Mental Retardation and the Quest for Meaning

Philosophical Remarks on “the Meaning of Life” in Modern Society


The other day I saw a theatre-play about the lives of people with mental retardation that contained the following scene. A man who appeared to be autistic was working on a piece of stone with the size and shape of a large pebble. He was sanding it with sandpaper. It seemed as if he was at work. A metronome that he had set into motion was ticking on the table before him. He was very much “into” his work, although the activity itself appeared quite useless. Whatever it was that he was doing, sanding a pebble with sandpaper did not get him anywhere. His movements appeared mechanical, his face showed no particular expression or emotion. His hand seemed merely to follow the motion of time. But then he started to talk. It turned out that he wasn’t on a job. That was only how it looked from outside. “I want to get inside of this stone,” he said, “but it won’t let me.” He squeezed the stone between his hands as if trying to crack it, but failed. Then he picked up a piece of timber and knocked almost politely on the stone and waited. He then knocked a little firmer. Still there was no reaction from the stone. He got irritated with it and hammered it with all the force that was in him. After a few seconds the tension of his muscle relaxed. “The stone says I will not be allowed to enter. I keep trying though. I must. I know that there are large rooms in there, large ballrooms where one can dance, and dinner halls with long tables.” Then he fell silent. A moment later he picked up the sandpaper and started sanding his stone again.


Mental Retardation Daily Experience Meaningful Life Ultimate Reality Reflective Activity 
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    This is the central question in W. Stoker, Is The Quest for Meaning the Quest for God? The Religious Ascription of Meaning in Relation to the Secular Ascription of Meaning. A Theological Study, tr. Lucy and Henry Jansen, Currents of Encounter, Vol. 11. Amsterdam/Atlanta: Rodopi, 1996. See particularly pp. 170–79 where Stoker opposes the philosophical positi6ns that take both notions as representing alternative conceptions of meaning, respectively the “objectivist” (finding) and “subjectivist” (giving). He considers both positions to be false, because the subjective and objective aspects of meaning cannot be separated (p. 171).Google Scholar
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    It appears to me that at this point Stoker’s interpretation of Sauter’s position is mistaken. Stoker objects to Sauter’s judgment that the modern quest for meaning is “demonic”, because some answers may be such, but that does by itself not disqualify the question as illegitimate. However, this is very close to what Sauter argues in his reading of the book of the Ecclesiast when he says: “Es genügt zunächst zu sehen, dass Kohelet eine Unterscheidung getroffen hat, die Ihm nicht verbietet, nach Sinn zu fragen — die es ihm aber versagt, Sinn gewinnen zu wollen. Sinn würde er hervorbringen, indem er das, was ihm begegnet und was er tut, in den Zusammenhang einordnet, den er für sinnvoll hält” (Was heisst nach Sinn Fragen? München: Chr. Kaiser, 1982, p. 35). The English translation of this passage clearly misses the point. It reads: “It is enough for us to note that the author has made a distinction so that he may ask after meaning but not try to achieve it himself. He will arrive at meaning if he takes that which encounters him and that which he does and integrates them into the nexus that he views as meaningful” (Stoker 1996 p. 28). The point missed is the rejection of “mastering” the problem of meaning, which is what one does by subordinating all actions and events into one’s conception of the ultimately meaningful. Given Sauter’s claim that the modern quest for meaning strives towards absoluteness, he does not think that there can be any valid answer, given finitude and contingency, even though this by itself does not invalidate the question.Google Scholar
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    Here again I disagree with Stoker, who argues that Sauter fails to distinguish between, and therefore confuses, two different senses of “meaning”. On the one hand there is the “metaphysical” sense — similar to what I called the “contextual” aspect — which says that meaning is dependent on ultimate reality, and on the other hand the “teleological-subjective” sense — similar to what I called the “axiological” aspect. Stoker’s objects to Sauter’s claim that the quest for meaning results in manipulative answers, while this is only a characteristic of the second but not of the first aspect (Stoker, o.c., pp. 196–197). It occurs to me that Sauter is right in suggesting that the act of comprehensive reflection constituting “Sinn” in the modern sense is manipulative because it necessarily strives towards coherence. In this connection his critique of sociology — particularly Luhmann — appears to be on the mark when he says that sociologists claim that “[I]t is by selecting from what is objectivély meaningful in experience and action that we achieve a meaningful context for life” (Sauter, o.c., pp. 42–3). Luhmann’s notion of “Kontingenzbewältigung” clearly expresses this manipulative sense. It indicates that events, actions, and objects in themselves are meaningless but acquire meaning only in the context of a larger whole which to provide is the task of cultural formations and processes. In other words, the “metaphysical” and the “teleological-subjective” are different aspects, but not distinct conceptions of “Sinn”. The former is logically implied in the latter insofar as the “teleological-subjective meaning” aims at the mastering of contingency by striving towards coherence.Google Scholar
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    See above note 1. Scorgie’s study investigates the characteristics of parents who claim that the task of parenting a disabled child has brought them a rewarding life. The characteristics she found have to do with changed attitudes towards life, changed conceptions of themselves and of what it means to be succesful. They have been “transformed”. Scorgie’s claim is not that this is generally true of parents with disabled children, nor that parents who do not share this experience are bad parents, but only that the experience of living a rewarding life occurs and reflects a particular kind of rationality. On this rationality see Chapter 11, “The Transformation Experience” in my forthcoming book The Future of the Disabled in Liberal Society (Notre Dame University Press).Google Scholar
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