Review of Julian Baggini’s, “What’s It All About?”

Julian Baggini (1968 – ) is a British philosopher, author of several books about philosophy written for a general audience, and co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Philosophers’ Magazine. He was awarded his PhD in 1996 from University College London. His book, What’s It All About?: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life, conducts a secular and non-hubristic inquiry into the question of the meaning of life. Secular because we cannot know if religion is true, and not hubristic since it does not claim there is some secret answer to the question. Were there such an answer we would probably have discovered it by now. Baggini begins by looking at some of the proposed answers.

Can living life forward give life meaning? Instead of looking into the past why not look to some future goal, like avenging your brother’s death? The problem with this answer is that we can always ask of this future, or any future, why bring it about? And that question leads to the quest for some final end. In short any why/because series can be extended infinitely into either the past or future and never definitively and finally puts an end to our questions. Other problems with looking to the future include: 1) we might die before we reach our goal; 2) even if we are immortal this does not solve our problem since meaning would always be in our future; and 3) if we do reach our goal, then what?

The main problem with a future-oriented life is that it locates meaning in a specific moment in time. This raises an obvious question: shouldn’t we expect some meaning from the present too? It seems then that meaning involves something enduring, something about which no further why questions need be asked, and this something must in some sense exist now. In other words the key to meaning must be found in something that is an end in itself.

Baggini now turns to the notion that gods or an afterlife give life meaning. While believing in a god is no answer to the question of the meaning of life, we could stop worrying and accept that the gods provide meaning. However, this is to give up the search. In this case you don’t know the meaning of life, you just stop asking the question. As for an afterlife, is there such a thing? The evidence suggests there is no afterlife and even if there were what would be the meaning of it? The more important question is whether life can be meaningful without this assumption.

To fully answer our question we need to find a way that life can be meaningful that is not derived from the gods, or the past or the future, but from within. Baggini proceeds to investigate six ways (helping others, serving humanity, being happy, becoming successful, enjoying each day, and freeing your mind) that might provide life with meaning. His concludes that all of them may be part of a good or meaningful life, but they are not all of it. They do not guarantee that our lives are meaningful because, of any of them, we can still ask: is such a life meaningful?

What all this means is that we are threatened with meaninglessness. According to Baggini our choices are to accept that: 1) life is meaningless; 2) the question is meaningless; or 3) meaning is impossible to discover. Regarding 1—while life is not meaningful in an objective sense, it can still be subjectively meaningful. Regarding 2—while life is not the kind of thing that can bear meaning, it cannot bear meaning anymore than sound can bear color, it can have meaning for the person living it. Regarding 3—although we cannot know the meaning of life with certainty, we can still find our lives meaningful by living them. One might say that such a life is not sufficiently examined and thus not worth living, but that is mere intellectual snobbery. Unexamined lives can be worth living if the people living them find them worthwhile. So a life can be subjectively meaningful despite the lack of any objective meaning.

Baggini’s admits “This kind of rationalistic-humanistic approach leaves many unsatisfied.”[i] A fundamental objection to such an approach is that it separates morality from meaning. Can human values really be enough to ground value? In response Baggini says: 1) we might say that certain people have meaningful but immoral lives; or 2) we could say that subjective meaning is a necessary but not sufficient condition for meaningful life—the life must also be moral. As to the charge that this second response is ad hoc, Baggini reminds the reader that life is meaningful only if it is worth living. And this is to recognize that all humans have an equal claim to a good life and to make someone’s life go worse is a moral wrong. Baggini also reminds readers that simply because life has to have value in itself and for the person living it “does not … mean that the only person able to judge the value is the person living the life…”[ii] Individuals may be mistaken about the value of their lives; just because they think they have meaningful lives does not make them so.

Another objection to a humanistic account of meaning says that we should accept and be attuned to the mystery in life and that the rationalistic humanistic account does not do this. Baggini responds that this is merely a plea from those who like mystery. He has not said that there are no gods or that people cannot get meaning from them; he just does not think there are good reasons to believe in the transcendent and he finds his meaning elsewhere. Furthermore, there is plenty of mystery about how to actually have meaningful lives; discovering what is meaningful to us is quite mysterious. Baggini thinks that attunement to the mystery that we are alive at all is a reason to be thankful. In fact this is a more noble kind of mystery than believing in the mystery of a god or afterlife, which Baggini thinks are motivated by fear that without gods we would have to take responsibility for our lives.

The tragedy and fragility of life suggests that love, a topic on which philosophers are notoriously silent, is the answer to the problem of human existence. The desire to do good things is motivated not by reason but by love. What then of love and happiness? They are connected, Baggini asserts, but love is not the same as happiness. Love persists thru unhappiness and its object is the beloved. Love shows the value we place in authenticity since we want to be loved for who we are. Love provides insight into true success, the kind that makes life meaningful. Love requires us to seize the day; otherwise we might let it pass us by. Love shows that we can have meaningful lives without philosophy, without a careful examination of our lives.

Philosophy is not good at examining love or the non-rational components of human life which reveals the limits of philosophical insight. In the end love is not motivated by reason. The rational-humanistic approach is not misguided however; rather, it shows the limits of our ability to understand life. And it also shows loves’ limits, mortality and fragility. “Sadly, it is not true that all you need is love. Love, like life, is valuable, but fragile and subject to no guarantees. It is fraught with risk and disappointment, as well as being the source of great elation and joy.”[iii] In the end the humanist accepts that morality, mystery, meaning, and love exist without transcendental support. This is a sign of one’s ability to confront and accept the limits of life. “The transcendentalist’s desire for something more is understandable, but the humanist’s refusal to succumb is, I believe, a sign of her ability to confront and accept the limits of human understanding and , ultimately, human existence.”[iv]

Baggini concludes his deflationary account of meaning by saying that the meaning of life is available to all, not only to the guardians who claim a monopoly on it. His view thus challenges the power of those who would control us, and gives us the responsibility of determining meaning for ourselves. But knowing about the meaning of life does not provide a recipe for living it. It is hard to live meaningfully, it is an ongoing project, and one is never finished with the task. Baggini concedes that his is not the last word on the subject, that we need more than philosophers to work our problem out, and that no book is ever the final word on the subject. Also people are different so we cannot offer an instruction manual for all—only suggest a framework within which persons might live meaningfully.

In the end the meaning of life is not that mysterious, it is something within our grasp, and we can live meaningfully. Hope rather than despair is called for, since there are many ways to live meaningful lives. We can recognize all the good and bad things in life and still see that there are lots of ways to live meaningful lives. “We can see the value of happiness … We can learn to appreciate the pleasures of life … We can see the value of success … We can see the value of seizing the day … We can appreciate the value in helping others lead meaningful lives … And finally, we can recognize the value of love, as perhaps the most powerful motivator to do anything at all.”[v]

 


[i] Julian Baggini, What’s It All About: Philosophy & The Meaning of Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 174.

[ii] Baggini, What’s It All About: Philosophy & The Meaning of Life, 177-78.

[iii] Baggini, What’s It All About: Philosophy & The Meaning of Life, 184.

[iv] Baggini, What’s It All About: Philosophy & The Meaning of Life, 184.

[v] Baggini, What’s It All About: Philosophy & The Meaning of Life, 188.

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