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Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Meaning of Life

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The Meaning of Life
Author: Terry Eagleton
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication Date: March 2007
Pages: 200
ISBN: 978-0199210701
Availability: http://www.amazon.com/Meaning-Life-Terry-Eagleton/dp/0199210705

Terry Eagleton, one of the world’s leading contemporary literary critics, has picked a question not very unfamiliar to either the erudite or the lay reader; all having life are, to some degree at least, concerned with making the best possible sense of it. In writing, answering the question of life’s meaning has been attempted most prominently by literary classics, mostly fiction, and the engagement of literary writers with the topic continues to date. Nonfiction discussions, like Eagleton’s in this book, deserve the special attraction for those interested in conscious contemplation of the topic. Obviously, it is a complex question – no matter how simple and short it may sound – and any attempt to satisfactorily answer it must involve a certain command of wit and intellectual ingenuity. Professor Eagleton is well-versed here and he makes sure of covering enough ground to leave the reader neither too bewildered nor simply deluded.

The author approaches his subject with caution, as necessary, and avoids any venturesome attempt of assuming a fixed viewpoint of the meaning of life or heading in any particular direction for a conclusive answer. Instead, he first puts the question of life’s meaning to question. Is it a genuine question in the first place? What exactly do we mean when we ask about the meaning of life? For a man of letters, or one who is into discussions and probing views, the question is bound to hover on another core question: what do we mean by ‘meaning’? This is what Eagleton’s book discusses for the most part. Referring to the views of many a famous philosopher and writer, Eagleton keeps illustrating potentially ambiguous and complex points with simple analogies, taking the reader along through the essences of the meaning systems of premodern, modern, and postmodern movements in western literature and the humanities.   

Only in the final chapter does the author turn to discuss ‘life’ and the core values that make it meaningful – happiness and love. Till then, the reader already has been provided with sufficient background to harmonize the meaning of meaning with that of life. Still, Eagleton is reminding his readers not to lapse into reification of a single tradition a single system of meaning of life as the end point of the meaning-of-life query. The word ‘life’ itself is a grammatical misrepresentation of the life as we live it; not a single experience or series of similar, coherent experiences; but life being a dynamic phenomenon, a number of which do not relate each other coherently, or meaningfully. The meaning of life is elusive and hence a logically valid position on the topic is to be elusive as well – shifting meanings, with the variety of experiences and observations, is the most plausible approach to the subject.

Terry Eagleton’s writing style is fairly reader-friendly and one need not be a philosophy graduate to comprehend his view(s) on life and its meanings. Nevertheless, there are many points in the book where the author comments on acclaimed works of literature and philosophy and one who has read the classics and the celebrated works of western literature and philosophy is more likely to better enjoy the book. As for the subject matter, it appeals to everyone – or at least everyone, who has an inquiring mind and is ready to contemplate a big question. 

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