Significance and Purpose: Identity won and lost


“Empiricism cannot see that we need to know what we are looking for, otherwise we would not be looking for it, and intellectualism fails to see that we need to be ignorant of what we are looking for, or equally again we should not be searching.”

Merleau-Ponty, in Phenomenology of Perception

“…the concept of the purposiveness that nature displays in its products must be one that, while not pertaining to the determination of objects themselves, is nevertheless a subjective principle that reason has for our judgment, since this principle is necessary for human judgment in dealing with nature.”

Immanuel Kant, in Critique of Judgement

In the previous post I explored the manner in which the questioning being is embodied in the empirical world, a manner that is necessarily concernful because it is at all times embedded in the Lifeworld of human meaning that it formulates and appropriates. The whole world of science is built upon the world as directly experienced, and this primordial experience of the world necessarily confers upon the world any significance and purposive value it has. Purpose and Significance, though not the world’s facticity, reside in the questioning being which constructs them out of the things at hand in the world. It does so because it cannot do otherwise. The questioning being derives its coordinates, those measurements by which it charts its precarious way through the Landscape of Being, from the purpose and significance it extracts from the intersubjective world. This orienteering is both tacitly and explicitly undertaken.

Latitude and longitude - Significance and Purpose

Latitude and longitude – Significance and Purpose

It may be seen furthermore, that one’s identity-sense is not merely an audit, for the present moment, of the extent to which one has successfully harmonised one’s primordial desire for significance and capacity for purpose with the Lifeworld. It is also an audit of this required equilibrium as the means for making one’s way in the world into the future. This equilibrium governs one’s self-understanding, one’s sense of place in the intersubjective world and the sense of continuity one maintains, even as one changes and the world around changes too.
It has become clear that science is indeed, for all its description of fundamental atomistic components, a second-order expression of the things the questioning being finds in its world of experience. Science offers us nevertheless a frame of purposive-reference if we can only resist the accoutrement of an apparently well-fitting ‘garb of ideas’ that calcifies (something analogous to the biblical King David’s impeding armour). This purposive-reference has the potential to complement the frame of significance-reference that engagement with the world engenders.

The instinctive scales are not balanced evenly... significance is sought - purpose is inherent.

The instinctive scales are not balanced evenly… significance is sought – purpose is inherent.

In this chapter I examine these two primary structures of human identity, the desire for significance and the capacity for purpose, and focus more extensively upon the tension between them. As Kant has contended, the purposiveness of human judgment regarding the natural world, though a regulative rather than a constitutive principle, is nevertheless indicative of the structure of human thought. Indeed elsewhere Kant argued that things in the world have significance or value too because, and only because, human agents confer it upon them.
With reference to identity I wish to argue that because of the capacity for purpose one possesses, one is predisposed to accept functionality as a validating aspect of one’s life and its paraphernalia. One is also predisposed to allow one’s regard for this capacity to obscure the significance each person desires, or to postpone indefinitely one’s own acquisition of it. Thus too often purposefulness is accomplished at the cost of significance. I can impart, both to my own life and to the life of the other, significance as an end-in-itself or appropriate the other as purposeful for my own ends. If Kant is right that we impose an ought upon each is that we find, then because this purposiveness is a capacity essential to the questioning being, we will not only identify purpose in things but impose it upon them too. Such an imposition of purposiveness however initiates a struggle to succeed in our efforts to harmonise it with the significance we desire; experienced as a deficiency, the human desire for significance is a frailty before ever its accomplishment becomes a strength.
One’s need for as yet unattained significance can devalue the purposefulness one has attained too; consider the junior trainee who is unteachable because of desire for ambition, the parent who breaks up the family home for an extra-marital affair; the accomplished professional who wagers it all on a bid for acclaim.

The questioning being must find equilibrium between its desire for significance -capacity for purpose and the world it seeks to appropriate

The questioning being must find equilibrium between its desire for significance -capacity for purpose and the world it seeks to appropriate

Human identity I hold to be the accretion of meaning that attaches to one’s life through an appropriation of the world. It is gained in the significance and purpose afforded to one’s life. However, just as ‘philosophical’ judgement, whether amateur or vocational, attributes an ought of significance to each human life, so ‘scientific’ judgement, whether amateur or vocational, attributes a purposive ought. Identity may be won in the accretion of significant and purposive meaning to one’s life and lost in an imbalance of these two structural necessities. The terrain in which this tension is to be resolved is the Landscape of Being; the embodied, intersubjectively intentional embedded life of each interdependent questioning being.
Of course it is not only in the service of the natural sciences that purposiveness is key. In business, in politics and in economics also one finds this to be the case. My point is that singular identity is embodied in the necessary situated resolution of tension between the reduction of human meaning to purpose and the elevation of human meaning to significance.
Heidegger, well known for his insight into the concernfulness of situated existence argues that things in the world are intrinsically purposeless. Whether a Kantian purposiveness or a Heideggerian equipmental suitability is adduced, this attributed utility is the work of human judgement most distinctly encountered in scientific rationality. In a sense it is the purposive capacity of the questioning being that allows all things in the world to be, at least potentially, ready-to-hand. It is the significance desired, and intersubjectively afforded the other, that allows the other to be present-at-hand and invites them to reciprocate. Neither is essential to any ‘thing’ in the world of itself for both significance and purpose are human assignations.
In his later writings Heidegger brings back to our attention the fact that though the questioning being necessarily interrogates the world for its significance and purpose things in the world ‘are not changed by our questioning’. The ‘psychospiritual process in us’ that becomes a collaborative intersubjective endeavour, call it science or philosophy, history or art, plays itself out without ontological impact on beings themselves. With one exception. The questioning being itself is both defined and re-aligned by this interrogative process. This implies that it is free to select its ‘way to be’ in the world.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s