going to be a bad movie but I won’t die. That’s why I do it. I distract myself… making movies is a wonderful distraction. I’m not thinking about my death, the decaying of my body, that I will be old one day in a very distant future.”7

Is this a description of meaningness?

My answer to both these questions is no. What both these projects acknowledge is that life is ultimately meaningless, in the sense that it lacks cosmic meaning. Therefore, these projects only serve the purpose of distraction from an otherwise meaningless existence. This attitude fails to take into account how insignificant cosmic meaning is. As Cineas points out, the aim of this kind of project is to end it–so why even embark upon it? Why not rest now? As will be clear soon, this is part of the reason for these projects not being projects of meaningness.

A project of meaningness is not a means to an end. It can never be completed. A project whose whole purpose is to end itself and make itself redundant, such as conquering the world, eradicate evil, scientifically explain everything, own everything, create a utopia, are all the opposite of meaningness. Such projects I choose to call totalitarian. (The utopian projects are a sub-category to these.) Examples of totalitarian projects are neo-liberalism, a scientific theory of everything as well as some forms of Marxism. Any utopian striving for an ideal or perfection becomes totalitarian. These are the projects driven by insecurity and they are the opposite of meaningness.

As will become clear, meaningness is found in another kind of project, the project which is its own reason for being. The project of sincerity. By being sincere, one is doing what one is doing for the purpose of doing just that, and not for any other reason. There is no higher purpose, no worthy sacrifices, just that what one does. It may seem vague, but as we will see, the project of meaningness is specific and concrete.

Next page: The project of Meaningness

Page 1: “Introduction”
Page 2: “The project of Meaningness”, “The Other and Eachother”
Page 3: “We are biological and social creatures, Meaningness is political”
Page 4: “On the virtue of having a hobby, Meaningness vs. Happiness, A few examples”
Page 5: “The Meaningness of Death”