Terry Eagleton – The Meaning of Life (2007)

A shockingly disappointing collection of armchair impressions including commentary on current Isalm vs. The West conflicts , decontextualized poaching of Wittgenstein aphorisms, and cursory reading of all of Beckett in 9 pages. That each page only contains about 50 words makes this feet all the more impressive. Spends a long time “deconstructing” the word “meaning” before turning, very briefly, to the concept of life. Unfortunately, he fails to treat life as a biological necessity, but only as the source of meaning that he has spent so much time calling into question. For Eagleton, life isn’t about preserving the body, but only about meaning-giving processes that find their fullest expression in acts of altruism or love. So the final chapter claims life = love, which is a fitting conclusion to a book that aspires to so little (or so much, which is the same  thing when dealing with these large issues).

Eagleton does usefully summarize certain philosophers like Schopenhauer, in particular, showing how the Will, as completely self-determining, is based on the model of appetite. All consciousness is false consciousness. Thus the human enterprise is much like the mole’s:

To dig strenuously with its enormous shovel-paws is the business of its whole life; permanent night surrounds it…what does it attain by its course of life that is full of trouble and devoid of please? Nourishment and procreation, that is, only the menas for continuing and beginning again in the new individual the same melancholy course. (The World as Will and Representation, 353-4)

Eagleton draws a parallel between Schopenhauer’s Will and Freud’s Desire, showing how both depend on a fundamental lack for their perpetual dynamism.  For Nietzsche, the Will to Power “means the tendency of all things to realize, expand, and augment themselves; and it is reasonable to see this end in itself, just as Aristotle regards human flourishing as an end in itself. Spinoza viewed power in much the same way” (154). This sort of parallelism is what is most helpful about Eagleton’s book: it takes, for example, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (Happiness = life, because it is self-grounded, i.e. we cannot reasonably ask why someone wants to be happy), and shows how it traces through a diverse range of thinkers. To add another to the list, Karl Marx’s master concept would be history, or the self-transcendence of the linguistic animal.

Eagleton uses Wittgenstein to both underwrite and subvert his entire project of finding life’s meaning. From the Tractatus:

We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, then problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer. The solution of the problem is seen in the vanishing of this problem. (6.5, 6.251)

Relate this to Witt’s essay on ethics, in which the final book on essays destroys all other books. How do these two images of extreme resolution fit together?

Finally, there is a curious debate stages between Heidegger and Lacan: whereas  Heidegger searches out the meaning of being, Lacan transforms the problem into meaning vs. being. For Lacan, the subject can either “mean” or “be,” but it cannot do both at the same time. In Eagleton’s words:

Once we enter into language, and thus into our humanity, what one might call the ‘truth of the subject,’ its being-as-such, is divided up into an unending chain of partial meanings,. We attain meaning only at the price of a loss of being. (91)


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