Moritz Schlick on The Meaning of Life

Schlick sitting.jpg

Moritz Schlick (1882– 1936) was a German philosopher and the founding father of logical positivism and the Vienna Circle. He was shot to death at the University of Vienna by a former student. In 1927 he penned an essay entitled “On the Meaning of Life.”

According to Schlick the innocent or childlike never ask the question of the meaning of life; others, the weary, no longer ask the question because they have concluded that there is none. “In between are ourselves, the seekers.”[i] While some lament that they have not fulfilled the goals of youth and accept that their lives are meaningless, they nevertheless believe that life is meaningful for those who have fulfilled their goals. Others achieve their goals, only to find that this achievement has not provided meaning. So it is hard to see the meaning of life. We set goals and head toward them with hope, but their achievement does not bring meaning. The goals are reached but the desire for new goals follows. There is never satisfaction, and all this longing ends in death. How then to escape all this?

Nietzsche sought to escape this pessimism thru art and then through knowledge, but neither led to meaning. He concluded that if we think of the meaning of life as a purpose, we will never find meaning. If we ask people about their purpose, most persons would say that they are working to maintain life or to stay alive, but pure existence is valueless without content. So we are caught in a circle, working to stay alive, and staying alive to keep working. Work is generally a means to an end, never an end in itself; and though some activities are intrinsically meaningful, like pleasurable ones, they are too fleeting to give life meaning.

In response, Schlick argues that meaning is to be found in activities that are intrinsically valuable—where the means and the ends are united; where the means is the end. He quotes Schiller that play is an activity that carries its own purpose. Only when we have no purpose except to play will there be meaning. Work can be play if it is doing what you want to do; that is, play and creative work may coincide. Creative play is found clearly in the work of the artist or in the search for scientific or philosophical knowledge. Almost any activity can be turned into creative play and Schlick wants work to become artistic; he longs for a world in which individuals engage in meaningful, joyful, playful, work. But would such an idyllic life reduce humans to animal existence, since humans would be living for the moment rather than contemplating eternity as self-conscious beings should? Schlick says we don’t sacrifice by playing; life becomes meaningful if we do what we want to do. The result is joy, which is more than mere pleasure.

We should then be like children who are capable of joy in play (work). This passionate enthusiasm of youth, unconcerned with goals, devoted to the intrinsic nature of the play is true play. But does it seems strange that youth, the preparation for adulthood, is where the meaning of life is found? Not at all, says Schlick. Humans tend to think of every imperfect state as the mere prelude to another state, in the same way, they often think of this life as having completion in another. But the meaning of life, if it is to be found at all, must be found in this world. Meaning may be found in youth or adulthood or old age if one is engaged in creative play. “The more youth is realized in life, the more valuable it is, and if a person dies young, however long he may have lived, his life has had meaning.”[ii]

Summary – The meaning of life is found in joyful play, in doing what one really wants to do.

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[i] Mortiz Schlick, “On the Meaning of Life” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D. Klemke and Cahn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 62.
[ii] Mortiz Schlick, “On the Meaning of Life,” 71.

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8 thoughts on “Moritz Schlick on The Meaning of Life

  1. Wow, what a story, I knew nothing about Schlick. I’ll learn more about him. I so agree with his conclusions: if one has done what they wanted to do (unless it is illegal, stupid, dumb, etc), then their lives have been meaningful.

    Even ancient philosophers wrote that this will give much comfort. It certainly does to me, for I realized that in every case I followed my own “daimon”. Schopenhauer wrote that at first one will not realize why this instead of that has been done, why this path instead of that path has been followed, until much, much later, when “everything is clear, and makes sense”.

    This was Socrates’s entire point. I think even many scholars don’t get it, and they, like comformist people, interpret the defiance by Socrates as “intolerable smugness” as one of them wrote.

    How great is to know you have followed your own path and “daimon”, and be even smug about it!

    I still remember how I wanted to master the guitar, and one day, while working in a restaurant, I just threw everything in the sink, and left to go back practicing my guitar! (Needless to say, I was brutally, and justly, sacked!)

    I’ll never regret it. I pity the people who do a job they dislike or even hate! How lucky are we! Yes, we did it 🙂 (feeling VERY smug.)

    Ps – With the above, I did not mean to say that people who do a job they don’t like, should be derided. Sometimes one has to do what he dislikes. But it must be temporary, and not let it be a trap for life, or most of it.

    Thank you for your excellent article!

  2. Thank you for this post. It triggers several thoughts, all of which are more fully explained in my recently-released book, “Wellsprings of Work.” Subtitled, “Surprising Sources of Meaning and Motivation in Work,” it’s available on barnesandnoble.com and amazon.com.

    You explain that Schlick advocated work as an end in itself, insofar as “some activities are intrinsically meaningful.” I agree. “Intrinsic motivation” is pure interest in pursuing a task because it’s satisfying in and of itself. By contrast, “extrinsic motivation” means pursuing a task because it leads to some other perceived goal. Feeling engrossed in a book you can’t put down– that’s intrinsic motivation; feeling duty-bound to read it to pass a test– that’s extrinsic motivation. Intrinsically motivated work is gratifying.

    Shlick also wanted work to be artistic. In fact, many types of work entail an aesthetic sense, from mathematics to law and beyond, and that again, provides a sense of gratification. Chapter 3 of my book– “Arts & Crafts”– provides many examples. For instance, computer programmers refer to their finest work as “elegant” and Arthur Koestler in his volume, “The Act of Creation,” refers to “the true aesthetic feeling that all real mathematicians know.” Perhaps DaVinci put it best: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

    Another chapter, “Play and Competition,” explores how work often merges with play, and thus, is fulfilling, again as Schlick urged. This also often overlaps with the urge to compete, whether for recognition as “the winner” or– more purely– to achieve your personal best, regardless of whether others recognize that.

    Yet another source of meaning from work is what psychologist Abraham Maslow called “requiredness.” This is feeling a duty to act. As Maslow wrote, for anyone feeling dutybound to act, “Is becomes the same as ought. Fact becomes the same as value…” Thus, the term “vocation”– an answer to a calling.

  3. Mortiz is right. He was his murderer’s doctoral advisor: the thesis was on logic in Empiricism and Positivism.
    His killer was paroled after two years.

  4. Ah, I had repressed the memory of Schlick, so sad.
    Life’s Meaning? Whazzat?
    A sentient lump of matter gets to observe quite fascinating goings-on, and hopefully it may choose to practice some non-stupid compassion (e.g., see Chögyam Trungpa) toward other sentient beings, or even just sit in meditation or eating popcorn and avoid doing harm. Dancing like no one’s watching also sounds mighty fine 🙂

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