Philosophia (‘love of wisdom’) began in the sixth century BC as speculation on the nature of the cosmos. The questions that the early philosophers formulated, and the conceptual frameworks they created for answering them, engendered what we now call the sciences. These soon split off from philosophy; a few years ago, Stephen Hawking announced (to wide agreement) that philosophy is dead because science has superseded it. Yet this not only ignores philosophy’s perennial task of digging under, diagnosing and clarifying preconceptions and confusions in other fields; it also overlooks how, in the fourth century BC, philosophy embraced what Socrates called ‘human matters’ – right and wrong, courage and cowardice, the nature of beauty, knowledge and government. Of its two main strands, the metaphysical and the ethical, it is the latter, addressing the practical questions of how life should be lived at an individual and a societal level, that predominates in books of popular philosophy. Unfortunately, though, many of these avoid complexity, cosying along their readers and reducing philosophy to hazy, consolatory musings on life’s meaning, a sort of pseudo-intellectual substitute for therapy and mindfulness sessions.
From its title, Kieran Setiya’s latest book sounds as if it might be of that ilk. It was written during the coronavirus pandemic, though the author tells us that he had already been contemplating writing such a book as a way of coping with incessant, irremediable pain. Autobiographical as well as philosophical, it includes anecdotes and literary references, along with a varied cast of characters: Barthes, Simone Weil, Dostoevsky, Homer and Woody Allen, among others.
The phrase ‘the meaning of life’ originated, Setiya says, with the ridiculous fictional philosopher Diogenes Teufelsdröckh (‘God-born Devil’s Dung’) in Thomas Carlyle’s parodic novel Sartor Resartus of 1834. None of the ancient Greek, Stoic, medieval Christian or Enlightenment philosophers, contends Setiya, actually tackled the question of life’s meaning,