Thursday, 2 February 2017

Importing Meaning via Meaninglessness

Paradoxes litter the History of Philosophy and, indeed, wider culture. Zeno's paradoxes of movement are some of the earliest. Achilles, like Usain Bolt but without the trademark pose, is - it is argued - shown to be unable to either finish (or indeed, even begin) the 100m. Because to finish the last 50m, he must first run 25m but to run 25m he must first run 12.5m and so on until he has a seemingly infinite (and impossible?) number of tasks to complete. Russell's set paradox popularised by asking whether the barber who shaves everyone who does not shave themselves, shaves himself is a more recent example. Paradoxes can force us to rethink our common assumptions (*obviously* we can move and run 100m. Some of us do it for a living), but ultimately, we might be tempted to say that it does not matter whether the statement 'this statement is false' is false.

But paradoxes go far beyond their use in Philosophy and Logic. In fact, humans seem to be slightly obsessed with them; we often seem to use them to give things more meaning. The most common example of this is when it comes to love. Notoriously hard to define or explain, we resort to self-contradictory definitions in an attempt to find meaning. We hold that, on the one hand, loving someone makes us happy. Consider Victor Frankl in Man's Search for Meaning:

"Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire...the salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved."¹

This is probably a definition of love, and what it is to be in love, that we can relate to. Perhaps we think it is slightly too far, but are we not happiest - or at least should we not at least be happy - when we consider the person we love? Haruki Murakumi might not disagree, but he would at least add: 

"Anyone who falls in love is searching for the missing pieces of themselves. So anyone who's in love gets sad when they think of their lover. It's like stepping inside a room you have fond memories of, one you haven't seen in a long time."²

Already two definitions of love, two attempts to look at what love might be and two completely different contradictory answers. Love is both something that simultaneously makes us happy and sad. And it is not that sometimes love makes us happy and sometimes sad, but that specifically the same thing (thinking of those we are in love with) harbours these opposing emotions. Love is, as James Baldwin puts it, "...a battle, a war..."³  and, yet at the same time, Dostoyevsky argues that hell is, "...the suffering of being unable to love."⁴  

Yet somehow this makes sense. Somehow these contradictory definitions giving rise to an apparent paradox do not diminish our understanding of love but enhances it. Love, by its very nature, is paradoxical and cannot be explained. It both makes us happy and sad, at the same time for the same reason. Its presence is suffering in the form of war and its absence is suffering in then form of hell. Somehow this in itself explains love. Love is made more not less meaningful by its paradoxical nature. Paradoxically. It is not just that we have multiple definitions of love, contradictory as they might be, and the resulting contradictions give love meaning. It is that if we could define it; if all this paradoxical happy-sad pontificating was simply our overcomplicating of the matter, then we would lose and not gain meaning. We would be disappointed with this result. Somehow love's meaning depends upon its paradoxical definitional nature. All this time, we have been defining love or, at least, attempting to but Susan Sontag tells us, "Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love."⁵ So maybe love is not just difficult to define and therein lies its meaning, but love is actually undefinable and therein lies its meaning. 

It is more simple than that too. And it goes beyond love. We import paradoxes into our lives to increase, not decrease, meaning all the time. We like paradoxes. A deafening silence is a nice example. The idea that sometimes the loudest cries are those we cannot hear. The paradox is what gives the metaphor its meaning. This should be meaningless, you cannot hear silence (and it certainly cannot be loud), but the contradictory meaning is the source of its meaning. Frankl, again in Man's Search For Meaning, speaks of hope. He writes that the woman condemned to death will, in the moments leading up to her execution, suddenly have a powerful feeling that she will be rescued. In moments of extreme hopelessness, humans will have powerful feelings of hope. This is seemingly contradictory, there is no reason for hope in these situations but at the same time, having hope gains its meaning, somehow, in those situations where seemingly to have any would be absurd. 

At this point, you might turn around and accuse me of romanticism. You would not be the first. "Of course," you might protest, "If one is a romantic, one believes this sort of nonsense. Love is love, we have a definition of it and let's just move on." Perhaps you have a point. Perhaps all of this is needless romanticism. But I am not sure. Either we are all, at heart, somewhat romantic without realising or, there is a romanticism to be found even in the absence of meaning. Tim Minchin exemplifies this quite nicely in his address to the University of Western Australia. He says, at the beginning of his speech, that there is no meaning, yet by the end insists that he is not a nihilist.⁶ This might seem paradoxical; nihilism is the rejection that life has meaning. What might seem paradoxical further is to argue that it is specifically life's lack of meaning that we need to embrace to gain meaning out of life. If life lacks meaning, we may as well fill it. This is the only option we have. We may as well embrace the lack of meaning and try and have a meaningful existence. What else can we do?


¹ Frankl, Victor [2004] Man's Search for Meaning. London: Rider
² https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/01/01/what-is-love/
³ Ibid
⁴ Ibid
⁵ Ibid
⁶ http://www.timminchin.com/2013/09/25/occasional-address/

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