World Philosophy Day: We need to start talking about life’s ‘meaning’

If the world stops making sense, call the philosopher

World Philosophy Day, which takes place this Thursday, is one of the more neglected anniversaries in the calendar.

Last year it fell on the same date as World Toilet Day, a synchronicity that might have insulted some philosophers but had a certain logic.

As UCD lecturer Dr Áine Mahon pointed out, when launching the new organisation Philosophy Ireland last August, philosophy can be seen as a type of "plumbing".

Attributing the analogy to veteran moral philosopher Mary Midgley (97), Mahon said beneath the surface of our culture was a complex system of ideas and concepts that "sometimes goes wrong".


Said Mahon: “If our concepts are working badly . . . begin to drip through the ceiling and swamp the kitchen floor it’s at that moment that we phone for the philosopher”.

Others may imagine less kindly associations between philosophy and toilets.

In his short treatise On Bullshit, Harry G Frankfurt, moral philosopher at Princeton University, directs his fire at members of his own profession, noting "the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person's obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts relevant to that topic".

Prof Frankfurt is a fan of Ludwig Wittgenstein's maxim: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

This might be characterised as the dominant school of thought in secular, scientific communities: limit your utterances to matters of fact; keep what might be called spiritual, or metaphysical thoughts to yourself.

The problem is non-scientific questions, such as “How should one live?” and “What is the meaning of life?”, keep bursting into our consciousness. You can ignore them for a while but to do so indefinitely may come at a cost to your humanity.

As Wittgenstein observed: “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all.”

Put crudely, for peace of mind we may need to risk a little bullshit.

Existential pain

This is not an academic concern. An individual who is depressed or struggling emotionally may say that life seems meaningless.

Although mental health supports in the community have thankfully improved in recent years, responding to such existential pain in purely medical or psychological terms is a mistake.

And it runs counter to centuries of thinking, stretching back to Ancient Greece where inquiry into the nature of the world and the purpose of the world went hand in hand.

It may be that part of this journey is to give up on finding "the meaning of life". As Simon Critchley writes in his recent book Notes on Suicide: "The great revelation will never come. The clouds will never part with the promise of salvation and our minds will never stop rattling down through gutters of doubt, self-deceit, self-pity and guilt." Instead, he suggests, one might explore meaningful activities within life (step forward again the philosopher-as-plumber).

Philosophising in this sense is not easy, and there’s no consensus on the best language to use (the mention of “spiritual health” is enough to set off many a bullshit detector) but the need for honest debate is urgent, especially as traditional sources of meaning come under fire.

The sense of purpose one might derive from work is being undermined by rising job insecurity and potential displacement by technology.

The nature of relationships is in flux, and some troubling ideas circulate in our culture as to what constitutes a “meaningful” union.

We need to allow philosophers – poets, politicians and, yes, priests too – to explore these issues without fear of embarrassment.

If I was to say, for example, that it’s more important to be kind than to be popular – and, what’s more, this is a moral fact – you may choose to disagree with me but let’s hear your arguments and I’ll tell you mine.

The proliferation of bullshit today, says Frankfurt, has roots in the “various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality” and are scornful of “disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false”.

This kind of bullshit can be seen in the practice of taking offence at those viewpoints which you find challenging; in the cynical political analysis that says “all politicians are the same”; and in the censored dialogues on social media which forego any serious critique of our lifestyles, and shirk discussion of the point of all our posting and boasting.

A lot of work has been done in recent years breaking down taboos about our emotions. But there remains a taboo surrounding meaning. We need to talk about what’s really valuable. Thursday is as good a time to start as any.

Joe Humphreys's philosophy column, 'Unthinkable' runs on Tuesdays in The Irish Times