Meaning for Life

Posted: October 17th, 2013

Meaning for Life

Thomas Nagel and Richard Taylor represent diverging thoughts in the meaning for life. This disparity is well articulated in their books, Mortal Questions and Good and Evil respectively. Nagel argues for the absurdity of life in all its forms while Taylor talks about the meaning of life embedded in its subjectivity. In his book, Nagel questions Taylor’s standpoint on the meaning for life being derived by alluding to that which is objective and subjecting it to the law of relativity. Nagel disputes the very pillars that form the basis of Taylor’s argument on the meaning of life. This paper will compare and contrast the two opposing school of thoughts with the aim of shedding light to the phenomenon that is the meaning for life.

“The meaning of life is from within us, it is not bestowed from without, and it far exceeds the in both its beauty and permanence any heaven of which men have ever dreamed or yearned for” (Taylor 588). Richard Taylor articulates a meaning for life that goes beyond the very act that man does. The author aptly utilizes the analogy of the myth of Sisyphus to articulate man’s perspective of the meaning and purpose of life. He narrates of the character Sisyphus whom the gods sentenced to roll a stone up a hill. The substance of his punishment came about when the stone kept on rolling back and Sisyphus relentlessly pushed it back up, subsequently fuelling the vicious cycle. Taylor paints out the picture that the efforts of the mythological character bore no fruit in spite of his resilience. The author then uses this to draw parallels to the life of man that is filled with endless activities that deprive his life of meaning. This he expounds by arguing that though man works to produce and bear fruit, his fruits are only temporary and influence the fanning of the process of endless and meaningless activities.

“Where otherwise he might have profoundly have wished surcease, and even welcomed the quiet of death to release him from the endless boredom and meaningless, his life is now filled with mission and meaning and he seems to himself to be given an entry to heaven” (Taylor 584). Meaningfulness is introduced into the lives of human beings by subjecting the truth to the law of relativity. Richard Taylor paints out this picture by allowing the life of Sisyphus to experience individual fulfillment. This stands as the basis for Taylor’s argument on the meaning of life. He points out that although his situation remains constant and his life remains fruitless, an intervention by the gods to give him an uncontrollable desire to push stones would give his life meaning. An objective outlook will allow man to see the fact that the activities he does do not bear fruit. However, the introduction of a contrary outlook will allow him to see the satisfaction that he gets in fulfilling the desire to live life as he does. In essence, this represents a disregard of man’s actions and gives scrutiny to the state of mind that engulfs him as he carries out theses meaningless activities.

“The meaning of life is from within us, it is not bestowed from without, and it far exceeds the in both its beauty and permanence any heaven of which men have ever dreamed or yearned for” (Taylor 588).Richard Taylor argues that the meaning for life comes from within an individual. The position of an actor defines the meaning for his life rather than the results of his action. This is to imply that meaningfulness exists when an individual is satisfied in the achievement of his desires. Taylor points out that though the actions in the lives of men may denote the lack of productivity, the denial of this productivity serves as the essence for the meaning of life. He uses the life of Sisyphus to show that his inability to build a temple through the stones that he was instructed to roll up the hill, would imply redemption from eternal boredom. Meaningless activities in the lives of man ensure that he is constantly engaged, contrary to the boredom he would have experienced if his actions bore fruit. The author recommends that man look beyond his actions and focus on the state of his mind and heart.

The thoughts of Taylor and Nagel diverge at the point where Taylor believes that in subjectively taking up the objective standpoint of life, then life gains meaning. “In ordinary life a situation is absurd when it includes a conspicuous discrepancy between pretension and aspiration and reality” (Nagel 13). According to Nagel, the very essence of life’s meaninglessness exists when there is a discrepancy between that which is real and that which man desires to achieve. This thought might be one of the pillars that anchor the difference in ideologies between the two authors. In subjecting the truth to the law of relativity, Richard Taylor expresses the same disparity that Nagel attributes to making life absurd. The ideologies of Taylor advocate for a disregard to that which is the actual truth and settle for notions that cannot be verified. In light of Nagel’s arguments, one can infer that the actions of man remain futile. This is because they do not bear sustainable and eternal fruits. “Where otherwise he might have profoundly have wished surcease, and even welcomed the quiet of death to release him from the endless boredom and meaningless, his life is now filled with mission and meaning and he seems to himself to be given an entry to heaven” (Taylor 588).  However, Taylor finds justification for these actions by arguing that they create meaning for life through the exclusion of eternal boredom and satisfying the desires for man to do those very actions. This therefore serves as the basis for Nagel’s dispute against Taylor’s ideologies.

“Consequently, the absurdity of our situation derives not from a collision between our expectations and the world, but from a collision within ourselves” (Nagel 17). Nagel argues that the meaninglessness of life is because of the collision that occurs within an individual. Contrary to Taylor’s school of thought that argues that the very meaning of man’s life originates from the man himself, Nagel believes that man himself makes his life meaningless. This is because the world in which man lives cannot justify the rise of inescapable doubt. For this reason, the world cannot be blamed for failing to meet man’s demands for meaning. Therefore, the inhabitation of the world remains to be the sole reason as to why his life is meaningless.

Nagel and Taylor seem to agree, concerning the relevance of time in the meaning of life. However, in this convergence there appears to be a disparity. “Whether what we do now will matter in a million years could make the crucial difference only if its mattering in a million years depended on its mattering, period” (Nagel 11). The disparity occurs when Nagel questions the relevance of raising concerns of whether an individual’s life will be of value in a million years to come. He argues that the very essence of life begins to show in the present time, and its meaningfulness can be projected and will be reflected, in the years to come. He therefore advocates for a focus in the course of one’s life instead of worrying whether the life in question will be significant in years to come. He imposes a realistic outlook to the nature of life instead of taking a presumptuous attitude.

However, Taylor, on the other hand, isolates the value of life in the current time to its forecasted value. He even goes further to argue that the value of an individual’s life can be realized years after the death of the individual in question. Taylor articulates this by saying, “Activity, and even long, drawn-out and repetitive activity, has a meaning if it has some significant culmination” (Taylor 584). He illustrates this through the life of the larva of a cicada that burrows in the earth for seventeen years. The efforts that seem futile eventually culminate to the process of life.

The philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche agrees with Taylor’s school of thought of subjectivity in order to find the value of life. He argues that there lies a correlation between the perception of reality and myth. The objective truth, with regard to the meaning of life, must therefore be interpreted through subjectivity. The correlation between objectivity and subjectivity in deriving the meaning of life is similar to that of Richard Taylor. Nietzsche goes further to argue that the perception of life is seen in the metaphor of art. He says that, ‘music struggles to show us about the nature in Apolline images,’ (Nietzsche 79). He uses the analogy of language to express that the diversity that exists in languages represents the diversity of truth and expression. Language therefore remains to be an incomprehensible creation for which it is not worth striving. In the same way, life seems vain but holds its meaning in its very complexity.

The justification for the existence of life marks the conception of its meaning. Yuval Lurie argues that, ‘the question about the meaning of life seems to be directed escaping the flow of life and the familiar contexts of supplying practical information,’ (Lurie 2). Richard Taylor and Thomas Nagel both agree on the concept of a meaningful life but diverge on its occurrence. Nagel argues on the objectivity of life and criticizes the subjectivity that Taylor employs in arriving to the meaning of life. However, it is in the very subjectivity that Nietzsche agrees with and the subjective approach to life. The meaning of life cannot lie in the objective truth that its actions express, however such meaning should be derived from the state of the owner of the life.

















Work Cited

Lurie, Yuval. Tracking the Meaning of Life: A Philosophical Journey. Columbia, Mo: University of Missouri Press, 2006. Print.

Mencken, H L. The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Port Washington, N.Y: Kennikat Press, 1967. Print.

Nagel, Thomas. Mortal Questions. Cambridge [Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1979. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich W, Raymond Geuss, and Ronald Speirs. The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Print.

Taylor, Richard. Good And Evil. Buffalo NY: Prometheus books, 1984. Print.


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