Sunday, January 25, 2004
Every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labor
One of my colleagues here in the philosophy department believes -- with, he claims, Sartre -- that death is the fundamental problem of philosophy. What Sartre actually wrote, I think, was more like, 'suicide is the fundamental problem of philosophy.'
Sartre's worry was that we couldn't say with any confidence how life could have meaning, and so couldn't say with any assurance that suicide isn't a reasonable response to unhappiness. The project of philosophy, it then follows, is to provide us with an account of the meaningfulness of life and, thereby, give us reason to choose to live.
Whatever else Sartre is up to when he writes this sort of stuff, it's clear enough that he isn't really skeptical about the meaningfulness of life and doesn't really think that suicide threatens to be a rational choice. Instead, what Sartre seems to be talking about -- and I think this is what my colleague picks up on -- is the deep need we have to find a meaning for our lives, and the way in which this need is prompted by awareness of our own mortality. And the thought here is that any adequate account of the meaning of one's own life must include a thorough appreciation of the inevitability of death.
Deep waters, I suppose, but this is a line of thought which leads as easily to the bottle as to wisdom. Still, I won't be applying for a job with the IRS anytime soon.