Comments on “No meaning of life as a whole”

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Michel Foucault

Nikita 2021-12-29

Reading this reminded me of the work that Foucault was doing in his last years. He concentrated on the Greek concept of “self-care” or “care about the self”, and the idea was that one should view his life as a work of art (a very inspiring idea indeed).


Nikita 2021-12-29

(not Greek, but rather stoic, it’s just the concept was given a Greek name)


mtraven 2021-12-31

I wrote up my own reactions to that “Ultimate Meaning” paper.
Largely agree with your take, unsurprisingly.

I’m not normally a formalist about such things, but I couldn’t help thinking that this kind of confusion could be easily cleared up by a better theory of types (that is, realizing that “projects” and “lives” are just different kinds of things, to which different predicates apply).

Simplistic schemata

David Chapman 2021-12-31

Yup, looks like we had nearly identical reactions!

And of course I am in agreement with your broader take:

God do I get pissed off at philosophy, which takes important and interesting questions and reduces them to overly simplistic schemata that don’t have much to do with reality. Wastes everybody’s time.

Broken link

David 2022-01-03

Thanks for the article, it was very clear and persuasive.

Just wanted to say that the first link in footnote 6 is broken, returns 404. :/ This other link works at the moment, and the PDF can be downloaded freely:

Life stories

Ted C. 2022-01-03

Another way of looking at the idea of “life as a story”: parsing one’s experience into narratives is an essentially human thing to do, and the need to tell and hear stories (anything from a movie or anecdote to a news report) is a reflection of that, rather than the other way round. Even nihilists tell themselves a lifestory, typically a tragedy where the second act culminates in realizing the Grand Deception. The irony is that that story, too, is very meaningful to them. Our sense of self relies on our autobiographical memory, and I think that word can be taken quite literally. As in, “I Am Ozzy Osborne” will have some kind of through-line and culmination point that are at least somewhat honest to the way Ozzy actually sees his life and self. It can be unhealthy to construct your life story along eternalist lines into some kind of soothing hero’s journey, or to force it to make sense, or hold onto an interpretation that once seemed beautiful or comforting. But we carry around some kind of autobiography whether we like to or not. I guess a healthy way to relate to it is to allow multiple, possibly even contradictory stories to intermingle, allow them to take any shape whatsoever, and to keep in mind that the narrator is unreliable. But I’d say that that’s also a great to write, say, a novel (or even to read one).

updated link

David Chapman 2022-01-03

Thanks, I’ve updated that link!

Many meanings?

Kenny 2022-01-04

You quoted mtraven:

God do I get pissed off at philosophy, which takes important and interesting questions and reduces them to overly simplistic schemata that don’t have much to do with reality. Wastes everybody’s time.

And … I just can’t muster much anger at them!

I think the above could reasonably apply to mathematicians too! I think, arguably, in both cases, neither are ‘wasting’ everyone’s time – perfectly, overall. I certainly don’t think mathematics as a human ‘enterprise’ is overall net-negative.

Similarly, I don’t think it’s wrong to think about one’s ‘life’, or to think about it as a project or as a story. I think a large number of people certainly find it hard to not do that – at least some of the times.

Eternalism is very prevalent! It’s ‘natural’ in a real sense. But it’s also wrong – incorrect, inaccurate. (Or, worse, it’s ‘not even wrong’!) I’m not sure whether you convinced me of that, but you’ve certainly articulated that best, and most frequently, of all of the authors of my various ‘sources’.

‘Lives as a whole’ aren’t fixed (‘whole’) things separable from significant fractions of all of the rest of existence. They’re neither stories or projects – definitely not uniquely anyways. But it certainly seems natural, and psychologically understandable, why all of those are enticing ideas and metaphors.

And even after adopting the (or a more) ‘complete stance’, we’d still find ourselves dependent on systems, and at all scales, e.g. myths, theologies, ideologies, theories, stories, characters, events, metaphors.

The error isn’t in thinking of a ‘life as a whole’ as a thing, or of a life as a story, nor even of a life as a project. It’s in only, or exclusively, or ‘too much’, thinking of one thing or a thing in one way. It’s hard for me to think that it’s obviously wrong to think of one’s ‘life as a whole’ as an epic story or an awesome project. And the idea of ‘having a mission’ is appealing! ‘Mission’ seems incredibly meaningful!

But – and this probably is your fault :) – when I think of ‘my life as a whole’ now, I imagine some kind of eldritch nebulosity, an all-encompassing higher-order-infinity both crushing me mercilessly and yet maintaining my very existence, and I find it (alternatingly) helpful/enjoyable/depressing/amusing/fascinating to consider this paradise/underworld in which I’m trapped/treasured.

You’ve been very harsh on philosophy recently :) (I don’t disagree that it’s warranted!) But I find it’s mere existence a very (positively) meaningful ‘thing’ and I can’t be that mad at anyone foolish enough to try. (It can be lots of fun!)


SusanC 2022-01-20

From your Twitter:

“This is a reason his stories are no longer scary: we can
no longer experience non-Euclidean geometry as a
rugose squalene abomination, or be horrified by light
bent from behind the stars, as every educated person
was in 1923.”

Squamous, surely.

”… dimly suggested the squamous covering of certain snakes.” (H.P. Lovecraft, The Dunwich Horror)

Squamous, part 2

SusanC 2022-01-20

And, of course, rugose is from The Shadow Out of Time:

“The Great Race’s members were immense rugose cones ten feet high, and with head and other organs attached to foot-thick, distensible limbs spreading from the apexes. They spoke by the clicking or scraping of huge paws or claws attached to the end of two of their four limbs, and walked by the expansion and contraction of a viscous layer attached to their vast ten-foot bases.”

(Why, yes, I have played the Call of Cthulhu role playing game :-)).

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