Life, Death and Meaning

Life, Death, and Meaning

This project follows up on some of the ideas that I developed in the context of my engagement with the human enhancement debate.

It has been argued that death undercuts meaning, in the sense that as long as our lives will have to end someday our lives cannot be meaningful. That certainly plays a part in why death is often perceived as the greatest evil: not merely because it sets an end to our life, but because it renders all we do meaningless. Allegedly it is for this reason that we need to do everything in our power to stop the presently inevitable decline of our bodies and to extend human lifespan indefinitely. Yet there is also the opposite view that, far from taking the meaning out of life, death, or mortality, is a precondition of a meaningful life, so that an immortal life would necessarily be devoid of meaning.

Now obviously death cannot be both a precondition of a meaningful life and an obstacle to it. So which is it? In order to find out, several questions need to be answered, beginning with what exactly we mean when we talk about meaning, but also in what way the fact that we have to die can be thought to undercut meaning. But we must also ask whether life will inevitably become meaningless in an indefinitely extended life. Can we see the value in things only if they are fragile and bound to perish? Why should it be necessary for life to have not only a beginning, but also an end? Would that imply that for the world as a whole to have meaning, it too will have to end one day? And why should we need a final purpose, instead of an open-ended sequence of purposes to find meaning in life? The project intends to answer these questions.

I have just finished my first book on the topic (The Meaning of Life and Death), which is an exploration of the ideas of ten philosophers and writers who have all, in one way or another, wrestled with the problem of finding a meaning in a mortal world. It contains chapters on Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Melville, William James, Camus, Proust, and Wittgenstein. The book is scheduled to be published by Bloomsbury in 2019.

I am now working on a second book, provisionally titled The Analysis of Meaning, which explores the topic in a more systematic way. A number of “reading notes” that will feed into the discussion are already available on my Academia page. See for instance Daniel Hill on God, Purpose and the Meaning of Life, Kai Nielsen on Death and the Meaning of Life or George Pitcher on Misfortunes of the Dead.

Connected to the project is also the first of our newly launched Royal Institute of Philosophy series of lectures, which will take place in the World Museum on October 12th, 2018. Michael Puett (Harvard) will speak about “Chinese Philosophy and the Meaning of Life”. Find out more about this event.

Finally, the Department of Philosophy is going host the Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Conference on “Meaning in Life and the Knowledge of Death” in 2020. The conference aims to increase our understanding of a) what meaning in life is: how it is to be understood, what its constituents are, and how it can be properly distinguished from other features that are commonly thought to be required for a good life, such as happiness, b) in what way, if any, mortality can be said to be detrimental to a life’s meaningfulness and what follows from this for the desirability of radical life extension and other (limit-removing) alterations of the present human condition, and c) in what way, if any, death and mortality can be said to be requisites or at least constituents of a meaningful life. Confirmed invited speakers include: Margaret Papst Battin, Havi Carel, John Martin Fischer, Guy Kahane, Frances Kamm, Antti Kauppinen, Thaddeus Metz, Sven Nyholm, Aaron Smuts, Fredrik Svenaeus, and James Stacey Taylor.

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