Thursday, 2 July 2009


I’ve just read Mark Vernon’s short book Wellbeing in the Acumen Art of Living series: the same series as Havi Carel’s book Illness.

It’s a very interdisciplinary book drawing on some of the usual philosophical suspects (Aristotle, Plato, Kierkegaard), religious traditions, but also more recent empirical work by Layard and Seligman. It’s also quite chatty and a single train journey would be enough to read it. But I’m unconvinced by the central message.

There’s a basic trajectory starting with a discussion of the importance of happiness and utilitarian calculations. But happiness in itself is too shallow a notion and hence wellbeing is selected. Wellbeing involves more than just happiness. It also requires some notion of meaning.

So wellbeing is a better word because it draws attention to the centrality of meaning. However, that alone is not enough. For meaning itself forces us to ask the question: what is good? This, I think, moves the discussion on again. In turn, it pushes us towards the matter of the transcendent. The connection was obvious for the ancients. the good, like the truth, was ultimately a perception that only the gods could enjoy. However, humans could touch the transcendent because of, as Aristotle put it, “the divine within us”: the capacity for higher flourishing. They had faith that it was possible for human beings to share in it, if someone lives right….Our question has changed again: if meaning matters on what does it rest today? [Vernon 2008: 48-9]

Vernon considers and – I think! – rejects attempts to articulate a kind of immanent transcendence within human practices and projects. Of Peter Singer’s finding a form of transcendence in concern for animals and the environment, Vernon says: ‘I do not think he is wrong so much as wonder whether he has said enough’ [ibid: 77]. But he also says he writes as an agnostic. And this pushes him to think that the transcendence that underpins the meaning of everyday practices has itself to be a kind of mystery, merely pointed towards. Wellbeing is encouraged by thinking of life as underpinned by a deeper reality. But that ‘reality’ is mysterious.

The closest we get to an account of this is as follows:

It might be thought paradoxical that mystery provides meaning, as opposed to a complete understanding. Is it not natural to think that if life is to have meaning, that meaning should be found in life, not outside it? The reason it might, though, stems from the fact that human understanding is limited, and so the meaning human understanding can provide is inevitably limited too. To be human is to find ways of talking about what you don’t know as well as what you do. Perhaps an analogy with music is helpful. In What to Listen for in Music, the composer Aaron Copland wrote: “The whole problem can be stated quite simply by asking, ‘Is there a meaning to music?’ My answer to that would be, ‘Yes’. And ‘Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?’ My answers to that would be, ‘No’”. [ibid: 79]

The first part of this answer seems to trade on a dark notion of mystery which both can and cannot be grasped. It is as though whatever might underpin the meaning of our lives is merely beyond view. But it is not clear that anything could help here. (One can imagine a question akin to Moore’s open question.) The second part connects meaning to musical understanding as Wittgenstein also does. But the sense of meaning in music will not help in this case. It is as though Vernon appeals to a kind of meaning which might be linguistic but somehow just fails: a meaning that we can (with echoes of Ramsey’s sarcasm) just about whistle.

Vernon, M. (2008) Wellbeing, Stocksfield: Acumen