Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Why Even Mind? on the a Priori Value of "Life"

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Why Even Mind? on the a Priori Value of "Life"

Article excerpt

   To be, or not to be,--that is the question:-- Whether 'tis nobler 
   in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, 
   Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end 
   them?--To die, to sleep,-- No more; and by a sleep to say we end 
   The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir 
   to,--'tis a consummation Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep. 
   There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is 
   suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to 
   answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the 
   rest-whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the 
   mind has nine or twelve categories--comes afterward. These are 
   games; one must first answer. (2) 


What we seek when we search for "the meaning of life" in the most basic or general sense (or for an answer to the timeless, general question, "why are we here?") can be one or both of two things: either it is an explanation for the fact that "life" as we know it exists, or it is a justification for our most basic (or "default") desire to live.

On the one hand, looking for an explanation "why" life exists may have to involve an onerous empirical investigation, theory-making, speculation, or even myth-making. It is an inquiry concerning natural history at best (cosmology, etc...). On the other hand, articulating a justification "why" we desire to live needs only involve the clarification of a supposed rationality (or revelation of lack thereof) supporting one of the most significant "choices" we have already made (i.e., to survive). Our goal here is to do the latter--a more "humble" pursuit.

But why do it? What explains or justifies this desire to articulate a justification why we desire to live? Do we not agree that, "there are certain things one does not ask about: primary imperative of instinct?" (3) Might our inquiry, then, not be only the expression of a sick, perhaps "depressed," psyche, or a symptom of the degeneration of one of our most basic instincts? Might this also help explain why the legendary resonance of "the" question from the mouth of Hamlet, insane as he seemed, has elicited only aesthetic fascination for the most part, instead of a greater moral demand to either seriously answer or dismiss it? Maybe. Indeed, why else would we have "sensed" (as we have at times) a vague danger or insanity about that "humble" question? However, the question has remained, somehow. After all, it seems that the authority of these notions of health relates back to the authority of the principle that life ought to be preserved in the first place, which is precisely what we dare to question. Such circular appeal does little to dispel the troubling appearance of sense and meaningfulness in the question. Perhaps, what we need is to better understand how "wrong-headed" that question really is, if at all, and then also why, nonetheless, a thinker like Camus not only addressed it seriously, but also made it the question, elevating it to a level reminiscent of first Philosophy.

The explanation may well lie in the fact that some of us (including Hamlet, Camus and others) suffer through a special kind of stupidity. "Value judgments about life, for or against, can in the final analysis never be true; they have value only as symptoms, they can be considered only as symptoms--in themselves, such judgments are stupidities." (4) What makes this characterization more compelling is, precisely, that it questions the adequacy of our understanding.

Stupidity is to the psyche as filth is to the body: a Sisyphean problem, in one sense. And philosophy is that hygienic practice that we use, continually, against the never-ending problem that natural stupidity presents--just as others use regular prayer or other rituals to purge their psyches, again and again, of similar curses, or as we all take regular showers to purge our bodies of the natural growth of filth. …

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