Life is a Matter that Matters

Luke McCracken

I have aimed to make clear that calculative thinking walls itself off from life’s having significance, while meditative thinking, liberated into pointlessness, experiences authentic human life, which is the life that matters so unbearably much.

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest . . . are games.”
–Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

Camus boldly drives to the core of the fundamental human anxiety, bringing together the tremendous line of existentially oriented thinkers from Solomon to Martin Heidegger, through Jean-Luc Marion and Terrence Malick, who all address that same gnawing question of life’s worth. They, and we, all ask, “Does life matter?” This, as Camus says, appears to be the question of human existence. However, I look to dive more deeply towards what I believe to be a more basic query. That is, what does it mean to matter? For Camus’ question, which is the human question—our question—cannot be approached without first confronting this inquiry. Heidegger asks, “What is the meaning of Being?” But I seek the meaning of the mattering of Being.

I will attempt to lay a groundwork for addressing two possible responses. I will confront Heidegger’s penetrating revelation of calculative and meditative thinking as opposing ways of being in terms of each experiential mode’s answer to this fundamental question. Finally, I will give an evaluation of these two divergent answers and, in particular, I argue that following the calculative definition of mattering would precludes life’s ever mattering.

Maintaining the Heideggerrian methodology, before I engage in any analysis of my own, I will let language talk. I will let ‘matter’ speak for itself, for the word itself possesses a fruitfully multivalent definition. As far as our consideration is concerned, ‘matter’ has four possible definitions—two noun forms and two verb forms. First, ‘matter’ is a noun that denotes objective substance or res extensa; that which lies before us and occupies space. I will refer to this definition as “mattern1.” The second noun form that ‘matter’ takes means ‘an affair that is yet to be resolved or is under consideration; something that calls for concern’.  I will hereby designate this definition as “mattern2.” Also, ‘matter’, in its first verb form, has a consequentialist definition, which means that something matters insofar as it effects concrete consequences. For example, one’s choice of where to go to college matters. This says that one’s choice of where to go to college will have significant, long-lasting consequences in one’s life. In this way, we conceive of ‘matter’ as a reference to a cause-effect structure. I will indicate this definition by “matterv1.” Finally, we arrive at our final definition of ‘matter’. This one is perhaps best explained first by way of example. One may say, “My family matters.” What is meant here, indicated by the implicit reflexive nature of this usage, is that my family matters to me, which is simply to say that I care about my family. This mattering will be called “matterv2.” To recapitulate and clarify my notation: Mattern1 is the first noun form (objectivity). Mattern2 is the second noun form (an affair under consideration). Matterv1 is the first verb form (consequentialist). And matterv2 is the second verb form (to be cared about). Now, rooted in what language gives us, I will give an analysis of calculative and meditative thinking in regard to how they regard these definitions in determining "mattering."

Calculative thinking understands life as a mattern1 that mattersv1. Calculative thinking, then, beholds life as an object before it—an object to be controlled, mastered, and shaped. This mode of being renders life a “thought-contrived fabrication . . . [a] calculated object” (Poetry, Language, Thought 127). Life so conceived is a thing which can be held between the forceps and beneath the microscope of modern technics. Essentially, one's life, calculatively construed, is the ultimate form of capital: that which is to be capitalized upon. It is “merely for consumption” (PLT 127). Furthermore, as the name implies, this calculative definition holds that, by calculation, we can weigh, measure, test, record, and altogether "figure out" life. What was once mysterious and enchanted has become, by way of technology and rationality, explained away and thus disenchanted. The mathematicians, physicists, statisticians, and economists all engage, and allegedly successfully so, in this explicatory enterprise, which places them, not the poets, artists, and thinkers, as the existentialists of our age. Also, this conception of life as mattern1 brings to light another critical insight into the approach of the calculative thinker. The first law of thermodynamics tells us that matter, like energy, can be neither created nor destroyed; it has no beginning or end, which is simply to say, it is temporally infinite. Given this fact, a life thought of as mattern1 is a life thought of as infinite. Being neither created nor destroyed, such a life does not take up temporality but, instead, denies it wholly. Calculative thinking cannot think of itself as finite, for to do so would be to violate the fundamental character of life’s being mattern1. “There is always tomorrow,” says the calculative thinker.  

If life is matter understood as such, what then can we say of its mattering? Life experienced as a mattern1 can only matterv1.  Calculativity can only think of life’s mattering in terms of its effecting concrete consequences. The mattering of life so conceived is a question of effectiveness rather than affectedness. In order to achieve mattering (for it is most certainly an achievement) one must strive to realize it concretely. What emerges is a frenzied grasping for, a pressured expectation of accomplishment. Life’s mattering, in this sense, takes the structure of cause-effect, and that structure of cause and effect is characterized by pure futurity: cause then effect. A life lived out in reach of such a mattering is pure projection (actual thrown-forwardness). Calculativity, in pursuit of this consequential mattering, can only look forward into the future, and given its view of life as mattern1, that future has no end. The calculative thinker, attempting to earn mattering, violently throws his/herself into an indefinite future, a temporal chasm. This way of being is marked by an utter disregard for the past and an inability to appreciate the present, for the draft could always be redrafted. As the father says in Tree of Life, “Toscanini once wrote a piece sixty-five times. You know what he said after – ‘it could have been better.’” Calculative thinking continually argues there is more to be done and more time with which to do it, and it thus finds itself unaware and unconcerned with past or present, lacking temporality. This technically derived significance, then, causes “the constant negation of death” (PLT 122). The mattering of being conceived as such thereby covers over the fundamental ontological structure of the human, who no longer experiences him/herself as ecstatic or distended temporality, but, instead, as sheer projection. Calculative thought, therefore, shows itself, through its definition of mattering, to be something other than authentic Dasein (human being). The calculative rendering of mattering is an equation of one’s mattering to one’s resumé, which means that life’s mattering is but the amassing of accomplishments by way a self-assertion that surges heedlessly into indefinite, temporal infinitude. Meditative thinking, however, offers a radically divergent answer to the question of mattering’s meaning.

Meditative thinking sees life as a mattern2 that mattersv2. For a meditator, rather than life being that which is to be shaped and controlled, it is that which is yet to be resolved. As Heidegger says, life is an issue for us. The meditatively conceived life is essentially an open question. So, in direct contrast to the calculative formation, life is precisely that which cannot, by any means, be “figured out,” especially through the natural and social sciences. The weighing, measuring, recording, explaining away, and thereby disenchanting of life is, in fact, anathema to this understanding. A life so conceived and so figured, in the eyes of the meditative thinker, becomes quite a lifeless life, for the livelihood of life springs forth directly from its utter nonfigurability and its irreducibility. Furthermore, this openness of life makes room for one’s living it. In being a mattern2, life is something which must be carefully worked out by us. Its indefiniteness calls us to take it up as our own.

When I say that life is a mattern2, I mean, that it is a matter before each of us. While mattern1 is to be held down underneath the fluorescent light of technical rationality, a mattern2 is to be incalculably lived out. Also, and perhaps most importantly, life’s being a mattern2 brings the meditative thinker into an authentic relation to time. A mattern2, which is otherwise stated as an issue, can only come into being by way of a past, for any issue is necessarily borne to us by the previous conditions from which is rises. There being this issue also affords to us a present—something we must currently take up in care. A matter—an open question—demands our present attention for want of a resolution. And here, in its implicit reference to a possible resolution, we find our future. Thus a mattern2 arises from the past, calls for our present attention, and orients us toward a future resolution. Life understood as such therefore affords to us ecstatic, distended temporality and finitude, which are key elements of authentic Dasein. Being a matter as such allows us to speak of life’s mattering is a vastly different way than before.

When one’s life becomes known as a mattern2, it mattersv2. The meditative thinker approaches life as an open question; a question that demands being taken up into consideration, which is to say that life as a mattern2 demands our caring about it. This ‘caring about’ is our definition of ‘matteringv2’. We see then, that from the indeterminacy of life—its being an issue—life’s sheer mattering emerges. Life’s mattering is thereby divorced from the shackled cause-effect structure of calculative mattering. Meditative thinking frees us from the absurd equation of mattering with consequence; the meditative life is, in a sense then, pointless. The meditative way of being thinks nothing of means to ends. Life, therefore, is worthless in terms of its productivity and achievement, but in a beautiful paradox, out of life’s total worthlessness arises its staggering and unquestionable worth. Life’s mattering bursts forth from its utter inconsequentiality. I care about life because it is the affair which is always yet to be resolved, and it thus beckons me; it becomes my affair. My life, then, mattersv2 to me. It is of significance for no reason other than its being an issue—being my issue. More precisely, it is that which cannot be resolved within the span of my temporal existence, but, rather, that which only realizes its completion, its resolution, at my end. Therefore, it summons me forth toward death, and in so doing it brings together the infinite and the finite—the infinitude of life’s indeterminate possibility and the temporal finitude of my choice—which spans the gap and makes the finite infinitely deep.  

I contend that conceiving of life as a mattern1 that mattersv1 prevents life’s ever mattering. Put simply, one cannot achieve existential significance. The calculative thinker then realizes the immense inconsequentiality of a single life, which stands meekly at the base of a vast existence. The temporal and spatial magnitude of man in relation to that of the cosmos is utterly laughable; language truly fails to express adequately the unthinkable minuteness of humankind when perceived against the background of all being. Terrence Malick works to express artistically what language cannot by way of his extended sequences portraying the formation of the cosmos, the development of the single-cell, and the age of dinosaurs. To measure the worth of one’s life, then, on the basis of its effecting concrete consequences, is revealed as the futility of futilities, as Solomon lays bare in Ecclesiastes. Max Weber, in his “Science as a Vocation” saw this senselessness, this insignificance of accomplishment. He admits that “what he has accomplished will be antiquated in ten, twenty, fifty years … surpassed and outdated.” Humankind must, therefore, “resign [it]self to this fact.”  A life so conceived could not possibly matter, he tells us, because our accomplishments are tiny blips in a sequence that goes on “ad infinitum.” However, this does not mean that human life does not matter.

The human life is, in its very definition, the life that matters. ‘Matter’ comes from the Latin word materia, which translates literally as ‘wood’. The root word, however, is mater, or mother. How can we make sense of mattering as being, most basically, a mother? Mattering, I say, etymologically speaking, is that which gave birth to human life. The human life is made human precisely by the fact of its mattering. Life does not matter to other animals; their being is not an issue for them. So the human being’s distinct mode of being is only made distinct by the fact of its life’s mattering. Returning, then, to Camus’ question—the only truly serious philosophical problem—we see that our life’s mattering or not depends wholly on the way in which we define ‘matter’, which places this discussion as more fundamental to his. In wake of this, I have aimed to make clear that calculative thinking walls itself off from life’s having significance, while meditative thinking, liberated into pointlessness, experiences authentic human life, which is the life that matters so unbearably much.


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