here and now
February 25, 2020 8:32 AM   Subscribe

Chris Hayes interviwed philosopher Martin Hägglund on his podcast Why Is This Happening: The Meaning Of Life[podcast, transcript], on his book This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom - " it is accepting the fact that life is finite that is essential to understanding and shaping life itself. In fact, he argues, it’s only because life is finite that it has meaning."
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Absolutely. You got it absolutely right. Because fundamentally to be free in the most, is that there is a question of what you ought to do and that you can be at stake in what you do. And to be able to ask yourself that question, what matters, what is important, what should I prioritize, what are my commitments? For anything to be at stake in that it has to be possible that both in relation to all the specific things, that they can be lost, that they have to be sustained, that they're finite in that sense. But also that I apprehend that I don't have all the time in the world to do everything and that's precisely why I can express in practice that I prioritize you.

MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Part of what's so moving when someone commits to you for life is precisely that you know that this person doesn't have eternity to lead their lives and they're making you a priority. You can only do that if you understand that you have limited time.
Selected Reviews:
Democracy Without God [Boston Review]- "In a new book, philosopher Martin Hägglund argues that only atheists are truly committed to improving our world. But people of faith and socialists have more in common than he thinks."
True to Life: An Interview with Martin Hägglund [Jacobin] - "Martin Hägglund speaks about This Life, his new book about love, grief, wealth, and Karl Marx."
Whose Life? [Public Books] - "Yet, as voiced, the cry is also strikingly monotonous, even oddly out of tune with the very world it hopes to realize, and with the other voices it surely would seek to enlist. What to make of such an engaging book that, at the same time, is so disengaged? For This Life places such an emphasis on the here-and-now that its professor never gets around to acknowledging the particular ground from which he speaks—or even who might be interested in listening."
Tyler M. Williams reviews This Life [Critical Inquiry] - "This Life presents nothing less than a theory of the meaning of life. In this ambitious, highly persuasive book, Martin Hägglund challenges the religious teleology that posits a transcendent, eternal afterlife as the culminating aspiration of a meaningful, mortal life. "
The Spiritual Case For Socialism [The New Republic] - "Can a religious person who believes the ultimate stakes of existence are cosmically elsewhere also invest this life with the moral urgency that it merits? Hägglund argues vigorously that they cannot. But in practice the world is full of activists who are religious and who seem to square the circle in their own lives. Many of them say that their sense of the goodness and moral weight of this life, and their motive to uphold and transform it, arise from experiencing the world as infused with divine love, as a creation. "
Bound By Disenchantment [New Rambler Review] - "The question of how we should live with difference in light of what we come to understand as finite, limited, and scarce remains surprisingly absent from this ambitious and well written book. Hägglund’s combination of a Heideggerian voluntarism with a Hegelian focus on freedom universalizes finitude in a rational way. The highest good consists in the practice of coming together as finite beings and, on this ground, recognizing each other’s dignity as an end in itself. "
“This Life: Secular Faith & Spiritual Freedom” [Patheos] - "For now, I appreciate the case Hägglund does make for what he calls secular faith: putting your trust, your devotion not in an afterlife or a next world, but in this life and in this world (5). His other primary emphasis is spiritual freedom: creating systems in which we finite humans can choose what we should do with the limited time we have (12)."
posted by the man of twists and turns (15 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I prefer Chris Hayes of course, but (just for completeness) Ezra Klein also had Hagglund on his popular podcast a couple of weeks ago. It seems a little unusual for a philosophy book like this one to get as much attention as it's getting.

[Edit: oops, Klein is not the actual interviewer in this episode, but Sean Illing.]
posted by demonic winged headgear at 8:49 AM on February 25, 2020

If God is Dead, Time is Everything (New Yorker review)
posted by lalochezia at 9:03 AM on February 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

The attempt to confine the human spirit to the finite is the ultimate expression of what Nikolai Berdyaev called the bourgeois mindset. He calls for an escape from this into true spiritual thought:
It is very mistaken a thing to connect person primarily with the limited, with the finite, with definition obscuring off the indefineable. The person is diversity, it does not permit of getting dissolved and mixed away into the impersonal, but it likewise is a stirring within the indefineable and infinitude. Wherefore only with person is there also a paradoxical conjoining of the finite and the infinite. Person is a going out from itself, beyond its limits, but not allowing of dissolution and being mixed away. It opens up, it permits within itself whole worlds and goes out into them, whilst remaining itself. Person is not a monad with closed-off doors and windows, as with Leibnitz. But the opened doors and windows never signify a dissolving away of the person into the surrounding world, never the destruction of the ontological core of the person. There is therefore within the person a sub-conscious foundation, there is the conscious and there is the egress to the supra-conscious.--"The Problem Of Man (Towards the Construction of a Christian Anthropology)"
The duty of philosophy is to assist human thought to navigate the infinite, not to close the door to it.
posted by No Robots at 9:03 AM on February 25, 2020 [4 favorites]

The duty of philosophy is to assist human thought to navigate the infinite, not to close the door to it.

Well, not everyone thinks that way. One could also say that the task of philosophy is to understand the world as it is, not as we wish it might be; name-calling this as a "bourgeois mindset", whatever else it may be, isn't a philosophical argument.
posted by thelonius at 9:21 AM on February 25, 2020 [7 favorites]

Interested parties can read Berdyaev's arguments and decide for themselves if they are in fact philosophical.
posted by No Robots at 9:28 AM on February 25, 2020

what if life has intrinsic value. what if this intrinsic value is unrelated to its scarcity.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 9:55 AM on February 25, 2020 [3 favorites]

and like look i'm not on the same trip that no robots is on, but nevertheless it is maybe in fact actually useful to describe philosophies that see scarcity as the source of life's value as being, well, bourgeois. at the very least, we should be reflexively skeptical of systems for finding the value of life which just so happen to resemble the system that the market uses to assign values to commodity goods, with scarce goods understood as more valuable than abundant ones.

it is easy for us to say that life has meaning because it is scarce, because we've been trained from birth to prefer the scarce over the plentiful. the water in which we swim — the market, capitalism, that stuff — teaches us to recognize the value of scarce goods more than we recognize the value of abundant goods. but perhaps abundant life is more valuable, indeed, more meaningful, than scarce life is.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 10:09 AM on February 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

anyway. presumably hägglund would be deeply annoyed that we're starting discussion on this footing. but anyway: life right now is indeed scarce, and we must recognize and respect it for that — we must put living labor ahead of dead capital, we must treat other living creatures as ends to themselves rather than as means to ends, etc. etc.

but also, we must not also fall into the trap of uncritically treating scarcity and meaning as identical.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 10:15 AM on February 25, 2020 [4 favorites]

CHRIS HAYES: They think they believe in God, but actually the way they make meaning out of their lives and the way they conduct themselves shows as a kind of almost revealed preference that they actually think that there's nothing beyond us.

This has always been my point of view.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:38 AM on February 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

When people say that the finiteness of life gives it meaning, what are they comparing as the alternative? Infinitely long life spans? From what we know of the universe, infinite life spans are impossible.

Also, suppose we were to extend our lifespans to say ten thousand years. Would those long lifespans be less meaningful than our current ones? I can't see why they would be. Meaning expands to fill the available time, does it not?

Talking mathematically though, if the life of 1 year is meaningful and the life of n years is meaningful, along with the life of n+1 years, then by induction, the infinite life is also meaningful, if we are somehow able to transcend the heat death of the universe.
posted by storybored at 12:40 PM on February 25, 2020

Maybe there's some truth to it, but I've always hated this platitude. I think the way in which the old and powerful are destroying the planet for the next generation is entirely because their lives are ending sooner rather than later. If they actually had to live with the consequences of their actions I think the global political response to global warming would be much swifter. Similarly, I think many people double down on bad decisions due to the fallacy of sunken costs. Again, if our lives weren't so short, I think this would be much less of a problem.

I try to thankful for what I have and accept my mortality, but please don't ask me to be thankful for that too.
posted by Alex404 at 1:02 PM on February 25, 2020 [5 favorites]

Talking mathematically though, if the life of 1 year is meaningful and the life of n years is meaningful, along with the life of n+1 years, then by induction, the infinite life is also meaningful, if we are somehow able to transcend the heat death of the universe.

Well, if we're reducing life to math, I'd think it would work on a curve. We just need to find the optimal length of life!
posted by GoblinHoney at 2:57 PM on February 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

This sort of finitude is not finite enough. This is proper finitude:

"One thing in any case is certain: man is neither the oldest nor the most constant problem that has been posed for human knowledge. Taking a relatively short chronological sample within a restricted geographical area – European culture since the sixteenth century – one can be certain that man is a recent invention within it. It is not around him and his secrets that knowledge prowled for so long in the darkness. In fact, among all the mutations that have affected the knowledge of things and their order, the knowledge of identities, differences, characters, equivalences, words – in short, in the midst of all the episodes of that profound history of the Same – only one, that which began a century and a half ago and is now perhaps drawing to a close, has made it possible for the figure of man to appear. And that appearance was not the liberation of an old anxiety, the transition into luminous consciousness of an age-old concern, the entry into objectivity of something that had long remained trapped within beliefs and philosophies: it was the effect of a change in the fundamental arrangements of knowledge. As the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end.

If those arrangements were to disappear as they appeared, if some event of which we can at the moment do no more than sense the possibility – without knowing either what its form will be or what it promises – were to cause them to crumble, as the ground of Classical thought did, at the end of the eighteenth century, then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.”
posted by Pyrogenesis at 5:42 PM on February 25, 2020

The NY Times just posted a nice interview with Tibetan monk Geshe Dadul Namgyal that discusses death and life from a Buddhist perspective.
posted by PhineasGage at 9:06 AM on February 26, 2020

Nice article.

"In the Buddhist tradition, particularly at the Vajrayana level, we believe in the continuity of subtle mind and subtle energy into the next life, and the next after that, and so on without end. This subtle mind-energy is eternal; it knows no creation or destruction. For us ordinary beings, this way of transitioning into a new life happens not by choice but under the influence of our past virtuous and non-virtuous actions. This includes the possibility of being born into many forms of life."

I'm going to devil's advocate here and ask, to what extent is this Buddhist belief a denial of death, and therefore an expression of the fear of death?
posted by storybored at 7:30 PM on February 26, 2020

« Older “human condition,” and now   |   Be a Lady They Said Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments