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The Meaning of Life (Very Short Introductions) [Kindle Edition]

Terry Eagleton
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Review from previous edition The book's a little gem. Suzanne Harrington, Irish Examiner (Cork) Light hearted but never flippant. The Guardian. Wonders never cease. This is popular philosophy by an amateur in the best sense of the word, a man who clearly loves the stuff and writes plain English...[Eagleton] makes his case well and with a light touch. The Guardian (Review) It is a stimulating and often entertaining, if at times rather breathless, Cook's tour around the chief monuments of western philosophy and literature...The Meaning of Life is unusual and refreshing. John Gray, The Independent [Eagleton] makes his case well and with a light touch... I stand convinced. Simon Jenkins, Guardian Book of the Week A lively starting point for late-night debate. John Cornwell, Sunday Times Warm intellectual pleasure...meticulous treatment of the subject...It looks like Eagleton got it right. Mario Pisani, The Financial Times The name Terry Eagleton...assures us of stimulation, style, sparkling, sometimes acerbic, wit, and wide-ranging erudition. In other words he is eminently readable...[a] commendably pocket-sized book. Gordon Parsons, Morning Star With sparkling effrontery, panache, and deft footwork, Eagleton moves from ironic flippancy and caustic demolition to resolute affirmation. Marina Warner


"This is a brief, ambitious, and satisfying book. As a survivor of the theory wars, Terry Eagleton has emerged as a critic and thinker who will help us theologues ponder not only life's meaning but the next steps we should take as even postmodernism fades into cultural history. If there is a cultural life for us all in the aftermath of the conflict between essentialism and relativism, Eagleton's provocative essay will point the way both to making and discovering its meaning."--Gary R. Hall, Anglican Theological Review

"Eagleton's witty eclecticism is perfect for such a lofty subject, but would it be inappropriate to ask for more?--Leoppold Froelich, Playboy

"The Meaning of Life may be 'lie' relative to how much more a scholar like Mr. Eagleton might have said, but it is still a work that demands close attention from readers who are already well grounded in literature and philosophy."--Mark Grannis, The Washington Times

"The news that Terry Eagleton has tackled the meaning of life in a book of a mere 185 pages shouldn't raise any eyebrows. If anyone can pull it off, it's probably him. Eagleton, unsurprisingly, has written an elegant, literate, cogent consideration of a maddeningly slippery topic, one whose conclusions run contrary to conventional wisdom, especially in this country."--Laura Miller,

"Eagleton's is unlike most works on life's meaning, in which writers often invoke theology. Eagleton's notion of love may seem to lead back to theism, but he shows us we can have meaningful lives whatever our theology, and he invites us all to choose. He deserves a place in most collections."--Leslie Armour, Library Journal

"Regardless of whether you agree with him, you'll find yourself challenged by this little book."--Houston Chronicle"


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Von Michael Dienstbier TOP 500 REZENSENT
What distinguishes human beings from other kinds of living beings on our planet is our ability to think in categories such as past, present and future. What goes along with these skills is the fact that humans are not satisfied with WHAT our life is like. In the course of all human history one can observe a growing obsession with the question of WHY things are the way they are. The question about the meaning of life, or whether there is such a thing at all or not, seems to be at the very core of human existence. The cultural critic Terry Eagleton, placed at the very left side of the political spectrum, was presumptous enough to publish a book called "The Meaning of Life" this year. And one can only applaud Eagleton for his magnificent effort. In only 100 pages he gives us a brief but insightful introduction to the history of the human search for life's ultimate meaning and eventually comes up with a definition which is as convincing as any answer to this question can ever be (and yes, I will quote Eagleton's approach towards the end of my review, so go on reading if you are interested in the meaning of your life!!).

Up until the 18th century the category meaning exclusively belonged to the domain of religion. Religion provided an easy answer which pretty much consisted in stating, to put it bluntly, that the meaning of life is to serve God, to obey his laws and to be eventually rewarded by enjoying the infinite pleasures of paradise. The era of Enlightment with thinkers such as Kant and Voltaire did away with that conviction by shifting the emphasis from eternity to the the here and now. In short, the thinkers of the Enlightenment started to question the entity called God being the provider of all meaning. The entity favoured by Kant to replace God is called Reason.
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4.0 von 5 Sternen The meaning of it all 5. Juni 2011
The "Meaning of Life" is one of those age-old questions that people of all walks of life have been pondering for at least as long as we know that people have been pondering anything. There have been many approaches to this question, and the three most prominent ones have come from philosophy, theology/religion, and literature. In this very short introduction Terry Eagelton sets out to explore all those approaches to this perennial big question. Even thought his approach is not strictly speaking philosophical, the preponderance of ideas about the meaning of life have been taken from various philosophers. Eagelton is very good at problematizing the whole "What is the meaning of life?" question. At the surface it appears like any other question to which we can give an objective answer (like "How far is Bloomington from Indianapolis?"), but at closer inspection almost every single word in that question can be very ambiguous. Eagleton's approach is to explore those ambiguities, and show how they had been addressed by other thinkers and writers. The book has a feel and style of a very long polemical essay, and an overall a very enjoyable one at that. My only big objection to it is that no attempts have been made to incorporate any of the ideas about the meaning of life, human happiness and personal integrity that have come out of the modern Psychological research. It has been known for quite a while that creating a coherent narrative of one's life is an essential part of the psychological theories of self. Other than that, the book is extremely well written and despite some grim ideas and passages an overall enjoyable and worthwhile read.
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2.0 von 5 Sternen A survey of ideas 14. März 2013
Von LV
Format:Taschenbuch|Verifizierter Kauf
Eagleton offers a survey of ideas and discourses. But the book lacks own propositions and positions. No genuine positions of the author and no original ideas/thoughts that I would remember after having read the text some time ago.
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1.0 von 5 Sternen Lack of own propositions 12. Januar 2009
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe
Given the positive feedback this book received in the press, I might have started reading with too high expectations. Anyway, when finished, I did not experience any significant gain of insights, rather I felt disappointed by the lack of own propositions of the author, new thoughts on the subject. While own philsophic considerations fell short, there was way too much diccussion of semiotic type.
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5.0 von 5 Sternen Way more than bovine contentment... 30. September 2007
Von ewomack - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe
"What's the meaning of life?" has become a sort of in-joke amongst academic philosophers. Particularly in the analytic west, supersaturated with logic and science, questions concerning "grand narratives," of which "life" could be one, have gone the way of Hegelian dialectics and causa sui. In the early twentieth century, positivists and "the linguistic turn" ground such bugbears into impotent stumps. A few brave professional philosophers, such as Thomas Nagel, have attempted to weave the question
into their work, but overall the field retains an icy silence towards the ultimate question. Regardless of this mass abandonment within universities, the question just won't go away. To survive, it has gone underground, whining like a lost puppy, and seethes beneath nearly everything we do. Ignoring it won't make it go away, so the question has found new pioneers to obsess. It found a happy medium in Terry Eagleton, whose work balances philosophy, literary and cultural theory, and history. Though a professional academic, Eagleton is not a philosopher. He thus brings a daisy fresh perspective to the question often associated with "philosophy" itself.

The query of course doesn't have an answer, but most "meaning of life" books usually have a go at it regardless. At least, that seems one of the expectations, realistic or unrealistic, behind flapping the pages of a book with such an ominous title. An honest book would comprise of one page embossed with a question mark. Amusing, but not marketable. Regardless of the challenge, Eagleton does give a sort of an answer; as much an answer as anyone can give. And, though disputable, it does makes sense.

Before giving his "answer," Eagleton, in the spirit of linguistic philosophy, rips and tears at the ligaments of the question itself and then pulls it apart to examine the bits. Chapter one, "Questions and Answers," provides a vast desultory survey of reactions to the grammar and form of the inquiry itself. For example, is "what is the meaning of life?" similar to "What is the capital of Albania" or to "what is the taste of geometry?" Does the form of the question itself deceive us (or "bewitch" us, as Wittgenstein would say) into thinking that it has a definite answer? Is the question valid? Eagleton compares it to another stultifying interrogative: "why are there beings rather than nothing?" Maybe that translates simply as "wow!" Numerous options get examined, such as "maybe we're not supposed to know the meaning of life" or "maybe we'll never know it even though there is an answer." The chapter then transitions, via similar unanswerable moral and political questions, into a survey of modernity and culture. People in the 12th century would not flick a lash at the question. They would answer "God." In a similar fashion, postmodernists would unflinchingly answer "culture." By contrast, many people in the 21st century, those not of the postmodern bend, have come to accept that human existence is contingent. So, Eagleton argues, we construct meaning for ourselves and meaning has appropriated multifarious dimensions: sport, religion, entertainment, etc. We essentially have grabbed on to anything we can get our hands on.

Chapter Two, "The Problem of Meaning," looks at the challenges to "meaning" beginning with a dizzyingly recursive discussion of the meaning of "meaning." Hint: it's a difficult word to nail down. Moving through Kantian "purposiveness without purpose" to "unintended meanings" Eagleton lands within the dank optimist-shattering brain of Arthur Schopenhauer. His conception of the selfish but pointless "Will" could wilt a field of happy flowers. To emphasize the point, the book includes a ghoulish portrait of the man himself. Sometimes appearances aren't deceptive.

"The Eclipse of Meaning," Chapter Three, talks about a time when meaning pervaded everyday life. Early moderns could remember such a time, so the gradual disintegration of it seemed like a horrific crisis. Eagleton uses Samuel Beckett and his play "Waiting for Godot" as exemplary modern with a dash of postmodernity. By chapter's end the distinction between "inherent" and "ascribed" meanings becomes clear, as well as the notion that we can't completely make ourselves since we are, fundamentally, wild animals with certain determining characteristics.

The discussion transitions to "life" in Chapter Four, "Is Life What you Make it?" So what could serve as a baseline for "meaning?" With a little help from his friends Aristotle, Nietzsche, and Freud, Eagleton arrives at a notion of meaning that includes the enabling of unselfish human flourishing. Eagleton eschews purely individualist characterizations, such as Julian Baggini's and John Cottinghams's. He instead derives a more social meaning akin to a jazz band. Here everyone has individual free expression within a totality that determines the structure of the piece. Throw in a touch of compassion (akin to agape) and Eagleton creates a life philosophy that seems meaningful, beautiful, realistic, but nonetheless Utopian. At the very least it can provide an inspiring signpost or goal. In the end, Eagleton argues that humans thrive together. We're free within physically determined bounds and we can decide what happens within those bounds.

This tiny book packs quite a discussion. Though under 200 pages it nonetheless feels exhaustive. It takes the view that life is an accidental, not a planned or intentional, phenomenon. "God" comes up, but only in historical or analytical contexts. Thus, God does not live at the center of meaning in this book. Consider it a fully modern non-theistic approach to the question. Those open to such interpretations will find much to ruminate on and possibly some solace in the face of what seems like modern meaninglessness. Along the way Eagleton makes numerous comments about capitalism, fundamentalism, current politics, and mass culture. "The Meaning of Life" is no sterile work of formalism detached and disinterested from what most of us know as "life." Though by no means definitive, it will provide much food for thought about our strange and prickly material predicament. And yes, he does mention Monty Python.
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5.0 von 5 Sternen Succinct and stimulating book 18. Dezember 2007
Von Timothy J. Bartik - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe
This book has many virtues:

1. It is short. It has 175 pages of text on small pages, and can be read in a long evening.
2. It addresses a central issue in a real world way: what benefit for our daily lives can we gain from a consideration of what life means?
3. The book considers a wide variety of perspectives, including philosophers such as Aristotle, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer, writers such as Beckett and Shakespeare, and comedians such as Doug Adams and Monty Python.
4. The book comes up with what I at least consider a decent answer: Following Aristotle, the book suggests that we consider the meaning of life to be happiness, but happiness not as the pursuit of pleasure, but as a state of our being that maximizes our use of our full human capacities. However, Eagleton argues that we should go beyond Aristotle in emphasizing that one of the key human capacities that must be developed is the capacity for love and compassion for others. The metaphor is that the well-lived life is like participating in a well-functioning jazz band, that balances individuality and cooperation.
5. The book has some interesting sidepoints. For example, he argues at one point that at least some religious fundamentalism is the flip side of nihilism, in that both viewpoints seem to hold that life and the universe has no inherent meaning, but only whatever meaning God chooses to give it. Eagleton instead proposes that human life can have the inherent meaning of happiness as he defines that term.
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5.0 von 5 Sternen Laugh out Loud 8. Juni 2007
Von Ms. Mary Flynn - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe|Verifizierter Kauf
Indeed as the previous reviewer said, the book is witty. And, despite all the bad news this book recognizes Life is a miracle and a comedy. One has to know a bit about philosophy to understand it, but, just as I did when I read Professor Eagleton's memoir "The Gatekeep", this was about the joy of life and the possibiity of goodness even with all the very obvious suffering, pain and injustice. A very hopeful book. Debunks a lot of heavy lifting.
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4.0 von 5 Sternen Very worthwhile insights, but not well organized 17. Juni 2010
Von Irfan A. Alvi - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Taschenbuch|Verifizierter Kauf
Reading this book is like listening to a genius who produces a steady stream of insights (sometimes quite profound), but who's unwilling or unable to organize them in a systematic way. This presents a challenge for the reader. In my case, after carefully reading the book (while highlighting), I went right back to the beginning and read it all over again (while taking notes), which is something I've never done before. After my second reading, and a lot of follow-up effort to organize my notes, I feel that I was able to get a handle on the book, and I'll try to summarize my findings in this review.

It seems to me that everything hinges on what we mean by "meaning." Eagleton correctly describes how our unique language ability is what enables us to explore such an abstract question as the meaning of life in the first place, but we have to be careful that we're not misusing language and thereby confusing ourselves. He describes how "meaning" may refer to intention, signifying, or intention to signify. These are useful distinctions, but I don't think they quite hit the nail on the head. Rather, when we say that we want our lives to have meaning, I think that either (a) we want our lives, or elements of our lives, to have importance in an objective and ultimate sense (ie, THE meaning OF life), or (b) we want the personal experience which constitutes our lives, including the structure of that experience as it unfolds across time, to be subjectively satisfying, if not optimal (meaning IN life).

These are two very different things. In the former, we're looking for some sort of ultimate foundation that serves as a source of importance for what we do. Here are some of Eagleton's insights which are relevant to this:

- Maybe parts of lives have ultimate importance, but not our lives as a whole. Or, just the opposite, maybe no parts of our lives can have ultimate importance except in the context of our whole lives, or maybe even some larger context.

- Our biological and sociocultural context may have something to do with what gives our lives ultimate importance.

- Whatever gives our lives ultimate importance may require our active participation in order to be realized.

- There may be something which gives our lives ultimate importance, but maybe few or no people have ever known what it is, or maybe no one will ever know. And maybe our not knowing is even necessary in some way.

- We may already be living our lives in accordance with what gives them ultimate importance without even knowing it.

- Our lives may simply have no ultimate importance. However, as long as we don't know for sure, we can't deny the possibility and there remains hope.

The bottom line is that we don't know what could give our lives ultimate importance, and we can't even imagine anything that would do so, but we can't rule out the possibility. The contemporary scientific picture offers nothing which would do that job, and of course some scientists claim that science actually argues against the possibility of our lives having ultimate importance. And if you survey the thought of the world's religions and philosophies, both past and present, you'll find that they offer a variety of metaphysical pictures and give direction on how to live for the sake of instrumental goals like connecting with God, receiving God's help in this life, going to heaven (and avoiding hell), escaping from the cycle of reincarnation, avoiding suffering, etc., but none of these instrumental goals relates to anything which is ultimately and objectively important either.

Rather, these instrumental goals relate to the second aspect of meaning I described above, which is to improve the subjective experience of our lives, either in this life, a future life (or lives), or both, so it's hard to avoid the unpleasant conclusion that the motive is ultimately selfish. Eagleton offers many useful insights here as well:

- In the pre-modern world, largely unquestioned social norms defined how life was to be lived. Deviance could lead to being ostracized, banished, or executed, so adherence to social norms improved one's life experience, or at least avoided worsening it.

- In the modern world, with the (sometimes disillusioning) breakdown of social norms and increase in relativism, many people have concluded that they are themselves responsible for choosing thoughts and actions which improve the quality of their life experience. The choices made can vary widely from one person to another, and can range from thinking small (postmodernism) to thinking big (ideologies and grand narratives). Some people will find the plurality of potential choices disorienting and undesirable, whereas others will relish such pluralism.

- We often can't predict the effect of our choices of thoughts and actions, so there can be unintended positive and negative effects of those choices with respect to our life experience.

- Somewhat reflexively, the experience of reflecting on how to improve one's life experience can itself be a positive life experience (this is related to the paradoxical idea that the meaning of life is to search for the meaning of life), but such reflection can also go too far and thus be counterproductive.

- We can view our mortality as enhancing our life experience because it makes the time we have more precious, but we're also justified in lamenting what our mortality takes away from us.

- Happiness relates to the quality of our lives over an extended timeframe (possibly our entire lives), whereas pleasure relates to more fleeting moments of quality of life.

- Since capital is only a means to an end, endless accumulation of capital isn't a good formula to improve the quality of one's life experience. At some point, enough is enough.

- One formula to improve the quality of one's life is to be virtuous and creatively realize one's particular faculties in a social context. This gives love a central role.

- The quality of our life experience may not satisfy us, even if we try our best to improve it. Circumstances and luck play a role here.

Overall, I benefitted greatly from this book, but that's partly because of the considerable effort I had to make to grapple with the book. So I can recommend this book, but be prepared to do some grappling yourself.
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3.0 von 5 Sternen Funny and informative 20. Juli 2009
Von Adnan Mahmutovic - Veröffentlicht auf

Meaning of Life by Terry Eagleton: these six words, which immediately sound more like Meaning of Life by Terry Gilliam, seem quite enough to make world-wide reviewers step into their cynical modes and ooze superiority. This is exactly what happened. Most reviews I have read infallibly begin with more or less moderate dozes of skepticism they felt before even reading this little black book of/on/about meaning. Although they mostly change their minds and give Eagleton a high grade, on my view, this instinctive cynicism betrays, as Jacob Golomb explains in In Search for Authenticity, pending existential Angst. A colleague of mine, a materialist critic, scoffed at the idea that a leftist like Eagleton would even consider writing such a ridiculous book. He said to me, "Some people seem to have a lot of free time." I interpret this as suggesting there is nothing valuable or practical about Eagleton's book, and this was said even before he even glanced at one single page of it. I cannot but feel this attitude resembles the attitude of Rushdie's judges who claimed they did not need to read his work before they sentenced him to death. Anticipating reader response, Eagleton does not fail to bask in self-irony, apologetically calling his own project ridiculous, but yet as something he felt like doing.

One thing is clear, despite the modest scope and popular scientific format, Eagleton has done his research. The book is nicely structured and funny, yet very serious as well. Eagleton gives us a short history of meaning, which somehow does not seem much shorter than a short history of the universe. It is as if the beginning of the universe is the incipient point of the concern with meaning, because meaning (or purpose) is the answer to famous Heideggerian question: Why is there anything instead of nothing?

On my view, Eagleton's passion is quite understandable. We can grow as cynical as we can stand, and refute meaning of life as the old ideological concern, yet at the end of the day (or should I say close to the end of one's life, if not before) the question of meaning is unavoidable, as Rushdie says in The Ground Beneath Her Feet: "there's no escape from the war of meaning." Eagleton points out to the current historical circumstances, the rise of fundamentalism, neo-ideological conflicts, reshaping of global economy and what not.

If we have not quit the concern with meaning, considering it a meaningless endeavor, there is another heritage that Eagleton refers to, criticizes, and finally partly endorses: the heritage of existentialism. After taking up and dismissing famous contenders for the meaning of life, such as God and love, Eagleton suggests quite along existentialist lines that there is no one meaning of life, but rather meanings of life/lives. Refraining from modern individualism, Eagleton further proposes that meaning of life might be happiness and all that jazz. In fact, he suggests that meaning of life, as happy existence, is much like a jazz band, a community of free/authentic individuals. In other words, meaning of life (as happiness) is found in the existentialist notion of authenticity. This authenticity is far from absolutely individualistic. Authenticity, as one finds in works by Heidegger and Sartre (whom Eagleton mentions), is found in community, maybe what Jean-Luc Nancy called "inoperable community", which is very much like Eagleton's jazz band. To further tie Eagleton's final idea about happiness-as-meaning to existentialism, I will mention Sartre's idea that being authentic is to create the meaning of one's life like "a saxophone note" (Nausea). This idea is furthermore rather close to the Nietzschean notion of an individual being as an artist of his/her life and at the same time being his/her work of art, perhaps a musical piece produced with respect to other members of a community, other players so to speak.
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