Thinking of Things, Season1, Episode 10:

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

On the virtue of having a hobby

One should not do anything with another purpose than doing just that. A meaningful reason for writing a book is not to ensure that I make the money I desperately need, or get the attention I desperately crave, or to proliferate an idea I deem incredibly important to the world, but only in order to write that book. The writing then becomes a part of my project of meaningness, a vehicle through which I can challenge my own preconceptions and interact with my surroundings; to bring into existence new aspects of myself. And the success of the book is not measured by how many copies it sells, but by how sincere I have been in engaging with myself and the subject matter of the book during the writing process, and how collusive it has been for my formation and transformation.

“But wait a second”, Me may protest, “then there is a different purpose for writing the book after all: the purpose of self-knowledge and sincerity, and all that. You are not writing the book for the purpose of writing the book at all!” And sure, that is a valid protest, but this purpose is qualitatively different from the secondary purposes of fame or money. The writing offers an opportunity to sincerely engage with myself which would not have existed without it. And the engagement brings into being aspects of my self which would not have existed without the writing of the book. Therein lies the virtue of sincerity with whatever we happen to engage: Through it we bring into existence aspects of ourselves, no longer based on insecurity and conformity. Any sincere engagement may serve the purpose of meaningness. In a sense, meaningness treats people and the world even more instrumental than totalitarian projects, since the latter do not take people seriously, while other people is at the very heart of meaningness.

The world’s shortest existentialist novel: The last two persons alive go for their morning walk. One slips, breaks the neck, and dies. There is no one left.1

Meaningness vs. Happiness2

Albert Camus: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”3

In Episode 5, Me and Notme are discussing happiness, and Notme was vaguely dismissive of the whole concept as being something to strive for. One direct path to happiness is to conform to the roles our cultures provide us with. This is to become a free prisoner (as was described in the last episode). This is the stoic approach and it is the pragmatic approach, and as I showed in Episode 1, there are only three ways to be pragmatic, none of them particularly pragmatic:

We are cynical when we conform to cultural norms despite understanding their uselessness and meaninglessness, for whatever the pursuit is, whether it is for a career, or a family life or whatever else our culture happen to value at the moment. And thus it is insincere. To seek happiness tends then to manifest in a search for distractions from unhappiness, which manifests in totalitarian projects, projects which may end once we become happy.

To seek happiness takes one away from meaningness. On the other hand, it may very well be the case that happiness can come as a consequence of one’s attempted meaningness. But not always and not immediately, since meaningness is found outside of the comfort zones we have built for ourselves, outside of the habitual and culturally learned, and therefore it can often be uncomfortable and even painful. No, meaningness is not a direct path towards happiness, but it is a path towards personhood, towards sincere living, and a path towards real interhuman interactions away from the instrumental thingification which turns Eachother–and us–into Others.

A few examples

In terms of ethics, meaningness is the polar opposite of many ethical systems, e.g. utilitarianism. According to utilitarianism, everything you do should be as a means to an end: to increase the world’s total happiness or good, and reduce the total pain. Utilitarianism does not allow for engaging sincerely with anything, which makes it impossible as a value system of interhuman growth.

Forgiveness has no purpose among Eachother. Someone with which one engages sincerely does not need to be forgiven their violations. Either they are aware of the fault of their behaviour and engages sincerely with themselves and you in order to transform, or they do not. Forgiveness is redundant in either case. You only need to forgive those with whom you interact but do not engage sincerely. Forgiveness is then an acknowledgement of faults in Others acceptable for carrying on the terms of the interactions, whether it be among colleagues, relatives, or other acquaintances with which one interacts on a regular basis without sincere engagements. Similarly, politeness only serve a purpose between strangers, and can act distancing. Forgiveness and politeness are only applicable in the realm of insincere or unengaged interactions.

Capitalism is based on insincerity at every level. Money is supposed to be the incentive for every action, which means that there are no actions left with their own purpose. On the other hand: Money is not itself its own purpose, but only valued by what else it can buy, so not even what is supposed to be the motivation for our actions is valued in itself, and there is no sincerity left in a capitalist world.

On work: If an employer wants to get her employees to work better and harder for whatever reason, she can give them incentives. Which incentives should she implement? The real management question is not “which incentives?”, that is a question loaded with the fallacious assumptions that there are good incentives and all we need to do is to find them. All incentives detract from meaningness and detach us from our tasks. Many politicians in power claim that jobs create meaning and purpose to our lives, yet they put in place systems, such as New Public Management, which undermine our engagement with our work, and thereby meaningness itself.

I may start a family for many reasons. Maybe people frown upon me for not conforming to the family norm and I yield to the social pressure. I may have found a partner who I think makes me look good in the eyes of others, or a partner whose genes I think will match mine well, so that I can reproduce in an (unconscious or aware) act of genetic narcissism, or so that I can be a valid member of society. Or maybe I am afraid of growing old alone and hope that my family will take care of me when I do. In these cases we do not treat people as people. We even create new people as means to insecuritydriven culturally motivated ends. We do not treat our partner as a fellow human being, but as the role of husband or wife, and thereby we treat ourselves as conforming to respective cultural role.

In a sense all projects, totalitarian or not, of meaningness or none, are about being in a context larger than oneself. That is what is so great about personhood: it is infinite (to all practical purposes). Any other person is greater than me, and so am I. This means that to engage deeply and sincerely with someone else is to be in a context larger than myself. And there are only so many people in life with whom we can engage so deeply, since we are limited in space and time. As such, life-partners and family, treated as human beings, can be the most meaningful thing there is. Of course, deep and sincere connections may also be found aplenty outside such limited cultural norms as “the family”. This is but one example where a cultural norm may either be rejected or integrated in someones’ personal project of meaningness.

Another example: Education is often portrayed as a way for the lower classes to gain access to the privileges of the higher classes. Thereby, people become doubly disadvantaged, since not only do they have an under-privileged starting point, they are also denied getting an education for its own sake–they are denied being sincerely engaged with their own education and transformation.

Question: Are there situations where instrumentalism and insincerity is warranted? Where politeness rather than sincere engagements between human beings is preferable? E.g. is it OK to treat a hairdresser as a means to the end of getting my hair cut? Or am I then compromising someone’s personhood, and in so doing, my own?

Next page: The Meaningness of Death

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”