Saturday, April 14, 2007

Created Meaning

Suppose I woke up one afternoon in a Macy's department store and I had no idea how I got there. After rubbing my face, visiting the restroom, and checking men's slacks just in case they actually have anything in my size, I'm sure I'd begin to ask questions like "Why am I here?", "How did I get here?", and "Did someone put me here, and, if so, then for what purpose?". I was having a hard time answering these questions on my own, but an elderly sales associate told me that I was placed there by Macy himself so that I might begin a lifelong career in retail. Of source, I rejected the associate's explanation; for all I knew, it might have been a self-serving lie on her part, and I had no direct evidence that such a person as Macy existed, much less that this putative Macy cared anything about my career. I was not wearing clothes suitable for an interview, and I woke up at the opposite end of the store from the service desk where the job applications were kept. If I was meant to get a job there, I had no special indication this was so.

My appearance in the department store may have a meaning: Perhaps Macy did indeed bring me there (kidnapper!) to get a job. Perhaps it is a prank my friends are playing on me. Perhaps it is a sign from God that I should not get wasted then go wandering around town, passing out in random locations.

My appearance in the department store may not have a meaning: Perhaps I merely suffered from simultaneous attacks of narcolepsy and somnambulism. Perhaps I got wasted and went wandering around town, but God wasn't trying to show me anything from it. Perhaps, because of some unanticipated consequence of quantum physics, I teleported into that Macy's store while taking an afternoon nap.

What if, I tried to create a meaning for the situation I was in? I don't know why I would want to do this, since I'd much rather know the actual meaning of my appearance in Macy's, if there is one; but suppose I did. If we take the phrase "create a meaning" literally, then it is simply absurd. I cannot create a meaning for my appearance in Macy's. I may discover it, I may imagine it or pretend it, but I can't create meaning after the fact, simply because I cannot change the past nor intentionally cause something that I did not intentionally cause. Is this what existentialists mean when they talk of creating meaning?

Of course, existentialists are smarter than that. But then, what does it mean to create meaning? I suppose if I appeared in Macy's without intending to be there, I could let the visit serve some purpose. I couldn't properly say "I'm here because I need to buy a new belt", but I could say "Since I'm here, I might as well buy a new belt." This makes perfect sense. The thing is, it seems to me that none of the existentialists are as bland as that. Nietzche could have saved a lot of paper if he merely said "Life is meaningless, but, since we're here, we might as well do what we like and not let any old customs or religious dogmas get in our way", but he didn't. Maybe I've just answered my own question. If life is meaningless and we might as well do as we like, then thinking people might as well do the absurd and create meaning, just because they like doing it.


timmer said...

But if life is meaningless, then meaning cannot be created. --That is what Nietzsche would say. In fact, Nietzsche did not believe life was meaningless, he was no nihilist...he simply concluded at the end of it all that either meaning was too obscure to find, or that humans had destroyed it (hence the "God is dead, and we have killed him"). That was his big beef with Christianity, in fact. He thought Christians were nihilists trying to impose meaning on a world they could not make sense of.

You might be confusing existentialist with post-modernists...and no, they are not the same thing: Existentialists search for meaning, post-modernists try to create meaning.

timmer said...

Now that I read it again, you might be interested to know that your Macy's example, to most philosophers, would be considered very much to be an existential exercise in philosophy. Good work.

mackwai said...

You're right, Timmer; I was confusing existentialists with postmodernists. Even as I was writing the post, I felt odd lumping Nietzche with the existentialists. Even so, I don't think my confusion was without cause; Robert Neddo put this quote on his blog:

“It is up to you to give [life] a meaning.”

--Jean-Paul Sartre

As I was writing the post, I was in fact taking Sarte "existence precedes essence" statement (rightly or wrongly) to mean that life's meaning must be created. I was taking this to be typical of existentialist thought, thought, now that I think of it, none of the other existentialists I've read seem to hold this opinion. Silly me.