Over the last few weeks I’ve started to formulate a plan, or at least a vague idea, of a new book. This book will take its inspiration from something I’ve mentioned in my last couple of blog posts: that non-academic philosophical writing is able to speak to existential concerns in an engaging and hopefully enlightening manner.
Why are we here? Who am I? What should I do with my life? Questions like these lead people to turn to philosophy for answers, but if they look to academic philosophy (in its current incarnation) they’re likely to be disappointed by most of what they find. In terms of both style and substance much of it has become quite detached from life as it is lived and the questions that we ask ourselves about our short and puzzling time on this planet.
What I would like to do, then, is write a book about a philosophical issue that springs from our lives and existential concerns. The issue I want to focus on is existential nihilism – the belief that life, the universe, and everything lacks a justification and ultimate meaning. The world isn’t here for a reason, created by a deity for some inscrutable purpose. It just is, and we just are, and there is not much more to say about why it is, and why we are, than that.
This belief isn’t held by everyone, by any means – and even the people who do believe it don’t act in accordance with it all the time. But it is fairly widespread, and particularly prevalent amongst a demographic I belonged to not all that long ago (namely, angry young men). If I can write something on this with general appeal to the philosophically-inclined public, both young and old, I’ll be happy.
My working title for the book is:
Finding Meaning in a Purposeless World: 8 Philosophies for Life
I want to introduce the problem of nihilism as a personal as well as philosophical issue: one that isn’t abstractly removed from our lives, but – if one is convinced, or just troubled by it – instead pervades and colours our existence. After all, the belief that nothing is here for a reason, that everything came to be at random and will likely cease to be at some point in the distant future, almost can’t fail to affect us. How it affects us is another matter, of course: some people might become ironically detached from the world around them, while still moving through it fairly seamlessly, while others might struggle to get out of bed in the morning. For myself, as a teenage nihilist, it was probably a mixture of the two, and one thing I’d like to talk about in the book is the disorientation and directionlessness of actually living like that.
But I don’t want to write an account of being depressed and having nihilistic beliefs so much as I want to write about how philosophy can help you escape from that existence by finding meaning in a purposeless world. The book will work through eight philosophical interpretations of the problem of nihilism, and the associated answers. Eight philosophies for life, in other words, that the reader will be introduced to through a mixture of philosophical exposition, biography, and literary/real-world illustrations.
The eight philosophers I want to draw on are, in probably this order:
- Friedrich Nietzsche
- Martin Heidegger
- Albert Camus
- Jean-Paul Sartre
- Hans Jonas
- Emmanuel Levinas
- Hannah Arendt
- Keiji Nishitani
Between them they should offer a good account of various ‘existential’ themes, but united by responding to a central problem rather than an attempt by me to present them as some sort of coherent group of thinkers. They’re not particularly coherent at all, and trying to present them as a ‘school’ (Eight Existentialist Philosophers, for example) would do a disservice to their independence.
Some of the thinkers listed here are radical individualists (Nietzsche; Sartre), who argue that we have to create meaning for ourselves, whereas others argue that meaning is to be found in already-given human relationships (Levinas; Arendt). Heidegger and Jonas both discuss the importance of genuine encounters with nature for meaning (focussing on rural locales and life, respectively), whereas Sartre and Levinas are quintessentially metropolitan thinkers. Some of this group are politically on the right (Nietzsche and Heidegger, clearly), emphasising the degeneration of modern life, while Sartre and Camus were men of the left, upholding humanist ideals. And the first seven of the group all belong to the Western intellectual-cultural tradition, with the eighth, Nishitani, coming from quite a different perspective altogether.
My hope is that the work of these great thinkers can be made accessible to a general audience, but at the same time not done a disservice to through over-simplification. And I want to do the audience a service, also, by not arguing for a particular point of view but rather presenting the ideas, examples, a few objections, and letting the audience make their mind up. The book will, I hope, be subtitled 8 Philosophies for Life, after all. The reader will be free to choose between them.
Writing it is going to take a long time, while the slog of finding an agent and publisher fills me with dread. But even if I fail in seeing this through to print, I want to write it anyway: not just for me, and for what attracted me to philosophy in the first place, but also for today’s confused and angry young men who might profit from the great wisdom of these thinkers.