Collapsing Meaning and the Retreat into Identity

It has always been shocking to me that the very many insightful developments in philosophy during the 20th century have gone almost completely unheeded by the vast majority of people. The existentialists freed us from Medieval concepts of meaning decades ago, and yet most people would probably define the meaning of their lives in the same way as our ancestors from centuries ago. This isn’t proof that the old concept of meaning is durable; in fact, the entire enterprise of 20th century philosophy proves that our old concepts of meaning are bankrupt. It is simply that public opinion has not kept pace with academic philosophy.

Even despite broad differences in opinion on every subject, the overwhelming conclusion of 20th century philosophy is an existentialist one. Regardless of your thoughts on metaphysics or theism, we know today that meaning comes from within.

So why do so many people still believe their meaning or purpose comes from On High? Why do so many people exist as if the entire 20th century of philosophy never happened? Why would people be surprised, in 2021, to learn the basic conclusions of the 20th century’s biggest names?

The obvious answer is that existentialism is scary. It takes an enormous psychological and emotional toll. It asks more of us than the alternative. The reality of being is much harder than the lies humans fabricated over millennia. The very reason they fabricated those lies in the first place was to avoid having to confront the very issues which existentialism forces!

But the conclusions of the existentialists are inescapable, and decades later we’re seeing inescapable effects of their thought as it continues to infect our cultural consciousness. Lately, the collapse of meaning has lead to problematic epistemological problems, as bad actors have attempted to manipulate misinformation to their advantage.

We are also seeing an increasing fervor in replacing traditional concepts of meaning. As religion or God or authority slowly evaporates from our cultural concept of meaning, we’re seeing people supplant that with other external concepts. Because of its personal and individual nature, this takes the form of identity, even if it is identity prescribed by another (or worse, by the vague demands of an amorphous group).

Take the example of a super-fan: they desperately seek something to “grab onto,” a limb of meaning as they free-fall through the void of meaninglessness. Previously this was provided by religion, or for the non-religious by a cultural idea (rooted in old religion), but since those have faded in our public opinion, our super-fan is left only to grab on to things he likes. He feels an affinity to, say, Star Wars, and so he begins to build a sense of meaning around that. In fact, there is a community of people who already feel strongly, and so the blueprint to meaning is ready-made for him. Star Wars may not tell him how to live like religion, but it does tell him why to live, and with whom. Star Wars becomes like a religion to him, and he is a zealot.

Although there is a philosophical opinion expressed in something like Star Wars, it does not a metaphysic make. So the meaning of “Star Wars” to him simply becomes his whim; when something challenges him (for instance, a certain actress or director challenging his deeply ingrained misogyny) he unilaterally decides that this isn’t “his” Star Wars. He retreats deeper and deeper into fanaticism, arbitrarily assigning elements of his fandom to his worldview without any thought beyond what “feels good,” sometimes even ignoring the facts of the world around him.

But Star Wars isn’t even his! He appropriated someone else’s creation into his entire identity. His own identity becomes hollow, then, and his sense of meaning continues to avoid the difficult reality of existentialism.

This happens not just in fandom, of course, but in politics or national identity, in nationalism or racism or any group which provides identity. Worse, it is difficult to address, because identity is ultimately inviolate. So the way out of polarization isn’t to get people to stop identifying with their groups, but rather to face, culturally and as a whole, the conclusions of philosophers who have (mostly) all been dead for decades.

Existentialism and inaction

I was reminded of this Peter Watson piece from an old Time Magazine about atheism and existentialism. One of his conclusions after studying existentialist writers is:

 “If there is no afterlife, which they accept cannot be, we must attempt to make our lives on Earth as intense as possible: this is the only meaning we can have.”

Certainly when we stop relying on a spiritual reward in heaven there’s a lot more incentive to carpe the diem in real life. Lots of existentialists are very inspiring in this regard, and they have to be. That much freedom, with so little direction or predesigned structure, can be very frightening!

The current pandemic shutdown has really thrown things into sharp relief. When you’re stuck at home with nothing to do but ponder your existence, what is really the point of your life? A lot of people spend most of their energy in professional pursuits, either for the sake of the job itself or for the money they make. But many of us are rendered useless professionally, lots of people have lost jobs and even those that can work from home are naturally questioning the worth of their contribution. Maybe we get to spend time with our families, and lots of people place their home life as their primary motivation. But that’s hard to cultivate too, not just because you’re trapped with your household but because you can’t help them develop: if you have kids, you can’t watch them make their way in the world, if you have a romantic partner you can’t go on dates, if you take care of parents you can’t get them out and about with friends. Of course lots of people prize their relationships with friends highly, but those friendships will be distant for the time being. You can stay home and make things, but depending on what you’re creating it may not make its way into the world anytime soon. And all this is constantly overshadowed by the spectre of death and illness.

Perhaps that’s why quarantine has me feeling a little lethargic lately. It is kinda draining to think so seriously about existence. That’s probably why people hate philosophy.