The Meaning of Philosophy Today

While listening to forty-five minutes of Brian Wilson, then 22, creating “California Girls” with a group of studio musicians (“this is real good now, take 43”), I read a series of brief philosophical articles on “Finding Meaning”:

“In this series of articles, contributors from a variety of perspectives reflect on what the philosophical life means to them. In doing so, they do not attempt just to account for what personally led them to philosophy, but what philosophy itself has become today in the wake of “the death of God,” the age of nihilism.”

I don’t think meaning exists in the world independently of us, but rather that we find some things, like particular songs, meaningful (or not). The final paragraphs of the entry written by Mark Anderson, a philosophy professor at Belmont University in Tennessee, were interesting to me, even meaningful:

Philosophy today, as far as I can tell, is mostly either scholarship or the refinement of arguments for the journals, all with an eye toward a monograph with the right academic publisher. This is to be expected when a civilization’s faith in grand Truths and meta-narratives has collapsed. What else to do but dispute the hermeneutical minutiae of other people’s ideas or tweak this or that old chestnut of an argument, especially if such activities are the route to security and prestige among one’s peers? Ahh, it’s all one big job-talk…

I exaggerate, of course, but I’ll let the hyperbole stand.

Maybe I’m saying that philosophy is dead, and that we have killed it. That authentic philosophy was asphyxiated by the philosophy profession. That’s too facile, but it’s true that there are no Platos or Nietzsches around today. Platonists and Nietzscheans, yes. Plato and Nietzsche scholars, in abundance. But where are the living philosophers, the scholar-artists, the creatively deep thinkers? The problem has consumed me for years, and for years I wanted only to become a philosopher myself. Maybe I succeeded; I used to think that I had. But these days I no longer care. Or, rather, my cares have been transformed. I have come to regard our “psychic explorations” and “ontological investigations” as so much internal chatter, our talking to ourselves about the meanings of words and the relations between and among concepts, those meanings we happen to know and those relations that happen to strike us. Hyper-intellectualized, and all too often gloomy, distractions from the real—the real with a lowercase “r”.

Plato set us going on this misguided—this imaginary, illusory search for the Real, and although Nietzsche nearly overcame it, he declined too young to reclaim his true youthfulness. I suspect that if he’d lived to follow through on his own insights, he would have come to Cratylus’s conclusion (shared in a way by Zen, though distorted by religion accretion). He would have let his Übermensch and Will to Power slip into the river of flux and float away; he would have realized that preferring his preferences to others, and wanting to argue about it, is an endless and silly game; he would have held his tongue and, if questioned, only wiggled a finger.

Or maybe not; I don’t know. Plato and Nietzsche were unusual men. Who can say what they were after? But as for me: Lin-chi remarks that when you understand that fundamentally there is nothing to seek, you have settled your affairs. I think maybe I have settled my affairs. Finally. I am done with the make-believe search, stalking the mythical minotaur of wisdom; and although I cherish the years I wandered though the psychic labyrinth, I feel liberated, and rejuvenated. Returned to the sun and the land of the living, out of the shadow of the death of God.

What? Isn’t this just another form of darkness? Isn’t this nihilism! Call it what you will. I call it ataraxia.


“Ataraxia” is Greek for “unperturbed” or “without mental trouble”. Wikipedia says the term was “first used in ancient Greek philosophy by Pyrrho and subsequently Epicurus and the Stoics for a lucid state of robust equanimity . . .”

Ataraxia or not, job-talk or not, Prof. Anderson is chairman of the philosophy department at Belmont University.