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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Alan Saun­ders

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jock Alexan­der

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