Living in the Present: On Kieran Setiya’s “Midlife: A Philosophical Guide”

By Karl SchaferJanuary 25, 2018

Living in the Present: On Kieran Setiya’s “Midlife: A Philosophical Guide”

Midlife by Kieran Setiya

POPULAR PHILOSOPHY SEEMS to be in season. Even confining ourselves to the modest universe of my social media feed, this past fall alone offered us a philosophical analysis of misogyny, a defense of the “ethics of awesomeness,” a meditation on surfing and existentialism, a philosophical conversation about the later stages of life — and, our topic, a philosophical guide to middle age, Kieran Setiya’s Midlife.

Setiya is one of the very best moral philosophers working in the broadly analytic tradition. And like Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel from an earlier generation, his work is characterized by a broad humanistic concern that reminds us that analytic philosophy can be something more than a pedantic accumulation of distinctions. So Setiya is ideally suited to exploring the philosophical dimensions of the midlife crisis — and not just because he is plainly someone with extensive personal experience of his topic.

But popular philosophy is a strange beast — invariably looked upon by professional philosophers with some mix of disdain and poorly concealed envy. And the idea of a “philosophical self-help guide” — as Midlife bills itself — may seem especially suspect. After all, the purpose of self-help literature is, well, self-improvement. But philosophy, one might think, should seek to understand the truth, without concern for its positive or negative consequences for the reader. While politicians and self-help gurus may be justified in peddling “noble lies,” the philosopher must follow her arguments to their conclusions, however debasing or ignoble these might be. Or so the thought goes.

As Setiya reminds us, this picture of philosophy is at best a very partial one. From the beginning, philosophy has been closely aligned with various forms of self-improvement. The schools of classical Greek and Roman philosophy, and just as much the classics of Buddhist philosophy, billed themselves as offering both insight into the truth and a program for successful living. For better or worse, this model of philosophy has been in retreat for centuries — at least in part in reaction to philosophy’s struggle to find its place in an intellectual universe dominated by modern science. The result has been a conception of philosophy on which philosophers have ceded a considerable portion of their traditional subject matter to Tony Robbins and Deepak Chopra.

In this context, Setiya’s slim, six-chapter volume represents a return to a more traditional picture of the point of philosophy. Philosophers should seek the truth, yes. But they should also seek to understand this truth in a manner that enables us to live better, fuller lives. The question, of course, is when and to what degree philosophy can play this role. For there is no guarantee that better understanding some philosophical truth will make our lives easier to live — nor that the positive impact of philosophy is best understood on the model of self-help as opposed to (say) political action.

The answers to these questions will, of course, depend on the case in question. So, what does Setiya have to say about the philosophical significance of the midlife crisis? Here, some may be tempted to roll their eyes. The midlife crisis may be a fine subject matter for literature — though some may question whether we really need another novel of the comfortable middle class in their 40s. However, does it offer the philosopher a worthy topic for her distinctive form of thought?

Against such skepticism, Setiya makes a compelling case that in the midlife crisis, as so often in philosophy, a significant feature of the human condition is concealed from us in plain sight. As Setiya explains, philosophers tend to approach ethical questions from one of two perspectives. On the one hand, they may consider the nature of the good life as a whole, when this life is viewed retrospectively, or from the “view from nowhere.” Or, on the other, they may consider the question of what to do, when this is viewed from the perspective of practical deliberation focused on the future. But, as Setiya writes:

Neither the prospective question of what to do nor the external, retrospective question of the good human life captures the predicament of midlife. Neither is essentially situated within a life that has a meaningful past and a meaningful future, both of which you must confront.

And this is not just a point about midlife. For, no matter our age, our ordinary practical perspective is caught midstream in the narrative of our life. Our perspective is always the perspective of someone simultaneously considering various possible futures and reflecting upon a past that gives that choice meaning. For Setiya, the topic of the midlife crisis is philosophically significant precisely because it makes explicit this twofold temporality of the human practical predicament.

How does this structure help to generate the “midlife crisis”? And how might better understanding it help us beyond it? Here, predictably, the answer is that things are more complicated than one might have thought. The crisis of midlife is attested to in the literature on well-being by a low-point in the U-curve of personal life satisfaction during the middle of life. But as for what causes this nadir, Setiya does not endorse any single answer. As Setiya sees it, “the midlife crisis” is itself the symptom of a wide range of different phenomena, which interact in complicated ways.

Nonetheless, Setiya’s discussion of the philosophical significance of the midlife crisis suggests a general diagnosis. For while every human being is to some degree caught between their past and their future, the perspective of youth does seem to be dominated by deliberation about the future, while the perspective of old age seems to be dominated by retrospection on the past. If so, then perhaps it is at midlife that we are most vividly aware of the twofold temporality of the human condition in general. And perhaps it is then that the struggle to integrate a concern for one’s past and one’s future is most likely to become a crisis.

If this is right, then the satisfactions of youth and old age may well be illusory — each the product of not fully facing up to the nature of a life lived in the flow of time. Although it does not do justice to everything in Setiya’s book, I think this perspective helps to contextualize some of his most distinctive responses to it. For while Setiya identifies a variety of different midlife crises — and a variety of ways philosophy might help one to respond to them — perhaps his most fundamental recommendation is a philosophically sophisticated version of a familiar piece of self-help wisdom: to cure the midlife crisis, one must learn to “live in the present.”

If the midlife crisis is a product of the tension between “living for the future” and “living in the past,” this response is very natural. For suppose that this crisis is a symptom of a practical perspective that is stretched to the breaking point between past and future. Then to resolve it, it seems that we must find a way to conceive of the present as something more than the moment where the future rolls into the past. The question for the philosopher is what this reconception might involve.

Here Setiya, drawing on Aristotle, offers an ingenious response. To do so, he distinguishes between two fundamentally different ways we can conceive of the activities we engage in. Often, we conceive of these activities as directed at some completable goal. I’m working on this review in order to finish it and see it published in the Los Angeles Review of Books. To think of our activities in this way is to conceive of them as what Setiya calls “telic activities” — as oriented toward a completable telos.

These activities make up much of our lives, but they also have a paradoxical or self-defeating character. For example, suppose I am studying law with the goal of passing the bar exam. With such tasks, there seem to be two possibilities. Either I have so far failed to achieve my goal, in which case my desire to pass the bar remains frustrated. Or I have achieved it, in which case this goal ceases to provide me with the direction and purpose it did. In this way, as Arthur Schopenhauer puts the point, it can seem that we are condemned to “swing endlessly to and fro” between the “pain” of unsatisfied desire and the “boredom” of its satisfaction.

For Setiya, a dawning recognition of this depressing truth is a central element of the midlife crisis. But if Setiya is right, we are not condemned to this fate. For not all activities are “telic” in this sense. Many activities are not directed at the completion of some task or the accomplishment of a goal. I can walk to the post office, but I can also simply go for a stroll — with no further goal than the stroll itself. In such “atelic” activities we can find value in what we are doing, without conceiving of this value as attached solely to some end beyond the activity itself.

Moreover, according to Setiya, it is possible to view almost any conceivable activity either in “telic” or “atelic” terms. I can see the activity of writing this review as directed at some goal outside of it, such as the review’s publication; or I can see it simply as an instance of the valuable activity of writing and thinking about philosophy — an activity does not need to come to end with the completion of this review or, indeed, anything else. In this way, for Setiya, the answer to Schopenhauer’s despair is an aspect shift: we need to learn to appreciate the value in the atelic activities our telic lives have involved all along.

The temporality of midlife can, then, be seen in a new light. There is genuine wisdom here, I think. But Setiya’s focus on the “atelic” is not without its difficulties. For instance, if the challenge of midlife is to discover a way of living in the midst of the narrative of life that does not privilege either past, future, or present, then a focus on “living in the now” might seem to be another way of refusing to face up to this challenge. In response to this, Setiya might turn to his other responses to the midlife crisis — to his discussion of regret or the fear of death. But I think there is a deeper response available to him — namely, that a focus on atelic activities is less a way of living “in the temporal present” and more a way of integrating past, present, and future into a satisfying whole. In other words, perhaps the true significance of atelic activities is that that they allow us to see past, present, and future as given meaning by activities whose significance does not depend on their location within the sequence of completed tasks within our lives. In this way, there is a sense in which the “now” of atelic activities need not be limited to the temporal present.

But can a focus on the atelic really accomplish this? For example, suppose I have become convinced that all telic activities are pointless or absurd in the manner Schopenhauer suggests. If this is true, will reconceiving of my activities in atelic terms really help me find meaning in them? Try, for instance, to imagine a life whose value is entirely the product of atelic as opposed to telic activities. A life, that is, which is entirely a matter of taking a stroll as opposed to walking to get somewhere. Such a life may not be subject to Schopenhauer’s worry, but as one fills it out, it may take on its own nightmarish quality. In short, as telic activities lose significance, can we really continue to see their atelic counterparts as a source of meaning? Could K. read Setiya’s book and learn, somehow, to enjoy his wait?

In asking these questions, it is important to stress that Setiya is not recommending that we abandon telic activities for atelic ones. Nor does he mean to suggest that all atelic activities are potential sources of value. Rather, it “matters what you are doing, not just that you are doing it in the Now.” But the question is how exactly “what you are doing” matters, and whether understanding this will reveal that the value of the atelic is so closely tied to the value of the telic that any challenge to the one must infect the other.

In raising such questions, I don’t mean to suggest that their answers are obvious. For example, perhaps Aristotle is right and the value of atelic is sometimes prior to the value of the telic. Or maybe the significance of the atelic perspective is that it allows us to save the value of both the atelic and the telic from Schopenhauer’s concerns, by transforming our understanding of the temporality of both?

As Setiya is well aware, there is something paradoxical in the project of his book. For the project of self-help is precisely one of self-improvement with an eye toward one’s own happiness. Thus, the very nature of a self-help guide is to focus our attention on an activity that is both self-interested and telic in structure, and so contrary to Setiya’s own recommendations. This irony is no objection to Setiya’s project. But it does raise the question of whether this project is best accomplished via the sort of individual self-reflection characteristic of self-help literature. An alternative would be to investigate the social and political dimensions of the midlife crisis. For example, we might ask what in our society makes us susceptible to the midlife crisis. Or we could investigate the role that the midlife crisis — and the various popular responses to it — plays in maintaining the contemporary socioeconomic order. Finally, we might consider whether a different sort of society might help us achieve a different perspective on midlife. In short, could the midlife crisis best seen as an occasion for social critique as opposed to self-help?

These questions could, of course, be extended to Setiya’s own book. In his conclusion, Setiya stresses the political significance of his advice to “live in the present” — approvingly quoting John Berger when he writes,

A protest is not principally a sacrifice made for some alternative, more just future; it is an inconsequential redemption of the present. The problem is how to live time and again with the adjective inconsequential.

Thus, for Setiya, the political significance of the atelic perspective is that it allows us to live “with the adjective inconsequential.” Again, there is a genuine insight here, but also real risks. For surely, in engaging in protest, we do not want to become too comfortable with its “inconsequential” character. Indeed, we might worry that the more we view the significance of protest in atelic terms, which are divorced from its consequences, the less consequential it is likely to become. Protest may, of necessity, involve a dimension of redemptive performance, but if that is all it involves, what challenge does it really pose to the powers that be? Here again, we return to the potential interdependence of the telic and the atelic.

In the end, the force of such questions will, in large part, depend on whether the midlife crisis really is susceptible to treatment via individual philosophical reflection. Here Setiya is not nearly as sunny as he could be. But nonetheless the tone of Setiya’s reflections is one of cautious optimism. He writes of his own crisis that,

Even in its firmest grip, I know that there is reason to care for those I love, to do my job well if I can, to get things right, to be responsible, to help and not to harm. There is still value in the world.

Setiya’s question is thus not whether his life is truly worth living, but rather how he can make sense of the obvious value of his life from the inside, given its temporal structure. But it is at least conceivable that the truth behind the midlife crisis is much bleaker than this. For perhaps it is at midlife that we best appreciate the nature of a life caught between birth and death. And perhaps what we appreciate at that moment is profoundly depressing. In this case, Setiya’s advice to “live in the present” might be more like the “healthy illusions” of youth and old age — a technique for avoiding the bleak truth about our own existence; less a way of living with the truth, and more a way of living despite it. But if this were true, my advice for you would be clear: focus on Setiya’s wonderful book, and do your best to forget this review.


Karl Schafer is professor of philosophy at the University of California, Irvine.

LARB Contributor

Karl Schafer is professor of philosophy at the University of California, Irvine. His (consistently slightly out of date) website can be found here.


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