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How to Live? Reflections on
a Piece by John Shand

by Nicholas Joll


John Shand recently published a piece entitled 'How to Live?' (Philosophy 82 2007: 347-8). The brevity of Shand's piece suggests that the piece is less ambitious than its title suggests it might be. That is in fact that case. My piece, which is almost equally short, is of limited ambition too. But let me introduce what I want to achieve by showing how Shand restricts his topic. In so doing I can lay out those aspects of Shand's paper from which I mean to work.

Shand is concerned to establish the following conclusion. 'If life is pointless, and everything we do without value, then there can be no more value in a life that faces up to that truth than in one that doesn't' (op. cit., p. 347). Why? Because, 'One cannot deny all life having value and also suppose a residue of value entailed by saying that living in awareness of the valuelessness of life is a superior way to live' (idem, my emphasis). For 'if all values are spurious, then there is no greater value in facing up to the truth than not' (ibidem, p. 348). Shand's reasoning, and conclusion ('if life is pointless...'), is hypothetical. As Shand says, his piece is 'not about truth but about consistency'. Thus the modesty of his piece. Still, Shand does expand a little:

The argument is not meant to persuade anyone whether life has value or not. If it does have value, then we can find out what it is, perhaps. If it doesn't have value, then it doesn't matter how we live our lives, and living life in a way that ultimately doesn't care whether life has value or not is as good as any other way. If it seems to have value, then that's just fine, even if it doesn't. We shouldn't be berated for living that way. (ibidem, p. 348)

Moreover, Shand adds a caveat. To wit: 'If the argument here is sound, then why does its conclusion seem wrong? We tend to think overridingly that it must matter how we live our lives in the evaluative sense regardless of whether life is valueless and pointless — "absurd" — or not' (idem). Shand calls this qualifying thought 'disturbing' (idem). Indeed one can suspect that some version of the 'overriding' intuition is at work in Shand's article itself. For he has drawn a normative (that is, an evaluative) conclusion. To wit: one should not be berated for living in ignorance of (or even, he says, fooling oneself about) the fact, if such it turns out to be, that life is valueless. As Shand adds (p. 348), 'Whatever "gets you through" is all right' — a notion that threatens to be empty once one has emptied the idea of 'not all right' of all content.

But I am not interested in whether Shand is consistent, or at least not interested in it for its own sake. Rather, I mean to explore his 'disturbing' thought and, thereby, to disclose several distinctions implicit or invited by Shand's piece. However, I shall not try to determine whether life is pointless or how one should live. If thereby I am providing a supplement that itself needs supplementation, my justification is as follows. The question of the meaning of life — for, as should become more evident, such is one way of rendering Shand's question of how to live — remains rather neglected in recent philosophy. And something is better than nothing. Furthermore, I mean to add a final word that, in a way, is of broader scope.

The following composite idea seems to underlie Shand's 'disturbing' caveat. Life has no value in itself; but life can be given value; and it is important to do so. This unpacked version of the disturbing thought — a version that, just by dint of the unpacking, is less disturbing — I call 'the Thought'. A first distinction is all but explicit in the Thought. It is an as-yet unclarified distinction between an objective and a subjective value to life. I shall return to this. Another distinction the Thought prompts is between doings (what 'we do', as we heard Shand say) and lives. One might infer from Shand the view that my (someone's, anyone's) doings have value if and only if my life has value. More fully: my doings have value only if they serve — are means to, or parts of — a valuable life. One may wonder whether the relation holds vice-versa. Is it that our doings constitute or define a valuable life as against, or as well as, presupposing such a life? However, proper understanding of either version of that idea, and indeed of the Thought as a whole, requires not only clarification of the subjective-objective axis, but also a recognition of two other types or senses of value: value as significance, on the one hand, and as moral value, on the other.

In speaking of value as significance I mean, at least roughly, the value that consists in meaning in the sense of point or purpose. Questions about the meaning of life — questions about how to live in that sense — often ask after such significance. By contrast, it is the vexed notion of moral value that one more naturally associates with Shand's formulation ('how to live?'). A reason Shand's piece does not distinguish these two senses of value may be that the two conceptions can overlap. Religious conceptions, at a crude generalisation anyway, in each case have a single, putatively objective answer to both questions. Two further points here. First, one tends to ask about the significance of one's life, and about how one should live morally, only when a taken-for-granted answer is lacking (a point Terry Eagleton's recent The Meaning of Life emphasizes). Second, in some circumstances both questions, and especially the significance question, will be a luxury.

When one does question the significance of one's life, and considers a 'subjective' account of that significance, one encounters a limit. One cannot simply fabricate a significance to one's life. That is, one cannot adopt just anything — and it would seem to have to be a role or goal or purpose — as the significance of one's life. I am not thinking primarily of the idea (stressed by some Heidegger commentators) that socio-cultural context determines which roles, goals, purposes are available. The limit I have in mind is this. Any putative significance must have some foothold in the life in question. In that sense, there is some 'finding' or objectivity to any view of the significance of one's life (a point Adorno may mean to make in the fifth 'Meditation on Metaphysics' of his Negative Dialectics.) Moreover, such finding must extend beyond that which is involved in any making that is not a divine creation ex nihilo (compare Collingwood, The Principles of Art, VII.2). Still, perhaps none of this rules much out. For who is to say what some people may not manage to adopt as the — at least perceived — significance of their lives?

I end with an idea in a somewhat different register. The foregoing has involved notions of life and human doings, of value and significance, of subjectivity and objectivity. These notions, and many others, may pose a dilemma for philosophy. The dilemma involves rigour. Conventionally understood, rigour involves at least an approximation to deduction. Deductive relations hold, or hold most evidently, between precisely defined terms. But the following became apparent to and through twentieth century philosophy. Most words of natural languages lack such precision or at the least possess it in no obvious way. Consequently, pending feats of analysis or reduction, being rigorous about such terms as those used herein will involve a loss of content. Yet it may well seem that it is that very content that one needs for an understanding of such difficult notions as those just mentioned such as significance. On the other hand, rigour is much prized. Thus the dilemma.

I thank Maria del Mar Medina and Rebecca Pitt for discussion, and Desiderio Murcho for reminding me of the section in Collingwood.

© Nicholas Joll 2007

Junior Research Fellow
University of Essex
United Kingdom

Web page: http://www.essex.ac.uk/philosophy/people/staff/nick_joll.aspx