When the Point Isn’t the Point
About a week ago, after reading Joseph P. Carter’s opinion piece “The Universe Doesn’t Care About Your ‘Purpose‘” (NYT, July 31), I started putting together a comment in my mind. Carter took us on a brief history of science and philosophy, from the times when people (such as Aristotle) saw purpose in everything, to the wiser present, informed by physics, which has revealed to us that the universe has no purpose at all. He then proceeded to argue that we can still create purpose in our lives, even if the universe lacks it.
According to Carter, Aristotle’s idea of human purpose fits within his larger teleological view:
What about human beings? In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle tells us that our purpose is happiness or eudaemonia, “well-spiritedness.” Happiness is an ordered and prudent life. Good habits, a sound mind and a virtuous disposition are some of the steps that lead us there. For Aristotle, nothing is more fundamental for us.
I found something too glib here–the philosophical summaries, the characterization of physics, the artjcle’s comforting conclusion. But how would I respond? I had many points but didn’t know which to highlight.
Then I saw that there were already several hundred comments, some of which said exactly what I didn’t yet realize I wanted to say. I couldn’t have said it better; in fact, I might not have said it at all. This could have been dejecting, except that some of these comments were really good. They even left me with a sense of purpose. There was one (by a certain DavidC) that I especially enjoyed; granted, it could use a little editing, but so can many things.
Really enjoyed this piece, though I think the author might want to revisit his take on Aristotle somewhat. I found that part a little reductive and simplistic. The Nicomachean Ethics is, after all, no less an instance of ‘how we talk to each other about our own lives.’ In spite of the teleological framing, the actual content of the work is far from dogmatic, impractical or merely abstract. It is an astute (and entertaining) observational study of character and behavior. Moreover, Aristotle states quite explicitly that ethics is not science, but something more like art. With ancient authors, contemporary readers often make the mistake of reducing the author to a ‘doctrine’ from the get-go, thereby missing the psychological richness, humanity and–dare I say it–wisdom, they may contain.
Yes, indeed! Having taught parts of the Nicomachean Ethics (to high school students), I enjoy its versatility and vividness. My students have been inspired by it; many have chosen it for their independent projects or returned to it later.
DavidC points to a problem with the way philosophy is often characterized. “Plato believed…. Aristotle, in contrast, believed….” If this were the case, philosophy would consist mainly of opinions. One person thinks such-and-such, and then someone else comes along and knocks that view out of sight.
But what makes philosophy interesting is its many ways of investigating questions. It isn’t only logical; it works extensively with analogy, intuition, and observation. It can take numerous forms, from verse to dialogue to letter to essay. Even when contained, it doesn’t come to an end; it keeps pushing out to new questions. In that sense, it inherently resists the takeaway.
In my TEDx talk “Take Away the Takeaway” (and in my essay collection by that title) I take a look at the limitations of takeaways. Takeaways are important, but there’s often something beyond (or in front of) them that opens up new problems and questions. Granted, takeaways can help us see the larger subject. Without getting the point in the first place, we wouldn’t know its limitations. But it’s good to recognize when the point isn’t the point. If there’s entropy in this, there’s also purpose.
Image credit: By “Eugene Antipov” – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1150064.