The meaning of life: what can that mean? Possible answers run the gamut of human thought and experience. Meaning is both personal and general; each of us has our own private mission statement whether we think of it that way or not and invariably there will be affinities between ours and others. As AU students, the prospect of our academic success hinges on the personal meanings we invest in, and glean from, our studies.
Immanuel Kant made it a focus of much of his life’s work to answer an open question posed by the Berlin Academy in the year 1764: “Are metaphysical truths generally, and the fundamental principles of natural theology and morals in particular, capable of proofs as distinct as those of geometry?” (Walsh, 307). Can one meaning apply to all and sundry, in other words. We can note here the scepticism we may receive about our AU studies; isn’t the best life knowledge not taught in school?
That a square is a square no matter how you view it or measure it, stands as a matter of fact. Upon deeper enquiry, and Kant was notoriously so deep in his studies and so rigorous in his life’s routine that neighbours claimed to be able to set their clocks by the sight of him taking his 9’oclock garden stroll, Kant concluded that our subjective selves are constant and unequivocal, not unlike Newton’s law of gravity (which Kant much admired). W.H. Walsh summarizes Kant’s support for universal experience but contingent interpretation: “metaphysical contentions are groundless, since metaphysical concepts such as spirit cannot be characterized in positive terms” (Walsh, 307). In other words, we have a geometric precision to our consciousness, if not to our ideas. It remains for us to decide what meaning to make of our perceptions. In terms of we AU students, our coursework really is what we make of it.
Kant thus trusted the senses, believing “that there is an absolute difference between sensing and thinking, and that sense experience need not be in any way confused” (Walsh, 308). There’s an “air of finality to this approach” that leaves out our capacity to decide how we feel for ourselves as we evolve along the way (Walsh, 305). After all, we think from what we sense and that same sense changes as we learn and grow. The great thing about education is that it changes us; we’re not just adding to a reservoir of knowledge— we’re literally growing and forging new selves in an alchemical sort of way. To discover meaning is thus to discover its changeable nature. Thanks to our decision to enroll at AU, we’re changing for the better. We never stop learning and growing as humans but it helps to have real textbooks and deadlines to encourage the process along.
So, our minds conceive and perceive using a combination of our sense and our thoughts. Two people may see the same event differently, and this parallels the way we each can only define our life’s meaning on our own terms. No one can tell us what our meaning is, and we cannot be sure what our future selves will think of our own present endeavours. Finally, from an omniscient point of view (if one exists, Kant was certain it did although he also believed that, by definition, we could not know it ourselves) we can never truly know whether our life matches some standard applicable to all humans in terms of humans.
Despite lacking access to absolute knowledge, what we do receive is subservient to universal laws. In Kant’s eyes, then, “nothing whatsoever…can be given to the senses save in conformity with the primary axioms of space and the other consequences of nature, as expounded by geometry” (Kant, 308). So, for Kant, at least, the meaning of life just might be explicable in the same say we understand, say, the cycles of the moon and its corresponding tides.
Rhythm and flow, though, doesn’t that suggest an inherent changeable, seasonal, nature to life’s nature? Perhaps at AU we share the value and meaning of education with students in traditional universities while also experiencing a unique twist to the process; certainly, we receive more freedom to fit our learning into our lives.
All For One, One Meaning of Life for All?
Finding our personal meaning doesn’t mean finding a one-size-fits-all keystone to educational success. And yet, for Kant—as for us—it doesn’t hurt to place ourselves in the role of the other and ask whether the meaning of our life and studies is realistic for our peers. If not, we may be missing a blind spot.
Kant, for his part, was a deontologist. A moral absolutist. He asserted the essence of his moral philosophy in what he called categorical imperatives: each action contains moral worth “not in the purpose to be attained by it, but in the maxim in accordance with which it is decided upon” (Kant, 317 ). Basically, we ought to not use others as means to an end (not matter how pleasurable, and this includes mutual pleasure based only on self-fulfilment), but as ends in themselves.
We ought to act as though others are valuable each in their own right. If our meaning is only personal and includes no one else what good is it? A meaningful life for Kant involves valuing things intrinsically rather than as a series of lesser events and interactions leading inexorably to an exalted final goal. If we’re just at AU to graduate, then maybe we’re living down to the anti-schooling belief that a degree is just a piece of paper.
For AU students Kant’s categorical imperative translates into taking each course seriously and giving it our best; we may enjoy some more than others, and we’d be lame scholars if we didn’t have favourites that piqued our interest, but we do want to give our schoolwork the best of our minds rather than just the old college try. Considering how course material relates to our daily life helps to provide meaningful perspective and is unique to AU; all of life’s a class, just as for Kant each moral act ought to be thought of as potentially universal for all.
Poetry in Motion; Disentangling Philosophy from Mean Dogmatism
If we stand back on a lovely May day and ask us what the meaning of life is for ourselves as AU students, we probably will come up with different answers at different times. Too often, personal meaning seems to correlate with personal consistency. But how can that be so? We don different thinking caps to meet different course objectives. What is good for the business course may not be applicable to literary studies.
Daniel Kaufman asserts that the problem with philosophy, in terms of aiding the discovery of meaning in life, is that while it attempts to remand dogma to the sidelines in its search for truth, it actually misses out on much of what it is to be meaningfully human. Modern philosophy tends to ignore and discount the poetry of existence. Like searching for the meaning of life, Kaufman claims that good philosophy inherently asks questions that cannot be answered in finality and for all time: “philosophical disagreements are by nature ultimately unresolvable. For there to be correct positions on their subjects would require that there be some accessible fact of the matter as to what reality, obligation, or warrant really consist of; but no such facts can be established. There is nothing in philosophy that corresponds to confirmation and disconfirmation in the sciences. Instead, to deem something obligatory, or warranted, or real, is to take a certain point of view towards it; and there are many such points of view that one can recommend, or not, for many different reasons. Yet there is nothing beyond the views themselves and our reasons for holding them” (Kaufman, online). If we want to access our meaning of life we thus must look within; no one can tell us the answers to that pop quiz!
Where Kant saw commonalities in terms of morality and meaning, Kaufman notes the limits in seeing us all as reducible to common denominators. That’s the realm of the so-called hard sciences, and not where daily life, let alone rigorous academic study, is necessarily at. We don’t just plug in our laptops and upload information to our brains; the process of distance education takes all of our mind for it to succeed. Meaning, at the broadest level, philosophy in our times tends to miss out on; in its search for universal solutions it shears away, like a paper cutter, the details that make life unique and special.
It doesn’t have to be that way, and happily much philosophy supersedes the enclosure of what’s come to be known as scientistic discourse. Kaufman suggests that, rather than seeking meaning acceptable to all (and at AU that typically means non-student peers), we must consider our education as a creative endeavour not reducible to objective terms. Of philosophic works he says rather “than treating them as exercises of speculative, creative imagination, they are treated as analogous to large, intricate, scientific theories, every piece of which needs to be taken up by an army of researchers. This presumes that philosophical inquiry ultimately is about the acquisition of knowledge rather than about the development of apt points of view – which presumption, as we’ve seen, is fundamentally mistaken.” (Kaufman, online). As progenitors of Protagoras’ creed that people are the measures of human reality, a panoply of ideas comes to replace the finality of final truth.
Jacques Derrida to this end notes that “if one must love truth (this is necessary, is it not?), how will one love anything other than one’s own truth, a truth that one can appropriate? (Derrida, 44). Behind shared realities and their attendant truths lurk the herd consensus of majority rule. Derrida notes how desire for a transcendent meaning tends to cloak itself in the language of value-neutrality: “universalization hides the cunning of all dogmatisms” which are in essence “the cunning of the common sense of the community” (Derrida, 44). We’re wilier foxes than that, we AU students, and it helps shat we don’t inhabit classrooms full of like-minded people. As distance students the creation of a meaningful experience is in the last instance up to us alone.
Whatever the meaning of our studies means to us this May, each day is a new day where a new and more wonderful version of our student selves may emerge. The poetry of this life process, like the unfolding of flower petals and butterfly cocoons, is a magical one that begs us to enjoy for its quality and not only in its quantity.