You are Right and I have my Peace—On the Pursuit of Truth and a Meaningful Life

What am I after in pursuing philosophy? A ready answer is: the Truth. The truth about whatever philosophical topic I might be interested in. But this answer is problematic for a number of important reasons. One is that philosophy is extremely difficult and I’d have to be a fool or full of hubris to think that I will figure out any significant truths, truths that greater minds than my own failed to see. Another is revealed in the following passage from §5 of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, “Part One: On the Prejudices of Philosophers”:

What provokes one to look at all philosophers half suspiciously, half mockingly, is not that one discovers again and again how innocent they are – how often and how easily they make mistakes and go astray; in short, their childishness and childlikeness – but that they are not honest enough in their work, although they make a lot of virtuous noise when the problem of truthfulness is touched even remotely. They all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic (as opposed to the mystics of every rank, who are more honest and doltish – and talk of “inspiration”); while at bottom it is an assumption, a hunch, indeed a kind of “inspiration” – most often a desire of the heart that has been filtered and made abstract – that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact. They are all advocates who resent that name, and for the most part even wily spokesmen for their prejudices which they baptize “truths” – and very far from having the courage of the conscience that admits this, precisely this, to itself; very far from having the good taste of the courage which also lets this be known, whether to warn an enemy or friend, or, from exuberance, to mock itself.

While we might attempt to guard against this “method” of arriving at the “truth,” I’m thinking it’s not so easily done—though we should certainly try.

The above two reasons constitute good reason to question (and to question does not mean to dismiss) this whole pursuit of truth thing. Speaking for myself, this is because when I ask “What am I after in pursuing philosophy?” I am really asking, “What am I pursuing with my life?” for pursuing philosophy is life for me—it’s not a job or a hobby.

Perhaps I agree with Aristotle that my life is aimed at, I am pursuing, eudaimonia: happiness in the sense of a life well-lived. But “happiness” is, I think, a terrible term (due, in part, to the wide range of things one might mean by using it, and, in part, to its connotations and the sense I have that people in the US, at least, feel entitled to being happy). For that and other reasons, I wouldn’t want to say that I am pursuing happiness (and that doesn’t mean I don’t want some form of it, of course—I certainly don’t desire to be unhappy). So, let’s say, instead, that I am pursuing a meaningful life. While “meaningful” is problematic in its own way, I prefer to “a happy life.”

What, then, is the connection between the pursuit of truth and a meaningful life? Do I need to be obsessed with discovering the truth in order to live meaningfully? A while ago I was navigating a difficult time in a relationship. Accusations were made on both sides. I thought the other person was wrong in the claims made about what I had done. But I realized at the time that digging my heels in and insisting upon my being right was not conducive to moving the relationship forward. I was reminded of a saying that a German friend once said to me: “Du hast Recht und ich meine Ruhe,” which translates as “You are right, and I have my peace.” There are certainly times in which it is important to stand one’s ground in an effort to stay on top of the truth. But, as the German saying makes clear, there are times when being “right” is less important than maintaining the peace.

Part of the problem with pursuing happiness, I would argue, is that a meaningful life may, in some important respects, not be an entirely happy one. Similarly, I am not suggesting we sacrifice the truth merely for the sake of some feel good peace. Rather, I mention the saying as a way into the idea that there may be a disconnect between living meaningfully and pursuing the truth. I do not want to suggest that there is only one way to live meaningfully. But there is a way of living meaningfully that I would argue is like no other, namely, by cultivating authentic relationships.

Instead of focusing on defending the last claim, I want to say something more about the nature of authentic relationships and the connection between pursuing authentic relationships and pursuing the truth. While I don’t wish to spell out in detail, much less provide necessary and sufficient conditions for, what it takes for a relationship to be authentic, I will, at least, gesture at some features of authentic relationships. Minimally, a relationship is authentic when both parties treat each other as ends in themselves, and not merely means, in the Kantian sense. This would rule out relationships characterized by lying, manipulation, etc. This much is not, I wouldn’t think, very controversial, regarding authentic relationships. However, treating each other as ends isn’t sufficient for the kind of meaningful, authentic relationships that would make life meaningful. Two people can treat each other as ends without that meaning they are meaningfully engaged with one another.

In addition to treating each other as ends, an authentic relationship is one that provides for a deep engagement with each other. Interestingly, one way to engage deeply with each other is to jointly engage in meaningful pursuits. For example, engaging the arts, relieving the (needless) suffering of others, or bettering ourselves through the pursuit of wisdom (which doesn’t necessarily mean the pursuit of “facts” or trivia, i.e., “knowledge”). True: Such things can be done “alone” in the sense that one needn’t pursue these things in the context of a relationship. And doing so solo may very well contribute to a life that is meaningful and authentic in its own right. However, I want to say that they are even more meaningful when pursued jointly. That is perhaps a misleading way to put it, for what I really want to emphasize is that the relationship that is a joint pursuit of these things is itself what is thereby made meaningful. This is, for example, in contrast to a relationship in which those involved predominately pursue what I would call meaningless activities such as drinking Bud light and watching Jersey Shore the majority of the time. What’s the difference, especially since both groups of people might report subjective feelings of satisfaction and meaningfulness? As this paragraph began by emphasizing, one important difference is that the activities that I would describe as meaningful contribute to a deeper level of engagement between the people involved, the kind of engagement that leads to the meaningful creation of a kind of mutual constitution of each other’s personhood. I’ve written a bit about this latter idea here, and further developed it in an unpublished manuscript. However, we needn’t go to the ontological depths of mutual constitution to appreciate the important difference between the Bud light and Jersey Shore couple and the couple committed (explicitly or implicitly) to a life of bettering themselves, etc. And while I’m speaking in terms of a romantic couple, I’m certainly not claiming that authentic relationships that constitute a meaningful life must be romantic.

So, I’m saying that a meaningful life can best be achieved by cultivating authentic relationships. Authentic relationships are best achieved by jointly pursuing meaningful activities that allow one to achieve a relationship that is characterized by a deep understanding of each other, unconditional support of each other’s ends (many of which will be joint), challenging each other to grow, and much else. Importantly, while these engagements do aim at certain truths (minimally, I take it that understanding another person at a deep level involves “seeing” certain truths about her), it doesn’t require obsessively hard stances about metaphysical truths regarding the nature of reality, God, physics, etc. I’m reminded here of the story found in Buddhism of the man shot by an arrow who refuses to be treated until he knows who shot the arrow, the lineage of the person, and much more besides. The point being that what matters is treating the wound, not acquiring much pointless information. That is, of course, not to say that pursuing the truth in physics and metaphysics, for example, is pointless. But I am saying that such pursuits are not necessary to what matters, i.e., authentic relationships, and that obsession with pursuing them could well take one away from authentic relationships. Of course, one might engage in authentic relationships by pursuing those things together, I admit, but even then the meaningful life thereby made comes from the relationship more than the pursuit of scientific or metaphysical truth. While I do not deny that progress toward such truths can be made, I am endorsing a kind of general skepticism that we will ever fully know the truths of physics and metaphysics. But more importantly, even if we did achieve some final state of knowledge, authentic relationships would still be central to an authentic existence, a meaningful life (An interesting question would be whether such a final state of knowledge would impair the pursuit of authentic relationships). Thus, it is not that I am denigrating the pursuit of truth; rather, I am saying that it is not what is most important. Another way of putting this is that what matters for a meaningful life is not achieving a maximally consistent and true set of beliefs about the world, but rather the achievement of authentic relationships. The latter doesn’t eschew the truth, but it shifts the emphasis off of belief and onto authentic engagement with another human being.

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