The Death of God and the Meaning of Life by Julian Young
Routledge ISBN 0415-30790-2 2003 Paperback
Reviewed by Don Duff, Cambridge
Part One of the book presents an account of the philosophers from Plato to Hegel and Marx who believed in some kind of meaning of life, either in another world or in the future of this world. Part Two examines what results when the traditional structures that gave meaning to life cease to be believed in. The ensuing vacuum leads to the appearance that life is meaningless.
The subject of this book will be of interest to SOF readers, trying to make sense of life in the post-modern, post-religious, scientific world.
Philosophers of the past (before the death of God) and of the more recent (after the death of God) have mused on this theme. Julian Young, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Auckland University, has distilled the voluminous information of often abstruse ideas and made them accessible to the reader.
Young describes Plato's true world which underpins Christian theology. Both pointed to universal meaning - the immortal, immaterial soul and the natural / supernatural dichotomy. These views remained supreme from the fourth to the eighteenth centuries. The meaning of life was certain. There was the happiness of the 'true world' (Nietzsche's ironic term) to look forward to.
The advent of experimental science excluded the Christian heaven from the equation. Kant rescues traditional belief by emphasizing the distinction between appearance and reality. Schopenhauer maintains the distinction, but argues that suffering in our world precludes a loving God and points to 'nothingness'. Nietzsche's Buddhism is congruent with this. The enduring true world persists in Hegel and Marx, who relocate it in the future of this world. Young finally demonstrates that no version of the 'true world' demonstrates the meaning of life.
Part Two examines the responses of philosophers to nihilism through the work of the later Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, Foucault, Derrida and Heidegger. Most distinguish between universal and personal meaning and suggest the absence of the former does not mean the absence of the latter.
The exception is Camus who suggests that life can not have any meaning. In contrast to the other post-death of God philosophers, Heidegger thinks there is meaning to life, being 'guardians' of our world.
Nature is our only remaining source of awe (not coterminous with the God of Christian theology and not signalling a return to universal meaning).