"What criteria are available to us to evaluate and attach meaning to our lives in a post-metaphysical world?"
"This tremendous event is still on its way,
still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men.
Lightning and thunder require time;
the light of the stars requires time;
deeds, though done, still require time
to be seen and heard.
This deed is still more distant from them
than the most distant stars
-and yet they have done it themselves."1
This passage from The madman carries with it the full weight of the responsibility of mankind's deicide. In this passage from The Gay Science the madman of the title enters a marketplace to declare "God is dead"2 to the amusement of the people there. He continues to assert this claim and states clearly that humanity is responsible for His death. The passage acts both as a description and a warning for the future; the death of God can be read as an allegory for the demise of metaphysics as guarantor of meaning. By killing God we "wipe away the entire horizon"3- the metaphysical constructs that frame our world- our lives become meaningless, purposeless; there is nothing to justify our actions or beliefs, we do not know how to live anymore. Counterpoised are the importance of the deed, which is paragon, and Man's ignorance of the event and its consequences. News of this 'tremendous event' has in fact reached some ears and an appropriate response to it has been the concern of much continental philosophy since.
For the purposes of this work I also take Nietzsche's 'death of God' as my starting point on the basis that the figurative loss of horizon (metaphysical frame of reference) has had a real impact on the world by casting into doubt absolute notions of truth and meaning which has raised philosophical problems that are not only matters for academic debate but affect and even constitute our everyday existence. Nietzsche's passage alludes to the massive upheaval in human history the Enlightenment has and will continue to affect, when understood (when heard). The vacuum of meaning left by the demise of metaphysics leads us to the heart of the most fundamental of philosophical problems with regard to the age; that of how one ought to live in an indifferent universe. The problem man faces is that of nihilism. This is a real (not merely theoretical) problem for nihilism reduces value and meaning to nothing. As human beings we strive for meaning and equate this largely with worth. Prior to the death of God (certainly in mainstream western thought) this has been provided by the postulation of another, 'true' world inhabited by Platonic forms and absolute concepts such as Being, Truth and Meaning- all aspects of the "last, thinnest, emptiest"4 concept- God. We experience desires and hold beliefs, both forms of evaluation; we choose, compare, accept or discard- all in our everyday lives. Nihilism thus renders our lives worthless, for without the absolutes of an other- or an afterworld to justify our values and beliefs in this one, belief is but arbitrary whim, 'meaning' meaningless, and 'value' an incomprehensible notion (all things being equally worthless and thus incomparable). Following the death of God our judgements are without foundation: "Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?"5
Nietzsche distinguishes between two types of nihilism- complete and incomplete. In the latter, God is replaced by another system (such as Science). The people in the marketplace embody this form of nihilism, hence their non-comprehension of the madman. It is complete nihilism (as described above) however that interests us here for it is from this point of realisation of the utter meaninglessness of our lives that we must, if it is at all possible, create something out of nothing- that is, create meaning and value from their very absence. We must, as Nietzsche posed "become gods"6.
The aim of this work is to find out whether it is possible to respond satisfactorily to the questions that arise when we attempt to talk about value and meaning, and also whether we can use what success we gain from this to help us to overcome the real threat of nihilism. As this subject is too great to cover in a work of this size (if it is at all) I have reduced the scope of the debate to what I believe are the key areas that I may at least study these in some depth: criteria, identity and language. Briefly I shall explain their centrality to this investigation, and therefore why I have chosen them.
1. Criteria are the means by which we operate within the world. They act as grounds for, and rationalisation of our thoughts, beliefs and actions- the proof, reason and motivation. This apparently simple process however entails an infinite regress when studied in greater detail: criterion C- the grounds for belief Q must itself be beyond reproof or it cannot claim legitimacy as a criterion. Thus a criterion (X) is required to validate C. And how can validity be claimed for (X)? This problem is important to our debate. Without firm grounds for our beliefs and actions the notions of value and meaning appear unsustainable- for how could we talk of valuing Q over -Q, or of Q meaning somehow more than -Q when the absence of justification for doing so implies a nihilistic tendency that reduces both Q and -Q equally to nothingness and renders the terms 'value' and 'meaning' redundant? If this study is to reach any conclusion then, we must investigate the problem of the criterion in the hope that some form of resolution to these difficulties will illuminate our understanding of value and meaning.
2. Identity: a question of psychology, mind, and existence as experienced. Is there an 'I' (ego/self/soul/subject) that exists as such in but somehow separate from the world? Or is the human being rather no more than an embodied synthesis of values itself? This first possibility entails a human being that evaluates, decides and creates meaning; it makes artists of us all. The second description however reduces the human being to an example, experience or refraction of prior and possible values and meanings within the world; it makes works of art of us. Whereas the theory of the 'I' appears intuitively correct (to our egos certainly) we cannot rule out the possibility that the second description is closer to reality as study of the human psyche often suggests so. Were this the case however our attempts at finding criteria with which to evaluate and attach meaning to and in life would be greatly compromised as the absence of an operating 'I' would preclude such activity.
3. Language: the development of analytical philosophy in the 20th Century has revealed the importance of language in shaping the way we see the world both as individuals and as a species. This, I believe, requires me to include a study of language, specifically regarding the issues of criteria, identity, value and meaning, in order that we can be sure that when we talk of such concepts we are not misusing language and thus misleading ourselves into believing in fictional concepts. Conversely such a study may also suggest different approaches to these questions that could help us to reach a greater understanding of the problem. This will be split into two distinct chapters, the first of which will act as guide to the language of the debate that we may proceed. The second will be a deeper, more detailed discussion that will reveal how such language creates our world-view, and will question the validity of the problems in the other areas of the debate.
This introduction has hopefully shown the reader the justification (if briefly) for this endeavour: the importance of the demise of metaphysics as a way of explaining, evaluating and justifying this world (the death of God), and why the ensuing nihilism is a problem for humanity both philosophically and in our non-philosophical everyday lives. During the course of this work I intend to study each of the philosophical problems outlined above as best I can and attempt to make sense of them in the context of contemporary everyday life to avoid becoming too abstracted from what we are essentially talking about- life. For this I have devised a scenario whereupon we may apply various approaches to our problem and work out their possible conclusions. First however we need to understand the debate we are engaging with and therefore I offer a brief explication of the uses of the terms 'value' and 'meaning'.
2. The Role of Language: Use of the terms 'value' and 'meaning'
In common usage both terms 'value' and 'meaning' have more than one function, the latter more so. As regards the term 'value' the uses are variations on the theme of worth: to value Q is to ascribe worth to Q. To value Q over Æ is to ascribe greater worth to Q than Æ. This states a preference as well as the attachment of importance.
Similarly talk of 'values' also derives from this theme. 'Values' often translates as morals, which can be understood as standards or 'accepted modes of behaviour'. In this sense values-as morals are like value-as-worth in that one mode of behaviour Q°7 is preferred to and ascribed greater worth than another, Æ°. Where matters of morality differ is that they carry a prescriptive element; an 'ought' is derived from an assumption of universality.
To define 'value' as worth is not to defer the problem of its meaning for we understand words not to have fixed absolute meanings but only with regard to context and use. Within the totality of language words largely define each other through convention. Whether 'value' refers to something beyond language is a question of ontology and will be approached in later chapters. For our present purposes however this need not detain us as we are only seeking a definition, which requires that we know how the word is used.
'Meaning' itself also has many related uses. These include contexts of significance (purposive and semantic), definition, intention, connotation and denotation. I draw a distinction between a special kind of purposive significance and the others, as this is the use of the term 'meaning' when the question "What is the meaning of life?" is asked. The other uses, including ordinary purposive significance, are concerned with the events that comprise life rather than with 'life' as a totality of events.
Of the other applications of 'meaning' there are two main uses, one concerned with language, the other being closely linked with value. With the exception of 'definition', which is exclusively concerned with language use, all other interpretations of 'meaning' mentioned above can be used in either context. I will defer the discussion of 'meaning' relating to language and that of special purposive significance until we have moved further into the debate.
The remaining use of the term 'meaning' and its alternatives is that which is concerned with value. The two terms can signify the same assertion in appropriate sentences:
'I value Q' translates as 'Q means # to me', and so;
'I value Q over Æ' becomes 'Q means more to me than Æ'
Thus the relationship between value and meaning is reciprocal. Because of this we can say that if we can legitimately talk of meaning (in this sense of the word) then value is guaranteed. Conversely if we have legitimate criteria for evaluation then meaning is guaranteed. Our first step is to gain a foothold on these slippery grounds.
3. The Problem of the Criterion
I am in a quandary. With only a week to go before I wed my beloved fiancée Catherine I discover that Jill, my mistress is pregnant by me. Those who know of my deceit have been helpful in offering advice. I want to do the 'right thing'; the problem is that I cannot decide which advice to follow; all the options seem equally valid and thus equally incapable of solving my dilemma. However as time is of the essence I need to make a decision and act upon it. Normally this would consist of either choosing means to achieve a desired end: persuade Jill to convince her suspicious husband that the child is his, so that I can marry the unsuspecting Catherine. Or: choosing means considered intrinsically right regardless of the consequences; confess my infidelity to Catherine.
Unfortunately (for me) my choice is not so stark or simple. To proceed along the first route is to presuppose that I know what the 'right thing to do' is, for that is my desired end. It also requires that there is a right thing to do. With all options being equipollent though, there is no 'right' course to choose, so I cannot know it- hence my dilemma. The second route is no less problematic; this presupposes I adhere to pre-existing values. That an action is right in itself regardless of consequences implies an absolute morality- unimaginable for a would-be nihilist like me. So how am I to reach a decision? Well, firstly I shall think through the advice offered and see what entails. Here are just a few examples:
(1) Confess to Catherine, beg forgiveness.
(2) Break off engagement, move to consolidate relationship with Jill.
(3) Attempt to continue double life.
(4) Persuade Jill to convince her husband that the baby is his.
(5) Deny everything and/or run away.
(A) Honesty is paramount.
(B) I must face up to my responsibility.
(C) I should cause as little hurt as possible.
(D) What they don't know can't hurt them.
(E) It doesn't matter, we all end up dead.
It is not clear that this advice can help me. I have no way of judging one possible action more worthy than any other without recourse to a study of my reasons for doing so. This merely defers the problem for then I am required to explain why the reason for my chosen action is of more worth than other possible reasons. Confusing the issue further is the problem of how these reasons and actions relate to each other: actions can be carried out for different even opposing reasons. For example I could choose (4) for either reason (C) or (E). But if I believed (C), even ignoring the need to found my belief on a criterion, no particular action would logically entail and so all possible actions would remain equally valid and further criteria would be necessary to distinguish between the worth of each. Without intrinsically 'right' actions we would have to predict the outcome of actions to justify our choices:
(i.) The rest of my life is a lonely, guilt ridden and sordid affair.
(ii.) I continue to lead the life of a cad.
(iii.) An angry mob burns down my house in the name of the Lord.
-But these again act as possible reasons for an action and so are riddled with the same problems as the previous set. Any or all of the three outcomes may result from any of the possible actions (1)-(5). It is also evident that non-teleological reasons can entail different, even opposite outcomes. Both (A) and (E) could suggest actions that would easily result in (iii.). So predicting possible outcomes offers little prescriptive assistance for me.
We do not appear to be progressing very far, if at all. Questions still remain; how (under what circumstances), can one reason or outcome be valued over others? How can we judge one approach to an outcome more worthy than others? What if there is more than one major outcome? -If the possibility of effecting one rather than another is fundamental in forming our decision how can we know which? How honest are our reasons? -And how could we know? -(A) could be rewritten as:
(A*) You'll get found out sooner or later.
-How could we know the truth? If we are not able to answer such questions correctly then we cannot ascribe truth-values to matters of value or meaning. We cannot assert that (A*) is the 'real' reason behind the declaration of (A)- the truth 'behind' it. Nor can we deny that it is. Is there a real, underlying reason? If there is could we know it? Would it not require a metaphysic? Is the notion of 'a reason' merely a rationalisation that tempts us back to metaphysics?
-How does the inability to answer these questions satisfactorily affect the way we view reason with regard to evaluation? Up until now our attempt to legitimise evaluation has been entirely rational. This demands a cohesive framework of necessarily interconnecting parts. This implies something metaphysical beyond the sum of its parts- Truth. The answers to these questions though, can have no claim to Truth: we cannot answer these questions in absolute terms as the grammar of our questions' demand- for we have already refuted absolutism in the act of killing God. If we are to continue with a rational approach to this problem, without recourse to absolutes, we must resort to a modified and more modest conception of 'reason'- one that is context based, does not require a universalising principle to legitimise it and which involves an application of criteria that reflects this. This, however, is merely to restate our original problem! -And again we appear to be getting nowhere.
If we accepted the absolutes of a 'true' world we could avoid this confusion, however this option is not available to us. The problem of legitimate criteria arises when we reject absolutism but the problem itself, when approached in this manner, presupposes a metaphysical Truth that we could apprehend to justify or refute values and beliefs.
The failure of our attempts to apply criteria leads us to a choice between two options. Firstly, we can accept nihilism and declare all talk of value and meaning nonsensical. This however is contrary to our experience and we would not wish to embrace this conclusion on the grounds that it is counter-intuitive (although we will challenge this intuition in the next chapter). The second option is to conclude that reason, being unable to explain or justify value and meaning is not a valid tool for investigating these concepts. Abandoning this approach would free us from the necessity of attempting to justify evaluation with a never-ending series of criteria, thus dissolving epistemological problems including the infinite regress. But just as abandoning metaphysics leads to a void of meaning so forsaking a rational approach results in a lack of means for solving that problem.
So where does this leave us? Are we not more confused than before? -Still "straying as through an infinite nothing?"
Contrary to appearance we have made some progress, which a brief summary will show:
* A rational approach poses unanswerable epistemological questions.
* Value and meaning are not concerns of epistemology.
* Truth-values are not necessarily applicable to statements about value or meaning.
* The 'necessity of criteria' is a redundant notion.
To summarise our summary concerning the problem of the criteria and our challenge to the rational approach it is important to note that:
* The above summary points have been rationally inferred and so risk refuting themselves.
Although this seems to act as an agent of confusion we can at least be satisfied with being at the heart of the problem. For further illumination we need to investigate the other key areas before we return to this. For now we can gather that although we do not know why or how it is that we evaluate, we presuppose it in some form by our investigation of it. That there is something, which pertains to evaluate and attach meaning is what we will turn our attention to now. The problems raised and points concluded in this chapter are important for our next area of debate, Identity, and in turn will become more comprehensible as theories of the self enlighten the issues we have already looked at.
4. A Case of Mistaken Identity?
The discussion of criteria in the previous chapter presupposed the human being to be a free agent in the world. By this I mean the type of being discussed was one within but separate from the world who operates by valuing and choosing, and experiences freedom, responsibility, meaning and nihilism; it is our common-sense view of a human being. We feel justified in holding this view as it reflects how we experience ourselves and others: as we experience ourselves in the mode of evaluating and in experiencing meaning it seems logical to suppose that if there is evaluation then there is something which evaluates.
This description of Identity has the blessing of simplicity but fails to satisfy our needs on two points. Firstly, in appealing to our experience to uphold this assertion of identity we have failed to recognise the importance of language in defining us as individuals and as a species. To say that our experience of evaluating 'proves' that we evaluate is a misleading paraphrase. More thoroughly we should say:
'The language conventionally used to describe certain phenomena or 'experiences' postulates a free agent who acts and/or experiences them.'
There will be more said on this in the next chapter. For now it is enough to call into question the validity of the 'proof' of experience.
Secondly, even overlooking this challenge we are led to the problems we struggled with in the previous chapter concerning legitimate criteria. Just as we 'experience' the act of evaluation so we also experience the rationalisations of those evaluations. It is entirely commonplace to justify values with reasons in this manner:
'I value Q over Æ because of Q°.'
-But as the previous chapter showed, our reasons for our values and actions cannot be legitimised as none can be judged more worthy than any other- because of the problem of criteria. If the 'proof' of our experience is undermined here then why not with regard to the 'act' of evaluation itself? If this were undermined the notion of a free agent who evaluates would have no logical ground.
An alternative to this would assert some form of determinism. Despite obvious differences the doctrines of Buddhism, psychoanalysis and philosophies of reductive physicalism such as sociobiology agree in more than a superficial manner in their concern with the 'unconscious' and the idea of the human being as a synthesis of conflicting forces or drives that manifest themselves through consciousness. The operations of the ego are thus means of achieving the satisfaction of these drives and 'consciousness' becomes an interpretation or an 'acting out' of these drives. This view seriously compromises the notion of the free agent and the rationalisations he makes to justify his values and actions. The implications of this view are the loss of selfhood, a greatly diminished notion of freedom (and thus responsibility), the belief of value and meaning as referring to desire and its fulfilment, and an acceptance that 'natural' forces 'within' us are ontologically prior to our conscious experience of ourselves and the world.
Would this description clarify our problem? And would it help me with my dilemma? Most immediately it would offer me a range of justifications for my actions:
(I) Humanity's true nature was revealed through my actions.
(II) My deceit was the result of the conflict between natural urges and social mores.
(III) The Self is an illusion ipso facto I am absolved of responsibility.
(IV) It was all Freuds' idea, burn his house down.
These diagnoses of my situation are not satisfactory as they lack coherence and applicability. If we could propound such a doctrine without necessitating a metaphysic (the possibility of which is implied in the notion of a truth 'hidden' behind the appearance of the world) then we would still be required to prove its truth. As this is an epistemological matter we would be led back to the problem of legitimate criteria we had trouble with earlier. Also problematic is that these conclusions offer me no practical assistance:
If I attempted to excuse myself to Catherine by declaring (I) or (II) it is unlikely that she would be much impressed. She may retort that -(I) is an unjustifiable attempt to tarnish humanity with the brush of my own immorality- and how would I argue against this? -Or that (II) doesn't explain anything at all with regard to my situation. It is also highly improbable that Jill's husband Daniel, who is a professional wrestler, would accept (III) as justifying my behaviour.
If we are not responsible for our actions why do we feel that we are? If there were no such freedom how could I be in such a position as I am? -How is it that I face this very real problem? If we are all mistaken as to the true nature of things how would the notion of myself as a synthesis of natural forces help at all? -If its conclusions are not applicable to my problem it is useless speculation. Even if I convince myself that I am absolved of responsibility, the world forces it upon me. To believe otherwise connotes Sartrean 'Bad Faith'. It suggests that I am dishonest to myself in hiding from my responsibility. To assert that:
'I value Q over Æ because of Q°' whilst my actions indicate Æ° is a matter of self-deception and not of an inner-truth beyond my comprehension.
Before we move on to a further study of language, I will summarise some points we have made:
* Common notions of value and meaning presuppose freedom.
* Experience does not necessarily count as proof.
* We cannot always account for actions or choices.
* 'Forces' ontologically prior to consciousness may imply metaphysics.
* We accept responsibility intuitively.
Neither description of identity seems satisfactory; to gain anything useful we must reconcile weaker variations of these opposing theories in a coherent and pragmatic approach to the question of identity. First though, we will investigate the language used in this debate to find if there are any misuses that may be leading us astray. Combined with the points made in this and the previous chapter we should at last begin to make some serious progress in clarifying our problem.
5. The Role of Language: Creating Something out of Nothing
The notion of criteria is born of language; its purpose is explanatory. We intuitively accept 'criteria' as legitimate but were unsuccessful in justifying this intuition in chapter 3. So is the 'criterion' a valid explanatory tool? Does it function successfully? From our discussions so far we can say that superficially the answer is yes, and philosophically, no. By this we mean that in ordinary conversation criteria can be successfully used as explanatory tools:
-'Why did you tell Daniel that you thought Martin was having an affair with Jill?'
There is no need to look for any hidden meaning beyond the ordinary purposive significance stated. I do not want a beating off Daniel so I have pointed the finger at someone else so that he does not suspect me. Philosophically the criterion doesn't work because of the infinite regress we found in chapter 3; there will always be a 'why?' following every response.
Does this signify a lack of coherence for the notion of criteria? -Or of 'meaning'? -Or does it show that such philosophical questions are invalid? -That they, as it were, pass beyond the boundaries of language into senselessness? The reason that we can be superficially satisfied with my simple answer is that there are contextual presuppositions that frame the exchange. My sister Rebecca understands me when I reply 'Self-preservation' to her question as she is aware of Daniel's fondness for maiming people, and mine for remaining unmaimed. Philosophical analysis attempts to generalise such situations and is therefore necessarily inadequate as it cannot focus on the particular identities and relationships involved, and the role these play in 'framing' exchanges like the one above.
It seems that our problem of criteria could be resolved if we first check the legitimacy of our questions, and only ask those that can be answered relevantly within the given context. In this way we avoid the unanswerable epistemological questions we struggled with earlier, the infinite regress, and the 'necessity of criteria' can be replaced with something like the 'superficial evidence of criteria'. As for value and meaning, we cannot know of them, but they are evident.
If we accept this approach with regard to criteria then we are also justified in reviewing the problem of identity in this way. It is uncontroversial to point out the importance of language in creating the Self, our self-awareness, and in determining the relationships we can have in and with the world. Any theory of identity must therefore take this into account. Language in one sense restricts what we can know; its boundaries are also ours. At the same time it is only through language that we are who we are and live as we do. Beyond language there is nothing; that is to say we cannot say or know anything beyond language. In a Wittgenstinian fashion "What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence"8.
In the same way that we accepted 'superficial' criteria as satisfactory explanations we are led by this approach to define identity by what is evident; it is how we experience 'identity' and without a never-ending series of unanswerable questions to challenge this, our intuitions can be considered legitimate. This agrees with our points made in chapter 4: it legitimises our intuitions concerning freedom and responsibility, the danger of falling back into metaphysical thinking is removed and because we now escape the infinite regress the problem of the 'proof' of experience is dissolved. -And because of this we can legitimately talk of a subject who evaluates.
Language creates something out of nothing in that beyond it there is no speech, thought, value or meaning. Within we can talk about these ideas intelligibly- meaningfully, because we intuitively understand the uses of these terms. When we try philosophically to find how and why this is so we fail simply because there are no words to tell us what we want. -And if there were this would merely defer the problem again, and so on ad infinitum. Understanding this dissolves some of the problems we have looked at, as shown above, and so places value and meaning firmly within the limits of language. Consider the uses of the term meaning:
* 'I didn't mean to hurt anybody.' (intention)
* 'Father Considine says that my sin means I'll burn in Hell for all Eternity.' (semantic significance)
* 'To try to excuse myself would be meaningless.' (ordinary purposive significance)
* 'I think my deceit means I don't love Catherine.' (connotation)
* 'The angry mob outside must mean the game's up.' (denotation)
The various uses of 'meaning' shown here all refer to the world we experience- a world governed by the conventions of language, and achieve legitimacy through those conventions and in appropriate contexts. To attempt to explain such terms as referring to something beyond language without metaphysical notions is futile. This is because language does not refer to the 'world' beyond itself: 'Infidelity' only has meaning in a pre-existing language and that meaning is born of convention. If we try to dig deep enough, to get underneath language as it were, we are faced only with the void.
To summarise this chapter:
* The world is unknowable.
* Language creates something out of nothing.
* Value and meaning are constructs of language.
* Not all questions are valid (can be satisfactorily answered).
* 'Superficial' criteria have practical value.
* Identity is evident.
* All we can say is fiction.
As we have now made some positive progress with our discussion we will continue in the next chapter to form a cohesive and pragmatic approach to the possibilities of value and meaning in our lives and so overcome the threat of nihilism.
6. Overcoming Nihilism: The Possibility of Human Divinity
Have we managed to overcome the problems our investigation has challenged us with? Are our notions of value and criteria intelligible? I believe so: once we have understood the limits of language then we can identify invalid and unanswerable questions for what they are. We can now say that the points made in chapter 3 do not refute themselves on the grounds that they are inferred rationally- this again shows the limits of language and the confusion that arises when we try to apply its rules outside its domain.
What I have tried to do in this work is to create the framework for a pragmatic approach to these matters. By pointing out the limits of language and rationality I hope to avoid a philosophical tendency to slip back into metaphysical thinking whether explicitly or otherwise. To replace such abstractions as the foundation of our sense of self I propose the notion of the evident. By this I do not mean the 'obvious'; what 'evident' signifies is what is to be found in this world. It may not be immediately obvious, it may take effort to see it, but through honesty we come to find our own truths. This follows from the points I have made at the end of previous chapters and takes language as its most fundamental aspect. On this approach we begin by asserting that language- governed by rules, justified by convention- creates and defines culture and therefore determines the possibilities of identity. This agrees with our intuitions in that we recognise the importance of language and culture in forming our identity without it curtailing the freedom we instinctively feel is ours. This is because we view language, culture, history and other aspects of the pre-existing world into which we are born not as restrictions on our freedom but as possibilities for freedom, just as our bodies do not restrict our freedom but offer us the potential for freedom. To believe the contrary would imply a True Self, a metaphysical construct that we cannot allow.
We are justified in holding this view as we have pointed out that the challenges to it either imply metaphysical constructs and/or fall into the problem of the criterion and its infinite regress. On our pragmatic approach we escape these problems firstly by showing that the challenges themselves are misuses of language- that their grammar demands absolute answers which we are not permitted to give. And secondly, following from this, by only concerning ourselves with the evident and with 'superficial' criteria which are both justified by experience and now exempt from the illegitimate challenges that have previously called them into question.
We can now accept that:
* Our experience of freedom requires no proof.
* Identity is its own manifestation.
* We can sensibly talk of ourselves as free agents, and thus of ourselves evaluating and experiencing/attaching meaning in life.
So how does this enlighten me with regard to my dilemma? Firstly it means that I am wholly responsible for getting myself into this mess and that it is my responsibility to face up to it. Whatever course of action I choose to undertake, and for whatever reason, is entirely my decision. I must as it were be my own criterion, for whatever I choose is thereby valued higher than other options. If I choose (1) because of (A) then my evaluation is evident through my action. To choose (1) whilst professing (III) to myself would be deceitful either to myself (a case of Bad Faith) or to my (ex-) fiancée (a straightforward lie).
So with freedom, responsibility, value and thus meaning assured I have the weight of decision-making upon me. My decision will be meaningful in that through it my values manifest themselves; they will become evident. These values constitute 'me': that they in a sense pre-exist my being does not constitute an objection for we have already declared identity to be determined by the possibilities of language. -And that this determination is positive: it allows rather than restricts freedom. The world we encounter is equally determined by the possibilities of language: Although I could not live according to Z°, this is because I can have no conception of it- our language does not permit it at present. As language creates the world we experience we can say that there is not yet a Z° to live by.
This connects me to the world in which I live more closely than if I postulated a True Self, or even an 'independent' ego. The values and conventions that constitute the world also constitute me: I am a part of the world, integral to it, not alienated from it. The importance of my decision has become evident. And so the grip of nihilism seems to be weakening.
If we say that beyond language there is nothing what we assert is that the 'world' is beyond our reach. We can only indicate possibilities rather than refer to it. It is through this state of affairs that nihilism enters our consciousness. When our metaphysical constructs are removed we are tempted to approach nihilism as the final resting-place of belief. This needn't be the case. We can view it as a beginning. Gods and artists create. If we are, as Nietzsche suggested, to become gods then the world is a blank canvas on which we are free to create within the boundaries of the possibilities of our tools- words. This is no easy task, the demise of metaphysics leaves us with no ready-made meaning, we only have at our disposal the possibility of meaning- language. In my dilemma I have to choose the option that feels instinctively right to me. This choice/evaluation defines who I am; I create myself. Thus the possibility of human divinity is evident. It requires that I realise my integral relationship with the world and counterbalances the despair of nihilism it originates in.
But does this overcome nihilism? Doesn't the fact that we die invalidate any meaning we could ascribe to our lives? This objection is not altogether coherent. That at some point our consciousness ceases does not constitute a rejection of that consciousness. Believing so reveals our outmoded metaphysical way of thinking with its concerns of the absolute and the eternal. This itself is an evaluation, a preference for the eternal over the temporal and the necessary over the contingent. That our preferred values for over two thousand years have been shown to be life negating leads to the nihilism we are faced with. The world we live in is transitory and contingent, thus metaphysical constructs by valuing their opposites devalue our world. To overcome this problem we need to learn to think differently. We need to celebrate the world we live in. Only when we are able to this will the despair of nihilism reveal itself as the possibility of creation. I have shown in this work that human beings have the freedom to do this, to choose their own values through their actions- to become an embodiment of those values. All that is required is to see clearly and honestly.
With meaning assured in life what can we say of it with regard to life? This is the case of 'meaning' as 'special purposive significance' mentioned in chapter 2. Without an external, metaphysical authority to adjudicate it seems unlikely that we could talk of the meaning of a whole life- for there is no comparison to judge it with, no context to place it in. However we can overcome this objection in the same way that we justified the other uses of 'meaning'. With regard to my life I can judge it to have meaning myself, in that I consider myself a part of the world. My fate is that of the world in which I live. The future of the world is also my future. The values I embody by choosing Q over Æ become, after my death, my legacy and so become part of the 'world' inherited and lived through by others. We have already accepted the notion of identity as dependent on a pre-existing world and that an identity is not separate from its evaluations. In this way my death, the point at which my consciousness ceases, is not the end of my relationship with the world. If I can genuinely say to myself that I have lived according to what I believe, and that I have faced up to my responsibility honestly and courageously, then my life will be meaningful in that my acceptance of the world as it is embodies an affirmation of myself, the world and life. My legacy will be one of joy and affirmation. It is the greatest meaning we can imagine in this world- the declaration of life affirming itself.
I have attempted in this work to show the reader the difficulties involved in talking philosophically about value and meaning. More importantly I have shown that it is possible to talk of them sensibly in the context of our lives and in the world. Due to the restrictions imposed on the length of the work the discussion has been necessarily brief and has only touched on the most important issues involved in a debate which would otherwise include every aspect of existence we could conceive of.
In revealing misuses of language and the tendency to slip back into metaphysical modes of thinking we dissolve the problem of the criterion and its infinite regress with regard to value and meaning. This also leads to the acceptance of the evident as forming identity, as the foundation of values and beliefs, and the importance of each in defining the other. With this notion of identity and with freedom assured, we can successfully claim that our actions can be meaningful for our actions are manifestations of values. This approach to the problem requires us to be our own criterion in every act we perform. There is nothing outside ourselves to guide us. -Could we appeal to the 'world'? -But the world is already in us. The only justification I can give for my actions as none are intrinsically right or rationally superior to their alternatives is that one mode of action seems to me existentially right.
The demise of metaphysics does not necessitate nihilistic despair. What it necessitates is a new mode of thinking- pragmatic, life affirming, honest. By its very nature this 'approach' is different for everybody who chooses to undertake it; determined by the individuality of each identity. Each must find their own way of making their lives meaningful. We do this instinctively through our actions but it is only through the realisation of this that we gain the power to truly be what we are and have meaningful relationships with ourselves, others and the world. Success in this shows humanity's ability to overcome itself: for this we need to hear the madman's speech, to understand its meaning that we may respond to its challenge. Nihilism is not something to be overcome by theory; it must be overcome by the self- by courage, honesty and above all- joy.
1 Section 125, The Gay Science
4 Section 4,' 'Reason in Philosophy', Twilight of the Idols
5 Section 125, The Gay Science
7 Throughout this work the symbol ° indicates a mode. Thus Q° indicates a mode of being, or way of life that entails particular values such as Q, Q1, Q2, and precludes others such as Æ, Æ1and Æ2.
8 Section 7, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus