Does Sense of Life Make Sense?

by Peter Saint-Andre (2001)

First published in Full Context 13:4 (March-April 2001).

In her writings on art, love, and other such "spiritual" matters, Ayn Rand makes much of "sense of life". Unfortunately, those who have followed in Rand's footsteps have not thought critically or clearly about this concept. Does sense of life make sense?

As far as I have been able to determine, the notion of sense of life originated with Miguel de Unamuno in his book The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples (Unamuno 1921, 21):

There is something which, for want of a better name, we shall call the tragic sense of life, and it carries along with it an entire conception of the Universe and of life itself, an entire philosophy more or less formulated, more or less conscious. And this sense may animate, and does animate, not only individual men, but entire peoples. And this sense does not so much flow from ideas as determine them, even though later these ideas react upon it and corroborate it.

A more personal description can be found in Jose Ortega y Gasset's essay "The Role of Choice in Love" from his book On Love: Aspects of a Single Theme (Ortega 1958, 79; however this essay was written much earlier and may have influenced Unamuno):

The essential core of our individuality is not fashioned from our opinions and experiences; it is not founded upon our temperament, but rather upon something more subtle, more ethereal and independent of these. We are, more than anything else, an innate system of preferences and distastes. Each of us bears within himself his own system, which to a greater or lesser degree is like that of the next fellow, and is always rigged and ready, like a battery of likes and dislikes, to set us in motion pro or contra something. The heart, an acceptance and rejection machine, is the foundation of our personality.

Ortega further elucidates the concept as follows (ibid., 86-87):

The more inward the psychological theme with which one deals, the greater will be the influence of detail. The need for love is the most inward. Probably, there is only one other theme more inward than love: that which may be called "metaphysical sentiment", or the essential, ultimate, and basic impression which we have of the universe. This acts as a foundation and support for our other activities, whatever they may be. No one lives without it, although its degree of clarity varies from person to person. It encompasses our primary, decisive attitude toward all of reality, the pleasure which the world and life hold for us. Our other feelings, thoughts, and desires are activated by this primary attitude and are sustained and colored by it.

Both Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset preceded Rand in her reflections on sense of life, and I see clear lines of influence here (I do not know if Rand read either of these Spanish thinkers on sense of life, though she did read Ortega on other matters). Yet to my mind neither of them explained the origin of sense of life by elucidating what facts in reality give rise to the phenomenon. I'm not sure that Rand has the answers, either, but given the paucity of scholarship on the topic I find it eminently worth exploring.

Rand characterizes sense of life in several different ways, which I feel are not necessarily consistent or even clear. First, hearkening back to the myth of a final judgment, she says that sense of life is a record or sum of one's subconscious integrations, which are formed automatically throughout one's life and which add up to a sense of life. Since I would argue that the concept of the subconscious, and especially subconscious integrations, is rather nebulous, I don't find this first formulation to be particularly helpful.

Second, Rand says that sense of life is a pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics. This I find too general -- sense of life is much more particular and individual than metaphysics, in my opinion. For example, you and I might share the same views about existence, but our senses of life could be radically different.

Third, Rand says that sense of life is an emotional appraisal of life. This makes more sense to me, since I feel that sense of life is a kind of stance or approach or attitude toward life; not merely a detached appraisal in an intellectual way, but a set of more or less consistent tendencies or "movements" toward or away from (for or against) the myriad phenomena of life. These leanings, highly charged with emotional import, seem consistent with Ortega's idea of "a battery of likes and dislikes to set us in motion pro or contra something". Sense of life is about what animates your soul, what moves you spiritually (and thus literally) toward or away things.

How are these emotion-laden attitudes or leanings formed? One candidate is the phenomenon of pleasure and pain -- certain experiences are pleasant and others are painful, so I learn to seek/enjoy the pleasant ones and avoid/dislike the painful ones. Yet it seems to me that pleasure and pain are not spiritual or inner enough to account for sense of life -- touching a hot stove is painful, but the fact that I avoid doing so, while prudent, says little to nothing about my approach to living or my feelings about human existence. It is here that I think Rand is on the right track when she ties sense of life to appraisals of what is important or meaningful in life (not merely what is good or prudent). For Rand, "the important" is different from "the good". It's good that I brush my teeth, but I don't derive much meaning in life from maintaining good dental hygiene. By contrast, the fact that music gives me deep, satisfying, lasting pleasure means a great deal to me, and has done so since before I had any inkling of the concept of metaphysics. Music and its centrality in life (in my life) is a strong part of my sense of life.

Yet is this way of looking at the topic true to Rand's idea of sense of life? Rand says that sense of life is "reflected in [a person's] widest goals or smallest gestures". The emphasis on "smallest gestures" might imply that sense of life is particular enough to include things like how (and how often) I brush my teeth. Interestingly, this would be consistent with the change in cultural history that occurred early in the 20th century, when historians turned to the study of mundane matters such as clothing, housing, eating utensils, and (for all I know) toothbrushes. Are these not part of history? And, by analogy, is not how and how often I use my toothbrush an aspect of my personal "history", of my personality, of my sense of life?

Perhaps at a certain level of abstraction this is valid: it's not that brushing my teeth is important to me in itself, but it could be that health is. Yet I would say that that my health is more something I consider good or beneficial than something I consider important in Rand's sense. For by important in this context Rand meant the kind of thing in which I make a strong emotional or spiritual investment, something that I find eminently and consistently worth the spending of what is perhaps my most precious resource: my limited time and energy and attention.

Where do these appraisals of importance come from? It seems that many of one's feelings about what is important are formed quite early in life, based on temperament, innate talents, perceptual predilections, physical sensititivies, interactions with family members, and early experiences. For example, the fact that music is deeply important to me is tied to the fact that I am quite strongly directed toward and aware of the aural dimensions of life (much more so than the visual), that I have some measure of musical talent, and that I had positive early experiences with music (e.g., music was quite important to my mother).

The seeming fact that appraisals of importance are linked to in-born tendencies and early experiences may be part of the reason Rand had difficulty accounting for them, since these are things over which one has little to no control -- and Rand was enamored of the notion that "man is a being of self-made soul". Can such appraisals or attitudes be changed by one's exposure to philosophical ideas later in life? Yes. However, as many Randians have discovered, the change is not always to the good. Whether the change is beneficial or not depends on the nature of the ideas involved and the nature of one's attitude toward ideas.

I discovered these hard truths first-hand through my experience with Rand's ideas. Having stopped believing in God at the age of nine, I was incredibly receptive to a wider world-view that would account for my experience that the universe is bereft of a guiding presence. So when I happened on Ayn Rand's novels at the age of 13, I fell deeply in love with the Randian universe. Specifically, I wholeheartedly bought into the idea that man is a being of self-made soul, and accepted without question that the recipe for making one's soul is to be found in the archetypes of Randian philosophical fiction. (As she wrote in an essay on the goal of her writing, "Art is the technology of the soul.") The results were less than salutary.

All reports indicate that as a young child I was overwhelmingly sunny and joyous -- my every action was colored by a deeply joyous attitude diametrically opposed to Unamuno's "tragic sense of life". I lost a great deal of that basic emotion when I went to school, because I loathed the socialization and conformity enforced there -- my sensitivity was sorely taxed and I withdrew into my own world, hiding my thoughts and feelings from prying eyes and judging minds. Yet this tendency was only encouraged by my exposure to Rand's ideas. Here I found a ready-made rationalization for further repressing my emotions; worse, I found good reason (or so I thought) to demonstrate my intellectual superiority by caustically disdaining anyone who had not seen the light of Randian philosophy. I even stopped playing guitar and listening to music, since I thought these experiences were too emotional. I choked off many of the things that were most important to me, all in the name of intellectual hygiene. It was not a pretty picture.

Yet what premises drove me to this course of action? It seems to me that Randians, and perhaps intellectuals in general, tend to denigrate the early years. After all, childhood is pre-intellectual or pre-philosophical, and don't ideas move the world? If ideas move the world, I must have been adrift in the years before I was aware of ideas. But ideas don't act on their own -- they need people to act on them. So one can feel a compulsion to remake the world in the image of one's ideas -- and not only that, but more deeply to remake oneself in the image of one's ideas. I know I did this throughout my teenage years: I saw myself as a vessel for Rand's ideas, instead of as an independent individual. And the farther I went down that path, the farther I got away from my early, joyous sense of life. I was no longer myself, the core self that I had been before I was knocked off-center by the socialization of schooling and the intellectualization of my encounter with Rand's ideas.

It was only in my post-Randian period that I began -- sometimes painfully, always slowly -- to re-capture the joy of my early youth, to the extent that I'd say now it is again the defining attribute of my approach to life. Only after much hard work and tough experience do I feel that I have achieved in the last few years a seamless integration of my joyous sense of life with the best aspects of Rand's vision of human existence.

Yet the only way I could do that was by respecting my pre-philosophical experiences. And part of that respect involved recognizing that my early experiences did not have to be the "pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics" in order to have value: it was enough that the appraisals I made early in my life were important to me. They did not need to be of metaphysical significance, only of personal significance.

It is at this level that I feel sense of life makes sense: not as something philosophical, but as the personal core of that over which one fights what Rand once called "the battle for [your] right to individuality" (Rand 1975, 105). Philosophy, the most abstract pursuit of humankind, is all about omitting measurements -- whereas individuality, sense of life, and "the fire of self-assertiveness" (ibid., p. 115) are all about honoring and actively loving the most particular measurements of one's individuality. As I wrote in my song In The Absence of Her Eyes, anything less makes life "a desert sand -- a dry, featureless land all drained of the sap of eros" ... especially the particular form of eros that Rand calls love for existence.


Ortega y Gasset, José. 1958. On Love: Aspects of a Single Theme. Translated by Toby Talbot. New York: Meridian

Rand, A. 1975. The Romantic Manifesto. Second expanded edition. New York: New American Library.

Unamuno, M. [1921] 1954. The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples. Translated by J.E. Crawford Flitch. New York: Dover.

Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Randian Reflections