What’s it all about, Alan?: Meaning in the modern era

Having recently graduated, I was re-watching a video of Alan Watts outlining the similarities between music and life. It spoke to me as I was navigating the university system, so I thought it might be a nice piece of circular framing to watch it now that I’m on the job market. But this time around, the video jived with me for more than that–and I don’t just mean Watts’s resonant delivery. This time around, I also heard it as a commentary on meaning.

Meaning is something that’s being kicked around the realm of philosophy lately (like that’s somehow new). There was an interesting editorial in the New York Times about the problem of manufactured meaning, and I scanned an article in an issue of Philosophy Now in a Barnes and Noble that had a similar subject about the current generation and its lack of both a sense of meaning and philosophical training.

I didn’t buy the magazine. I’m sorry, Barnes and Noble. And Philosophy Now.

But in both these cases, the articles were decrying the philosophical toll that existentialism seems to have taken on the thinking of the modern era. Existentialism has become the dominant philosophic dogma in the industrial world. Like any dominant dogma, this does not mean that the world is populated with little Sartres any more than Catholic-dominated medieval Europe was populated with little Saint Augustines. It simply means a shallow understanding of existentialism–pop existentialism, if you will–is the assumed philosophy. One needs look no further than Coca Cola’s Superbowl hashtag, #makeithappy, to see how deep the ideal runs: life is what you make it, so make it happy. A noble cause perhaps, but therein lies an interesting bit of cognitive dissonance.

There is a curiously self-destructive element to existentialism. Even people who remove the purposeful absolutism offered by other philosophical constructs in favor of the relativism of existentialism still seek meaning. Maybe meaning, and the quest for it, is what makes us human: “homo sententia,” if you’re feeling fancy. So despite being post-meaning, existentialism still encourages it. There is no meaning, so go ahead and invent it. But as soon as you invent meaning, you’ve got it. And so does everyone else.

Everyone is free to find their own meaning, but once we’ve found it, we tell ourselves that it really matters. After all, there’s got to be something more to meaning, or else people with seemingly high minded quests for meaning, artists and scientists and the like, would be on equal ground with suicide bombers, serial killers and champion bowlers. But if we agree that all meanings carry the same weight, then these various quests for meaning are equally valid because none of them matter. Still, I somehow doubt that anyone–an artist praising God through architecture, a secular scientist looking for a cure for cancer, or our friend the serial killer–really believes that their work does not matter in the grand scheme of things.

Still, existentialism is hard to get back into the box. Culturally, we have matured in an environment that fosters relativism and favors no philosophy. My own generation is in on this (YOLO anyone?). But that doesn’t mean the search for meaning itself goes away. So how do we reconcile our thirst for meaning in a post-meaning age? It’s about then that I put on the Alan Watts.

Being a bit of a fatalist, I find that Zen philosophy is something that resonates quite well with me. Eugene Herrigel, in “Zen in the Art of Archery,” came to the conclusion that Zen archery was not about the archer hitting the target but for the archer to see himself as part of a process that also involves a bow, an arrow, a target, and all the space between. Meaning isn’t relative to the individual. It’s relative to the situation. The difference lies in the approach. In pop existentialist philosophy, the meaning is made in the moment; in Zen, the meaning is found in the moment. And in something as cosmically encompassing as Zen, that’s a very long moment indeed.

In this way, Watts’ statement that life is like music to which we are supposed to dance is far from the pop existentialist interpretation of “carpe diem.” Someone who is singing to a piece of music is fulfilling a role. In Zen, meaning in the moment is not about creating meaning, but finding your place in a tapestry that is infinitely larger than yourself. There’s no need to manufacture meaning–the universe supplies all the meaning you need as long as you play your part.

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