On the meaning of life (Schlick)

Moritz Schlick was the founder of a pretty influential group of European intellectuals called the Vienna Circle, and the father of a now-deceased movement called Logical Positivism, which basically held that the only route to knowledge was empirical observation (so, if you can’t see, feel, taste, smell, or hear it, you can’t know it, so no God or morality). Logical Positivism is dead now, and so I would have assumed that Schlick would only be studied out of some abstract, historical interest, but today I came across a paper by him entitled On the Meaning of Life, in this excellent book I’m reading on that topic.  Here are some excerpts from it that I thought were worth sharing:

• It is…the characteristic mark of work that it has its purpose outside itself, and is not performed for its own sake…Human action is work, not because it bears fruit, but only when it proceeds from, and is governed by, the thoughts of its fruit.

•The core and ultimate value of life can lie only in such states as exist for their own sake and carry their satisfaction in themselves…There really are such actions…we must call them play.

•”…idleness and indifference [are] the inevitable portions of divinity; merely a more human name for the sublimest state of being.” (Schiller) Only insofar as man shares in this perfection, only in the hours when life smiles at him without the stern frown of purpose, is he really a man. And it was sober consideration that led us to this very truth: the meaning of existence is revealed only in play.

•There is, however, no irreconcilable opposition between play…and work in the economic meaning of the term. Play, as we see it, is any activity which takes place entirely for its own sake, independently of its effects and consequences. There is nothing to stop these effects from being of a useful or valuable kind. If they are, so much the better; the action still remains play, since it already bears its own value within itself…Play too, in other words, can be creative; its outcome can coincide with that of work…And that is also true in the end of those actions which engender neither science or art, but the days necessities, and which are seemingly altogether devoid of spirit. The tilling of the fields, the weaving of fabrics, the cobbling of shoes, can all become play, and may take on the character of artistic acts. Nor is it even so uncommon for a man to take so much pleasure in such activities, that he forgets the purpose of them. Every true craftsman can experience in his own case this transformation of the means into an end-in-itself, which can take place with almost any activity, and which makes the product into a work of art… The individual would lead an existence, as in the profound and beautiful saying of the Bible, like the life of the lilies of the field.

•[Yet,] we shall invariably find that…mechanical, brutalizing, degrading forms of work serve ultimately to produce only trash and empty luxury. So away with them! So long, indeed, as our economy is focused on mere increase of production, instead of on the true enrichment of life, these activities cannot diminish, and thus slavery among mankind (for these alone are the true forms of slave labor) will not be able to decline.

•Unremitting stern fulfillment of duty in the service of an end eventually makes us narrow and takes away the freedom that everyone requires for self development.

•A life that is constantly focused only on distant goals eventually loses all power of creation whatsoever. It is like a bow that is always bent: in the end it can no longer loose off the arrow, and with that its tension becomes pointless.

•The meaning of life is youth. Youth, in fact, is not just a time of growing, learning, ripening and incompleteness, but primarily a time of play, of doing for its own sake, and hence a true bearer of the meaning of life. Anyone denying this, and regarding youth as a mere introduction and prelude to real life, commits the [error of shifting] life’s center of gravity forwards, into the future. Just as the majority of religions, discontented with earthly life, are wont to transfer the meaning of existence out of this life and into a hereafter, so man in general is inclined always to regard every state, since none of them is wholly perfect, as a mere preparation for a more perfect one. [Notice that, even if you believe in an after life, as I do, and even if you believe that the afterlife will be supremely meaningful compared to this one, as I am inclined to, you don’t have to disagree with Schlick that this life is also a profound bearer of meaning, and that it is a mistake to deny that and simply look to the afterlife to find meaning for one’s existence.]

And, I think for our generation, the most penetrating statement he made in the paper:

A civilization which [is only an] artificial breeding ground for worthless, idle endeavors by means of this forced slave labor, must eventually come to grief through its own absurdity.

I doubt many of us will, in the end, totally agree with Schlick here. Think, for instance of a man who enjoys, for no other reason than the pure love of the act itself, torturing others (perhaps, he especially enjoys torturing people with the last name Schlick even). I hope even Schlick would say that such a person is, somehow, missing the mark on living fully. Or maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe he’d just stick to his guns and say that a person is living a fully meaningful life. I don’t know. Either way, I think he’s worth hearing. The whole article is definitely worth a read, if you found the above portions interesting. Here’s the citation for the whole thing:

Moritz Schlick, Philosophical Papers, Vol. 2, D. Reidel, 1979. Translated by Peter Heath.


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  1. #1 by dreams4life on 3.29.09 - 5.30 pm

    Deep and thought provoking

  1. International Psychoanalysis » Blog Archive » Philosophy Thursday: Moritz Schlick

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