Philosophy & Sense of Life, Revisited


TRAGIC SENSE OF LIFE. By Miguel de Unamuno, Dover Books, 1954 ed., 330 pp., $2.50.

BEYOND LIFE. By James Branch Cabell, Johnson Reprint Co., 1919 (first ed.), $12.00.

WORLD HYPOTHESES. By Stephen C. Pepper, University of California Press, 1961, 348 pp., $3.45.

G.E.B. Charing says somewhere that the only thing more interesting than a new book is an old book which may be read in a new way. I had occasion recently to experience the truth of his observation when, shortly after re-reading Ayn Rand's essay "Philosophy and Sense of Life," I picked up three old books in succession: Miguel de Unamuno's Tragic Sense of Life, first published in English in 1921; Stephen C. Pepper's World Hypotheses, first published in 1942; and James Branch Cabell's Beyond Life, first published in 1919. All three books are classics of a kind, having remained more or less continuously in print for the last half century and having become indispensable to any thorough study of, respectively, Spanish literature and philosophy, the foundations of philosophical thinking, and the "Second American Renaissance" of the Nineteen tens-and-twenties. All three are philosophical books, though the Pepper volume is systematic and technical while the Unamuno and Cabell volumes are metaphoric and personal. Read as they were probably intended to be read and as they have traditionally been read, the books discuss widely divergent subjects: Unamuno is concerned with an attitude toward life and the kinds of philosophical and theological views to which it gives rise; Pepper is concerned with the origins of the most general world-theories which men have developed; Cabell is concerned with the attitudes toward life which various literary figures have adopted and with how those attitudes have affected their work. But, in the process, all three writers make solid contributions toward a fuller understanding of the issue Rand has called "Philosophy and Sense of Life."


The concept "sense of life" is not original with Rand, of course, not even in the field to which she applies it most insightfully—the field of aesthetics. Unamuno is only one of a large number of writers who used the term years before Rand published anything, and used it in a similar or identical sense. And at least one other literary critic, Arthur Mizener, applied the idea to fiction in a Randian way at least three years before Rand made any public statements on that subject.[1] But Rand is the thinker who has provided the most detailed and careful elaboration of the concept—the writer who has made the idea of sense of life clearest. For Rand a sense of life is

a pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man's relationship to existence. It sets the nature of a man's emotional responses and the essence of his character.

Long before he is old enough to grasp such a concept as metaphysics, man makes choices, forms value-judgements, experiences emotions and acquires a certain implicit view of life. Every choice and value-judgement implies some estimate of himself and of the world around him….He may draw conscious conclusions, which may be true or false; or he may remain mentally passive and merely react to events (i.e., merely feel). Whatever the case may be, his subconscious mechanism sums up his psychological activities, integrating his conclusions, reactions or evasions into an emotional sum that establishes a habitual pattern and becomes his automatic response to the world around him.[2]

The key concept, in the formation of a sense of life, is the term "important."…It means: "A quality, character or standing such as to entitle to attention or consideration."…It is only those values which he regards or grows to regard as "important," those which represent his implicit view of reality, that remain in a man's subconscious and form his sense of life.[3]

And a person's sense of life, once formed, determines or at least strongly influences certain of his choices. For example, Rand writes, in the sphere of romantic love, "It is one's own sense of life that acts as the selector, and responds to what it recognizes as one's own basic values in the person of another."[4] And again, "It is the viewer's or reader's sense of life that responds to a work of art by a complex, yet automatic reaction of acceptance and approval or rejection and condemnation."[5]

If a sense of life "acts as a selector" of romantic partners and "responds" to works of art, it is because certain people and certain paintings (or novels, or poems, or symphonies) appeal to its view of what is important, while others do not. If, as a man, I am drawn to women who think highly of themselves, who live in order to enjoy themselves, and who seek challenging careers, it is because I believe—I feel, on a sense of life level—that self-esteem, pleasure, and the ability to overcome obstacles are important, that is, are aspects of reality entitled to my attention or consideration. If, as a reader, I am drawn to novels which exhibit highly disciplined, highly self-conscious, semantically rigorous style and which use that style to offer detailed psychological analyses of character, it is because I feel that conceptual self-awareness, rigor and precision of thought, and analysis of human motivation at a deep psychological level are important and merit my attention and consideration.


But art and romantic love are not the only spheres in which values are involved, and they are not the only spheres in which sense of life acts as a person's guide. Another is philosophy. Rand considers this issue, but she thinks of it primarily in terms of effecting a transition from sense of life to conscious philosophy such that, for the one who succeeds in the transition, "the mind leads, the emotions follow." The successful transition, she writes, is a "process of validating and, if necessary, correcting in conceptual terms what [one] had merely sensed about the nature of…existence, thus transforming a wordless feeling into clearly verbalized knowledge…."[6]

But I think there is more to be said on the subject than that. If, as a human being, I am drawn to philosophy in the first place, it is only because I believe that achieving a comprehensive view of reality is important. If I find epistemological questions more interesting than ethical ones, it is because I believe that the process of thought and the acquisition of knowledge are, in some sense, more important than the study of rules for making one's behavior best conform to a code of values. If I am more persuaded by Susanne Langer's theory of art than by Ayn Rand's advocacy of a similar position, it is because I think certain of the issues on which Langer places great emphasis (the nature and function of symbols, the biological and anthropological sources of man's need of symbolic formulations, the essentially amoral character of art) are more important than the issues on which Rand has chosen to place greatest emphasis (the work of art as an act of psychological self-revelation, the moral value a work of art can have in one's life). In short, the kinds of philosophical questions we believe to be worth our attention and consideration, the sorts of methods we consider important enough to use in our search for answers—ultimately, the philosophies we come to advocate—are shaped by our senses of life.

This is the idea which informs Unamuno's Tragic Sense of Life. "Philosophy," he writes in the opening pages of the book, "answers to our need of forming a complete and unitary conception of the world and of life, and as a result of this conception, a feeling which gives birth to an inward attitude and even to outward action. But the fact is that this feeling, instead of being a consequence of this conception, is the cause of it. Our philosophy—that is, our mode of understanding or not understanding the world and life— springs from our feeling towards life itself." (pp. 2-3) And again: "Philosophy is a product of the humanity of each philosopher, and each philosopher is a man of flesh and bone who addresses himself to other men of flesh and bone like himself. And, let him do what he will, he philosophizes not with the reason only, but with the will, with the feelings, with the flesh and with the bones, with the whole soul and the whole body. It is the man that philosophizes." (p. 28)

The man Unamuno was no exception to his own rules. He too philosophized with his entire being; he too advocated philosophical views which were the consequence of a feeling towards life itself—the feeling Unamuno called the tragic sense of life.


If, as Rand suggests, a sense of life may be verbalized in terms of the implicit value-judgements that lie behind it, in terms, that is, of what it seems to stress as the important aspects of existence, the ones that deserve our attention, then Unamuno's tragic sense of life is based in the view that the life process itself—what Rand has called self-sustaining and self-generated action—is the most important and valuable thing about being alive and must be preserved at all costs. The tragic sense of life is tragic because it will settle for nothing less than immortality, yet it knows that death is (at present anyway) inevitable. So it turns to philosophy, addressing itself to those questions which are made to seem important, worthy of investigation, by their apparent bearing on the problem of human mortality.

The bulk of Unamuno's discussion is given over to a consideration of the kinds of philosophical ideas a person with such a tragic sense of life might come to adopt and of the reasons he would have for adopting them. And Unamuno is careful to point out that the tragic sense of life will not lead necessarily to one particular philosophical orientation. A sense of life is an almost incredibly complex phenomenon, integrating literally every observation, value-judgement and emotion its bearer has ever formed. And subtle differences, shifts of emphasis within one general sense-of-life, will lead to markedly different conceptual views. Clearly the tragic sense of life would lead many people to theology, with its promise of eternal life. But it can also lead to a kind of mechanistic positivism, with its emphasis on the indestructibility of matter. Unamuno considers both possibilities in some detail. And he also accounts for some of the distinctive moral and metaphysical tenets of religion in terms of the tragic sense of life. For Unamuno, God is not posited by people who need a causal explanation of the events they see around them; he is posited by people who need a justification for belief in personal immortality. Sex for non-procreative purposes is not condemned by people who hate pleasure; it is condemned by people to whom pleasure is less important than immortality, and to whom procreation offers a kind of immortality.

It should be acknowledged at this point that Tragic Sense of Life is far from satisfactorily systematic and careful as a work of philosophy. As Susanne Langer has written of it, "Unamuno's feelings are strong and natural; his aphorisms are often poetic and memorable. With his philosophical assertions, however, one cannot take issue, because he prides himself on being inconsistent, on the ground that 'life is irrational,' 'Truth is not logical,' etc. Consistency of statements he regards as a mark of their falsity. Like some exasperating ladies, who claim 'a woman's right to be inconsistent,' he cannot, therefore, be worsted in argument, but—also like them—he cannot be taken seriously."[7] He can be taken seriously, however, as a highly insightful and original explicator of a sense-of-life and some of the ways in which it is converted into a philosophy. Tragic Sense of Life would prove interesting, I think, to anyone seriously interested in the pre-conceptual foundations of religion and of irrationalist philosophy generally.


Tragic Sense of Life was first published in English translation in 1921, only two years after the American writer James Branch Cabell had issued his book Beyond Life. Cabell is no longer widely read or even widely known, and most of his more than fifty books are out of print. Yet, during the 1920's, largely because of the publicity he received when his novel Jurgen was seized by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, his books were best sellers and he was generally regarded as one of the most important men of letters working in the United States. He was championed, not only by academic critics and scholars, but by the leading literary journalists of the day: Mencken, Rascoe, Van Vechten and others. When Jurgen was exonerated of the obscenity charges against it, a legal precedent was set which later made the more famous exonerations of Joyce's Ulysses, Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover and Miller's Tropic of Cancer much easier.

There are good reasons for Cabell's subsequent fall into obscurity—chief among them that the sense of life he presents in his style and his choice of fictional subject matter is not one with which any very large number of people could feel a strong affinity. It is a not always attractive combination of cynicism and idealism which simultaneously proclaims the importance and even the cruciality of values, and subjects all those who actively pursue such values to a particularly effective and even corruscating wit. But the fact is that Cabell is one of the most unusual and one of the most technically proficient writers ever to work in the English language. And his style alone, not to mention his sometimes considerable ingenuity as a creator of plots and characters, can be a source of great pleasure to a reader who will make the initial effort to understand him. For someone with an interest in philosophy and sense of life, his work is the place to begin. Beyond Life is the first volume of an inter-connected series of around 25 volumes which Cabell published under the master title The Biography of the Life of Manuel. It includes essays, novels, short stories, poems, a play and a genealogical study. It is one of the most incredibly complex and fully integrated achievements in literary history. And Beyond Life is its non-fiction introduction, the book in which Cabell details in essay form the idea which will be worked out in a variety of other forms over the next 24 or so volumes.[8]

In essence, Cabell's idea is that there are three major attitudes toward life—in the terminology I have been using, that all senses of life may be classed into three broad categories—which Cabell calls the Gallant, the Chivalrous and the Poetic. The Gallant view of life, which Cabell superbly dramatized in Jurgen, holds that fun, short-range pleasure, is the most important aspect of life; the Chivalrous view, which is beautifully concretized in the novel Domnei, holds that moral values and action in their behalf are the most important things in life; the Poetic view, which is the subject of Cabell's finest novel, Figures of Earth, holds that art and the immortality it offers the artist (shades of Unamuno!) is the most important thing in life. Unlike Unamuno, however, Cabell doesn't take his descriptions of these "feelings toward life" and explore their implications for philosophy. Instead, he traces the presence of each world-view in turn through the work of a dozen poets, playwrights and fiction writers, exploring the ways in which the Gallant, Chivalrous or Poetic view affected each artist's work. And, along the way, he offers a highly Original and beautifully formulated theory of the way in which works of art can shape people's actual lives, so that, in a certain sense, one generation usually tries to live the style presented in the literary art of the preceding generation.


By far the most substantial book I've found on the issue of philosophy and sense of life is Stephen Pepper's World Hypotheses. Pepper teaches philosophy at Berkeley. He is the author of dozens of books and articles, many of them on problems of aesthetics, the field in which he has done most of his most distinguished work. World Hypotheses is an effort to get at the origins in experience of our most general theories, Our metaphysical doctrines, our world hypotheses; it is an effort, not only to get at the experiential foundations of these ideas, but also to elaborate the grounds on which such theories may claim to be called knowledge. In this sense, it is a defense of the possibility of metaphysics. It is a far-reaching book with a great deal crammed into its nearly 350 pages, and it has convinced me of two things: first, that Stephen Pepper is one of the most interesting and valuable writers doing philosophy today, and second, that one reading of his book is not sufficient to form a considered judgement of its importance.

The book's importance as a contribution to knowledge of philosophy and sense of life, however, is more quickly accessible because this material makes up only a small part of the book. Pepper believes that most of the philosophy ever done in the Western World may be classified under one or more of about seven or eight very general theories which he calls World Hypotheses. He argues that the bulk of the important philosophy, the philosophy that has proved itself more or less adequate by being applicable to actual people's lives, is an outgrowth of four main World Hypotheses, which he calls Formism, Mechanism, Contextualism and Organicism. And he believes that each of these world hypotheses is based in a "root metaphor," an experiential, common sense observation about what is important in the world.

A man desiring to understand the world looks around for a clue to its comprehension. He pitches upon some area of common-sense fact and tries if he cannot understand other areas in terms of this one. This original area becomes then his basic analogy or root metaphor. He describes as best he can the characteristics of this area, or, if you will, discriminates its structure. A list of its structural characteristics becomes his basic concepts of explanation and description. We call them a set of categories. In terms of these categories he proceeds to study all other areas of fact….He undertakes to interpret all facts in terms of these categories. As a result of the impact of these other facts upon his categories, he may qualify and readjust the categories, so that a set of categories commonly changes and develops. Since the basic analogy or root metaphor normally (and probably at least in part necessarily) arises out of common sense, a great deal of development and refinement of a set of categories is required if they are to prove adequate for a hypothesis of unlimited scope. Some root metaphors prove more fertile than others, have greater powers of expansion and of adjustment. These survive in comparison with the others and generate the relatively adequate world theories.

As a simple illustration of the growth of a root metaphor let us consider and imaginatively reconstruct the probable development of the Milesian theory, which was the first self-conscious world theory in European thought. Thales, wondering about the world, and dissatisfied with the explanations of mythology, suggested, "All things are water." He picked out a range of common-sense fact, water, which impressed him, a citizen of a seaport town, as likely to possess the secret of all things. Water stretches far and wide. It evaporates, generating fogs, and mists, and clouds, and these in turn condense in dampness and rain. Life springs out of its slime and mud, and the absence of water is death.

The root metaphor of this theory thus ultimately turns out to be the characteristics of a basic material out of which all the facts of the universe can be generated by certain processes of change. (pp. 91-93)

In effect, one comes to regard water and its changes of form as the most important aspect of reality. His philosophical views are thereby affected. But the same is true, according to Pepper, of the more sophisticated and more adequate philosophical views which he has called Formism, Mechanism, Contextualism and Organicism. The Formist believes the phenomenon of similarity among things to be the most important aspect of reality, he adopts a philosophical view which stresses the abstract, the formal, the conceptual. The Mechanist sees the model of the machine, whose every part is functional and whose every part behaves according to laws which determine its behaviour, as the most important aspect of reality; he adopts a philosophical view which stresses the epistemology of the physical sciences, the orderliness of nature, the discovery of natural laws. The Contextualist believes the event, the instant of time in which an infinitude of concretes interpenetrate in an almost infinite number of ways, to be the most important aspect of reality; he adopts a philosophical view which stresses the pragmatic, utilitarian, even somewhat arbitrary nature of the way we perceive and conceive the world, leaving out its richness of detail for our own convenience and equating truth with usefulness. The Organicist sees the model of the integrated organism which is more than the sum of its physical parts as the most important aspect of reality; he adopts a philosophical view which stresses the necessary integration of all the universe, whose processes need only be discovered by men.

This summary is appallingly sketchy, leaving Pepper's analysis remaining shadowy and indistinct. Pepper himself, though, devotes an average of forty pages to each of the four main world hypotheses, as well as briefer spans to a number of less important theories (Mysticism, Animism, Systematic Eclecticism) and he only scratches the surface of the ways in which initial sense of life value-judgements can affect one's later abstract thought.


But why do more than scratch the surface? Why spend time on the subject at all? Poet Bill Hilley's response to this question is to wonder quite pragmatically what use there is in bothering about the way our senses of life affect our philosophies. The answer, I think, is that the more we know about the factors which influence our thinking, the better equipped we are to make sure that the influence is either beneficial or dispensed with. Everyone is, after all, what he is; if one's purpose is to prolong his life as happily as possible, one needs philosophy to solve certain specifiable kinds of problems. But one's sense of life, one's implicit view of what is most important in the world and most worthy of his attention, may be wrong in the sense that it does not direct his attention to those aspects of life which are in fact the ones most important to the fulfillment of his purposes. If one never learns the role of sense of life in developing his philosophy, if one never introspects to determine what his sense of life is and what effect it may be having on his thinking, he will fail to fulfill his purposes—he will fail to live a happy life.

An interesting question in this regard is: what sense of life would lead a philosopher to the views which are codified under the name Objectivism? Perhaps even more relevant, what sense of life would lead a person to adopt the philosophy of Objectivism? Bearing in mind that a sense of life is a highly complex phenomenon which is far from exhausted, which is not even adequately described for ordinary purposes by a simple listing of a few key value judgements, this question will have to be saved for another article—or possibly even a book.

The books I've been discussing do, of course, characterize senses of life in terms of one or a few key value judgements—it is most important to go on living; it is most important to have fun; it is most important that things are similar; it is most important that things are integrated as an organism is integrated. In so simplifying the issue, these books do the subject of philosophy and sense of life a kind of disservice. But they do it an even greater service by illuminating the nature of the connection between the two. If people's senses of life were accurately describable in terms of a few notions, instead of in terms of a collection of not necessarily integrated notions about thousands of things, complex philosophical consequences would follow. What then can be said of the way things really are?

Of course, of the three books under consideration here, only the Unamuno is properly a book about philosophy and sense of life. I say properly, because the ultimate test of a true interpretation of any symbolic formulation is its coherence, that is, the extent to which the interpretation accounts for all the information presented (including how it is presented), without contradicting any of it. Still, it is interesting and useful, I think, to regard all three books as books about philosophy and sense of life. In any event, it is certainly symptomatic of something in my own sense of life that I consider the question as significant as I do. And it is further symptomatic, for better or for worse, that I take pleasure in remarking that fact.

Jeff Riggenbach is a broadcast journalist in Los Angeles. He studied literature and philosophy at the University of Houston and is writing a book on literary theory.  


[1] Arthur Mizener, The Sense of Life in the Modern Novel (Houghton Mifflin 1964).
[2] Ayn Rand, "Philosophy and Sense of Life," The Objectivist, Vol. 5, No. 2, Feb. 1966, p. 1.
[3] ibid., p. 3.
[4] ibid., p. 6.
[5] Ayn Rand, "Art and Sense of Life," The Objectivist, Vol. 5, No. 3, March 1966, p. 1.
[6] "Philosophy and Sense of Life," p. 4.
[7] Susanne Langer, Feeling and Form (Scribners 1953), p. 351.
[8] The exact number of volumes in the series is a matter of dispute, for reasons too numerous and too confusing to go into here. The smallest number I've seen listed is eighteen; the largest is twenty-five.