Were you to ask this question to a professional philosopher, they’d probably scoff, because answering such questions isn’t really what professional philosophers do. (Professional philosophers mostly argue among themselves at conferences and across publications about linguistic and conceptual distinctions and interpretations they’ve drawn. Sometimes this can be interesting to people outside the conversation, but usually it isn’t. [Sorry, but, well, it isn’t and that’s okay.])
I don’t know why other philosophers got into the study of philosophy, because for me it was exactly questions of meaning that drew me in. Even though these questions have become philosophical clichés, that doesn’t mean they don’t matter. The question of “What is true?” genuinely haunts me on a daily basis, and as much of a devoted Foucaultian as I am and as swayed by Wittgenstein as I am, I still naively believe there’s a satisfactory answer to this question that has nothing to do with an episteme or a socio-historical cultural context or a game.
Of course, I’m also convinced the answer to this question can never be articulated or argued for — once you reach true understanding, I imagine you don’t feel compelled to write a tell-all.
The meaning of life is a question that still baffles me, too, because, like I want there to be truth, I want there to be answer where I also know there isn’t and can’t be one.
The easiest response to this is to laugh at my naivety or to provide the rather trite, “you find your own meaning” or to spout me quotations about love and charity and unity and inner peace. I don’t understand why I have this desire for meaning, but the thing is, I’m not alone in wanting it.
If you go back in history and look at the philosophical writings that have become canon, you likely won’t find this question expressly asked or expressly answered, but you can read it between the lines of other metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical musings.
I’ve always assumed the question of the meaning of life is really the question: what is the purpose of life? Or what is important about life? Or what makes life worth living? How should you live your life? What are we to do with our funny little human existence?
From your Philosophy 101 class, you can come up with answers: Plato might answer something along the lines of contemplating the true knowledge the Forms. Aristotle might tell you it is to become the Eudaimon man—to do all the human ends and do them well, to be physically ideal, to have a virtuous character living in moderation, to have the right kind of friendships, to exercise practical and rational thinking. (One of the best things Aristotle wrote was that all of this requires a stroke of luck. And if you weren’t born in Athens, well, tough shit.) Mill might say the meaning of life is to maximize the happiness of the most number of people.
The meaning of life might be exercising freedom; it might be seeking to rid yourself of freedom; it might be finding certainty through rational thinking; it might be finding probabilistic certainty through scientific experiment; it might be achieving nirvana; it might be the atman working out its karma. The point is that inasmuch as philosophers discuss human life, they have asked these questions and attempted to come up with answers.
But something about philosophy has always bothered me, and that is the way we separate a philosopher from their work. Did Mill actually live his life in accordance with the Greatest Happiness Principle? Did Kant adhere to the Categorical Imperative? (Actually, if anyone did, it was probably Kant.) Maybe Aristotle was an asshole of extreme proportions. Maybe Leibniz didn’t actually think it was the best of all possible worlds. The story goes that Sartre admitted to never feeling the existential angst he wrote about.
But what is the point of theorizing about ideals if you don’t live in accordance with them?
Enter Rustin Cohle.
Rustin Cohle is a fictional character, played by Matthew McConaughey on the HBO series True Detective.
From this speech in the first episode he had me:
I’d consider myself a realist, alright? But in philosophical terms I’m what’s called a pessimist. I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, a secretion of sensory experience and feeling programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody’s nobody. I think the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming; stop reproducing; walk hand-in-hand into extinction. One last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.
His view of humanity is one that I’m sure many find bleak, but it all resonates with me and I buy his claim of realism. I won’t quote him anymore here to save space. His point is that we are biological bodies with the cognitive ability to convince ourselves that we are something special, not just as a species but (particularly in the West) as individuals, when really at the bottom of everything there is nothing special or fundamentally distinguishable about anything. That we can ask the question of our own existence is mostly just a cool party trick. (Sorry, Heidegger.) It’s all just energy underneath.
Things like this are so easy to say, and many others have said this in different ways, but the interesting thing about the character of Rust is that there are times when it seems like he is actually living his life with the awareness of being nobody but a biological puppet, instead of it being an abstract idea he acknowledges over a cigarette in a cafe like Jean-Paul Sartre.
And whatever Sartre did with his life is fine, of course, I have no means to make a value judgment, but did he actually live with the responsibility of radical freedom? Based on anecdote, it doesn’t seem like it. And this is exactly what I don’t want to do.
I have a tendency to think much further outside myself than most people do. I don’t mean that I naturally think of others in a magnanimous way, because I don’t. I mean that I think in terms of institutions and epistemic frameworks and historical context all the time. I ask myself “why am I doing this?” constantly, and I can assure you it never gets me anywhere good. The answer to any “why” question is almost always a justification. (On a very fundamental level, Hume taught us this.)
One of the few things I do believe in is an indifferent universe. I believe in neither fate nor free will. I think we’re largely stuck inside social/historical/cultural mechanisms far greater than us, including politics, religion, pop culture, identity politics, economics, all the way down to “the shackles of languages and measurable time.” And for reasons I don’t understand, I see this limitation as a bad thing without any mechanism to evaluate it as bad other than my gut.
My only real goal in life is to live in accordance with what I believe in my gut.
But when you believe in nothing you can articulate, what happens is that you go through the motions and live according to standards that are even more arbitrary than ones set by religious creeds and social customs and legal limitations, because you can’t ground them in God or truth or right.
How do you live like you are nothing when you get told that you are something and that you matter, even though you know you don’t?
The interesting thing about Rust is that he doesn’t always live in accordance with his nihilism either. He is just as much an un-self-aware hypocrite as me and anyone else. He still lives with a very strong sense of it being wrong to take a human life without having a systematic morality, and it’s that belief that drives him as a detective.
And I get it. The thing about being someone like me and Rust is that we need some kind of work to obsess over, else we start to lose it and distract ourselves doing things that are destructive.
This will only make sense if you have seen True Detective, but I’m essentially one personal tragedy, two packs of Camel Lights, and a six pack of Old Milwaukee away from being Rustin Cohle in 2012.
My obsession seems to be trying to figure out a meaning to my life that doesn’t exist (and it obviously has been since I started studying the philosophical canon), and this might just be what will occupy me until until I find my case to solve. Until I find some kind of context I can live with.
Most people think about the meaning of life in terms of a purpose or mission—to do good works, to form fulfilling relationships with others. But this doesn’t seem to work for me, because it isn’t mentally fulfilling enough to make me stop thinking about how human life and everything man has created is just one big, tedious distraction with nothing behind it. Because I want there to be something behind it even though I know there isn’t.
There are things I think I want sometimes, human things other people have that seem nice from the outside—a family, a career, hell, even a dog—but I know I’ll never have them because they go against my own “nature,” as it were. (Entfremdung. Alienation. Marx told us this.)
The question always remains for me, then, how am I to live with a version of truth or meaning that satisfies me? How do I live when I see how I live and I know it’s bullshit? How do I live a meaningless life? How do I obsess over something else? How do I become Rustin Cohle?
 There is a lot of philosophical name-dropping in this. Sorry. My point is to show that philosophers have cared about the meaning of life in their work regardless of the question’s triteness.
 That’s a Bright Eyes’ lyric (from “Land Locked Blues”) that has always stuck with me.
 Blink or you’ll miss it Simon & Garfunkel reference there.