97-Year-Old Philosopher Ponders the Meaning of Life: “What Is the Point of It All?”

If you’ve sat by the bed­side of a dying friend or rel­a­tive, or recov­ered from a ter­mi­nal ill­ness your­self, you may know too well: the con­cerns of yesterday—career anx­i­eties, polit­i­cal high stakes, per­son­al grudges—can slip away into the rear view, becom­ing small­er and more mean­ing­less as hours pass into final days. What takes their place? Maybe a savor­ing of the moment, maybe regrets over moments not savored, maybe a grow­ing acknowl­edg­ment that grat­i­tude mat­ters more than being right. Maybe a will­ing­ness to let go of pri­or ideas—not to adopt new ones, but to open to the ques­tions again.

Some­times, this expe­ri­ence is bewil­der­ing and fright­en­ing, espe­cial­ly when cou­pled with the pains of ill­ness and old age. What­ev­er insights one might have at the thresh­old of death, they can­not eas­i­ly over­come “life­long habits,” says Her­bert Fin­garette in the can­did short film Being 97, a doc­u­men­tary made in the last months of the con­trar­i­an Amer­i­can philosopher’s life. By the time of his death,” notes Aeon, “Fin­garette (1921–2018) had lived what most would con­sid­er a full and mean­ing­ful life. His mar­riage to his wife, Leslie, was long and hap­py. His career as a pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia was both accom­plished and con­tro­ver­sial.”

By this time, his wife of sev­en­ty years had been gone for sev­en. And at 97, phys­i­cal­ly frail and his career long over, Fin­garette was com­ing to terms with “lone­li­ness and absence” as well as with his need for help from oth­er peo­ple to do sim­ple tasks. After 42 years of teaching—and writ­ing on sub­jects like self-decep­tion, Con­fu­cian­ism, eth­i­cal respon­si­bil­i­ty, and addiction—he was also grap­pling with the fact he had been wrong about one par­tic­u­lar­ly press­ing mat­ter, at least.

Fin­garette became infa­mous when, with­out under­tak­ing any sci­en­tif­ic research him­self, he claimed in the 1988 book Heavy Drink­ing that alco­holism was a prob­lem of self con­trol, not a dis­ease. But he does not speak of the polit­i­cal furor in this minor con­tro­ver­sy. Eleven years lat­er, he took on an even heav­ier sub­ject in Death: Philo­soph­i­cal Sound­ings. “What I said was in a nut­shell,” he recalls, “is there’s no rea­son to be afraid or con­cerned or any­thing about death because when you die, there’s noth­ing. You’re not going to suf­fer, you’re not going to be unhap­py… you’re not going to be…. It’s not ratio­nal to be afraid of death.”

He admits, “I now think that is not a good state­ment, because I think it’s impor­tant to fig­ure out why it is then that peo­ple are afraid of death. Why am I con­cerned about it?” His best think­ing aside, “my sense of real­ism tells me, well, no good rea­son or not, it is some­thing that haunts me. I walk around the house and I ask myself, ‘What is the point of it all? There must be some­thing I’m miss­ing in this argu­ment.’” He asks, he says, know­ing “that there isn’t any good answer.” But that doesn’t stop him from look­ing for one. We see Fingarette’s life­long habits as a thinker push him for­ward in pur­suit of what he calls a “fool­ish ques­tion,” although he intu­its that “the answer might be… the silent answer.”

It’s a painful exis­ten­tial real­iza­tion for a man so devot­ed to log­i­cal argu­ment and pro­nounce­ments of cer­tain­ty. This film of Fin­garette in his last months is both a per­son­al­ly mov­ing por­trait and a dra­ma in minia­ture of a uni­ver­sal human dilem­ma: why is it so hard to accept the inevitable? Why do we have minds that strug­gle against it? The mul­ti­tude of pos­si­ble answers may be far less mean­ing­ful than the expe­ri­ence of the ques­tion itself, painful and tran­scen­dent as it is, whether we are griev­ing the loss of oth­ers, fac­ing our own mor­tal­i­ty, or, as in Fin­garet­te’s case, both at once.

Being 97 will be added to our list of Free Online Doc­u­men­taries, a sub­set of our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

via Aeon

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Death: A Free Phi­los­o­phy Course from Yale Helps You Grap­ple with the Inescapable

Alan Watts Explains Why Death is an Art, Adven­ture and Cre­ative Act

When Aldous Hux­ley, Dying of Can­cer, Left This World Trip­ping on LSD, Expe­ri­enc­ing “the Most Serene, the Most Beau­ti­ful Death” (1963)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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Comments (10)
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  • Mack Hernandez says:

    How utter­ly sad. For the whole answer to the mean­ing of life and the answers to Life’s pro­found ques­tions are found in the most holy book. Matthew Chap­ter 5 Verse 3 and Eccle­si­astes chap­ter 13 verse 11 explain the whole pur­pose of
    Our exis­tence

  • Martin Cohen says:

    There are many answers to that ques­tion, all of which claim to be cor­rect.

    I see no evi­dence to help me decide which, if any, is cor­rect.

  • oroo says:

    on the attach­ment of spir­it [Spir­it Release Ther­a­py] attached enti­ties…

    9th- Mark Pas­sio Truth, Mind, Real­i­ty Con­fer­ence 2018

    Google pledges not to devel­op AI weapons, but says it will still work …

    Met­a­logi­con (1999) XII, 1
    Anselm’s Onto­log­i­cal Proof:
    Con­se­quences in Sys­tem The­o­ry
    Arturo Graziano Grap­pone
    To George Erik Lasker



    This Incred­i­ble 4K Video of the Sun Took NASA 300 Hours to Make

  • Shirley says:


    Could you recheck that chap­ter as there is no Eccle­si­astis 13 and the cor­rect one would be impor­tant.

  • BigTomFF says:

    Appar­ent­ly chan­nel­ing his inner Peg­gy Lee.

  • JV says:

    So much of phi­los­o­phy is just mark­ing ter­ri­to­ry. Pre­tend­ing we can throw out the wis­dom already avail­able to us and cob­ble togeth­er some­thing con­trary for the sim­ple pur­pose of ego infla­tion. As if we can reli­ably and sus­tain­ably out­smart our mind/body con­nec­tion. The major reli­gions have fig­ured this s**t out already, yet we quib­ble like col­lege sopho­mores over the his­toric­i­ty of this or that detail, while miss­ing the larg­er point.

    The human body wants to express grat­i­tude and engage with the unknown with­in a com­mu­ni­ty. It lit­er­al­ly feels good to do so. We can’t out­think our way out of that bio­log­i­cal real­i­ty. But boy do we try to.

    That said, this film is very mov­ing.

  • Graeme Alston says:

    Be a bit of a waste of your life, if you’d got that wrong though wouldn’t it?

  • Graeme Alston says:

    Blessed are the cheese mak­ers?

  • carl schultz says:

    you have me tear­ing up with laugh­ter with that response. maybe i’ll have a stroke and die laugh­ing.🤣

  • carl schultz says:

    To clar­i­fy my first response, i was react­ing to Big­TomFF says, “appar­ent­ly chan­nel­ing his inner Peg­gy Lee.” a‑ha-ha-ha: Ms.Phyllis Diller’s voice.

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