Here’s an interesting article by Simon Glendinning on the topic of post WWII philosophy.
A Life Worth Living: Part I
Simon GlendinningIn post-war Britain academic philosophers did not talk about the meaning of life. Analytic philosophy dominated British philosophy, and this kind of philosophy was dominated in turn by philosophy of language and by epistemology. Moral philosophy, along with aesthetics, mostly hid in a corner.But in 1976 a distinguished analytic philosopher, David Wiggins, delivered a paper called “Truth, Invention and the Meaning of Life”:Even now, in an age not given much to mysticism, there are people who ask “What is the meaning of life?” Not a few of them make the simple “un-philosophical” assumption that there is something to be known here. (One might say they are “cognitivists” with regard to this sort of question.) And most of these same people make the equally unguarded assumption that the whole issue of life’s meaning presupposes some positive answer to the question whether it can be plainly and straightforwardly true that this or that thing or activity or pursuit is good, or has value, or is worth something. Finally, something even harder, they suppose that questions like that of life’s meaning must be among the central questions of moral philosophy.The question of life’s having a meaning and the question of truth are not at the centre of moral philosophy as we now have it.Not at the centre of moral philosophy – and nowhere near the centre of philosophy in general. Not in 1976. Not in Britain. And while it is true that in Continental Europe philosophy was being done in ways that were at least more congenial to raising the question, still, there too, generally speaking, such ambitious efforts were rare.They are still rare, but not so rare today and I know of a number of professional philosophers who are grateful that they can now write about the deepest questions of human life without embarrassment. Why has this happened at this time? Why has it become possible to discuss this kind of theme again?Let us begin by asking why it might be that discussion about the meaning of life went off the radar in philosophy during the twentieth century – and also off the radar beyond academia too, off the radar in the West during the last hundred years or so.At the risk of gross simplification, I want to suggest that the background to this state of affairs can be framed in terms of the acceptance by European intellectuals of what has been called “the secularisation thesis”. This thesis was developed by different thinkers in different ways, but social theorists like Weber, Durkheim and, in his own fashion, Marx, led the way in thinking we could describe the historical movement of modernity in Europe in terms of a transition from a society dominated by magic, myth, superstition and religion, into one with a cognitively superior outlook in which these things are disclosed as illusions and delusions which we shed in the name of reason, criticism and science.This story belonged with an even more long-run picture: one which conceived the movement of the whole history of the world in terms of a transition from an origin that was primitive, barbarian, savage – and basically animal – moving slowly and in stages through developments in human society towards a modern, rational and scientific end. There is here the idea of History as Progress towards an ideal End of Man and towards an ideally civilised form of social life. The secularisation thesis dovetails with that wider discourse of modernity: it is the idea that the movement into a rational and scientific age is one which is likely to see primitive and traditional conceptions not only of the world but also of the significance of our lives increasingly give way to rational and scientific ones. The old illusions will, in all likelihood, wither away, and in the future, soon, we will have finally emancipated ourselves from myth, superstition and religion. We will have finally learned how to live.The secularisation thesis became increasingly matter of course for European intellectuals in the late 19th and 20th centuries. So when people were writing at that time – in philosophy, in history, in politics and in sociology – there was this unquestioned background that, while there were still some foolish believers around, the proper methods were finally making their way; and the methods with a future were rational and scientific, and would have nothing to do with religion at all.Before I explore this thesis – a thesis which concerns nothing less than the becoming-secular of the world – we should pause to acknowledge that for many people the claimed changeover in our thinking and believing that the secularisation thesis presents was a cause for considerable anxiety. For many, though they may have kept quiet about it, the sense of loss of a religiously articulated understanding of the significance of our lives was not the loss of an illusion or delusion at all, but rather the loss of a way, perhaps finally the only intelligible way, through which we could make sense of the idea that there is something to be known in this most important of domains. What seemed to be disappearing was the most profound, rich and satisfying (“cognitivist”) discourse through which we might hope to come to know what is to be known about the meaning of life. And when religion falls away or is eclipsed then all you are left with is an utterly mundane life in which it is totally unclear why, ultimately, we should think that there is anything more to life than shopping.