Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Quijotismo and the Society of Understanding

Richard tackles the meaning of life, arguing that the meaning of life is only the meaning that people give to it. Part of his argument is based on his claim that free agents cannot be bound by extrinsic purposes; which depends, I suppose, on what one means by 'bound'. In fact, free agents are given extrinsic purposes all the time; one can, for instance, simply use a free agent's free actions for one's own purposes, without their even knowing it. Indeed, independently of our free choice, we are given value and purpose by others all the time; that is, we attain value and purpose within their own lives. Thus we, acting freely, can be admired by the millions, or vilified by them; and 'being admired' is certainly an extrinsic denomination. It is also a way we have value and purpose, whether we will nor nill.

Now, Richard's position brings up the old question of whether Don Quixote would have led a life worth living without his palinode (so to speak) at life's end. On the one side are people like Richard, who think that one's life's value, purpose, meaning, and the like, are self-chosen; they are committed to saying that Don Quixote, with his self-chosen adventures, led a life completely worth living.

Don Quixote was more wise
in his madness and his lies
than all the folk who will despise
the labors of Sad Countenance.


They are inward-gazing irrationalists--on this point, at least. On the other side are people who think that the life of the Knight of La Mancha was made less meaningful by virtue of delusion; he returned to the potential for genuine meaning in his forswearing of the fantasy. They hold that there is such a thing as objective valuableness; namely, that which a rational person, acting consistently and within the confines of the facts, would value. Life's meaningfulness (which is what we really mean when we talk about the meaning of life) is the actual (and objective) role it has in the universe, and is discovered through a greater understanding of one's potential, one's disposition, the nature of one's existence in the universe, and not forced on matters of fact by will. That there is something agent-relative about it doesn't imply that it is subjective and imposed by choice; any more than the fact that there is something agent-relative about directions like 'left' and 'right' means that such directions are subjective and imposed by choice. By choice an agent can change the way she is related to other things; but those relations may still be objective.

In other words, 'the meaning of one's life' is analogous to 'the position of the stone'; the position is an objective fact, which is determined in part by (for instance) the stone's relative attributes of being lower or higher than something else. Complicate the position with as much relativity as you please; there is still a fact of the matter. Likewise, on this view, you can complicate life's meaningfulness with as much relativity as you please, and there will still be a fact of the matter. And given that fact some answers to the question, "What does my life mean?" will be especially meaningful, and some will be scarcely anything at all. In other words, for ever answer there will be a higher-order question asking about the meaningfulness of that answer; and so on, to the inclusion of all that there is. And that's what people really want; they don't want an irrationalist 'the meaning of your life is what you make it', they want a rational meaning in the greater scheme of things, a meaninfulness in the eyes of all people of understanding who are viewing it rationally and accurately. Meaningful claims of meaningfulness must include what our lives mean to others. We are not blind monads, but creatures with intellect; and that is to be involved in the society of intellect. That is where our meaning is found, in the realms of true understanding.

So the real question is not, "What is the meaning of my life to me?" but "What is the meaning of my life in the light of universal reason?" and, beyond this, "What is the meaningfulness of life itself in light of universal reason?" Answer that, and you know the truth about Don Quixote. And the point never to be forgotten is that you are in the role of Don Quixote. So, how would you answer the question?

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