|The Uncertainty of Life
Life is Contingent
In the world of everyday life - which, I am insisting, is the world of
ordinary language, the primary world, the one into which we were first
inducted and in which we continue to live - everything is contingent.
We are well aware that we can recognize some events as being meant by
other people, and some pressures and "necessities" as having been imposed
upon us by other people.
But we do not experience everything as being in some way meant
or necessitated to happen. On the contrary, in the life-world everything
just happens to happen, or turn out, or befall in the way it does. When we
speak of "befalling" here, the fall in question was no doubt originally
the fall of a die. And similarly, when we speak about the way things "pan
out", the panning in question was originally the panning of a hopeful
prospector in the goldfields of Northern California.
In such circumstances people may desperately want to believe in luck or
fate, and may look very hard for some way of improving their chances. But
the way we use the metaphors, and such other expressions as "the run of
the balls", "the luck of the draw" and "the lap of the gods", shows that
in the end we know that everything is the product of time and chance.
Everything just happens. Too much looking for "meaning" or meant-ness is a
waste of time.
That everything in the life-world is contingent becomes obvious when we
pause to consider how it must originally have come into being. Emerging
from their animal background into the first glimmerings of consciousness
some tens of thousands of years ago, early humans started with little but
their own intense sociability and their need to develop a common language
- which in effect means a common world to co-inhabit.
The world of sense-experience available to them was very various,
chaotic and fast-changing. How could a common world be built out of it?
Briefly, they had to use language to make bits of their
sense-experience differentiated, clarified and common. They had to
find out by trial and error which bits of sense-experience could be
referred out into objectivity, fixed and stabilized as parts of a common
world. It was not an easy thing to do. Even to this day we are often not
quite sure what's out there and what's only in our sense organs. The main
point is that we have to learn to do the referring-out in a standard,
rule-governed way. In the end we succeeded and it was all done, just by
the talk of us human beings.
So the life-world evolved. We all live in it, and for the most part it
works very well.
But it follows from this account of how the life-world came into being
that everything in it is contingent, and the order we seem to see in it is
merely an order that we ourselves have imputed to it. Or (to put the point
a shade more cautiously) collectively we have found it convenient to
impute to our world the degree and the patterns of order that we seem to
see in it.
Notice that in imagining how they and their world looked to the first
humans we have made the mistake of projecting back our own highly
elaborated language and world-picture into their situation. I did
that in order to explain my theory of how they were first able to develop
the earliest beginnings of a common language, a common world and some
measure of lit-up subjective consciousness.
But it wasn't quite like that for them, in those days. We
weren't hovering around, observing them and understanding them and so
helping them to understand themselves. They had only their own immanent
point of view, such as it was. They knew nothing of the past, nor of any
independent world apart from themselves. All they could be aware of was
the first appearance of a small, lit-up pool of consciousness in the
obscure writhing painful darkness of animal experience.
That for them was the moment of creation. A little light appears in the
general darkness. And what does this pool of illumination consist of? It
is the very beginnings of a common language and a common world, when in
the cry of a fellow-member of ones own species one recognizes a
shared meaning, general significance, something in common.
So consciousness depends on language, which in turns depends upon the
recognition of something public, something in common, which in turn again
depends upon the establishment of shared meanings.
To demonstrate the point, lie back and let your mind wander.
Consciousness-idling consists of running words - and words are public
objects. Now try just inventing some new word of your own, and turn it
loose. See if it will run along with the other, ordinary words in your
vocabulary. It will not. The thing cannot be done. Idling consciousness
consists, and consists only, of a motion of public objects,
ordinary words, somewhere within your system.
Consciousness is not something private and "spiritual" that goes on in
the brain. Consciousness is simply a secondary effect in us of the motion
of the public language. That is why the dawn of consciousness coincided
with the first establishment and recognition of common meanings, and it is
also why, philosophically speaking, language precedes "reality".
That is, the public world of linguistic meaning logically precedes
both the public world of fact and the seemingly private world
of lit-up subjective consciousness. People usually make a rather sharp
distinction between the public and private realms, but language in motion
cheerfully disregards it. The public/private distinction is itself
All of which sounds very clear and satisfactory. But philosophy is not
easily satisfied. It has long regarded the ordinary-life-world as a very
unsatisfactory world, and has dreamt of escaping from it to find a more
real, unchanging and intelligible world.
This dream of an intellectually-satisfying noumenal world influenced
the way people saw the new mechanistic science that developed in
seventeenth-century Europe between Galileo and Newton. The new physics
proposed a highly-idealized picture of the workings of the physical
universe as being completely describable in terms of matter, motion and
number. It was a universe that was, or seemed to be, transparent to reason
and fully deterministic.
Because of complications like air resistance, rolling resistance and so
on, bodies in the empirical world did not behave with quite such exact
predictability as the model said they would. But it was assumed that the
complications could be taken into the calculation, and that the world as
described by scientific theory was a clearer, more exact and truer account
of the real world out there than the account given in ordinary language.
So to this day many scientists can still regard themselves as being
like platonic philosophers, leading us towards a truer vision of the real
world than the one that is given to us in our ordinary language.
This history explains why for a long time Western thought suspected
that although everything in the life-world seems to be contingent, the
higher truth revealed by science is that every event in the physical world
is mechanistically determined. Determinism seemed to be a major problem,
and indeed threat.
Today, we hear much less about determinism. The mechanistic world-model
thrown up by seventeenth-century science was only ever a highly-idealized
model. It was a mistake to suppose that it was a world-picture more
reliable, more real and more true than the world-picture of ordinary
language and everyday life.
On the contrary, in order to bring the idealized world of Newtonian
mechanics into line with the fuzzier facts of the world of ordinary
language and everyday life, we would have to introduce so many
qualifications and complications that we would inevitably move over from
the clean-cut mechanistic notion of causation to something much more like
the Buddhist account.
And in any case, the old mechanistic determinism presupposed an
exceedingly clean-cut notion of a determinate material world existing
out-there, prior to language, independent of it and copied by it. But
today, language and the world are interwoven, and the world has inevitably
come to share language's own fuzziness, indeterminacy and (sometimes)
So we can forget determinism, and I return to our insistence that
everything in life is contingent - which means that it is not meant or
necessitated, but simply happens or befalls. Everything comes to be, and
passes away, in time. Everything, including both so-called objective
reality and so-called subjective consciousness, is language-mediated and
part of a single package.
It is because everything is part of a single great big shapeless,
boundary-less bundle - a package that we ourselves have described and
assembled - that to my mind the only way to come to terms with it all is
to say "Yes" to it all. Try to moralize about it all as little as
possible, and to complain about one's own fate not at all.
Cultivate instead the large, generous spirit of one of those great
picaresque artists such as Pieter Breughel or Laurence Sterne. That is the
best, and the least judgmental or moralistic attitude to life.
We should say "Yes" to life in all its contingency because it is the
accidental-ness of life that makes happy accidents possible, and
that makes innovation and creativity possible. We wouldn't wish the
self-replication of DNA always to proceed with precise accuracy, because
without all the slippage and the accidents there would not have occurred
the favourable mutations on which evolution depends - and so it is also in
the realm of language and personal life.
No doubt people�s suspicion and fear of universal contingency is
related to their fear of death. They imagine - no doubt we all of us
sometimes imagine - that on the leading edge of time, where the present is
always slipping away into the past, everything is passing away all the
time, and we with it.
Many people suffer dreadfully from the fear of death, and above all
from horror at the thought of the state of being oneself dead. They need a
cure; and fortunately there is a cure.
In religion, the cure is the practice of solar living. In philosophy,
we can make essentially the same point by saying, "Don't think only of the
universal passing-away of everything. Think also of everything's
coming-to-be. And then give the two thoughts exactly equal weight."
Contingency is universal passing away and universal renewal,
going away and coming back, loss and gain, both at once, and as a single
package. To accept and affirm universal contingency is to say "Yes" to the
whole package, in the recognition that we cannot really imagine things
How else could it be? Those of us who have learned to love contingency
have found that it is precisely the most fragile, ephemeral and secondary
things that move us most deeply, and that we love most dearly.
Life Exceeds and Laughs At All Our Faiths And Ideologies
Georges Perec (1936-1982) published Life: A User's Manual
in 1978. It is "the last major event in the history of the novel",
as Italo Calvino called it, an encyclopaedic account of the inhabitants of
one Paris tenement house, in all the extraordinary variety of their lives
and concerns, which becomes a microcosm of the whole human life-world.
Which in turn leads me straight to the question to be debated now: the
human life-world is so vast and so endlessly varied and contains so many
inconsistencies, extremes and sharp incongruities that it surely cannot be
summed up and explained in any one tidy system of general thought. Life
contains all the systems - the religions, the philosophies, the works of
art, the political ideologies - but it is bigger than any of them. It far
exceeds them, and it laughs at them all.
What do we make of that? Might we perhaps respond to this challenge by
trying to frame a philosophy of life, which starts from precisely the
features of life that are alleged to nullify theories about it? Maybe -
but surely it cannot end up with any more than what Perec has already
given us, namely a rather detached, droll and good-humoured description of
a typical sample of life's huge, tumultuous variety. No theory of life is
going to be able both to do full justice to it all and to
tell us what it all means, and how we should live.
Alternatively, we may admit that life itself is wildly chaotic and
excessive in all directions. But then we may go on to say that the job of
a particular philosophy or religion, or whatever, is to present us not
with the whole truth about life, but only with a reduced art-image of
life, life made sense of in such a way that within this simplified and
meaning-rich representation of our life we can hope to frame a personal
faith to live by and a meaningful project of our own.
How will a person who takes this line explain and justify her own
She'll say, "If I try to stay true to life itself and as a whole, I'll
end up in Perec's position: droll and detached, with a feeling of infinite
absurdity. I'll feel overwhelmed: I won't be able actually to live.
So it seems to me reasonable, for the sake of gaining life-satisfaction
and for the sake of ethics, to seek out a powerful and wide-ranging
art-image of what life is all about, and to commit myself to it so that
within it I can shape a life and pursue the values that seem most
worthwhile to me . It seems to me that life
itself is so chaotic and appalling that just in order to live I've got to
cut it down to size and make it make a sort of sense."
Thus she admits that we cannot have a conceptually-clear total
philosophy of the meaning of life. But she says we can be content
with art-images of life's meaning, depicting it for example as a great
journey, or as a school in which we are preparing for a final examination.
By the end of the twentieth century, I suspect that most people in the
West had reached the position just described. It implies that we've given
up old ideas of divine revelation, and we've given up the claim that our
own religious doctrine-system is universally and dogmatically just true,
for all human beings everywhere.
Instead, the person I have described sees religion as being cultural,
and like art.
Most of us humans have at least some residual connection with an
ancestral religious tradition. That tradition gives us, under a group of
dominant symbols, a world-view and an account of how we human beings come
to be here, how it is with us, and how we should live. Such traditions are
in most cases pretty flexible: they can be bent into new shapes and
appropriated in new ways.
Other people, in other cultures, are often so different that it hardly
makes sense for me to claim that my tradition is normative for all other
human beings everywhere. But I can make the much more modest claim
that with a bit of low cunning I can appropriate my own tradition
in such a way as to make it possible for me to construct a meaningful and
value-rich form of life for myself out of it.
In which case we now say: Life is much too vast and various for any one
religion or philosophy to be objectively just true, everywhere and for
everyone. But by working with the stories and symbols that we have
inherited we can still build a house of meaning for ourselves to inhabit.
And others, in other traditions, are fully entitled to do something
similar for themselves with the rather different materials available to
 See my The New Religion of Life in Everyday Speech (London: SCM
Press, 1999). I several times refer to this book in what follows, because I
am starting from the data and the argument that it presents in order this
time to turn the argument in a different direction.
 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 5.621 (Pears and McGuinness
 The Discovery of Time is the title of an interesting book by
Stephen Toulmin (London: Hutchinson, 1965, subsequent Pelican reprints).
The Discovery of the Mind is the title of the last major work of the
Princeton historian of philosophy Walter Kaufmann. For hildung, see
for example Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity
by Charles Taylor (Cambridge England: the Cambridge University Press,
1989). On the novelty and innocence of modern urban life, see various of the
Impressionist painters, and later, the letters of Van Gogh.
 On Wordsworth. see The New Religion of Life cited above,
pp.25f. The most important mistake in that little book was my failure to
recall the Tolstoy quotation. In the L. and A. Maude arrangement of the text
of War and Peace, it is from Bk 14, c.3.
 I take the phrase 'bigger than life' from the film actor Elliott
Gould: 'There's a great danger of thinking you're bigger than life. Nobody
is bigger than life' - an interesting transfer to life of the traditional
warning against hubris. Daily Telegraph, 22 March 1999, pp.14f. The belief
that we can transcend the limitations of our own biological makeup, and live
like spirits while still in this life has sometimes been called angelism.
The implication was clearly that angelism makes a bad mistake: a living
human being is always a sexual being, whereas spirits in Christian art
always lack secondary sexual characteristics. Angels never have either
breasts or beards, and Satan always lacks genitals. All of which is clear
enough. But in Christian culture people usually failed to draw the obvious
conclusion - which is that the very notion that we can and should spend our
life preparing for another sexless world 'beyond this life' is badly
mistaken. We will never get either religion or morality straight until we
admit that we belong here, and only here.
 English translation by David Bellos, London: Collins/Harvill, 1987.
 I offer this as an interpretation of what Jean Anouilh means when he
says that the job of art is to give life a shape.