Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Arsenal, Nihilsm and the Meaning of Life

Simon Barnes, the sports journalist, muses (The Times 26/8/11) on the Champions League play off between Arsenal and Udinese. Prior to the match, the majority of pundits predicted that Arsenal would lose. The pundits were proved wrong. Arsenal won. But what caught my attention was a philosophical aside in the article. Barnes writes:

We humans understand what happens in the world by making a story out of it. Narrative is the way we think, the way we see the world. Sport keeps us enthralled not only because of the beauty of its action but also because of the unending narratives it presents us with. And what is a story without a moral? A story that has no meaning is no story at all, it’s just a recording of the chaos of life. We make narratives to make sense of the chaos, to make the chaos bearable.

This appears to be a thinly disguised form of nihilism: life viewed as nothing more than a series of contingent, chaotic events. But human beings, not having the strength to sustain this view in their everyday lives, impose fabricated narratives (in some cases, religious meta-narratives) on this chaos to deceive themselves into thinking that life does have meaning. Sport, Barnes suggests, is one of those narratives that appears “to make the chaos bearable”. But the meaning is an illusion. Life is absurd.

Part of my holiday reading was a collection of essays, Seeking Meaning and Making Sense, by John Haldane, Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews. As the title of the book suggests, Haldane opposes the subversive position that “searching for meaning in life is like hunting for unicorns – both are pointless activities based on empty myths.”

The nihilist argues that we cannot trust the cultural order to provide us with clues as to who we are and how we ought to live. The social, moral, aesthetic and spiritual spheres are so fragmented that the tools to construct a human philosophy – a way for living wisely – are no longer available to us. As a consequence, we have been set adrift in an indifferent universe. Our lives are meaningless. The way we understand ourselves and the world around is desiccated. This is “the postmodern condition”.

In response, Haldane believes that it is possible to show that the various areas of human life – society, art, science, nature, politics, morals, religion – do contain objective value and that these values can be known by human reason. Demonstrating this will refute the nihilist’s impoverished view of man and society.

Contrary to the critics, most human beings continue to believe that there are values and goods in life worth pursuing. Such values and goods integrate and stabilise the way we act and think. They make us free and stop us being slaves to whim, desire and fashion. Part of the recognisable human form of life is to look for meaning - that which ennobles and unifies the way we experience and live life. Haldane writes:

I believe we need a re-articulation of older conceptions of human nature, human values and public culture. In the first instance this may be a task for philosophers, but the various intellectual disciplines and the elements of deep culture such as the arts have an essential role to play if a sense of value and meaning is to become prevalent once more. Certainly one cannot operate as if “modernity” had not been, nor should one simply ignore the points made by postmodern critics. Reform and renewal are recurrent necessities in any living tradition: na├»ve pre-modernism is not an option; and the idea of a Golden Age untroubled by scepticism is a fantasy of the ignorant. But before we try to finesse older ways of thinking we need first to show that they are not bankrupt.

Essay by essay, Seeking Meaning and Making Sense considers those areas of life familiar to humans and uncovers that which is valuable within them. As the quotation above indicates, this is not an exercise in nostalgia nor an attempt to pastiche the past (attitudes that are becoming increasingly fashionable in a number of religious and cultural arenas). Instead, Haldane is attempting something more demanding and subtle – to retrieve those ways of thinking that can now creatively contribute to an animating philosophy of what it means to be human at the beginning of the twenty-first century. He makes no secret of the fact that underpinning this retrieval is his conviction that human beings “can make sense of things by having discovered real truths about human life and its fulfilment”.

In this slim volume, Haldane casts a forensic eye over a wide ranging cultural landscape, from embryonic stem cell research to The Exorcist to the artist, Richard Long. All that is missing is an essay that references Arsenal. If there was one, I am confident that Haldane would make a strong case for homo ludens finding real meaning in his sport and play.

Seeking Meaning and Making Sense, John Haldane, Imprint Academic, 2008

1 comment:

  1. "Sport, Barnes suggests, is one of those narratives that appears “to make the chaos bearable”. But the meaning is an illusion. Life is absurd."

    There is great meaning in Barnes understanding, his sports philosophy, is so often a metaphor for 'other sport’ to which the spousal nihilists have no moral frame work, no set of rules and no gentlemanly conduct, or fair play. Referees in this ‘other sport’ don't even feature, and at times there appears to be no off side.

    The vast difference in narratives appears to be comparable to a game of cricket with its pressed and starched whites, its runs, and boundaries, its LBW’s, and maiden overs/To dog baiting and cock fighting.

    Oh but, Simon Barnes isn’t really fooled by the cynical nihilistic narrative hype, he knows the real score, he knows the meaning of ‘sport’ isn’t all just an illusion. He can see that life’s real meaning is in something far more ennobling, unifying and greater to behold than purely playing ball. The moral of the story is the transcendence of sport.
    In reality he is a happily married father/journalist, living in Suffolk along side his five horses. Must be chaos but very bearable. And that’s no illusion. Moral of the story, when choosing a spouse choose someone interested in reading the Times sports column. They may see the bigger picture and learn from a true sportsman/gentleman.