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Lecture 15

PHIL 180 Lecture 15: Klemke on Meaning of Life

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California State University-Northridge
PHIL 180

Klemke on Meaning of Life. E.D. Klemke (19262000) taught for more than twenty years at Iowa State University. He was a prolific editor and one of his best known collections is The Meaning of Life: A Reader, first published in 1981. The following summary is of his 1981 essay: Living Without Appeal: An Affirmative Philosophy of Life. I find it one of the most profound pieces in the literature. Klemke begins by stating that the topics of interest to professional philosophers are abstruse and esoteric. This is in large part justified as we need to be careful and precise in our thinking if we are to make progress in solving problems; but there are times when a philosopher ought to speak as a man among other men.[i] In short a philosopher must bring his analytical tools to a problem such as the meaning of life. Klemke argues that the essence of the problem for him was captured by Camus in the phrase: Knowing whether or not one can live without appeal is all that interests me.[ii] Many writers in the late 20th century had a negative view of civilization characterized by the notion that society was in decay. While the problem has been expressed variously, the basic theme was that some ultimate, transcendent principle or reality was lacking. This transcendent ultimate (TU), whatever it may be, is what gives meaning to life. Those who reject this TU are left to accept meaninglessness or exalt natural reality; but either way this hope is futile because without this TU there is no meaning. Klemke calls this view transcendentalism, and it is composed of three theses: 1) a TU exists and one can have a relationship with it; 2) without a TU (or faith in one) there is no meaning to life; and 3) without meaning human life is worthless. Klemke comments upon each in turn. Regarding the first thesis, Klemke assumes that believers are making a cognitive claim when they say that a TU exists, that it exists in reality. But neither religious texts, unusual persons in history or the fact that large numbers of persons believe this provide evidence for a TUand the traditional arguments are not thought convincing by most experts. Moreover, religious experience is not convincing since the source of the experience is always in doubt. In fact there is no evidence for the existence of a TU and those who think it a matter of faith agree; there is thus no reason to accept the claim that a TU exists. The believer could counter that one should employ faith to which Klemke responds: a) we normally think of faith as implying reasons and evidence; and b) even if faith is something different in this context Klemke claims he does not need it. The transcendentalist really claims that without certain faith in a TU there is no meaning, purpose, or integration. He now turns to the third thesis that without meaning (which one cannot have without the existence of or belief in a TU) life is worthless. It is true that life has no objective meaningwhich can only be derived from the nature of the universe or some external agencybut that does not mean life is subjectively worthless. Klemke argues that even if there were an objective meaning It would not be mine. [v] In fact he is glad there is not such a meaning since this allows him the freedom to create his own meaning. Some may find life worthless if they must create their own meaning, especially if they lack a rich interior life in which to find the meaning absent in the world.
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