Updated: Feb 18, 2021
As with all reviews on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete overview of the book, but rather to examine how the book relates to the meaning of life. In this review, we’ll briefly examine supernaturalism vs naturalism, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s approach to philosophy, and misguided meaninglessness.
About the book: Wittgenstein and Meaning in Life: In Search of the Human Voice by Reza Hosseini was first published in 2015. Like some of the other books we’ve reviewed, the author takes an academic approach to discussing the meaning of life but does so using Wittgenstein’s unique approach to philosophy. To be honest, reading this book was the first time I encountered Wittgenstein’s approach, so it was somewhat of a magical experience.
What Hosseini really does well is to outline various theories on the meaning of life and categorize them into objectivism vs subjectivism, supernaturalism vs naturalism, etc. As a result, the book turns out to be a great introduction for those serious about studying the meaning of life from an academic perspective.
Supernaturalism vs Naturalism: In the opening of In Search of the Human Voice, Hosseini talks about three main camps debating the meaning of life. They include:
Supernaturalism - meaning is found in relation to God.
Naturalism – humans live meaningful lives independent of a supernatural being. Naturalism can be broken down into:
Objectivism - meaning shares a common element that is independent of the mind.
Subjectivism – “meaningful life is dependent on one’s ‘propositional attitudes,’ which are
defined as ‘mental states, such as wants, emotions, goals’ that are about states of
Nihilism - the philosophy that life is meaningless.
Hosseini notes in the summary of supernaturalism that “most supernaturalists take immortality to be a necessary condition for a meaningful life.” This is a rather thought-provoking idea: If there is no afterlife, could an individual who believes in God still maintain that belief and live a meaningful life? The author goes on to question that although the idea of immortality is a necessary condition for most supernaturalists to live a meaningful life, it does not resolve the riddle of life, as an eternal life would still be faced with the same question without resolution.
In regard to Susan Wolf’s book Meaning in Life and Why It Matters (a book we have reviewed previously), Hosseini notes that Wolf synthesized the categories of objectivism and subjectivism through her theory of meaning, which states, “A life is meaningful, as I also put it, insofar as it is actively and lovingly engaged in projects of worth.”
Hosseini does an exceptional job at outlining various commentary that supernaturalists, naturalists, and nihilists have made about the meaning of life. As such, the book is, again, an invaluable resource for anyone wanting to study the topic from an academic standpoint.
Ludwig Wittgenstein’s approach: Wittgenstein’s take on the subject of the meaning of life appears to focus on how people approach the question. That is, the question should be approached through experience, not philosophy. According to Hosseini, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus “can be seen as a treatise on the meaning of life in that it takes propositions of value to be the manifestation of our tendency to say something about the ‘sense of life.’”
Furthermore, Wittgenstein notes the following on the “riddle of life”: ”The riddle does not exist. The point is that the only way to solve the problem of life is to make it disappear—to see that the riddle of life, for which an answer was supposed to be found, does not exist. The problem will vanish when one realizes that it cannot be framed into a question, and thus no meaningful answer can be found for it.”
As Hosseini suggests, in light of Wittgenstein’s remarks, the only way to make the riddle go away is to change “one’s way of seeing the world.” When you realize that there actually is no riddle of life, only then will the problem fade into obscurity. Meaning can be found on the “streets of life” rather than in books. This is essentially Wittgenstein’s approach to the problem or the riddle of life in a nutshell.
Misguided Meaninglessness: According to Odo Marquard, a German philosopher, “the experience of meaninglessness of life in modern society is not necessarily ‘due to lack of meaning; it can also result from excessive expectations of meaning.’” Marquard is correct that society, religion, family, and friends can place unattainable expectations on meaning, which can thus result in an existential crisis. The philosopher goes on to explain that the more we aim directly at meaning, the more we fail to acquire it. Rather, it is the small things in life, the unsensational, that give us meaning. Discrepancies in reality and these archetypal constructs created by society and religion cause misguided meaninglessness.
Hosseini wonderfully sums up many of the theories on the meaning of life, and, unfortunately, this review cannot adequately reflect those summaries. Hosseini ends the book with a theory on meaning that deals with “confession” or, rather, a “confessional approach.” In his words, “The grammar of confession, in this view, is to ‘describe’ one’s deeds and one’s beliefs, and the grammar of the question of life’s meaning is confessional because we describe how things are with us. The confessional method presents us with a ‘portrait, not a theory’ of life’s meaning.” This idea is a bit hard to grasp, but it is compelling in its uniqueness. However, I don’t think it essentially solves the riddle. Nevertheless, check out the book and decide for yourself.
The best quote of the book from the author can be found below, "We don't learn the meaning of life in theory; we live, and within the act of living, meaning emerges."
We rate the book the following:
Overall - 8
Meaning of Life Relevance - 10
Uniqueness – 6
What did we miss? Do you think without an afterlife there can still be meaning?