The Meaning of Life and Cultural Relativism –What is the meaning of life? –“What’s the meaning of life? ” is today a question generally meant as a joke. This apparently wasn’t true in the past. Religious teachers, from Jesus to Buddha to Mohammed, offered a clear meaning of life. Philosophers from Plato to Augustine to Voltaire to Nietzsche to William James also offered such a meaning, although in progressively less certain ways.
–Today, however, philosophers have mostly turned away from questions of the meaning of life (or when they discuss it, they may proclaim life’s meaninglessness, as does Nagel in this week’s reading). A big reason for this is that there are so many different beliefs in the world today: they relativize all beliefs, and make certainty problematic. –A key principle of anthropology is “cultural relativism”: this has become a central principle in today’s world at large. How can you know that your sense of “the meaning of life” is truer than someone else’s sense of “the meaning of life”?
This is why it may be difficult to be both a Christian and an anthropologist. And this is why this course cannot offer much advice as to “the meaning of life. ” Meanings of Life in Anthropology –Anthropologists thus can’t discuss “the meaning of life”; but they can analyze people’s personal meanings of life, as a way of better understanding how people are culturally and socially shaped. There is a fundamental difference between “the meaning of life” and “meanings of life,” and only the latter can be fully explored by anthropologists.
–Anthropologists explore culture: the ways of thinking by which people live. Anthropologists study a range of different culturally-shaped fields, from economics to politics to religion to gender in different societies. However, few anthropologists have directly studied “meanings of life” (maybe none, except for me! ) This is because in most societies that anthropologists study, there is no ordinary word that people use to describe what’s most important to them in their lives. –However, the Japanese language has such a term: ikigai.
Ikigai means “that which makes your life worth living,” or, more practically speaking, “what’s most important to you in your life. ” Common ikigai are work, family, religious belief, creative endeavor, or personal dream. 1 –Why does only Japanese have the term ikigai? Why don’t other languages have ikigai? In any case, even if other languages don’t have the term ikigai, people everywhere can understand what ikigai means. It is “what’s most important to you in life,” “what makes your life worth living. ” –What is your ikigai?
This is difficult for students, because you haven’t yet made the life choices of work and family that you probably will make over the next few years. But you can get some idea: Is it pleasing your parents? Finding a boyfriend/girlfriend? Gaining knowledge? Getting good grades and a good future job? Helping the world become better? Pursuing creativity? Being close to God? The Sociocultural Analysis of Ikigai . –Most Japanese books about ikigai talk about it in a psychological sense: how individuals seek and find and lose ikigai.
However, ikigai is also social: all ikigai involve us in the world of other people: whether you live for family, for your personal dream, for God, or for alcohol, all of these are social. –Ikigai in this sense I define as “that which most deeply links the self to the social world”: ikigai is what ties you to the world around you. This can take two broad forms: ikigai as self-realization, and ikigai as commitment to one’s group: both are fundamentally social.
–Here is a one-sentence cross-cultural theory of ikigai: “On the basis of culturally and personally-shaped fate, individuals strategically formulate and interpret their ikigai from an array of cultural conceptions, negotiate these ikigai within their circles of immediate others, and pursue their ikigai as channeled by their society’s institutional structures so as to attain and maintain a sense of the personal significance of their lives. ” We have ikigai because ikigai gives us a sense of the purpose and significance and worth of our lives; but we necessarily hold these ikigai within the context of the society around us, with which we constantly interact in forming and maintaining ikigai.