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Mismatch and Meaning

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In my earlier post, I mentioned that the lack of inherent meaning of life functions as a limit on human happiness. It is more accurate to say that the mismatch between the lack of inherent meaning in life and the human desire for meaning is what limits happiness and causes suffering. All of the limits on human happiness I proposed in the earlier post are products of some sort of a mismatch.

That the mismatch between the lack of meaning and the desire for meaning, rather than meaninglessness itself, is the cause of human suffering is a major point in Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus is interested in the question of suicide; specifically, he appears to be investigating the question of whether intellectual honesty and consistency require suicide, the way a certain view of animal suffering might be said to require vegetarianism. He is concerned with what might be called authenticity. He argues that nearly every philosophical response to the inherent meaninglessness of life takes what he calls a “leap” – toward a belief in God, or even deification of the absurd itself, to escape from the suffering (and contradiction) that meaninglessness, coupled with a desire for meaning, produce.

Camus ultimately concludes that suicide is not the only intellectually honest response to absurdity. The authentic path, he says, is to live at every moment aware of absurdity – not to lose sight of meaninglessness – but to also scrupulously avoid “leaping” into mysticism or some other escape from absurdity. In terms of terror management theory, Camus feels that the only intellectually honest way to live is to be mortality salient at all times, but never to retreat into worldview defense.

It may be true that this could be an intellectually honest life. I certainly don’t think that suicide is required. But it is not a path that is realistically available to very many people. In addition, intellectual honesty and consistency cannot be the only things of value in life, in all cases. For many, they do not take precedence over suffering, or even over the subjective value of many “leaps” Camus advises against.

Nonetheless, I think realistic awareness of the many mismatches that guarantee human suffering – not least the simultaneous lack of, and desire for, inherent meaning – is required for intellectual honesty.


Written by Sister Y

June 12, 2008 at 9:09 pm