History and value

At the beginning of The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts, in a section entitled ‘History and Value’ (pp.4-6), Milan Kundera discusses the relation between historical consciousness and aesthetic evaluation. He introduces the issue with an imaginary case:

Let us imagine a contemporary composer writing a sonata that in its form, its harmonies, its melodies resembles Beethoven’s. Let’s even imagine that this sonata is so masterfully made that, if it had actually been by Beethoven, it would count among his greatest works. And yet no matter how magnificent, signed by a contemporary composer it would be laughable. At best its author would be applauded as a virtuoso of pastiche.

Kundera is well aware of a possible, and natural, response to the above evaluation of the contemporary composer’s anachronistic piece. Indeed, he mimics such a response:

What? We feel aesthetic pleasure at a sonata by Beethoven and not at one with the same style and charm if it comes from one of our own contemporaries? Isn’t that the height of hypocrisy? So then the sensation of beauty is not spontaneous, spurred by our sensibility, but instead is cerebral, conditioned by our knowing a date?

But he insists that there is “[n]o way around it: historical consciousness is so thoroughly inherent in our perception of art that this anachronism (a Beethoven piece written today) would be spontaneously (that is, without the least hypocrisy) felt to be ridiculous, false, incongruous, even monstrous”. Put more straightforwardly, his point is that “it is only within the context of an art’s historical evolution that aesthetic value can be seen”.

Is Kundera right about the relation between historical consciousness and aesthetic evaluation? This is a big topic and I won’t attempt to show that Kundera is wrong. What I would like to point out is that he might have conflated aesthetic experience and aesthetic judgment. Aesthetic experience necessarily has phenomenological features; by contrast, although aesthetic judgment is usually accompanied by aesthetic experience, the judgment itself is cerebral and does not have to have its own phenomenology. In Kundera’s own words, there is “aesthetic pleasure” or “sensation of beauty”, and there is “perception of art” or “aesthetic value [that] can be seen”; my point is, the two don’t overlap perfectly.

The main subject matter of Kundera’s book is the (modern European) novel, but since he uses a musical example in the passage quoted above, let me use another musical example to illustrate my point.

Prokofiev’s first symphony, completed in 1917, was marked by imitation. As the composer confesses in his autobiography:

I had in mind the thought of writing a symphony in the style of Haydn … If Haydn were living today, I thought, he would keep to his way of writing, while at the same time incorporating some newer ideas. I wanted to compose just such a symphony --- a symphony in the classical style. I finally gave it the name Symphonie classique --- firstly because it was so simple: also in the hope of annoying the Philistines, and in the secret desire to win in the end, if the symphony should prove itself to be a genuine ‘classic’.

The last sentence is intriguing, particularly because of the combination of the word ‘genuine’ and the word ‘classic’ in scare quotes. Prokofiev’s first symphony can never be a genuine classic, but it can be a genuine ‘classic’. As a matter of fact, the symphony was well-received and is still enjoyed by classical music lovers today. It is not felt to be ridiculous, false, incongruous, or monstrous.

Is this a counterexample to Kundera’s view? There is no simple answer to the question. On the one hand, Prokofiev himself admitted that he imitated Haydn and tried to write a symphony in the classical style; on the other hand, it could be maintained that the symphony is not ridiculed because there are enough “newer ideas” in it to distinguish it from a mere imitation --- the classical style is more apparent than real.

In any case, we can still distinguish between the aesthetic experience one has when listening to the symphony and the judgment one may make about the aesthetic value of the piece. Even if the aesthetic judgment has to be made within the context of the historical evolution of the symphony as a form of art, it does not follow that the aesthetic experience cannot be independent of such a context. We don't have to deny that aesthetic judgment can affect aesthetic experience, but we can at least imagine that someone who knows nothing about Haydn, Prokofiev, or the classical style may still enjoy Prokofiev’s Symphonie classique.

The following is the charming, and very short, third movement of the symphony; experience it yourself:


The curious case of Binjamin Wilkomirski (Part II)

Sometimes an identity of a person has so many elements or aspects that it is not always easy to tell what it is about that identity that contributes to the meaningfulness of the person’s life. We have seen that it was by seeing himself as Wilkomirski the sufferer-survivor-reporter that Grosjean found meaning in his life. The fact that he was not really the sufferer or the survivor implies that he was not a genuine reporter either ¾ something that did not take place could not be reported. Yes, Grosjean was still the author of the book, but this was not an element of the identity in question that could contribute to the meaningfulness of his life, for the book was not what it was supposed to be. By contrast, if Grosjean’s book had been published as a novel, then his identity as the author of the book could have contributed to the meaningfulness of his life.

Grosjean’s case reminds me of a friend who is a devoted Christian minister, who presumably believes that his life is meaningful by virtue of his identity as a Christian minister, or, in his own words, as God’s servant. Let us imagine that in the last few years of his life he became skeptical about his religious beliefs and finally gave them up (this is, I have to say, extremely unlikely to happen). Suppose there were no other identities he identified himself with; should he then believe that his life was meaningless? It depends. On the one hand, he had to say that since there is no God, no one can be God’s servant. On the other hand, there might be other elements in his identity as a Christian minister that could contribute to the meaningfulness of his life. For example, he might have, in his capacity as a minister, helped a lot of people deal with their personal problems. If he himself valued this element of his identity as a minister, and other people valued it too, then his life could still be meaningful by virtue of his identity as a Christian minister.

It is risky to focus on one single identity in such a way that the meaningfulness of your life depends solely on it. If you have only one identity that you think makes your life meaningful, and if something goes wrong with respect to that identity, such as if you actually have a serious misunderstanding of the nature of that identity, or if you suddenly do not value it any more, your life may turn out to be meaningless. Grosjean’s is a case in point. If all goes well, then one identity will suffice; but things do not always go well. Although not all our identities are chosen by us, some are. It is thus wise, as far as the meaningfulness of our lives is concerned, to develop what psychologist Daniel Nettle calls ‘self-complexity’. As Nettle explains, “if I am just an academic, and I have an academic setback, then my whole self seems less efficacious and worthwhile. However, if I have many other facets to myself, then the effect of the setback on my identity is much less severe” (Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile, p.156). He speaks in the context of discussing happiness, but it is clear that the same point applies to meaningfulness.

The above point about self-complexity may give us some ideas about how to live a meaningful life. This may also be true of the final point I would like to make, which is that a meaningful life consists in living it rather than in thinking about how to live it. Part of Grosjean’s problem might be that he was too much aware of the problem of meaningfulness and tried too hard to make his life meaningful. There is such a thing as thinking too much and too often about the problem about meaningfulness. This may be what Wittgenstein means when he writes:
The way to solve the problem you see in life is to live in a way that will make what is problematic disappear. … a man who lives rightly won’t experience the problem as sorrow, so for him it will not be a problem, but a joy rather; in other words for him it will be a bright halo round his life, not a dubious background. (Culture and Value, p.27)


The curious case of Binjamin Wilkomirski (Part I)

In 1995, a book entitled Bruchstücke. Aus einer Kindheit 1939–1948 was published in Germany (the English translation of the book, published in 1996, was entitled Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood). The name of the author was Binjamin Wilkomirski, and the book was a vivid and supposedly accurate account of his horrifying experiences as a very young Polish Jewish boy in two Nazi concentration camps. Being an appealing survivor’s tale with high literary quality, the book quickly became an international best-seller and received numerous awards. Wilkomirski gave readings of the book everywhere, was interviewed on TV, met with and spoke to other Holocaust survivors publicly, and participated in academic symposiums on the book or on subjects concerning the Holocaust. He was compared to Anne Frank; if his story was not more moving, it was certainly more satisfying and probably more inspiring, for he survived while Frank did not.

But then it turned out that nothing described in the book about that little Jewish boy had ever happened. The author was not even Jewish, and his real name was ‘Bruno Grosjean’, not the obviously Jewish ‘Binjamin Wilkomirski’. Grosjean was a Swiss who had been born to an unmarried woman and later adopted by a childless couple, and who grew up to be a professional (but not outstanding) clarinetist. He was born in 1941, the year one of the concentration camps in which the story happened began to operate, and he had never left Switzerland before adulthood. The ‘memoir’ was based on history books, magazines, and novels Grosjean had read, as well as films he had seen. His account was first questioned by a Swiss journalist named Daniel Ganzfrield, whose arguments against the authenticity of it were, however, considered by some to be inconclusive. The Swiss historian Stefan Maechler was later commissioned by Wilkomirski/Grosjean’s literacy agency to investigate the matter, and Maechler proved in great detail that many of the things described in Grosjean’s book contradicted historical facts.

Graosjean’s book was not the first autobiography of an alleged Holocaust survivor that turned out to be a fraud, nor was it the last. What makes Grosjean’s case more interesting and relevant to our discussion is that Grosjean might actually believe, or at least believe that he believed, the story he told in his book. Grosjean certainly knew that he grew up in Switzerland, but he also knew that he was an adopted child. If he did not remember much the first few years of his life, it was not impossible for him to believe that he was a traumatized child rescued from the war and exchanged for a child named ‘Bruno Grosjean’. As social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson understand the Wilkomirski/Grosjean case, “Grosjean spent more than twenty years transforming himself into Wilkomirski; writing Fragments was the last step of his metamorphosis into a new identity, not the first step of a calculated lie” (Tavris & Elliot, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), p.84).

Let us assume that Tavris’s and Aronson’s understanding of the Wilkomirski/Grosjean case is correct. What Tavris and Aronson say next relates the case to the problem about meaningfulness: “Wilkomirski’s new identity as a survivor of the Holocaust gave him a powerful sense of meaning and purpose, along with the adoration and support of countless others”. Grosjean’s book was, according to Tavris and Aronson, a result of “a quest for meaning in his life” (ibid., italics added). They presumably do not have a fully developed theory of a meaningful life like mine when they relate the meaningfulness of Grosjean’s life to his identity, but their description of the case fits quite well the account of a meaningful life I have suggested: Grosjean’s sense of meaningfulness came from his newly found identity, which was valued not only by himself but also by others; and it was this newly found identity that allowed him to evaluate his life positively, that gave him directions for how he should live his life, that he could see as the reason for his existence, and that he happily believed to be who he really was.

What exactly was Grosjean’s newly found identity which he thought made his life meaningful? It may appear that the answer is straightforward: it was his identity as a Holocaust survivor, or more precisely, his identity as a Jewish boy who suffered from his experiences in Nazi concentration camps and survived. But suffering in itself does not give meaning to a life. We would not say that the lives of all the Jews who were tortured and murdered in concentration camps were meaningful lives simply by virtue of their suffering, nor would we say that at least the lives of those who survived were meaningful simply by virtue of their suffering and their survival. What Grosjean thought made his life meaningful was his identity as the young Holocaust survivor who lived to tell his story, which inspired and moved a lot of people. According to Maechler, Grosjean “truly blossomed in his role as a concentration-camp victim, for it was in it that he finally found himself”, but what we should note is that “[v]ideotapes and eyewitness reports of Wilkomirski’s presentations give the impression of a man made euphoric by his own narrative” (Maechler, The Wilkomirski Affair: A Study in Biographical Ttruth, p.273, note 14, italics added). It was not being the sufferer, not being the sufferer-survivor, but being the sufferer-survivor-reporter, that counted for the meaningfulness of Wilkomirski’s life.*

If you are inclined to disagree, just imagine that Anne Frank survived but had not written her wartime diary, or that she had written the diary but neither she nor the diary survived. Would Frank’s life have been as meaningful as it actually was?


Meaningfulness and divine purpose

[Although I do not believe that God exists, in what follows I will, for simplicity, sometimes speak as if God exists. I will also assume that it is compatible with God’s nature that God has purposes or plans.]

Some people believe that a human life is meaningful only if it fulfills God’s purpose (call it divine purpose). There are two ways in which we can be related to divine purpose. In the first way, God created us to serve a particular purpose, just as a watch is made to serve the purpose of telling time; there is a divine purpose in us. In the second way, God did not create us to serve a particular purpose, but God has some purpose or plan which we can participate in, just as we can participate in an author’s purpose of writing a book to raise consciousness about global warming ¾ by reading the book. These two ways do not have to be independent of each other, for God could create us to serve a particular purpose such that we can participate in another purpose God has simply by fulfilling the former purpose.

It is obvious that divine purpose is not sufficient for meaningfulness. The mere fact that God created us to serve a particular purpose does not imply that our lives are meaningful, for we may fail to serve that purpose. Likewise, the mere fact that God has some purpose or plan that we can participate in does not imply that our lives are meaningful either, for we may fail to participate in it. In either case, even given the divine purpose, whether our lives are meaningful still depends on what we do.

So what we should examine is whether divine purpose is necessary for meaningfulness. Let us begin with Kurt Baier’s well-known criticism of the view in question; his criticism concerns only the first way in which we are related to divine purpose. According to Baier, no human being’s life can be meaningful by virtue of being used to fulfill another being’s purpose, even when that being is God. As he elaborates:

To attribute to a human being a purpose in that sense is not neutral, let alone complimentary: it is offensive. It is degrading for a man to be regarded as merely serving a purpose. If, at a garden party, I ask a man in livery, ‘What is your purpose?’ I am insulting him. I might as well have asked, ‘What are you for?’ Such questions reduce him to the level of a gadget, a domestic animal, or perhaps a slave. I imply that we allot to him the tasks, the goals, the aims which he is to pursue; that his wishes and desires and aspirations and purposes are to count for little or nothing. We are treating him, in Kant’s phrase, merely as a means to our ends, not as an end in himself. (Baier, “The Meaning of Life”, p.120)

How forceful we consider Baier’s criticism to be depends on whether we agree with him that God, by creating human beings to serve a particular purpose, treats them merely as a means. When we treat another human being as a means to our end, but not merely so, we do not necessarily degrade him. I treat, for example, my piano teacher as a means to my end of learning to play the piano, but my treating him that way does not degrade him, for I also treat him as an independent individual who has his own wishes and desires and aspirations and purposes that have nothing to do with his being my piano teacher. It can be argued, however, that if God created us to serve a particular purpose, then God can only treat us merely as a means. If my piano teacher decided not to give me piano lessons any more, I could still treat him respectfully as a valuable independent individual in many other ways (as a good pianist, as a polymath, as a loving and devoted father, etc.) that have nothing to do with the ends I have. But if God created me to serve a particular purpose and I decided not to fulfill that purpose, there does not seem to be anything else in me which would allow God to see me not as bad (on some religious understanding I would indeed be considered by God to be so bad that I deserve eternal punishment) ¾ God would see me in the way a watchmaker sees a broken watch.

Divine purpose and meaningfulness can be related by the idea that, in Nozick’s words, “[a]ttempts to find meaning in life seek to transcend the limits of an individual life” (Philosophical Explanations, p.597). If God created us to serve a particular purpose or if we can participate in God’s purpose or plan, then we will be able to transcend the limits of our lives by serving God's purpose or participating in his purpose or plan. We will be, in a sense, bigger than our earthly lives allow us to see ourselves.

But the problem with this view is that transcending the limits of our lives this way does not imply that our lives will then have no limits. The only being who is not limited in any way is God. If being unlimited were necessary for meaningfulness, then only God’s life could be meaningful. Accordingly, our lives would after all not be meaningful even if we fulfilled God’s purpose (in either way or both ways). On the other hand, if meaningfulness does not require being unlimited but requires only that we transcend the limits of our lives in some way, then it is not clear why we have to fulfill a divine purpose in order to transcend the limits of our lives. That is, it is not clear why transcending the limits of our lives in the earthly way does not count at all for meaningfulness. Consider a composer who wrote good (but not great) music, influenced and inspired many other composers to write better music of a certain style, and thereby started an important tradition of music. There is a clear sense in which he transcended the limits of his life as a composer, and such transcendence does not have to do with any divine purpose. If transcending the limits of our lives is necessary for meaningfulness while meaningfulness does not require being unlimited, why should we think that the composer’s way of transcending his limits count for nothing with respect to the meaningfulness of his life? Why should we think that in order for his life to be meaningful he must also transcend the limits of human life as such rather than merely the limits of his life?


Does size matter?

There is a kind of reflection that would incite people to look for grand meaningfulness, the kind of meaningfulness that we presumably cannot find in the lives we are living here and now. Bertrand Russell expresses such reflection vividly in the following remarks:

In the visible world, the Milky Way is a tiny fragment; within this fragment, the solar system is an infinitesimal speck, and of this speck our planet is a microscopic dot. On this dot, tiny lumps of impure carbon and water, of complicated structure, with somewhat unusual physical and chemical properties, crawl about for a few years, until they are dissolved again into the elements of which they are compounded. They divide their time between labour designed to postpone the moment of dissolution for themselves and frantic struggles to hasten it for others of their kind. (Russell, “Dreams and Facts”, reprinted in his Sceptical Essays)

Compared with Russell’s description of how small we are, which seems accurate, the usual metaphor that human beings are tiny specks in a vast universe seems an exaggeration of our size. If even the solar system is only a tiny speck, how should we describe our smallness? However, what we should ask in this connection is rather the question “What does the size of us have to do with the meaningfulness of our lives?”. It does not seem that meaningfulness depends on the relative size of our existence. If I think my life is meaningful, I would not think that it was less meaningful simply because I had come to believe that the universe had become several hundred million times bigger (while my size did not change). As Frank Ramsey so pithily puts it, “[t]he stars may be large, but they cannot think or love” (see “Epilogue” of his Philosophical Papers). Whether our lives are meaningful or not depends on what we do and think and feel, rather than on how big or small we are.

But then why do some people think the relative size of our existence matters to the meaningfulness of our lives, or more specifically, why do some people think our smallness implies that our lives as such are meaningless? I think the most reasonable answer is that when people think in this way, they see their smallness as a kind of limit of their lives. Death can be understood along the same lines ¾ death is a temporal limit of life. Our smallness is, by contrast, not just a spatial limit, but also a limit to our abilities: being so utterly small relative to the universe, we are confined to the extremely tiny space we are in and not able to achieve much even within that tiny space. There is no better expression of this understanding of how limits of a life and meaningfulness are related than the following passage by Robert Nozick:

Consider the most exalted and far-researching life or role imagined for man: being the messiah. Greater effect has been imagined for no other man. Yet still we can ask how important it is to bring whatever it is the messiah brings to the living beings of the third planet of a minor off-center star in the Milky Way galaxy, itself a galaxy of no special distinction within its particular metagalaxy, one of many in the universe. Te see something’s limits, to see it as that limited particular thing or enterprise, is to question its meaning. (Nozick, Philosophical Explanations, p.597)

On this understanding,“[t]he problem of meaning is created by limits, by being just this, by being merely this”, and “[a]ttempts to find meaning in life seek to transcend the limits of an individual life. The narrower the limits of a life, the less meaningful it is” (pp.594-595). Hence the quest for grand meaningfulness.


Meaningfulness and happiness

When we are thinking about meaningfulness, we may be inclined to see it as the most important thing we care about, or should care about, in our lives. I certainly think that meaningfulness is an important issue, and that the meaningfulness of my life is very important to me, but I am not sure I would say that meaningfulness should be considered the most important thing in our lives. Many people do not give any thought to meaningfulness. And even for those who do seek meaningfulness, there is at least another thing they seek, and should seek, equally mightily, namely, happiness. It takes reflection to see the need we have for meaningfulness, while happiness is something we naturally, or even blindly, pursue. Is there any relation between meaningfulness and happiness? Of course the answer depends on how we understand happiness, but it is common for people to think that a meaningful life must be in some sense a happy life. In some sense, yes, but there are also other senses of happiness in which a meaningful life is not necessarily a happy one.

As Susan Wolf observes, meaningful lives may “frequently involve stress, danger, exertion, or sorrow” (“Happiness and meaning: two aspects of the good life”, Social Philosophy and Policy, 14, p.209), all of which are incompatible with pleasure. Wolf understands meaningful lives as “lives of active engagement in projects of worth” (ibid.); it is not difficult to see why such engagement does not always give us pleasure --- is not necessarily happy in the hedonistic sense.

As long as happiness is understood phenomenologically, that is, in terms of some of the subject’s positive feelings, states of mind, or experiences, it seems that we can always imagine that a person whose life is meaningful does not have any such feelings, states of mind, or experiences. It is, I think, true that a meaningful life is usually accompanied by a sense of fulfillment. Although fulfillment is not the same as happiness, it, as Wolf rightly maintains, “deserves an important place in an adequate theory of happiness” and should be considered “a major component of happiness” (ibid., p.220). Nevertheless, there is still no guarantee that living a meaningful life will give one a sense of fulfillment. Even for Wolf, who thinks that “the links between meaningfulness and fulfillment are tight” (ibid.), there is no such guarantee, for she can only say that “[n]ine times out of ten, perhaps ninety-nine times out of a hundred, a meaningful life will be happier [through having a sense of fulfillment] than a meaningless one” (ibid., p.222). Ninety or ninety-nine percent is still not one-hundred percent, though it may well be good enough.

It is even clearer that a meaningful life does not imply happiness when happiness is understood as objective well-being rather than in terms of subjective positive experiences. A meaning life is not necessarily a life that prospers or goes well, or a life in which most of one’s important desires are satisfied, or a life in which one enjoys a high quality of life (materialistically construed), or a life full of great achievements. I cannot agree more with the following remarks by Harry Frankfurt:

A life may be full of meaning, then, and yet so gravely deficient in other ways that no reasonable person would choose to live it. It cannot even be assumed that a meaningful life must always be preferable to one that lacks meaning. What fills a certain life with meaning may be some intricate and demanding conflict, or a terribly frustrating but compelling struggle, which involves a great deal of anxiety or pain and which is extremely destructive. Thus the very circumstances that make the life meaningful may be deeply objectionable. It might be better to live an empty life than to generate or to endure so much suffering and disorder. (Necessity, Volition, and Love, CUP, p.85)

Viktor Frankl may be right when he says that “[t]here is nothing in the world […] that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life” (Man's Search for Meaning, Simon & Schuster, p.109), but for a more balanced understanding of the importance of meaningfulness we have to keep in mind that there could be conditions so bad that nothing could help one survive them, not even the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life. To think otherwise is to romanticize human nature.

Some may insist that a meaningful life is necessarily better than a meaningless life. Although we do not have to object to this, we should notice that meaningfulness is only one dimension of the evaluation of life. As far as this dimension of evaluation is concerned, it is true that a meaningful life is always better than a meaningless life. Indeed, it is true trivially, for this dimension of evaluation is understood by us in such a way that ‘meaningful’ is on the positive side of it and ‘meaningless’ on the negative side (and a gray area in between). In any case, there are other dimensions of the evaluation of life, such as happiness, with ‘happy’ on the positive side and ‘unhappy’ on the negative side (and a gray area in between). It is possible for the very same life to be placed on the positive side of one dimension of evaluation while being placed on the negative side of another dimension. This is what happens when a life is meaningful but unhappy. It is not always clear which dimension of evaluation should trump which: in some cases it might be better to live a happy life that is not meaningful than live a meaningful life that is unhappy, but vice versa in other cases.



Promises, promises,
Diary of a bad year.
Faking it, self to self,
The seas of language,
The mysterious flame.
Walking the tightrope of reason
Climbing Mount Improbable,
I am a strange loop.


Easier said than done?

In the following passage from his well-known essay on English style, "Politics and the English Language", Geroge Orwell points out some features of a pretentious style:

The keynote [of a pretentious style] is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purpose verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render. In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining). The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the -ize and de-formations, and the banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not un-formation.

The message seems clear: use verbs and the active voice wherever possible. However, in this very passage Orwell himself does not practice what he preaches. He uses phrases like "the elimination of", "in preference to", and "an appearance of" (instead of "eliminate", "prefer", and "appear"); he also uses the passive voice several times in this short passage, and once in the very sentence in which he mentions the passive voice as a feature of a pretentious style.

This has been noticed (the passive!) by Joseph M. Williams, and he rewrites the Orwell passage, avoiding noun constructions as well as the passive voice:

Those who write pretentiously eliminate simple verbs. Instead of using one word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, they turn a verb into a noun or adjective and then tack it on to a general-purpose verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render. Wherever possible, they use the passive voice instead of the active and noun constructions instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining). They cut down the range of verbs further with -ize and de-, and try to make banal statements seem profound by the not un-formation. (Williams, Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity & Grace, fourth edition, p.6)

Orwell is a terrific writer, and presumably a very self-aware one. It is reasonable to think that he uses the passive voice and noun constructions here on purpose. More importantly, the Orwell passage does not sound pretentious, nor is the Williams rewrite an improvement on it. The reason is, I think, that the subject matter of the Orwell passage is a certain writing style, but the Williams rewrite makes it sound like it is about the people who write in such a style. If the subject is the style rather than the people, then it is difficult to avoid the passive voice and noun constructions.

What we learn from this example is that good writing is not simply a matter of following some rules or principles. There may be rules or principles that you should follow, but what makes you a good writer is your knowing when to break them.


A note on omnipotence

There are people who think the following argument proves that an omnipotent being is logically impossible:

Argument A:
(A1)  For any x, if x is capable of creating a stone that x cannot lift, then x is not omnipotent (because it is incapable of lifting such a stone).
(A2)  For any x, if x is incapable of creating a stone that x cannot lift, then x is not omnipotent (because there is something that it is incapable of doing).
(A3)   For any x, either x is capable of creating a stone that x cannot lift, or x is incapable of doing so.
(A4)   Therefore, an omnipotent being is logically impossible.

This is an appealing argument, but (A2) is problematic. Consider the following argument:

Argument B:
(B1)  In any possible world in which x is omnipotent, there is no stone that x cannot lift.
(B2)  Therefore, there is no possible world in which x is omnipotent and in which there is a stone that x cannot lift.
(B3)  Therefore, “x is omnipotent and there is a stone that x cannot lift” (S) is impossible.
(B4)  For any x, if x is omnipotent, then what it is for x to create a stone that x cannot lift is for x to actualize (S).
(B5)  Therefore, for any x, if x is omnipotent, then what it is for x to create a stone that x cannot lift is for x to actualize something impossible.
(B6)  Even if a being is omnipotent, it is incapable of actualizing the impossible.
(B7)  Therefore, for any x, if x is omnipotent, then it is incapable of creating a stone that x cannot lift.

Let us symbolize (B7) as “("x)(Ox ® Ix)”. Premise (A2) can then be symbolized as “("x)(Ix ® ~Ox)”, which is equivalent to “("x)(Ox ® ~Ix)”.

If argument B is sound, which I think it is, then “("x)(Ox ® Ix)” is proven true. Will argument B then prove that (A2) (i.e. “("x)(Ox ® ~Ix)”) is false? Not quite, for if there are no omnipotent beings, then both “("x)(Ox ® Ix)” and “("x)(Ox ® ~Ix)” are true.

But that doesn’t mean (A2) is not problematic as a premise of argument A. Here is how I see the dialectic: “("x)(Ox ® Ix)” is true whether there is an omnipotent being, while “("x)(Ox ® ~Ix)” is true only if there are no omnipotent beings. For this reason, (A2) should not be taken as obviously true and needs to be defended.

A defense of (A2) may begin with arguing that there are no omnipotent beings. Such an argument has to be independent of argument A, for otherwise it would be question-begging. It is, however, not clear how this can be done.

Another way is to argue for (A2) without first arguing that there are no omnipotent beings. If there are independent grounds for arguing for (A2), then those can be used, and the argument for (A2) will also be an argument for the non-existence of omnipotent beings. Argument A will then be used to argue for a stronger conclusion, namely, that an omnipotent being is logically impossible.

In any case, (A2) can’t just be assumed without argument.


More on self-alienation

Self-alienation is incompatible with a sense of having a biographical life of one’s own; such a sense is necessary for seeing one’s own life as meaningful. This is perhaps why sometimes a person who sees his life as meaningless would express his dim view by saying “I don’t even have a life”. Obviously he has a life, a biographical life; it is just that he has no identities at all that he identifies himself with. This is why a person might not see his life as meaningful even if he is, as Susan Wolf puts it, “actively and at least somewhat successfully engaged in a project (or projects) of positive value” (“The Meanings of Lives”, p.65), for he may still alienate himself from the project (or, from his identity as the person who has that project) even if he pursues it actively in some way.

It is not unimaginable that a person would alienate himself from a project of his which he is being actively and successfully engaged in and which has positive value in the eyes of others. Let us consider the case of Tolstoy. For most people, his identity as a great novelist, or more specifically, as the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, certainly had positive value, but the following is how Tolstoy himself thought about this identity in A Confession:

During this time I began to write out of vanity, self-interest and pride. In my writings I did the same as I did in life. In order to achieve the fame and money for which I wrote I had to conceal what was good in myself and display what was bad. And this is what I did. Time and again I would contrive in my writing to conceal under the guise of indifference, or even of light-heartedness, those strivings for goodness which lent meaning to my life. And I succeeded and was praised.
Or thinking about the fame my own writing brought me, I would say to myself, “Well fine, so you will be more famous than Gogol, Pushkin, Shakespeare, Molière, more famous than all the writers in the world, and so what?”

It is clear that Tolstoy himself, at least when he was writing A Confession, did not think his life was meaningful by virtue of his identity as a respected and famous novelist. It did not matter to him what others thought; even if everyone else thought his life was meaningful by virtue of his identity as a greater writer, he did not think so because he did not identify himself with that identity ¾ he did not think this is what he really was or what he wanted himself to be.

If it is not clear enough from the above quoted passages that Tolstoy alienated himself from his identity as a novelist, a writer, or an artist, the following passage should make it clear:

‘Art, poetry …’ For a long time, under the influence of success and praise from others, I had persuaded myself that this was a thing that could be done, […] But I quickly realized that this too was a delusion. It was clear to me that art is an adornment and embellishment of life. But it had lost its charm for me, so how could I charm others? While I was not living my own life but was being carried along on the crest of another life, as long as I believed that life had meaning even if I could not express it, the reflection of life in poetry and in art of all kinds gave me joy and I enjoyed watching life through the mirror of art. But when I began to search for the meaning of life, when I began to feel the necessity of living, I found this mirror either unnecessary, superfluous and ridiculous, or tormenting.

It is also clear from what Tolstoy said about his identity as a writer that he did not value this identity even though it was (and would be) valued by others. This suggests that a person cannot value an identity of hers without identifying herself with that identity. Some may think that since a person can identify herself with an identity that she does not value (such as in the case of a Dalit), she can also value an identity which she in fact has but which she does not identify herself with. Let me explain why the latter is not true. To identify oneself with one’s identity as x is to see x as part of what one really is, while to value one’s identity as x is to see x as what one wants to be or what one should be. It is possible for a person to believe that she really is x without wanting to be x or believing that she should be x ¾ it is possible for her to identify herself with x without valuing x. Now if a person wants to be x or believes that she should be x, and if she indeed is x and is aware that x is one of her identities, then it does not make sense for her to deny that she really is x. Indeed, given that she wants to be x, she cannot consistently refuse to embrace her identity as x ¾ she cannot consistently value x without identifying herself with x.



Consider a woman who has a phenomenal talent for music, who always wants to be a cellist, but who decided to pursue a medical career because that was what her parents very much wanted her, and pressured her, to do. She has finally become a top brain surgeon after years of study and hard work, but this has never been what she really wants herself to be. Suppose someone congratulates her on her achievement; if she responds by saying "Thank you, but that's my parents' achievement, not mine", she will be saying something that is in a clear sense true. Since being a brain surgeon is not what she wants herself to be ¾ since she alienates herself from her identity as a brain surgeon, she cannot address positively her concern about who she is by answering "I am a brain surgeon" even if she can annex something positive to it such as "who helps people in a big way". The problem is that, for her, the "I am" is misplaced in such an answer.

We all have some identities that we do not identify ourselves with; this is just normal, for a person can have a strong and stable sense of who he is only if there are not too many things that he thinks he is, that he thinks define who he is. It would not be a problem if a person alienates himself from some, or even many, of his identities, but it would be a serious problem if he alienates himself from all of his identities. When a person has no identities that he identifies himself with, he is alienating himself from his whole biographical life. In that case, he is indeed alienating himself from himself, for some of his identities must define who he is in order for him to be the person who is living the biographical life that he is living, to be the I who would own the first-person version of his biography, i.e., his autobiography. As Camus so vividly and penetratingly portrays it in L’Étranger,* the life of a person who alienates himself not only from the world around him, but also from himself, is a meaningless life to the person himself.

* “Étranger” in French means either "foreigner", "outsider", or "stranger". Some English translations use the title The Stranger, some the title The Outsider. The protagonist Meursault is a stranger, a foreigner, or an outsider not only to people around him, but also to himself.


Harmless sexual immorality?

Are there harmless sexual activities that are immoral? If all harmless activities are morally permissible, the answer is obviously "no" --- as long as an activity is harmless, it is not immoral, whether sexual or not (people may understand "harmless" differently, but that does not affect the point).

But suppose a harmless activity may still be immoral, and suppose some sexual activities are harmless. On these suppositions, the question whether there are harmless sexual activities that are immoral does not have a clear answer. However, for those who are interested in the question and think it is important to have an answer to it, there are two views they need to distinguish:

(S)  If there are harmless sexual activities that are immoral, they are immoral by virtue of their sexual aspects.
(N)  If there are harmless sexual activities that are immoral, they are immoral by virtue of some non-sexual aspects of the activities; it just happens to be the case that these are sexual activities.

People who believe that sexual activities in themselves are amoral (i.e. neither moral nor immoral) cannot consistently accept (S). That is, they should accept (N). But accepting (N) implies seeing the sexual aspects of the activities as irrelevant to their being immoral or not. For them, if there are harmless activities that are immoral, it should not make any moral difference whether the activities are sexual or not, just as it should not make any moral difference whether the activities involved people who wear glasses or not.

Thus, to see the question whether there are harmless sexual activities that are immoral as a morally significant question, one has to accept (S). And to consistently accept (S), one has to believe that at least some sexual activities are not amoral --- they are in themselves either moral or immoral. Now unless people who believe that at least some sexual activities are not amoral also believe that all those sexual activities are moral, they already have an answer to the question whether there are harmless sexual activities that are immoral, namely, "yes".

It seems to be the case that people who are interested in the question whether there are harmless sexual activities that are immoral usually think it is a morally significant question, and it also seems to be the case that these people usually answer (or are inclined to answer) "yes" to the question. Given the above analysis, this should not be surprising at all.


Kierkegaard on Socrates

In his diary, Kierkegaard asks, "Why did Socrates compare himself to a gadfly?" A popular and amusing answer is that it is because Socrates knew that he was a pain in the ass to those whose cherished beliefs and claims of knowledge he kept questioning. Kierkegaard's answer is not as amusing, but much more insightful :

Because he only wished his influence to be ethical. He did not want to be an admired genius, standing apart from the rest, whereby he actually would have made life easier for them, as they would say: "Yes, it's all very fine for him, he is a genius." No, he merely did what every human being can do; he comprehend what every human being can comprehend. There in lies the epigrammatic. He grabbed hold of the individual and worried him, ceaselessly compelling and teasing him with this ordinary, universally human stuff. That made him a gadfly stirring up a person's passion, and he did not permit that person indolently and effeminately to admire and go on admiring, but claimed his very soul. When a human being possesses ethical strength, people like to elevate him into a genius, just to be rid of him; for his life constitutes a claim, a demand, on them. (The Diary of Soren Kierkegaard, edited by Peter Rohde, Carol Publishing Group, 1993, p.123)

The ethical, like the aesthetic and the religious, is for Kierkegaard not just a matter of thinking and understanding, but essentially a matter of living. Living, not just thinking how to live. What Kierkegaard means by "ethical strength" here is thus the strength to live the way one understands to be the right way to live. One's influence would be ethical in this sense if one could affect others in such a way that they not only think about how to live but also live accordingly. And the influence would be doubly ethical if it is by means of exemplifying a way of life that one affects how others live their lives.

Kierkegaard says Socrates "wished his influence to be ethical"; the word "wished" is telling. Not "wanted", not "hoped", but "wished", which suggests that Socrates realized that his influence failed to be ethical (in the above sense). Although he had shown his ethical strength, stirred up people's passion, compelled them to think and examine their own lives, most of them did not change for the better --- did not change their way of life --- as a result. Change is hard; change for the better is even harder.

A person's way of life won't be changed by what he considers to be another person's wisdom, no matter how much he appreciates the wisdom and admires the person who has it. In order for the wisdom to change  his way of life, it has to become his wisdom. That is, he has to change first --- the wisdom has to become part of his most natural way of seeing things, part of his worldview, and part of what he identifies himself with. Until then, the wisdom is mere words.

This might be why Socrates denied that he was wise. He didn't want people to see him as wise because he didn't want them to disregard the demands his life made on them as something that only a "genius" like Socrates himself would be able to meet. Examining one's own life and living accordingly is "ordinary, universally human stuff". You can admire Socrates as much as you can, but not even Socrates could examine your life for you. You have to do it yourself, and this is "what every human being can do". But it is hard. Most people would choose to remain no more than an admirer of Socrates rather than do what Socrates did.


A social function of literature

In The Educated Imagination, Northrop Frye argues for a social function of literature:

So, you may ask, what is the use of studying the world of imagination where anything is possible and anything can be assumed, where there are no rights or wrongs and all arguments are equally good? One of the most obvious uses, I think, is its encouragement of tolerance. In the imagination our own beliefs are also only possibilities, but we can also see the possibilities in the beliefs of others. Bigots and fanatics seldom have any use for the arts, because they're so preoccupied with their beliefs and actions that they can't see them as possibilities. (pp.77-78)

Note that Frye does not say, or suggest, that literature has the power of changing people who are already intolerant. Literature's encouragement of tolerance will have, in most if not all cases, no effect on bigots and fanatics, the most intolerant among the intolerant. Although bigots and fanatics do see others' beliefs as possibilities, they see those beliefs as mere possibilities, while seeing their own beliefs as the truths. If they do read literature, they will see more possibilities as a result. However, the more possibilities they see, the more they may think what they see are mere possibilities, and the more they may assure themselves that their own beliefs are the truths. Not only does literature fail to encourage bigots and fanatics to be tolerant, it may even  encourage them to be more intolerant!

But isn't it part of the concept of belief that to believe that p is to believe that p is true? Whether a person is a bigot (or fanatic) or not, he has to take what he believes to be true --- no one can consistently believe that p without taking p to be true. So, how are we different from bigots and fanatics in this respect? In this respect there is indeed no difference; the difference lies in somewhere else: bigots and fanatics are so committed to their beliefs that they are not capable of taking seriously the possibility that their beliefs are false. They cannot, as it were, detach themselves from their beliefs, while we can ours if we try.

According to Frye, literature encourages tolerance by means of encouraging detachment of this kind:

What produces the tolerance is the power of detachment in the imagination, where things are removed just out of reach of belief and action. Experience is nearly always commonplace; the present is not romantic in the way that the past is, and ideals and great visions have a way of becoming shoddy and squalid in  practical life. Literature reverses this process. (p.78)

Through the imaginative lens of literature, we can see even our own beliefs from a certain psychological distance, which may be sufficient for making us more tolerant, even if in the end we do not give up any of our beliefs.


Three concepts of identity

What I mean by ‘identity’ here is not the relation of sameness between two persons at two different times, but a characteristic or a mark that a person has. In this sense of ‘identity’, a person can have more than one identity. There are, however, three different concepts of identity in this sense.

The first can be called the concept of plain identity. This is the concept of identity understood in the most unrestrictive way, that is, when ‘identity’ is understood to mean simply ‘that which a person can be identified as’. On this concept of identity, as long as something is true of a person, we can refer to it as one of her identities. The concept of plain identity is so unrestrictive that a plain identity of a person does not even have to be something that the person can be uniquely identified as. I have, for instance, the unique identity as my son’s father, but I also have the identity as a father, which is not unique. This feature of plain identity accords well with our everyday use of the word ‘identity’, such as when we speak of our cultural, social, national, or professional identities and when we speak of different people’s having the same identity.

It is clear that in this unrestrictive sense of identity I can have many identities; some of them cover a large set of my activities and a long period of time, while others cover just a particular involvement at a particular time. One of my plain identities is a professor of philosophy, which is a long-term identity that involves doing different kinds of things; it is also one of my plain identities that I am the person who is writing this very sentence that I am now writing, and this is one single activity that lasts only for a very short while. Not only activities or projects that I positively undertake form my plain identities, things that are entirely not up to me, or not entirely up to me, also form my plain identities.

The second concept of identity can be called the concept of self-identity. A person’s plain identity becomes his self-identity if he identifies himself, or self-identifies, with that identity --- if he sees the identity as defining who he is, or at least part of who he is. In one of its usages, the term ‘self’ refers precisely to self-identity as I define it here. In this usage, as David Velleman points out, “the term ‘self’ refers --- not to the person, or a part of the person, represented reflexively --- but to the person’s own reflexive representations, which make up his self-image or self-conception” and which gives him “his sense of who he is” (Velleman, Self to Self, pp.355-356).

It is obvious that not every one of my plain identities is what I would consider to be part of who I am, or constitutes part of my self-image or self-conception. It is, for example, a plain identity of mine that I am the person who is typing this very sentence that I am now typing, but I certainly do not think this identity is part of who I am. Indeed, even when a plain identity of mine is considered by others to be who I am because it is, as they see it, an important identity, I may not agree with them. If I myself do not consider the plain identity as part of who I am, then it is not my self-identity. As Bernard Williams puts it, “[t]he difference between an identity which is mine and which I eagerly recognize as mine, and an identity as what someone else simply assumes me to be, is in one sense all the difference in the world” (Williams, Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline, p.62).

Williams’s remark seems to suggest that if I self-identify with a plain identity of mine, it must be a plain identity that I value, that is, something that I want myself to be or something that I think I should be rather than merely something that I admit I actually am. Given that most people have the natural tendency to see themselves positively and have the psychological need for self-esteem, people normally value their self-identities. This may be why some philosophers understand self-identity in terms of reflective endorsement: what it is for a person to identify herself with her identity is for her to approve of it after reflecting on whether she should approve of it.

However, given the complexity of human psychology, as exemplified by phenomena like self-hatred and despising oneself, it does not seem difficult to imagine a person who self-identifies with an identity that she disvalues. If I were a Dalit (an untouchable) in India, I might, because of how I was brought up and because of how the caste system works, self-identify with my identity as a Dalit and see myself as being obligated by that identity to act in particular ways, but I did not have to value that identity (why should I?). In any case, I certainly can identify myself with an identity that I do not value or disvalue ¾ not everything that I admit as defining who I am is also something that I am proud of being, something that I see as good in some way, something that I think I should be.

The third concept of identity, which is closely relation to the concept of self-identity and also what we need for evaluating a biographical life, can be called the concept of unifying-identity. A unifying-identity is a self-identity that unifies different parts of a person’s biographical life into a narrative whole that can easily develop further by virtue of that very self-identity (if the person continues to live). Since a unifying-identity unifies different parts of a person’s life, it contains many plain identities of that person, some of which may be that person’s self-identities. A unifying-identity must itself be a self-identity, but a self-identity is not necessarily a unifying-identity, just as a self-identity must itself be a plain identity, but a plain identity is not necessarily a self-identity. A self-identity that is not a unifying-identity may still form a narrative whole in the sense that it constitutes a story that has a beginning and an end; the reason why it is not a unifying-identity is that the narrative whole cannot easily develop further by virtue of that self-identity. Since a self-identity can be a unifying-identity, if some of the self-identities contained in a unifying-identity are themselves unifying-identities, it will be a case of a unifying-identity containing other unifying-identities as its parts.

The distinction between self-identity and unifying-identity is not clear-cut, that is, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether a self-identity is also a unifying-identity. But it is not hard to see that there is a distinction when what we consider is not a borderline case.


Why 'meaning'?

When people are troubled by questions like ‘What is the meaning of my life?’, ‘Does my life have meaning?’, and ‘Is my life meaningful?’, there are, presumably, some concerns they have that they think can be expressed by asking such questions. But what are these concerns? And why can they all be expressed by asking questions about meaning or meaningfulness?

In his attempt to look for a concept of meaning or meaningfulness common to the major theories or conceptions of a meaningful life, Thaddeus Metz suggests, after failing to find such a common concept, that these theories or conceptions are united by family resemblances, for they all address some of the questions in a group of related questions. He does not explain how the questions are related or what determines whether a question should be put in the group; he gives us only examples of such questions (“questions such as the following: how may a person bring purpose to her life, where this is not just a matter of pursuing happiness or acting rightly?  How should an individual connect with intrinsic value beyond his animal nature? How might one do something worthy of great admiration?” (“The Concept of a Meaningful Life”, American Philosophical Quarterly, 38, pp.150-151)). But even if he had explained in some way how these questions are related, he might still not have explained why they are all questions about meaning or meaningfulness.

According to Susan Wolf, a meaningful life is “one that has within it the basis for an affirmative answer to the needs or longings that are characteristically described as needs for meaning” (“Happiness and Meaning: Two Aspects of the Good Life”, Social Philosophy and Policy, 14, p.208, italics added). And the concerns that she thinks people have when they are troubled by the problem about meaningfulness are “whether their lives have been (or are) worth living, whether they have had any point, and the sort of questions one asks when considering suicide and wondering whether one has any reason to go on” (p.209). Should we then say that what explains why the concerns can all be expressed by questions that are asked in terms of the concept of meaning is that the questions can all be used to express needs for meaning? We can certainly say that, but it does not seem to get us very far, for the term ‘meaning’ is used in ‘needs for meaning’. We still have to explain why it is that what these questions express is needs for meaning rather than needs for something else.

The best answer, I suggest, is that all the concerns are related to the meaning of the word ‘meaning’ (and its cognates). Or more precisely, all the concerns people have when they are troubled by the problem about meaningfulness are related to the meaning of the word ‘meaning’ when it is used in some other contexts as well as in the context of thinking or talking about the meaning or meaningfulness of one’s life.

To see the plausibility of this suggestion, we can first consider linguistic meaning, that is, the meaning of ‘meaning’ when the word is applied to linguistic items such as words and sentences. As a matter of fact, it is not only in English that the very same word is used in both ‘the meaning of a life’ and ‘the meaning of a sentence’ (or ‘the meaning of a word’). In each of the other major languages the same word is applied to both a life and a sentence: in German, it is the word ‘Bedeutung’; in French, ‘sens’; in Spanish, ‘sentido’; in Italian, ‘significato’; in Portuguese, ‘significação’; in Russian, ‘значе́ние’; and in Chinese, ‘意義’.

Linguistic items can be evaluated as having meaning or not having meaning, or as being meaningful or being meaningless. It is good for a linguistic item to have meaning, and bad for it not to have meaning. Some may think that anything that is meaningless is not a linguistic item. Let us grant that, for instance, a meaningless string of letters from the English alphabet, such as ‘rytwe’, is not really a linguistic item, but it is clear that a grammatical but meaningless string of meaningful words, such as Noam Chomsky’s famous example of ‘Colorless green ideas sleep furiously’, is a linguistic item ¾ it is a sentence. Sometimes a linguistic item is not literally meaningless in the way Chomsky’s example is, but it is still considered meaningless or nonsensical in the context in which it is used because it does not fit in with the context and does not provide information it is supposed to provide, such as when someone utters ‘I think Epictetus was cooler than Jesus’ as an answer to the question ‘Are you coming to my party tonight?’.

One reason why a meaningless linguistic item is bad is that it hinders, or at least fails to facilitate, communication and understanding. In other words, it fails to fulfill its proper function. Another reason may be that it is an aberration in something that is otherwise orderly and systematic. That is, a meaningless linguistic item is disagreeable. There may be other reasons, but here I need only to point out the fact that linguistic meaning has an evaluative aspect; when we apply ‘meaning’ or ‘meaningful’ to a linguistic item, we are making an evaluative judgment. Likewise, when ‘meaning’ or ‘meaningful’ is applied to a life, the resulting judgment is also evaluative. Accordingly, when a person asks the question ‘Does my life have meaning?’ or ‘Is my life meaningful?’, she can be expressing her concern about the evaluation of her life.

When we evaluate a linguistic item as having a meaning, we certainly do not mean that it has the meaning that all other linguistic items have. There is simply no such thing. In most cases, each linguistic item has its own meaning, or is meaningful in its own way. Like meaningful linguistic items, meaningful lives can be meaningful in very different ways, though it is not as clear that there is no such thing as the meaning of life (this is why some people are looking for it). And when a person looks for the meaning of her life, she is not looking for a generic meaning that all lives have in common ¾ even if there was such a meaning.