Tuesday, 6 January 2015

A sense of identity and the meaning of life?

I had my first conversation since I got back from Durham with Gloria yesterday and we found ourselves picking up from this conversation from five years ago.

I tend to assume that the question of what makes a life meaningful or valuable, a life worth living, to or for its subject is a question worth asking and answering. My qualm concerns only limits on how it can be answered. In McDowell’s familiar metaphor: we cannot take a ‘sideways on’ perspective as from outside a life. Rather, the resources to articulate an answer to the question are only available from an initially engaged perspective. (Though to be able to answer the question will involve some stepping back from it. Still, such stepping back does not sever the connections one has to one’s own reasons for action.) So whilst I might describe the consolations of philosophical thought, a convivial beer, a run round Loughrigg Fell, another person might stress instead the importance of the plastic arts and a heightened sense of the physical properties of everyday, as well as specifically aesthetic, objects. I might be quite blind to all that.

But Gloria suggested that she had at least heard hints of a view which ran counter to that. Perhaps drawing on some traditions within meditation or some forms of therapy, one might be sceptical of attempts to answer the question in its own terms. Imagine a medical doctor (one who enjoyed her work) tempted to answer the question via an account of the importance, to her at least, of helping others. On this different view this answer involves an identification with a particular self-conception and that ipso facto can be dangerous, risking a kind of neurosis, perhaps. Perhaps it would be healthier, for example, to think of oneself both as doctor but also as an amateur sculptor. But an additive response cannot really change the logic of the situation. If identification of oneself as a doctor risks neuroticism then identification of oneself as a doctor Monday-Friday and an amateur sculptor at the weekends carries the same kind of risk. So the question should be rejected and responded to quite differently.

My interest here stems in part from the rise of meditation within everyday Anglo-American approaches to mental health. A later stage in mindfulness meditation is the idea that one can cease to identify with thoughts, or to identify oneself as their subject, agent or owner. For example in Doing the Buddha's Practice by Jack Kornfield there is this summary:

In non-identification we stop taking the experience as me or mine. We see how our identification creates dependence, anxiety, and inauthenticity. In practicing non-identification, we inquire of every state, experience, and story, is this who we really are? We see the tentativeness of this identity. Instead of identification with this difficulty, we let go and rest in awareness itself. This is the culmination of releasing difficulty through ‘RAIN’ [Recognition, Acceptance, Investigation, and Non-Indentification]. [http://www.spiritrock.org/document.doc?id=21]

Despite being minded to be persuaded of the benefits of this, I’m not at all clear of what attitude this leaves.

Part of my qualm is that there seems to be a kind of equivalence between two stances mentioned (and this is also why the third paragraph is not a non-sequitur). Imagine that I describe the world as I find it as being appropriately shaped for philosophical reflection, for finding opportunities for convivial pints, for offering up hills to be run on etc. For me, a (or perhaps specifically my) meaningful, valuable life includes responsiveness to these features of the world. Normally I may just engage in them. But in response to the question I can step back and articulate them. My worry is that it just takes a little more reflection to realise that if these are features that make this life worth living for me, I must be capable of conceiving of the world as containing them. I, as a subject, am the sort of subject who has these capacities for response: to the pull of philosophical thought, to conviviality, to running in nature etc. Now if this latter step is dangerous, it seems that the first step won’t be available either. The only way to try to preserve it would be to have a mere animal presence (like my cat) in an environment (of catty snacks, warm radiators and handy jumpers to snag) so as to block the reflective inference (since my cat cannot think about the sort of cat she is). But then one would not be in any position to answer the question, after all: another way to reject rather than to give a local answer to it. But surely, there is nothing wrong with the local answer, to having some answer, I want to say.

So here’s a (poor) thought. The connection between me and my world just sketched is akin to that between a transcendental subject and the empirical world. In a post-Kantian tradition, it may be helpful to shed light on either the subject or the world by describing features of the other if they stand in some sort of constitutive relationship. But, like McDowell’s criticism of Jonathan Lear, it may be a mistake to think that one can use features of one to justify features of the other. Typically features of the Kantian subject are offered up to underpin necessary features of the apparent world. For Lear, features of the plural Wittgensteinian subject justify our rules in the face of a threat of conventionalism which follows an attack on platonic foundations. The justification is from the subject not the object. Perhaps the worry about using a notion of identity to answer a question about what makes a life meaningful or valuable is the thought that it can somehow bootstrap more than is available in an account of a meaningful world as each of us finds it. If my invocation of who I am isn’t meant to support my appeal to particular features of the world as important to me but rather merely re-present them, then maybe it’s innocent