French Philosophers and the Search for Meaning

“When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been allotted to me?” – Blaise Pascal

Blaise Pascal is one of the less known and less studied philosophers. A 17th century Renaissance man, he is more known for his contributions to physics and mathematics, especially regarding projective geometry and the theory of probability, than the search for the meaning of life. However, he is one of many French philosophers who have studied the topic. Each of the major philosophers that have come from the land of wine and snails has developed his own distinct theories on the meaning of life. Also, like Pascal, they tend to dip into other subjects and realms.

René Descartes was a contemporary of Pascal though he operated in different circles. Probably most famous today for his quote “I think, therefore I am,” he was well known for his work in mathematics, science and literature, as well as philosophy.

He has also been given the illustrious title “Father of Modern Philosophy” for which he may or may not enjoy taking credit. Descartes centered his musings on the idea that our essence is thinking. Our senses may give information but our minds allow us to make sense of the world. This led to a questioning of our physicality, whether we exist in a corporeal form at all. Reading Descartes, you are led to question whether in fact this is all a dream or imagined state of being, which begs the question of whether there is any meaning at all.

Jean-Paul Sartre is best known as an existentialist, famous for his explicit depiction of the idea that existence precedes essence, the core theory of existentialism. He was also a prolific writer, winning the 1964 Nobel Prize for literature, and political activist. This is a theory in opposition to most traditional philosophy, which espouses the idea that essence, or the meaning of life, is an unchanging and fundamental thing. Basically, Sartre claimed that a person defines oneself, rather than being defined or directed by some outside force. He said, “man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.” Another view of this theory is that we create our own meaning in life out of our experience, though that meaning is dependent on the fairness of the outside world.

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