4

Source: The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction (1 ed 2007) by T. Eagleton. p. 50 Middle - p. 51 Top.

We can always ask, after all, why someone should want to know the meaning of life. Are they sure that it will help them to live better? After all, men and women have lived superlative lives without apparently being in possession of this secret. Or perhaps they were in possession of the secret of life all along without knowing it. Maybe the meaning of life is something I am doing right now, as simple as breathing, without the faintest awareness of it. What if it is elusive not because it is concealed, but because it is too close to the eyeball to have a clear view of? Perhaps the meaning of life is not some goal to be pursued, or some chunk of truth to be dredged up, but something which is articulated in the act of living itself, or perhaps in a certain way of living. The meaning of a narrative, after all, is not just the ‘end’ of it, in either sense of the word, but the process of narration itself.

Wittgenstein puts the point well. ‘[1.] If anyone should think he has solved the problem of life’, he writes, ‘and feel like telling himself that everything is quite easy now,
[2.] he can see that he is wrong just by recalling that there was a time when this “solution” had not been discovered;
[3.] but it must have been possible to live then too
[4.] and the solution which has now been discovered seems fortuitous in relation to how things were then.’
13
Behind this sentiment lurks Wittgenstein’s conviction that the meaning of life, if there is such a thing, is neither a secret nor a ‘solution’, ideas which we shall be investigating later. Meanwhile, we can ask once again: what if the meaning of life were something that we should at all costs not discover?

[...]

13 Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 4e.

My disagreement with 2-4 above insinuates possible misunderstanding. E.g., consider someone who was suffering an Existential Crisis (abbreviated to EC), but now thinks to have solved the problem of life. Then how are 2-4 true?

Part 3 above can be rebutted: Before the solution, he was physically living, but not happily living or living to his full potential.

Part 4 also: The EC compelled him to discover this solution. So how can the solution be 'fortuitous in relation to how things were then', when 'things' refers to the EC in this context?

  • 3
    I'm guessing Wittgenstein simply meant that if living then was not following the prescription of a "secret to life" then coming across the "secret to life" by living that way would have to be fortuitous indeed since one would presume that having the secret to life was presumably one of the goals achievable by following the aforementioned prescription. Note, he's not saying it would be impossible, only that it would need to be fortuitous. – Isaacson Jun 7 '17 at 9:33
  • Life is not succesive in its reconstruction. When there was the EC, that crisis was itself the theme and the meaning of life (hope you aren't saying meaning of life should be but optimistic). The present state of affairs appears to be free of that EC, and another, possibly happier meaning is topical; that does not entail that the EC had been solved. Despite that the individual pretends dragging his Ego identity through time, it is an illusion; there is the intuition that me present and me past cannot help each other as they are mutually inaccessible, the past ego pupated with its EC forever. – ttnphns Jun 22 at 3:43
1

Terry Eagleton returns to Wittgenstein toward the end of The Meaning of Life. On pages 93-4 he writes:

The meaning of life is less a proposition than a practice. It is not an esoteric truth, but a form of life. As such, it can only really be known in the living. Perhaps this is what Wittgenstein had in mind when he observed in the Tractatus that 'We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, then problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course, there is then no question left, and just this is the answer. The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem' (6.52,6.251).

Let's consider the questions.

My disagreement with 2-4 above insinuates possible misunderstanding. E.g., consider someone who was suffering an Existential Crisis (abbreviated to EC), but now thinks to have solved the problem of life. Then how are 2-4 true?

What Wittgenstein may be suggesting is that there is no problem to solve and so there is no solution. Such problems have to vanish in the living of life. If the meaning of life is a practice, not a problem seeking a solution, then "it can only be known in the living" which is what the person with the EC was doing all along.

Meaning as known in the living of life may be what Eagleton was suggesting by quoting Wittgenstein earlier: (page 50-1)

'If anyone should think he has solved the problem of life’, he [Wittgenstein] writes, ‘and feel like telling himself that everything is quite easy now, he can see that he is wrong just by recalling that there was a time when this “solution” had not been discovered; but it must have been possible to live then too and the solution which has now been discovered seems fortuitous in relation to how things were then.'

If meaning of life is in the action of living and not in the discovery of any solution, then the earlier living was also an expression of the meaning of life.


Eagleton, T. (2007). The meaning of life. Oxford University Press.

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