Constellations of Thought: God, Death, and Other Non-Problems

Are there any fundamental questions in human life?

Will Buckingham
10 min readJul 11, 2022

--

Map of the constellations. Planisfero Meridionale, Corretto, Et Accresciuto Di Molte Stelle. 1651. Public Domain via Wikimedia commons.

Loneliness, Mortality and Terror

Okay, folks! Strap in for an exploration of fundamental problems in philosophy, why there may be no such things, what it might mean to approach philosophy more like an anthropologist, and how to redraw our maps of human life!

Several years ago, I attended an academic conference on philosophy. Some way through the conference, mid-afternoon, at the point when everybody was becoming a bit somnolent, I found myself in a half-empty university teaching room, my notebook in front of me. In front of the room stood a tall, Norwegian philosopher. He had an air of philosophical gravity, and he spoke with a slow, careful precision. “I am going to talk about the fundamental conditions of human existence,” he said. I turned the page on my notebook, understanding that matters of such importance deserved a new, fresh page.

The philosopher started to list these fundamental conditions, of which there were three in total. “Existential loneliness,” he said. He paused. I wrote those two words down in my notebook, in capitals, underlining them twice, for good effect. The philosopher continued. “Impending mortality,” he said. Again, I wrote it down, nodding to myself seriously. “And…”, the philosopher added, leaving the best until last, “exposure to the terror of existence.” This, too, I wrote down.

As the talk continued, the philosopher carefully expounded on these three fundamental conditions of human existence. And the more he talked, the more restless I became. I found myself wondering: Were these really the fundamental conditions of human existence? And if they were, who said so? On what grounds?

The talk came to a close. After the talk was the afternoon break, and I was desperate to get out into the sunshine for a few moments. But before then, the Norwegian philosopher was taking questions, and I found myself with a burning question that I wanted to ask. So I put up my hand.

I’m never good in these circumstances. I’m not assertive enough. I am awkward and lack confidence. So several other people got there before me, asking the philosopher to say…

--

--

Will Buckingham

Writer & philosopher. PhD. Stories & ideas to make the world a better place. HELLO, STRANGER (Granta 2021): BBC R4 Book of the Week. Twitter @willbuckingham