Sunday, March 29, 2009

Man and his relation to the world? A meditation on meaning.

"One must know oneself before knowing anything else. It is only after a man has thus understood himself and has thus seen his way, that life acquires peace and significance..." - Kierkegaard

This statement is a sort of universal idea. Its one that can be found in most cultures world wide. It opens up the idea of meaning, what is man's meaning? Does man have a meaning? Is there a meaning for all people as a whole or a meaning for individual people? All creations have a purpose. For instance, all things made by man have a meaning behind them, for instance the hammer has a purpose to help build things. So too man has a purpose in life, but what is man's wider purpose? Some will simply state man has no purpose and , others state that man's purpose is to glorify God. Both answers are far too simplistic too describe the meaning of man beyond somebody's personal opinion that is ruled purely by religious or anti-religious zeal. So what is man's meaning? Berdyaev seems to say that the meaning or purpose of Man's life is to find meaning in a meaningless world. Its an interesting view that might remind some of Nietzsche's view on meaning, where there is no meaning and man creates meaning. This isn't what Berdyaev is saying though. We do not create meaning, in his view, but rather meaning is revealed to us in the event of activity. Its not in an object that is being known (scientific materialism) which ultimately says there is no meaning, or found within the subject the one doing the knowing (Kant and Hegel). As far as I understand, the idea of knowledge being within the subject is similar to what Rahner claims when he says we take in objects with our senses, and then extract what they are from within ourselves. Of course this is getting into a philosophy of knowledge (epistemology), but perhaps the meaning of life is found within Epistemology (though I think its in metaphysics).

"..What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know." - Kierkegaard

Its interesting that he says "what to do " as opposed to what to know. He says later on that its pointless to know the universal truths of reality if it had no deeper significance for his own life. The question of meaning is perhaps much more personal for each person, rather then a universal. I'd say the universal is necessary to give an overview, so each person's meaning is found within their creative activity reaching out into a world of unmeaning as Berdyaev says. The personal then, is what each person is meant to do, what is their own creative activity meant to accomplish their quest for meaning.

The Greek Philosopher Plato(Πλατων) says in "The Republic" that people are arranged in a class system of sorts. He creates a whole mythology of the gods fashioning men with types of metal as part of them. The myth is not real of course, people really don't have metals in them, but his point is that not all people are meant to do the same things. Certain types of people are meant to do certain types of things and it would be bad if those who didn't do the things they should skip out of their destiny. Some other philosophers disagree and say that everyone starts off as a sort of white board and that we are not destined or supposed to do anything with our lives but whatever we choose to do. Yet even in nature there is a genetic predisposition to certain things. Perhaps there is a middle ground between these two views on where personal meaning is found? I would say that some people may be supposed to have meaning revealed to them in specific tasks, while others have meaning revealed to them within a broad range of activities. I do not think anyone is a clean slate or white board though. Everyone is not equally good at all things, not even at birth. Some people learn faster then others, some people are able to build muscle mass better then others. So rather then claim everyone can do anything they want to do, its better to figure out what one should do. Sometimes they line up of course, but not always. So its not a question of what should I put on my white board of life, its more of a question of how much or how little is already on the board. What more is there to be added to a person's board?


Edited , typos, better explained some things.


  1. Just as a side note, from a theological view. Since all we can know of God is His energies, or activity, it should be no surprise that meaning is revealed to us by our own energies/activity within the world.

  2. Good post, and welcome to the blogosphere.

    I always thought that Plato's model did not really allow for growth, and was best suited as a tool of totalitarians to be used to placate those under them. However, as you pointed out individual humans do have their own talents and affinities. Discovering uses for these attributes is a lifelong process. . . .