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Mental Retardation and the Quest for Meaning

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

Abstract

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.

Keywords

Mental Retardation Daily Experience Meaningful Life Ultimate Reality Reflective Activity 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    K.I. Scorgie, From Devastation to Transformation: Managing Life When a Child is Disabled — Dissertation (Edmonton: University of Alberta), 1996.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    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
  3. 3.
    V. Brümmer, Theology and Philosophical Inquiry: An Introduction. London: MacMillan, 1981, p. 121.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Stoker (1996) pp. 6–7.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    An interesting question is how one should conceive of the connections between various levels and structures. Traditionally, theologians are the ones who think that religion — and therefore ultimately God — is the most encompassing “entity” for conferring meaning upon our lives. That is to say, in their view God is equivalent to “ultimate reality” (to borrow Paul Tillich’s term) or to “the whole of reality” (as Wolfhart Pannenberg has it). Stoker’s book is a theological attempt to take the rejection of this particular claim by secular thinkers seriously. The opposite (secular) position regards the outstanding feature of modern existence to be the fact that people construct their own images and hierarchies of heaven and earth. Consequently, in this view, being a fan of Amsterdam’s famous soccer club Ajax can confer meaning upon one’s daily experience just as any religion may do. The opposite theological position regards the modern quest for meaning to be grounded in forgetfulness about human finitude and contingency. This is the position held by Gerhard Sauter, whose argument we will consider later in this paper.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    See R. Nozick, Philosophical Explanations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981, p. 594.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    The belief in ontological freedom — i.e. the belief that objects are not just instances of an essence that determines what they “really” are, with the result that their particular properties are merely “accidental” — does not stand on its own, but is on a par with other beliefs such as the belief that any statement about the essence of things cannot be separated from our conceptual schemes. I owe this point to Jan Bransen.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    C. Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966, p. 17.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    See J. Stout, Ethics after Babel: The Languages of Morals and their Discontents. Cambridge: James Clarke & Co, 1988, pp. 74f. It will be recalled that Lévi-Strauss uses the metaphor of bricolage in order to characterize the premodern mind that operates in a non-constructionist way.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Cf. R. Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    R. Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 3–22;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 11a.
    R. Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 23–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 12.
    See Rorty (1989) pp. 39ff. where he explains the shift towards radical contingency in authors such as Nietzsche and Proust as the appreciation of the power of redescription, which is “the power of language to make new and different things possible and important — an appreciation which becomes possible only when one’s aim becomes an expanding repertoire of alternative descriptions rather than The One Right Description. Such a shift in aim is possible only to the extent that both the world and the self have been de-divinized. ”Google Scholar
  14. 13.
    In this section and the following I am heavily depending on G. Sauter, The Question of Meaning: A Theological and Philosophical Orientation, trans. and ed. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1995, particularly Chapters II and III. I should make explicit that Sauter’s main interest is theological in that he intends to criticize the modern quest for meaning from a Christian point of view and, therefore, is rather suspicious of attempts to resolve the quest for meaning by suggesting “religion” as an answer. Although I will leave the question of whether his critique can be justified within a secular frame of reference, I do believe that it can be articulated in terms of human experience, that is, without using religious language.Google Scholar
  15. 14.
    Sauter refers to the German dictionary of the Grimm brothers to show that “Sinn” means an orientation of the mind, equivalent to the latin term “sensus”. In earlier developments “Sinn” was connected with perception and observation, Sauter (1995) pp. 5–6.Google Scholar
  16. 15.
    The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary has for “sense” the faculty of perception, or the actual perception. Interestingly, the term “meaning” is used for intention and purpose, or having intention or purpose. As we will see, this difference matches precisely the distinction between two uses of “Sinn” that Sauter is after.Google Scholar
  17. 16.
    Sauter, o.c., p. 11.Google Scholar
  18. 17.
    Ibid., p. 13: “In short, meaning in the absolute is needed if we are to be able to live. This is what it now means to ask about meaning. ”Google Scholar
  19. 18.
    Ibid., p. 17.Google Scholar
  20. 19.
    Ibid., p. 23.Google Scholar
  21. 20.
    There is a significant connotation in both these terms that should not go unnoticed. “Sinnhaft” is something on which “Sinn” “haftet”, that is, “is attached to” or, perhaps, “participates in”. “Sinnvoll” on the other hand is something that is “voll” with “Sinn” in the sense of being “fulfilled” or “completed”. “Sinnhaft” indicates appropriateness; “sinvoll” indicates plenitude.Google Scholar
  22. 21.
    Ibid., p. 25.Google Scholar
  23. 22.
    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
  24. 23.
    Sauter (1995) p. 39.Google Scholar
  25. 24.
    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
  26. 25.
    This notion is explained in J. Elster, Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983, pp. 43–108.Google Scholar
  27. 26.
    See G.M. van Asperen, “Eén temidden van velen: zingeving en ethiek” (“One Among Many: The Quest for Meaning and Ethics”), in: G.A. van der Wal and F.L.C.M. Jacobs (eds.), Vragen naar zin (The Quest for Meaning). Baarn: Ambo, 1992, pp. 86–103. The author argues that “The demand for reflexivity in modern societies is incomparably more intense than in a traditional society, where there is an undisputed consensus about meaning and purpose. Whenever the (legitimate) demand for reflexivity is translated as a demand for total transparency, as the demand to give a rational foundation for that by which one is motivated, then this is asking too much” (p. 97, tr. by the present author).Google Scholar
  28. 27.
    Stoker, o.c., p. 203.Google Scholar
  29. 28.
    A. Maclntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981, pp. 175f.Google Scholar
  30. 29.
    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
  31. 30.
    Scorgie (1996) pp. 151ff.Google Scholar

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