In a recent article Iddo Landau has defended his distinction between perspectives on and standards of meaning in life to support his rebuttal of a familiar pessimistic objection to the meaningfulness of human life. According to that complaint, human life is meaningless when viewed from a detached, cosmic, or sub specie aeternitatis [SSA] perspective. Landau argues that a cosmic perspective need not entail a comparably high standard of meaningfulness. What counts on his view then is not the perspective, which is compatible with any number of possible standards for what constitutes an adequate amount of meaningfulness, but the standard that sets that threshold. In this article I argue that Landau has 1.a.) underestimated the severity of the pessimists’ critique of the availability of any standards for meaningfulness and has also 1.b.) misunderstood the pessimists to be saying that human lives are meaningless because they make an insufficient spatio-temporal impact. I argue further that 2.a.) Landau has left unexplained on what basis we would locate the standard of meaning, leaving a gap in his account. Finally, I maintain that 2.b.) by acknowledging that the ontological, normative, or theological content of the SSA perspective can influence the placing of that standard, Landau leaves himself open to the plausible alternative possibility that the meaning of a life is settled not by the standard itself but by the character attributed to the SSA perspective.
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This four-fold breakdown of the contested valences of appeals to the SSA is the one articulated by Joshua W. Seachris in the article to which Landau’s 2014 article responds. See Seachris 2013. The status of the ontological/normative implications of the SSA is at the heart of the debate between Landau and Seachris. The latter places a great deal of importance on the implicit ontological/normative content of the SSA, while Landau is at pains to diminish the importance of ontological/normative considerations. In this article I do not defend all of what Seachris argues for the central importance of the ontological/normative, but I do conclude that the ontological/normative dimension is one that Landau cannot evade. I agree however with Landau that it is difficult (as Seachris attempts) to subject the SSA as it is currently discussed in the literature to a disciplined conceptual analysis. Like Landau, I take it that the SSA currently functions more as an “umbrella term.” See Landau 2014, 460. Thomas Nagel’s analyses (though they track an evolving set of thoughts) (Nagel 1986; Nagel 1971; and Nagel 2010) are the most thoroughly developed and carefully argued among analytic philosophers, but even he, particularly in the earlier writings, deploys a wide array of confusing and potentially conflicting metaphors and images. See Westphal and Cherry 1990, 199.
The pessimists have in common a conviction that life is meaningless (or at least absurd) under the SSA perspective. As Landau observes, some pessimists advise minimizing the SSA perspective and clinging to the SSH in order to secure some sense of at least private or personal meaning (Rescher and Blackburn), while Nagel stands in a somewhat unique position by insisting that the SSA perspective cannot be successfully shut out and thus that one must live in the irresolvable tension between the SSA and SSH perspectives that he calls “absurd” (Landau 2014, 458, 467. See also Nagel 1971). I am not defending a pessimistic view in this paper. My aim is simply to show that Landau’s dissociation of standards and perspectives cannot by itself defeat the strongest pessimistic argument, which I take to be advanced by Nagel.
Landau recognizes that this option is a possible one, but it is not the route he takes. He associates this move with Blackburn, Frank Ramsey, Rescher, Camus, and (questionably in my view) Nagel (Landau 2011, 727–728). Because neither Seachris nor Landau relies on a retreat to the SSH I will not refer to it again here and like them confine myself to debates over the SSA perspective.
One might also read Susan Wolf’s work as a response to her teacher Nagel’s pessimism, though to my knowledge she has rarely put it that bluntly (except perhaps see Wolf 2015, 102–103). Her introduction of a subjective criterion for meaningfulness and motivating reasons of love could be interpreted as an effort on her part to “close the gap” so to speak opened up by Nagel’s description of the absurd situation that results from the inability to reconcile the objective and subjective perspectives on meaning in life. See Wolf 2010. She too refers to the same philosophers that Landau does and like him calls them “pessimists.” See Wolf 2015, 103.
It might be worth acknowledging too that some element of this debate comes down not so much to rational argumentation but to temperament or outlook. Wolf’s blunt rejection of the pessimists’ concern is not an argument but an expression of a disposition to see the world in a certain way and probably a disposition that governs to some extent what arguments will seem plausible or well-motivated in the first place. It is not unimportant that Nagel refers in his essay to “the religious temperament,” by which he precisely means “a disposition to seek a view of the world that can play a certain role in the inner life.” See Nagel 2010, 4. The religious temperament as he presents it is a desire for a complete and satisfying connection between oneself and the whole of reality. This desire is satisfied for many by religion, but even in the absence of religious belief, Nagel feels that such a temperament can still be present. He names Hume, convincingly I think, as a great philosopher of the past who is completely lacking such a temperament. “His serene naturalism is a deep expression of his temperament, and he obviously feels no yearning for harmony with the cosmos.” Nagel 2010, 7.
On this score I am reinforcing what I take to be one of Seachris’s most important criticisms of Landau’s first paper on the SSA perspective. See Seachris 2013, 619.
This is why Nagel says that only religion purports to be able to achieve this feat (Nagel 1986, 210). Though he remains in search of a secular alternative (Nagel 2010, 3–6), Nagel is clear that humanism too is not the answer to reconciling the objective and subjective views (Nagel 1986, 210; Nagel 2010, 10–11, 17). Landau’s account is entirely humanistic, and it seems to me to vindicate it he would have to confront Nagel’s deep reservations about the adequacy of the humanistic approach to meaningfulness.
I suspect that Landau’s reluctance to give too much ground on this issue is a result of his confrontation with Seachris. Seachris argues that “standards for meaningfulness cannot be sharply distinguished from the SSA perspective when that perspective’s ontological/normative component is most salient. The lesson here is that settling the issue of whether or not one can secure standards for meaningfulness independent of SSA, while also avoiding a retreat to SSH, cannot itself be divorced from what component of SSA is at the fore in a consideration of life’s meaningfulness, and, more fundamentally, what SSA means. I have not argued that Landau is wrong to claim that viewing life SSA need not lead to the conclusion that life is meaningless. My point is more subtle. If the time and spatial components are most salient, then Landau’s argument is reasonable. However, if the ontological/normative component is most salient, then one is presented with a genuine dilemma: (a) either retreat to SSH in order to secure a meaningful life, or (b) accept a standard for meaningfulness that has a condition embedded within the SSA perspective” (Seachris 2013, 619). By a “condition embedded within the SSA perspective,” Seachris means the ontological or normative content attributed to occupancy of the SSA. I think Seachris is right about this, and I take it that this part of my argument supports his point. Because Landau does not want to concede this, he denies that the perspective can govern the standard in this way (Landau 2014, 462). The most Landau allows is that “there may be circumstances in which one will both conceive a high ontological-normative level and, because of various theoretical constraints, hold a standard according to which lives that do not reach that high ontological-normative level are meaningless” (Landau 2014, 467). Even here though it would seem clear that the ontological-normative level that goes otherwise unexplained would have a significant impact on where the standard is situated.
Wolf makes a similar point: “From the perspective of these philosophers [the pessimists], if there is no God, then human life, each human life, must be objectively meaningless, because if there is no God, there is no appropriate being for whom we could have meaning” (Wolf 2015, 103).
I take it that Wolf finds this point obvious as well. She writes the following: “The philosophers I have been speaking about—we can call them the pessimists—take the fundamental lesson to be learned from the contemplation of our place in the universe to be that we are cosmically insignificant, a fact that clashes with our desire to be very significant indeed. If God existed, such philosophers might note, we would have a chance at being significant. For God himself is presumably very significant and so we could be significant by being or by making ourselves significant to Him. In the absence of a God, however, it appears that we can only be significant to each other, to beings, that is, as pathetically small as ourselves.” See Wolf 2015, 103–104.
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Hanson, J. “Perspectives on and Standards of Life’s Meaningfulness: A Reply to Landau”. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 23, 561–573 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-020-10088-x
- Sub specie aeternitatis
- The absurd