Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

What’s It All About?


It is that time of year when we make plans and set goals for the next 12 months. So it seemed only appropriate that we address the big questions like, “What is the meaning of life?” For this we turn to Julian Baggini, founding editor of The Philosopher’s Magazine and the author of several books on philosophy including, What’s It All About: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life. In this slim book Baggini argues that meaning can be found in a variety of ways, and that the search for meaning in our lives can be a personal, empowering, and uplifting journey that is within the power of each of us to make. Below is the introduction to What’s It All About, perhaps it will help you enrich the New Year with new meaning.

‘You’re T. S. Eliot,’ said a taxi driver to the famous poet as he stepped into his cab. Eliot asked him how he knew. ‘Ah, I’ve got an eye for a celebrity,’ he replied. ‘Only the other evening I picked up Bertrand Russell, and I said to him, “Well, Lord Russell, what’s it all about?” And, do you know, he couldn’t tell me.’

On which man is the joke in this true story? Is it Lord Russell, the great philosopher, who despite all his supposed intelligence and wisdom was unable to answer the cabby’s question? Surely if anyone can tell us ‘what it’s all about’, the world’s greatest living philosopher can? Or is it the taxi driver, who expected to hear the solution to such a big problem in the course of a short journey? Even if Russell knew the answer, wouldn’t it require time and patience to explain the secrets of the universe?

Perhaps the best answer is that neither man merits mockery. Certainly not Russell, for if it were possible to answer the question properly in ten minutes someone would already have publicly done so and the taxi driver would not have needed to ask. But nor should we mock the taxi driver for his ignorance. His question is one almost everyone asks at some point.

The problem is that it is vague, general and unclear. It is not so much a single question but a place-holder for a whole set of questions: Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? Is it enough just to be happy? Is my life serving some greater purpose? Are we here to help others or just ourselves?

What’s it all about?

To answer these questions I believe we need to undertake a rational, secular inquiry. By ‘secular’ I do not mean ‘atheist’. I mean simply that our arguments must not start from any supposed revealed truths, religious doctrines or sacred texts. Instead they must appeal to reasons, evidence and arguments that can be understood and assessed by all, whether they have a faith or not. This is because even for many believers, the authority of established religions cannot be taken as absolute. As we understand the great diversity of faiths in the world, the historical events and forces that shaped their doctrines and sacred texts, and the fallibility of many of their leaders, the idea that they provide direct access to absolute truth loses its credibility. Divinely inspired or not, the human hand is all too clearly present. That means that even if we do believe, we cannot accept religious teachings unquestioningly. We must use our own intelligence to determine for ourselves whether or not the answers they provide stand up. And because at some stage most of us can’t help but wonder what it’s all about, we can’t avoid this kind of philosophizing for ever.

The subject may appear to be so difficult and deep that even to attempt to write a book on it is hubristic. That accusation could be made against me if I were claiming that the ‘meaning of life’ is a kind of secret that only the select few can discover through contemplation, revelation or a lifetime of intellectual inquiry. Such promises imply that the meaning of life is like a piece of knowledge that, once discovered, unlocks all the mysteries of life and explains everything. And because quite clearly the vast majority of us don’t have any knowledge of this big secret, one needs to be especially wise to have uncovered it.

I think this whole idea is bogus and expect most readers would agree. If there were such a big secret, word would probably have got round by now. The whole problem of life’s meaning is not that we lack any particular piece of secret information that would allow us to understand it; the question is not one that can be solved by any discovery of new evidence. It is rather to be solved by thinking about the issues on which the evidence remains silent. Much of what is to follow will, I hope, demonstrate this.

Hence I would describe the account of the meaning of life given in this book as ‘deflationary’, in that it reduces the mythical, single and mysterious question of ‘the meaning of life’ to a series of smaller and utterly unmysterious questions about various meanings in life. In this way it shows the question of the meaning of life to be at the same time something less and something more than it is usually taken to be: less because it is not a grand mystery beyond the reach of most of us; and more because it is not one question but many.

These questions can be answered, not because I possess exceptional wisdom, but simply by drawing together the wisdom of the greats of the past. In selecting and presenting their ideas, however, I am necessarily presenting a personal view and not just a dispassionate survey of what philosophers have to say. This is one person’s account, albeit one with which I hope the majority of philosophers would mostly agree.

Anyone embarking on a quest to discover the meaning of life could do worse than heed the warning of Douglas Adams’s The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In this story, a race of beings fed up with bickering over the meaning of life decide to build a supercomputer to provide them with the answer. Deep Thought, as it is known, takes seven and a half million years to provide an answer to the question of ‘life, the universe and everything’. On the day of reckoning, with ‘infinite majesty and calm’, Deep Thought finally gives its verdict: ‘Forty-two.’

The trouble is that the designers of the computer demanded an answer to ‘the question of life, the universe and everything’ without bothering to ask whether they really knew what this question was. Now they have the answer, they don’t understand it because they don’t know what it is an answer to. Asking the right questions is as important as giving the right answers.

There will never be a last word on the meaning of life, partly because each individual has to satisfy herself that she has asked the right questions and found satisfactory answers. The search for meaning is essentially personal…

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *