Is this all there is?

One odd thing about this question is that, in practice, its “this” means “that.” Is that all there is? After all, this “this” does not denote the question being asked itself, or, better put, does not denote the consciousness that the question expresses just because the question stands sufficiently askew from “all there is” to enquire about it.

Then too, asked today, “Is this all there is?” does not mean (as it might have for Paul of Tarsus or Augustine of Hippo, were it conceivable for them to have asked the question to start with) “Is this mortal body, this miserable mind, this pride and pitiful intelligence, this flimsy rationality, all that we human creatures possess on earth?” No, it means: “Here we are, masters of the planet, looking out at the enigmatic stars . . . is that all there is?”

From this point of view, it is not just an existentially anxious but a brattish question. And seen like that it is also fairly clear that, very far from being embedded in a universal moral anthropology by dint of which human beings are constitutively existentially insecure, the question is historically conditioned.

Neither Confucius, Buddha, Christ, nor Paul ever asked such a question. Nor, indeed, did Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, or Spinoza. It is a question that only becomes askable, that is, becomes philosophically/theologically engaging . . . well . . . when? I for one do not know the answer to that. Perhaps there exists an academic literature on the topic, and, if not, then it might be an interesting research project for someone. When did big, nonconfessional, not-quite-secular existential questions like “Is this all there is?” first acquire their spiritual energy?

Coming at the question sociologically rather than intellectual-historically, my own guess is that it’s a capitalist question. The way it sets individual consciousness apart from the world—along with the way it expresses a hunger for more—strikes me as being consonant with capitalist restlessness, individualism, and ethics of production. I say that without judgment: Is it better to be restless and individualized than to be calm and stably embedded in an ontology or community? How, and from where, might you decide that?

Nonetheless, from a philosophical perspective, it appears that asking, “Is this all there is?” does not take you far. Once you examine the question carefully it reveals folds and ambiguities. Perhaps most obviously it means, “Is the world as positivism and naturalism see it, a world stripped bare of supernatural and metaphysical beings and concepts, all there is?” From this perspective, it might seem to have real bite, just because it is no secret that the naturalist/positive world cannot account for itself. Furthermore, “Is this all there is?” here shades into, and stands in for, much older theological conundrums concerning the world’s first cause and telos. What began the world? What set it into motion? And what is its purpose, or as we more usually say today, its meaning?

These questions—and the difficulties they seem to set for secularisms—have long been thought of as arguments for God. But of course, as the tradition also tells us, God is of no real help here. Were she to turn up one day and reveal to us what or who made the world (e.g., she Herself) and let us know what the point of it all is, it still would not really help. We can always ask of God too, “Are you all there is? Who made you? What’s the point of you?”

It is as if, as the logical positivists once argued, when we ask, “Is this all there is?” in the hope of breaking through naturalism’s limits, what we are actually doing is exploiting language’s capacity to generate formulations—in this case, a question—that are semantically sound but, at least in some contexts, don’t actually hook onto the world.

“Is this all there is?” can have practical meaning, e.g., “I asked for two dozen eggs, and you have only brought me one: Is this all there is?” But uttered “philosophically” and directed at the big picture, to Being itself even, it floats free, unable to connect to its intended object.

For all that, a philosophical use of “Is this all there is?” can sometimes have a narrower reach. For instance, when its “this” does just refer to finite—mortal—human existence. At this point, interestingly, the sentence’s second “is” begins to transmute into “was,” as if the question were pressing us to anticipate a deathbed moment, a dying person’s “Is this all there was?”

This version of the question, I would like to hazard, is typically not asking for more—for more meaning, fullness, and security—but, rather, for less. Imagine a situation like this: a dying person thinks, “I have lived a rich and busy life crammed with experiences, some happy, some sad, some exhilarating, some horrible; I’ve achieved enough, could have done more admittedly; I learnt a lot and probably became a better person as I went along; I was lucky to meet the person I loved so much and so long; I messed up some, true…still, all told, I’ve nothing to complain about . . . but, but . . . .is this all there was?” 

Many of the objections that can be put to the question’s broader, most ambitious philosophical/theological version can be put to this one too. But, for me at least, this time it does succeed in having a real charge, by which I mean a real contact with the way we live. It is not brattish; it seems remote from capitalist dynamism and will to production. On the contrary, it is modest and ethical. Which is to say that it can be answered practically: in this context it invites us to consider what piling stuff up in our lives—where “stuff” includes experiences, emotions, lovers, friendships, children, even good deeds—finally counts for.

It is not as if there is a knowable purpose to individual lives qua lives any more than there is a knowable purpose to existence qua existence. It is not even that the fact of mortality can be used as a ground for an ethics: it is not, for instance, that a life too busy or preoccupied for contemplating finitude should be considered lesser than one that is not, as if mundanity were a distraction from more serious concerns. It is rather that just because “Is this all there is?” and “Is this all there was?” and similar questions, along with the moods and desires such questions express, are all, finally, blank that they allow us to catch a glimpse of an order of things, not quite ours, in which our personal accumulations of experiences, sociabilities, and achievements are as nothing.

No one, I think, barring depression, can hold on to this thought very long. But it can be enough to trigger a release from care which probably puts us closer to what I guess we might call the blank heart of things.

It can also, I think, be used to legitimate what happens to people as they age anyway—when they come to live increasingly with and among the dead as the people who have been precious to them die. Late in his life Henry James wrote a collection of short stories that he called, wonderfully, The Soft Side, about characters who do exactly that, who live with and interact in their daily lives with dead people, and do so outside of Christianity or any other religion, outside of memorials and cults. Here the dead still have everyday-life claims on the living; their wishes and demands need to be taken into account, admittedly, not always easily.

It may seem that turning to this kind of quite casual and secular interplay between the living and the dead is not a proper response to the full force of “Is this all there is?” The question’s virtue is that it asks us to think from the outside (as the poststructuralists used to say), and its limit is that we cannot in the end actually do that. Therefore, more modest practices which edge toward the borders of what we are inside—life and society—are how we best acknowledge its residual power. That vernacular living with the dead does.

The image is “Charles Demuth, The Governess first sees the ghost of Peter Quint” (1918), an illustration for Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Location: Philadelphia Museum of Art. Public Domain.