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Desire, Infinity, and the Meaning of Life

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 September 2011

Fiona Ellis*
Heythrop College, London


In his paper ‘Truth, Invention, and the Meaning of Life’ David Wiggins identifies a certain framework in terms of which to tackle the question of life's meaning. I argue that his criticisms of this framework are justified, and develop an alternative which trades upon some themes from Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Levinas. This alternative remains in the spirit of Wiggins' own preferred standpoint, although he would take issue with its theological implications. I argue that such misgivings are misplaced, and that a move in the direction of God may be precisely what is needed if we are to provide an adequate alternative to the framework under attack.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2011

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1 In Needs, Values, Truth, Essay III (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 92Google Scholar.

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3 ‘Truth, Invention, and the Meaning of Life’, 92.

4 ‘Truth, Invention, and the Meaning of Life’, 92.

5 ‘Truth, Invention, and the Meaning of Life’, 99.

6 ‘Truth, Invention, and the Meaning of Life’, 136.

7 There is a question to be raised here about the scope of ‘us’. I shall return to this point below.

8 ‘Truth, Invention, and the Meaning of Life’, 101.

9 I shall return to this point below.

10 The temple is a good case in point. Temple building for the sake of the temple need not be meaningless, and ditto its contemplation. Temples are capable of engaging our interests, even if not the interests of everyone. Boredom is another matter to which I shall return.

11 Williams, Compare Bernard, ‘The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality’, in Problems of the Self (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Augustine is conspicuous by his absence, and the reader will be reminded of his claim that our hearts find no peace until they rest in God, Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (London: Penguin, 1961, I, 1). She will see also that his conception of the restless heart exhibits the structure of Hegel's bad infinity, and that he defends a version of the claim – defended here – that desires are not bad in themselves. There is an interesting question to be raised about what the relation is between the kind of equilibrium Augustine has in mind and that envisaged by Levinas when he insists that the desire for God is insatiable. I discuss some related matters in my unpublished paper ‘Insatiable Desire’.

13 ‘In Defense of Bad Infinity: A Fichtean Response to Hegel's Differenzschrift’, 4. This paper is available online at

14 Bernard Williams, op.cit.

15 For another take on the tedium of immortality see the final chapter of Julian Barnes' A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters (London: Picador, 2005).

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21 Encyclopaedia Logic, s.94.

22 Encyclopaedia Logic, s.95.

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26 The World as Will and Representation, vol 1, 196.

27 The World as Will and Representation, vol 1, 231–4.

28 Compare Tolstoy's definition of boredom as ‘The desire for desires’ (Anna Karenina, vol. 8).

29 Compare Christopher Janaway: ‘Schopenhauer thus provides the paradigm of the stance Nietzsche called resignationism, or no-saying or life denial…For Nietzsche this is the controlling, degenerate, sick ideal against which we must make war. We might say: the pathos of Schopenhauer is that, revealing to us our ‘true nature’ in the will to life, he sees precisely this as what we must disown before our existence can claim to have value' ‘Schopenhauer's Pessimism, in Cambridge Companion to Schopenhauer, ed., Janaway, Christopher (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 341CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 They are ‘I desires’ in the sense defined by Bernard Williams in his ‘Egoism and Altruism’, in Problems of the Self (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 250265CrossRefGoogle Scholar. An interesting corollary to this suggestion is that the claim that boredom is inextricably tied up with desiring is transformed into the claim that it is egoistically motivated, and then we have a possible vindication of Walker Percy's definition according to which boredom is ‘the self being stuffed with itself’ Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (New York: farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1983), 70–1Google Scholar. Nicholas E. Lombardo cites this definition in an interesting discussion of boredom in his The Logic of Desire: Aquinas on Emotion (Washington DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2011), 259271Google Scholar.

31 See Wiggins, ‘Truth, Invention, and the Meaning of Life’, 136.

32 Science of Logic, 149.

33 ‘In Defense of Bad Infinity’, 5.

34 Encyclopaedia Logic, s.95.

35 I borrow this metaphor from John McDowell.

36 Totality and Infinity, (Pittsburgh: Duqusne University Press, 1969), trans. Lingis, Alphonso, 117Google Scholar.

37 Totality and Infinity, 114–115.

38 On Escape, 60.

39 Levinas would object that Hegel's conception of good infinity remains a totality in this pejorative sense, and that his distinction between good and bad infinity collapses. It is beyond the scope of this paper to assess this objection.

40 Totality and Infinity, 33–4.

41 ‘Philosophy and the Idea of the Infinite’, 114.

42 Totality and Infinity, 179.

43 Totality and Infinity, 179.

44 ‘Philosophy and the Idea of the Infinite’, 112.

45 Totality and Infinity, 63.

46 Totality and Infinity, 61.

47 ‘Loving the Torah more than God’, in Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, 143.

48 ‘For a Jewish Humanism’, in Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, 275.

49 Collected Philosophical Papers, (ed.), Lingis, Alphonso (Martinus Nijhoff: The Hague, 1987), 72–3Google Scholar.

50 ‘A Religion for Adults’, 17.

51 See Mannion, Gerard, Schopenhauer, Religion, and Morality (Aldershot, Hants; Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2003)Google Scholar, for an interpretation which poses a challenge to this view of Schopenhauer.

52 ‘Truth, Invention, and the Meaning of Life’, 136.