About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Saturday, December 30, 2006
Schopenhauer and the meaning of life
Broadly speaking, Schopy argues that there are three factors that decide human happiness (though, typically, he starts the book by warning the reader that he actually thinks that human happiness is, in fact, an unattainable chimera): What one is, What one has, and How one is regarded by others. Of these, he claims the first one to be by far the most important and yet neglected, and the latter two by far the least relevant and yet those on which most of us spend an inordinate amount of time and energy.
A person's character, which Schopy thinks is shaped by a combination of birth (we would say genetics) and environmental circumstances, is crucial because “The world in which a man lives shapes itself chiefly by the way in which he looks at it,” which implies that “personality is the greatest factor in happiness.” This isn't too far from some recent discoveries in psychology hinting at a “set point” for people's happiness, evident for example in the fact that people who suffer debilitating injuries or win the lotto both go back to their pre-existing level of self-reported satisfaction with life after only a few months.
It also follows from Schopenhauer's argument that we should “make the most advantageous use possible of the personal qualities we possess” (e.g., seek a job that makes use of them, rather than just a way to make a living), and that “it is manifestly a wiser course to aim at the maintenance of our health and the cultivation of our faculties, than at the amassing of wealth,” even though “still men are a thousand times more intent on becoming rich than on acquiring culture.” The latter statement also anticipates recent research showing that the intuitive positive relationship between wealth and happiness breaks down after certain basic needs are taken care of, and that even in the US the breaking point beyond which money makes little difference to one's happiness is surprisingly low. Schopy got to that conclusion by an insightful observation of human nature, more than a century before modern cognitive science. Not bad for an old curmudgeon who didn't believe people could be happy.