Monday, September 17, 2007

When did we give up on the meaning of life?

We all get defensive about criticism of our own disciplines, but Yale Law Professor Anthony Kronman rubs me the wrong way when he claims that the humanities have given up teaching about the meaning of life. He writes:

Over the past century and a half, our top universities have embraced a research-driven ideal that has squeezed the question of life's meaning from the college curriculum, limiting the range of questions teachers feel they have the right and authority to teach. And in the process it has badly weakened the humanities, the disciplines with the oldest and deepest connection to this question, leaving them directionless and vulnerable to being hijacked for political ends.

Hmmm. Really? Has philosophy given up the task of stimulating students to consider the meaning of life? I find much to admire in Kronman's article, but both the claim that we've given up the meaning of life as a pedagogical subject and his explanationsfor why this is so, namely, the research culture of the modern university, are open to doubt. Students may have to look a little harder to find the meaning of life investigated in philosophy than they might once have. It's probably not on the agenda in courses in philosophy of science or epistemology, say, but it's still on philosophy's agenda. A simple Google search yields dozens of course syllabi devoted exclusively to the meaning of life. Later he writes:

A tenure-minded junior professor studying Shakespeare or Freud or Spinoza might re-inspect every scrap of his subject's work with the hope of making some small but novel discovery - but would be either very brave or very foolish to write a book about Spinoza's suggestion that a free man thinks only of life, never of death; or about Freud's appealing, if enigmatic, statement that the meaning of life is to be found in work and love.

Granted, Kronman is not a philosopher, but this claim is false. Colin McGinn recently published a philosophical exploration of Shakespeare that investigates ethical aspects of the Bard's work. And don't tell Thomas Nagel, John Kekes, Thad Metz, John Cottingham, John Fischer, Robert Nozick, Charles Taylor, Susan Wolf, Martha Nussbaum, or Harry Frankfurt that contemporary philosophers aren't interested in the meaning of life. (And of course, there's people like me who find that 'the meaning of life' a slightly confused avenue of inquiry, but that's another issue altogether.) I won't speak for the other humanities disciplines, but it would just be nice if Kronman's criticisms were supported by some sense of the pedagogical and scholarly climate within philosophy.


  1. Wow, I guess I'm Kronman's counterexample on both points. Last semester I taught a upper-level seminar on the Meaning of Life (I actually got the idea from one of my grad school profs) and next semester I'm teaching a course about Shakespeare and moral philosophy.

    And it's also true that research goes on, even in analytic circles. See Thaddeus Metz's 2002 article in Ethics titled, "Recent Work on the Meaning of Life".

    I agree that people need to take more care in doing their research on the current breadth of philosophy, but we should also keep in mind that we have colleagues in the discipline who prize ├╝ber-specialization and try to socialize the more esoteric research interests out of incoming graduate students. ("Really, you want to study the meaning of life? That's interesting... I work on vagueness.") In a more discouraged mood, I'd actually say that there is a great deal of shunning of such work at some grad programs unless you're already doing the work at a level of rigor that can easily be recognized.

    Then of course, there's the Continental side of the discipline. Kronman must be completely neglecting that side in his claims.

  2. Wow, this article was full of what seemed to me to be lots and lots of false and/or indefensible claims.

    I wonder what he would say about the prevalence of practical ethics courses. Surely at least many of them address something like "the meaning of life" or, better, what makes a life (more) meaningful, what a good life is, "what one should care about and why" and related concerns. Maybe he isn't familiar with these kinds of courses?

    (And are these kinds of topics addressed in a typical literature or art or other humanities class? I haven't had such a course in a long time, but my sense is that they aren't.)

    There are too many annoying things about this piece to continue commenting.

  3. Well, heck, I do this sort of thing all day long (meaning of life sort of subject teaching), but if he thinks I'm not doing it, I'll just continue being deluded. :)

    On the one hand, though, I agree with you all -- sure, he paints with a broad brush here (a massively wide one!), and sure, there are lots of counterexamples to what he says.

    But I'm trying to give the guy some charity; does he have a point at all -- I think he might. Does research specialization push us as a collective group away from inspiring students, or at least from working on problems that aim at inspiring them, and more towards "problem solving" or "concept crunching"? I think there's a point to be made in there somewhere.

    And, of course, surely there are examples of doing both, or even of using one for the other, but I think on the whole he has a general valid point, even if it is buried underneath a mountain of unhealthy generalizations.

  4. The point of the article seems to be not so much that colleges in general have given up on the meaning of life, but that it is no longer central to the mission of top research universities, the universities that students fight for places at. If such teaching were going on in small liberal arts colleges, Kronman need not treat this as a counter-example, but a supplement to his thesis. Big research universities have abandoned the meaning of life (but liberal arts colleges keep the flame alive!)

    With this in mind, I wondered whether there are counter-examples from big research universities. Well, I thought, they don't come much bigger than Harvard, and Armand Nicholi's book on C.S.Lewis, Freud and the Meaning of Life was based on a popular course offered at Harvard - (although perhaps the course was popular precisely because courses that touch on the Meaning of Life are so rare in Harvard). But Nicholi's book and course would still not quite satisfy Kronman, because he seems to be looking for secular approaches to the Meaning of Life, whereas Nicholi's sympathies lie with Lewis' Christian vision.

    And this, I think, is the real point of Kronman's article. He isn't just looking for people to include the Meaning of Life or Practical Ethics as a topic for the odd monograph or an upper division elective. His real worry is

    'a society in which deeper questions of values are left in the hands of those motivated by religious conviction - a disturbing and dangerous development.'

    Look at what he wants from universities:
    'Our colleges and universities need to reclaim their authority to speak to the subject, in a conversation broader than any church alone can conduct.'

    The interest in the big research universities, I suggest, is because such institutions could provide a credible counter-weight to Church authority: Harvard vs. the Vatican. For one professor to share ideas with one group of students about the meaning of life is not sufficient for this vision - I think he would like the institution as a whole to build a whole curriculum around some conversation about the meaning of life, and to exclude, or at least marginalise religious views within this conversation.

  5. Ben,

    Those are good points. And as I said in my initial post, I think Kronman's article has some merits. But both the thesis (that academic humanists no longer think about or teach about the meaning of life) and his explanation for its truth (the modern trend toward research specialization)are dubious -- or at least philosophy can legitimately claim it's a counterexample with respect to the thesis. As for the other humanities, I really don't know. I think, e.g., Nussbaum (though a philosopher) is someone with a presence in a number of disciplines, and she's clearly interested in the meaning of life. And supposing the thesis to be true, I'm not sure I buy the explanation. I'd propose instead that research demands pull faculty away from teaching in general, with the result that there are few incentives (at many institutions at least) to teach well, hence few incentives to teach in ways that make apparent the relevance of what is taught to larger 'human' concerns.

    Of course, if (as you say) he wants higher education's heavy hitters(the Harvards and R-1's) to place more emphasis on these kinds of questions, I would welcome such a development. Academic humanists are marginalized in larger cultural discussions about the point of human life and about values in general.

    One last point: I think Korman overlooks demographic changes in higher education as an explanation. Higher ed has exploded in the last half century, with students flooding in to study business and other vocational disciplines, with the expectation that a college degree is a ticket to economic viability. But these students aren't likely to come to college looking for the meaning of life. If there has been a decline in academics' interest in the meaning of life, could this be a response to our audience?

  6. Hi, Im from Melbourne Australia.

    I dont have any problem with that notion. Here in Australia we have a government which actively discourages the asking of any REAL questions about any and everything while trying to revive the old "certainties" of empire, cricket and the sex paranoid puritannical parental deity

    And that has systematically reshaped every aspect of our body politic, including the universities
    into a set of one dimensional cliched banalties.

  7. If only you could expand upon this statement: "Of course, there's people like me who find that 'the meaning of life' [is] a slightly confused avenue of inquiry, but that's another issue altogether." I'm dying (but don't worry, not literally) to hear your explanation.


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