Meaning in Life, Imagination, and Søren Kierkegaard by Jeffrey A. Hanson
It may not be the mere presence or attainment of value as such that is meaningful but rather the effort involved in the attainment
Meaning in life is a perennial concern for philosophers, and recent empirical social science has furnished substantial evidence that people’s perception of their lives as being meaningful is strongly associated with numerous positive mental and even physical health outcomes. Scholars concerned with human flourishing have good reasons for being interested in understanding and promoting the sense that human life is meaningful. In philosophical discourses meaning in life is widely agreed to be a result of some kind of production, achievement, or successful contribution. Frank Martela thus writes a whole article simply entitled “Meaningfulness as Contribution,” which argues just what its title promises, that “an activity is meaningful to the extent that it contributes to something beyond itself.” In their own ways philosophers of meaning like Thaddeus Metz, Susan Wolf, and Iddo Landau argue that a meaningful life depends at least in part on successful achievement of valued ends. Metz concludes that the final form of his theory ought to incorporate what he calls the “kernel of truth in consequentialism” that “improving people’s quality of life or more generally promoting final value, at least in certain ways, could enhance the meaning of one’s life.” Landau affirms that a meaningful life will “include efforts to achieve many local, specific ends, the achievement of which increases value in one’s life…for example, to develop a deep friendship, finish one’s studies, increase one’s musical sensibility, or even participate in or complete rehab.” Wolf reckons that the endoxic method supports her theory, which incorporates the “familiar view that associates meaning with a contribution to or involvement with something larger than oneself.”
As intuitive and appealing as these observations seem at first, there is a different tradition of reflection on meaning that might have a slightly different contribution to make to the discussion. The Continental European tradition of existentialism comes from different historical sources and uses a different vocabulary from the largely Anglo-American discussion developed above. The 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard is widely hailed as the first existentialist. In one of his few uses of the exact phrase “meaning in life” he says the following:
We shall now imagine a youth. With his imagination he perceives some image of perfection (ideal)…. He becomes infatuated with this image, or this image becomes his love, his inspiration, for him his more perfect (more ideal) self…. However great the efforts of imagination to make this imagined image actual, it cannot do it. If it could do that, then with the help of the imagination a person could experience exactly the same as in actuality, could live through it in exactly the same way as if he lived through it in actuality, could learn to know himself as accurately and fundamentally as in the experience of actuality — then there would be no meaning in life [Mening i Livet].”
Kierkegaard is inviting his reader to imagine how a young man might contemplate the prospect of his becoming a more perfect version of himself. Kierkegaard is frequently concerned with the problem of self-transformation, and here he argues that human beings grasp by the power of the imagination an envisioned ideal of the sort of persons we might want to become. We all have ideal visions of the kind of people we might become: We aspire to be devoted lovers, conscientious parents, successful careerists, model citizens, and innovative creators. Imaginatively grasping the ideal though on its own is not enough to actually become the sort of person I envisioning myself being. There is always a gap between who I actually am now and the ideal version of myself that I imagine becoming. If this were not so, Kierkegaard claims, there would be no meaning in life.
I think what he means by this is that meaning in life comes from two things that have gone unremarked upon in the contemporary philosophical discussion. First, meaning in life amounts to more than just accomplishing something desirable or achieving valuable goods but to becoming a certain kind of person, a better version of myself that I glimpse by the power of imagination. Second, meaning in life arises as a result of the gap between who I actually am and who I seek to become. If I could simply be who I wanted without striving, then life would be without meaning. The meaning of what I achieve consists not so much in the mere possession of valuable goods but in the struggle to attain them.
Contemporary theorists of meaning in life can seem rather too tidy in their emphasis on achievement and contribution. That the meaning of life might be more to do with what we suffer and the ideals for the sake of which we strive does not seem to come up at all. Yet insofar as most of the contemporary theorists of meaning in life affirm that meaningfulness is a kind of value they are surprisingly unwitting about the prospect that value has to be won by struggle and that the meaningfulness of that value derives precisely from the fact that it has been won. For Iddo Landau, for example, a life is meaningful exactly to the extent that it has value. Much of his very good book is written to provoke a reinterpretation of what “sufficiently high value” should mean to the reader, deflating overly high perfectionist standards of value in order to reach a more mundane threshold. The Kierkegaardian rejoinder I am making though is that it may not be the mere presence or attainment of value as such that is meaningful but rather the effort involved in the attainment. A life then could be valuable without being meaningful not merely because I am looking at the value of it with overly critical eyes but because the value has come cheaply or perhaps even been bestowed upon it without any earned effort. There is meaning in life for Kierkegaard precisely because there is a constitutive gap between the person I would be and the person I currently am. The meaning is thus found not so much in a tally of values possessed but in the value that belongs to the struggle to attain goods that do not together make my life valuable but that take on value to the extent that they are a function of my ideal self I am forever becoming.
Jeffrey A. Hanson is a senior philosopher for the Human Flourishing Program. Jeff’s research focuses on issues in philosophy of religion, phenomenology, aesthetics, and ethics.