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Lecture 15

PHIL 180 Lecture 15: Feinberg on Meaning of Life

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PHIL 180

Feinberg on Meaning of Life. Joel Feinberg (1926 2004) was an American political and social philosopher. He is known for his work in the fields of individual rights and the authority of the state, thereby helping to shape the American legal landscape. He taught at Brown, Princeton, UCLA, Rockefeller University, and at the University of Arizona, where he retired in 1994. In Absurd SelfFulfillment (1992) Feinberg begins by considering Richard Taylors suggestion that Sisyphus could be compelled or addicted to pushing stones. (We will discuss Taylor in the next chapter.) Let us suppose the gods make this part of his nature like walking or speaking; suppose further that Sisyphus gets selffulfillment from rock pushing as it expresses something basic to his genetic nature. Now Sisyphus work is typically thought absurd because it is pointless labor that comes to nothing. Philosophers have had differing responses to these issues. Pessimists regard all lives as absurd and respond with scorn, despair, cynicism, etc. Optimists think lives can be partly or wholly fulfilled and therefore good; they respond with hope, satisfaction, positive acceptance, etc. While absurdity and self fulfillment are different, Taylor suggests that lives can be both absurd and selffulfilling, like Sisyphus rock pushing. So Feinberg asks: what is the relationship between absurdity and selffulfillment? Can they go together? Absurdity in individual lives for Feinberg is characterized by: 1) extreme irrationality, as in obviously false beliefs; or the disharmony or incongruity between two things such as means and ends, premises and conclusions, or pretentions and reality; 2) Nagels account, the clash between the subjective and objective view of our lives. Nagels absurdity is not relevant to Sisyphus, but if added to the story it would add to the absurdity of his situation; 3) pointlessnessactivities with no point or meaning; 4) futilityactivities with a point but incapable of achieving their goal; and 5) trivialityactivities that produce some trivial advantage but are not worth the cost of their labor. So the absurd elements in life fall into one of five categories: 1) pointless, 2) trivial, 3) futile, 4) Nagels absurdity, and 5) incongruous or irrational. As for the alleged absurdity of human life in general, Feinberg considers the sense of the absurd in Taylor, Camus, and Nagel. For Taylor life is absurd (pointless, meaningless) because our repetitive activity ultimately comes to nothing. And even if we do achieve something, say build a cathedral, this does not cancel out the absurdity since in the end they all come to nothing; all our achievements ultimately vanish. But what would a nonabsurd existence be like? This is important because unless we know what nonabsurdity is like, we have nothing to contrast an absurd situation with. Initially Taylor suggests this would entail Sisyphus building an enduring and beautiful temple. But from a distance of a million years all lives seem pointless and all achievements are temporarythey do not overcome meaninglessness. So the building of the temple does not seem to remove absurdity. Suppose then, Taylor argues, that the gods allow Sisyphus to finish his temple and admire it? Taylor argues that then Sisyphus would be eternally bored, so again this would be absurd. Feinberg suggests that Sisyphus could enjoy his achievement and then die, thus not having to endure the boredom; or even better the gods could preserve him and his temple forever. But then Taylor could respond that Sisyphus would still be bored since he would have nothing left to do. Either nothing we do lasts or, if it does, we are bored when we have finished. In the end any conceivable life would be absurd for Taylor.
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