Updates to my Meaning of Life

There are too many possible things to do in life to come up with a coherent, complete division of time that will forever be satisfying.  I do not think it is helpful, when dealing with more than two variables on a graph, to try to maximize alternative goods. In this context, I want to critique the economics notion of maximizing alternative goods, and instead offer an alternative notion: satisfication.  In Sociological Insight, Randall Collins cites Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon, who explained the real problem that firms go through when they try to find the optimal levels of efficiency.  His conclusion is that “there is no such thing as a pure optimal solution to a situation of great complexity.”  Instead of maximizing, we satisfice. This means that instead of trying to get the most possible productivity, at the lowest possible cost, at the highest possible quality, with the best possible safety record, one instead uses a different criterion.  One would set satisfactory levels for each object, below which one would not accept the outcomes.  I want to apply this concept to personal meaning in life.  We all have numerous obligations, be it classwork, social obligations, work, charity, etc., and if you are like me, you have no way to be sure about how much time to put into each of your activities.

Recently, I struggled with this question when grappling over how much time I ought spend studying French, reading Descartes, Augustine, or other relatively less interesting philosophy for class.  In other words, I grappled over how hard I should work to get slightly better grades.  I tried to put my time now on one axis, and weigh sacrifices towards Now-Joey against the benefits gained to Future-Joey.  To do this, I looked at a list of things that I enjoy in life, and realized that only a slim minority are related to academic performance.  In other words, I realized that my happiness and meaning of life, are not reliant upon hard school work.  Since then, I have spent at least three hours a day outside, practiced piano daily, had at least 8 hours of sleep, done virtually no French homework, and have rock climbed as often as my hands have allowed it.  Basically, I have lived life for the benefit of Now-Joey.

I have begun to satisfice, by creating the lowest possible levels for some general level of success in my classes, and then done whatever has made me feel the most satisfied.  I haven’t become a hedonist, but I have began the search for “flow.” Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, explained that flow is complete and effortless focus: total immersion in the task at hand. When experiencing flow, I do not have any concerns about Future-Joey whatsoever.

At this point, it is useful to bring in Heidegger.  One of his main points is that a fulfilled life comes about through achieving an authentic self.  Heidegger is a classic example of someone who Richard Rorty classifies as an Ironist.  An ironist is someone who is not content with simply fulfilling their pre-assigned course in life.  They are not content with their “final vocabulary”–a term Rorty uses to represent one’s cultural context.  Ironists want to create their own final vocabulary, and are not content simply being told what to do.  They, like Foucoult, think that society often infringes upon individuality and desire to pursue something authentic.  Rorty says that the solution to the Ironist dilemma is choice.  He cites Heidegger, and explains that one must create an authentic self which chooses her destiny out of a multitude of different options.

Everyone hears the cliche assertion that college is the time to truly create oneself.  We are always encouraged to explore a wide variety of new things, and to find the parts that congeal with our “true nature.”  But, this raises the very important question of whether or not we even have a true nature.  Are we born as blank slates, only to be filled in by the determined course of the universe?  Or can we overcome the Ironist dilemma and truly recreate ourselves?

Here, Randall Collins offers an earth-shattering (for me, at least) claim.  He analogizes modern individualism to a religious cult.  “We are not only allowed to be individuals, we are expected to be.  Society does not give us a choice in the matter.”  One implication is that we constantly are forced to revolt against society.  We have to prove our independence (see my other post, Red Wine and Indie Music).  Collins continues, “we continually emphasize that we are giving our own opinions, not acting out some external role.  Joking and irony are very popular ways of speaking today; these are ways of demonstrating that we can maintain a psychological detachment from the pressures and social organizations around us…People try to ‘one-up’ each other by joking at each other’s expense and outdoing each other in irony.  All this constitutes a kind of culture of the ultra-self, demonstrating that you can produce endless layers of inner detachment from everything that other people can throw at you.”

Another sociologist, Erving Goffman, provides a very useful conceptual metaphor for individual existence.  Goffman compares the process of social creation to a theater with a frontstage, and backstage.  “On the frontstage, we put on an idealized picture of themselves, wearing the proper clothes, making the right facial expressions, and using the right words and gestures.”  In the backstage, we recover.  Psychotherapy, and intense emotional conversations are some of the “extreme backstages of today, where things that cannot be revealed on other backstages become the objects of attention.”  But, is this final reflective layer the final self?  Is there even a coherent concept of a final self?  Probably not.  We are so entirely dependent on social settings for our individuality that the idea of a final self in practically incoherent.  Collins states that “There is no presocial self.  The lonely individual self has only come into existence with a complex form of society.”

Genius Point/Connection: Richard Rorty argues that humans primary concern in life is the search for a “redemptive truth.”  He defines a “redemptive truth,” as “a set of beliefs which would end, once and for all, the process of reflection on what to do with ourselves.”  The human need for redemptive truths is the need to fit “everything–every thing, person, event, idea and poem–into a single context which will somehow reveal itself as natural, destined, and unique.”  Rorty’s thesis in The Decline of Redemptive Truth and the Rise of a Literary Culture is that the “Intellectuals of the west have…progressed through three stages: they have hoped for redemption first from God, then from Philosophy, and now from literature.  This is nearly identical to Heidegger’s hope for authenticity.  But, most interestingly, this is nearly identical to Collins’ conclusion that “After all, we have seen that religion is created by society and that individualism is the distinctively modern form  that religion takes.”

While Collins agrees with Rorty on this front, he disagrees slightly about the implication.  Collins holds that “Like any other sacred object created by social rituals, the modern self is something of a myth.  It is nowhere near as autonomous and individualistic as it makes itself out to be.”  And, Heidegger’s “authentic self” seems to become clearly inauthentic as soon as one remembers that “one is not only allowed to be an individual, one is actually required to be so.”  I interpret this to mean that we have no choice but to pursue authenticity in individuality.  It is a forced being that we must take on.

So, for me, I choose to be a student of Philosophy.  Yet, as I recently told some friends, I do not like the way Philosophy is currently oriented.  I do not find the study of metaphysics or epistemology to be very fruitful.  In many instances I am a “philosophical quietist.”  I think that in some instances, philosophical questions should be set aside rather than answered.  But, as I was reminded by Robert Solomon in Lecture 1 of Philosophy and the Intelligence of Emotions, there is a useful function for philosophy.  I subscribe to three primary arguments for my study of philosophy: existentialism, phenomenology, and critical thinking abilities.  I think that through the branch of philosophy often called Existentialism, we can gain the vocabulary to understand and  help find meaning in life.  This could range from thinkers like Neitzsche, to Fromm, to Frankl.  Through phenomenology, one can gain a better understanding of consciousness and its role within an individual.  For this, I would want to read works by Dennett, Heidegger, and others.  Also, philosophy can help inform my critical thinking abilities.  It can help me write more clearly.  It can give me opportunities to participate in different perspectives, and can teach me how to weigh things in my own life.

All of this being said, I think that philosophy has some tremendous limitations.  I agree entirely with Rorty that philosophy should give up its independent field, and become a literary genre in the field of “English.”  Philosophy then would become optional, like poetry, novels, or religious books.  An intellectual may choose to read mostly novels and few poems, mostly philosophy and some novels, or whatever combination they choose.  Rorty thinks that the “literary intellectual substitutes the religious idea that a certain book or tradition might connect you up with a supremely powerful non-human person with the Bloomian thought that the more books you read, the more ways of being human you have considered, the more human you have become—the less tempted by dreams of an escape from time and chance, the more convinced that we humans have nothing to rely on save one another.”

I am so very fortunate that I have the opportunity to live this self proclaimed  “intellectual, bourgeois lifestyle.” I think that my pursuit of philosophy will provide me with a great vocabulary to find meaning in the world around me.  It will serve as a grounding for a future specialization in some field—be it literature, psychology, neuroscience, or anything, that brings me meaning.

Until then, I will keep living life the way I desire.  I will keep playing piano, (Lehrer *1*) listening to music, and enjoying myself.  I will continue to live a life where I choose my actions, and to the greatest possible extent, remain necessarily independent of the decided—the destined, the mainstream—while still remembering that society, and society alone grants me my own individuality and meaning.




*1*”In 2004, E. Glenn Schellenberg of the University of Toronto at Mississauga published results from a randomized, controlled study showing that the IQ scores of 72 children who were enrolled in a yearlong music training program increased significantly compared with 36 children who received no training and 36 children who took drama lessons. (The IQ scores of children taking drama lessons did not increase, but these children did improve more than the other groups on ratings of selected social skills.)”

One Response to Updates to my Meaning of Life

  1. mcdonaldb says:

    I highly recommend reading Robin Hanson’s theory of identity.


    It is an interesting supplement to Collin’s discussion of individualism. Hanson argues that we don’t want to appear too unpredictable to others, because if we do they won’t like us or trust us, so we create an identity as a way to let others predict our behavior. In this model, when you “find out who I really am,” this is a way of significantly changing your behavior while still signaling to others that you are stable (“my behavior isn’t random and erratic, it changed because I found my true self!”)

    I wish their was some impartial test to determine whether I fit various psychological hypotheses. I often find myself thinking things like, “that doesn’t apply to me, I’m different from most people” and then realizing that this is what everyone else is thinking as well.

    I also think MacIntyre has an interesting take on Goffman. MacIntyre argues that Goffman’s theory of the self makes moral deliberation impossible. We need to think of our lives as being a unified narrative in order to make the concept of moral virtue intelligible.

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