E.D. Klemke (1926-2000) taught for more than twenty years at Iowa State University. He was a prolific editor and one of his best known collections is The Meaning of Life: A Reader, first published in 1981. The following summary is of his 1981 essay: “Living Without Appeal: An Affirmative Philosophy of Life.” I find it one of the most profound pieces in the literature.
Klemke begins by stating that the topics of interest to professional philosophers are abstruse and esoteric. This is in large part justified as we need to be careful and precise in our thinking if we are to make progress in solving problems; but there are times when a philosopher ought to “speak as a man among other men.”[i] In short a philosopher must bring his analytical tools to a problem such as the meaning of life. Klemke argues that the essence of the problem for him was captured by Camus in the phrase: “Knowing whether or not one can live without appeal is all that interests me.”[ii]
Many writers in the late 20th century had a negative view of civilization characterized by the notion that society was in decay. While the problem has been expressed variously, the basic theme was that some ultimate, transcendent principle or reality was lacking. This transcendent ultimate (TU), whatever it may be, is what gives meaning to life. Those who reject this TU are left to accept meaninglessness or exalt natural reality; but either way, this hope is futile because without this TU there is no meaning.
Klemke calls this view transcendentalism, and it is composed of three theses: 1) a TU exists and one can have a relationship with it; 2) without a TU (or faith in one) there is no meaning to life; and 3) without meaning human life is worthless. Klemke comments upon each in turn.
1. Regarding the first thesis, Klemke assumes that believers are making a cognitive claim when they say that a TU exists, that it exists in reality. But neither religious texts, unusual persons in history nor the fact that large numbers of persons believe this provides evidence for a TU—and the traditional arguments (for the existence of God for example) are not thought convincing by most experts. Moreover, religious experience is not convincing since the source of the experience is always in doubt. In fact, there is no evidence for the existence of a TU, and those who think it a matter of faith agree; there is thus no reason to accept the claim that a TU exists. The believer could counter that one should employ faith to which Klemke responds: a) we normally think of faith as implying reasons and evidence; and b) even if faith is something different in this context Klemke claims he does not need it. To this the transcendentalist responds that such faith is needed for there to be a meaning of life which leads to the second thesis:
2. The transcendentalist claims that without faith in a TU there is no meaning, purpose, or integration.
a. Klemke firsts considers whether meaning may only exist if a TU exists. Here one might mean subjective or objective meaning. If we are referring to objective meaning Klemke replies that: i) there is nothing inconsistent about holding that objective meaning exists without a TU; and ii) there is no evidence that objective meaning exists. We find many things when we look at the universe, stars in motion for example, but meaning is not one of them. We do not discover values we create, invent, or impose them on the world. Thus there is no more reason to believe in the existence of objective meaning than there is to believe in the reality of a TU.
i. The transcendentalist might reply by agreeing that there is no objective meaning in the universe but argue that subjective meaning is not possible without a TU. Klemke replies: 1) this is false, there is subjective meaning; and 2) what the transcendentalists are talking about is not subjective meaning but rather objective meaning since it relies on a TU.
ii. The transcendentalist might reply instead that one cannot find meaning unless one has faith in a TU. Klemke replies: 1) this is false; and 2) even if it were true he would reject such faith because: “If I am to find any meaning in life, I must attempt to find it without the aid of crutches, illusory hopes, and incredulous beliefs and aspirations.” [iii] Klemke admits he may not find meaning, but he must try to find it on his own in something comprehensible to humans, not in some incomprehensible mystery. He simply cannot rationally accept meaning connected with things for which there is no evidence and, if this makes him less happy, then so be it. In this context he quotes George Bernard Shaw: “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality.” [iv]
b. Klemke next considers the claim that without the TU life is purposeless. He replies that objective purpose is not found in the universe anymore than objective meaning is and hence all of his previous criticisms regarding objective meaning apply to the notion of objective purpose.
c. Klemke now turns to the idea that there is no integration with a TU. He replies:
i. This is false; many persons are psychologically integrated or healthy without supernaturalism.
ii. Perhaps the believer means metaphysical rather than psychological integration—the idea is that humans are at home in the universe. He answers that he does not understand what this is or if anyone has achieved it, assuming it is real. Some may have claimed to be one with the universe, or something like that, but that is a subjective experience only and not evidence for any objective claim about reality. But even if there are such experiences only a few seem to have had them, hence the need for faith; so faith does not imply integration and integration does not need faith. Finally, even if faith does achieve integration for some, it does not work for Klemke since the TU is incomprehensible. So how then does Klemke live without appeal?
3. He now turns to the third thesis that without meaning (which one cannot have without the existence of or belief in a TU) life is worthless. It is true that life has no objective meaning—which can only be derived from the nature of the universe or some external agency—but that does not mean life is subjectively worthless. Klemke argues that even if there were an objective meaning “It would not be mine.” [v] In fact, he is glad there is not such a meaning since this allows him the freedom to create his own meaning. Some may find life worthless if they must create their own meaning, especially if they lack a rich interior life in which to find the meaning absent in the world. Klemke says that: “I have found subjective meaning through such things as knowledge, art, love, and work.” [vi] There is no objective meaning but this opens us the possibility of endowing meaning onto things through my consciousness of them—rocks become mountains to climb, strings make music, symbols make logic, wood makes treasures. “Thus there is a sense in which it is true … that everything begins with my consciousness, and nothing has any worth except through my consciousness.”[vii]
Klemke concludes by revisiting the story told by Tolstoy of the man hanging on to a plant in a pit, with dragon below and mice eating the roots of the plant, yet unable to enjoy the beauty and fragrance of a rose. Yes, we all hang by a thread over the abyss of death, but still we possess the ability to give meaning to our lives. Klemke says that if he cannot do this—find subjective meaning against the backdrop of objective meaninglessness—then he ought to curse life. But if he can give life subjective meaning to life despite the inevitability of death, if he can respond to roses, philosophical arguments, music, and human touch, “if I can so respond and can thereby transform an external and fatal event into a moment of conscious insight and significance, then I shall go down without hope or appeal yet passionately triumphant and with joy.” [viii]
Summary – The meaning of life is found in the unique way consciousness projects meaning onto an otherwise tragic reality.
[i] E. D. Klemke, “Living Without Appeal: An Affirmative Philosophy of Life,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 184-195.
[ii] Klemke, “Living Without Appeal: An Affirmative Philosophy of Life,” 185.
[iii] Klemke, “Living Without Appeal: An Affirmative Philosophy of Life,” 185.
[iv] Klemke, “Living Without Appeal: An Affirmative Philosophy of Life,” 192.
[v] Klemke, “Living Without Appeal: An Affirmative Philosophy of Life,” 193.
[vi] Klemke, “Living Without Appeal: An Affirmative Philosophy of Life,” 193-4.
[vii] Klemke, “Living Without Appeal: An Affirmative Philosophy of Life,” 194.
[viii] Klemke, “Living Without Appeal: An Affirmative Philosophy of Life,” 194.