To read or not to read Descartes, that is the question
The Search for Meaning: A Short History By Dennis Ford University of California Press, 313pp, $ 24.95
YEARS ago, travelling from Britain to Australia by the North American route, I flew over the Canadian tundra, so I’m in a good position to give you an authoritative account of the terrain. It’s flat and icy.
That’s one way of getting to know the world — you can look at it on a map or fly over it — but if you really want to understand it, you’re going to have to do what I was unable to do: put on your walking shoes and trudge through the landscape.
This is the approach favoured by university courses in philosophy. Students are not given histories of philosophy; instead, they’re urged to plunge in and engage with a classic text such as Plato’s Republic or Rene Descartes’ Meditations .
Dennis Ford, by contrast, is a cartographer or pilot rather than a bushwalker. The Search for Meaning: A Short History is myth, philosophy, science and ( do we really need this?) postmodernism viewed from a very great height.
But how useful is this sort of thing? There are people who think ‘‘ what is the meaning of life?’’ is a real question that may have an answer and there are those who are more sceptical ( include me in there). Ford thinks of himself as one of those exiles ( his word) from our culture for whom the itch for meaning and purpose is not soothed by sport, a career in the ascendancy or the achievements of our children.
Perhaps the urgency of Ford’s question would be more apparent if he had framed it more precisely. But he seems to think that meaning and purpose are interchangeable, though this clearly isn’t so: words have meanings, people have purposes and you can have a purpose — raising a family, serving your country or your god, even being a good accountant — without worrying about meaning.
If you were to insist on seeking the meaning of life, you might begin by devising some picture of what it could conceivably look like if you found it. Of course, it’s possible that you’d have to revise this idea in the light of subsequent discoveries, but you’d do well to set out with some rough notion of how you would know that you’d reached your destination if ever you were to get there.
If you are writing a history of other people’s searches, it will still be useful to have an idea of what the prize may look like. Otherwise how can you tell the potential winners from those who are on to a hiding to nothing?
Ford fails to do this initial spadework. He simply assumes that we — the more sensitive of us, that is, the exiles from the world of distraction — will understand what he’s talking about. This is not to say the journey isn’t fun. We begin in the world of myth, a world of stories, allencompassing, impossible to step out of and without the jabber of philosophical scepticism. Then philosophy appears and, like our first parents after tasting the fruit of the tree of knowledge, we begin to question and to demand a meaning that can be explained and justified. Knowledge becomes an object; it is no longer implicit in stories and in ways of living as it was in the age of myth. Philosophy is born of discontent.
Science — the next stage in our spiritual development or, if you prefer, decline — distinguishes between the immutable and math-
ematical qualities of the world ( the things that matter) and the merely secondary. The measurable, quantitative qualities of a horse’s weight, speed and dimensions are primary; the horse’s colour and smell are secondary and reflect only a subjective preference.
It’s all ( as British comedy writer Frank Muir once said) slightly very interesting and if you’ve never thought about these things, you’ll learn a lot from Ford’s book.
For some of us, though, the world is not best appreciated from the windows of a 747. I’m getting back to my Descartes. Alan Saunders presents By Design and The Philosopher’s Zone on ABC Radio National.