Tag Archives: Meaning of life

Russell on thinking and societal changes…

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The great majority of men and women, in ordinary times, pass through life without ever contemplating or criticising, as a whole, either their own conditions or those of the world at large.  They find themselves born into a certain place in society, and they accept what each day brings forth, without any effort of thought beyond what the immediate present requires…they seek the satisfaction of the needs of the moment, without much forethought, and without considering that by sufficient effort the whole condition of their lives could be changed…It is only a few rare and exceptional men who have that kind of love toward mankind at large that makes them unable to endure patiently the general mass of evil and suffering, regardless of any relation it may have to their own lives. These few, driven by sympathetic pain, will seek, first in thought and then in action, for some way of escape, some new system of society by which life may become richer, more full of joy and less full of preventable evils than it is at present (p. viii).  

Bertrand Russell

The Significance of Needs

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I was introduced early to the concept of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and have been fascinated by it ever since. This fits my ISTJ love of
English: Diagram showing the hierarchy of need...

English: Diagram showing the hierarchy of needs based on Abraham Maslow’s theories in the 1950s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

categories, definitions and boundaries. It’s akin to my appreciation for personality tests as the categories are helpful to explain and understand observable features of people and life.

The hierarchy is based on the fact that humans have needs, and the most fundamental of these needs is represented by the first level of the hierarchy often displayed as a pyramid. There are various models of the hierarchy.

The four basic needs represented by the pyramid are:

  • Physiological needs
  • Safety
  • Love and belonging
  • (Some models add esteem needs here)
  • Self-actualization

Only when the lower levels are met can you concern yourself with the higher levels. For example, no matter how much you may want to contemplate your identity or the meaning of life, you may not be able to pursue this (let alone ask this) if you spend most of your time hungry and  all your energy is devoted to finding food. Only when you’ve met one type of need will you be able to move on to meet the higher level need.

Thus it has been theorized that people in the West are able to dedicate resources for building universities and libraries and live a life of learning because we tend to be well fed and clothed. Our worries won’t be about not having enough to eat so we are free to worry about things like what we look like and what job we should get.

On the other hand, people living in poverty don’t have this chance to ‘find out who they are’ or search for meaning in life because they’re too busy just trying to survive.

Perhaps part of social justice is allowing all people to not only have access to clean water and nutritious food but to be able to contemplate life and the more philosophical questions.

Or perhaps, this is just a horribly ethnocentric view. Perhaps people fighting for survival also think about the big questions of life and perhaps they have better answers than those in the West. Perhaps being able to read books and ask questions all day isn’t an ideal all people should be striving for.

Either way, I know I value thinking about the big questions and being able to do so without fear of where my next meal will come from. I enjoy it and part of me feels I need to pursue it too.

The hierarchy also suggests that if these four needs aren’t met in a person, they will (if not physically suffer) mentally suffer in terms of experiencing anxiety and frustration. I know I feel this mental tension and it’s part of the drive for The Cognitive Life and all my writing, and reading and learning.

While there are criticisms of the hierarchy, I see some validity in the theory and can take what is helpful and useful while being aware of its limitations.

There are other versions of the hierarchy of needs and this is one I found relevant.

While all stages are part of me, I think I must currently predominantly be at the ‘need to know and understand’ stage while aiming for those higher levels at the pinnacle of the pyramid and continuing to assess the lower levels.

Where are you?