Death and the meaning of life – By Juan-Ramón Capella

This post is also available in: Spanish

Your field of expertise is the Philosophy of Law, but your last book is a memoir. Is a text like that written for posterity?

There’s a quote from Keats going around in my head: “here lies one whose name was writ in water.” I thought it was fantastic as a thought on posterity coming from a great poet. I don’t consider long posterities, because I know the size and usefulness of what I do. It’s for very close people, for living people. In this case, my memoirs have been induced by the re-writing of Spanish history that has been going on these last 30 or 35 years. There has been very little reflection about the past. I think I now have a more complete vision of what the PSUC (Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia, equivalent to the Communist Party and formed by aggregation of many different platforms during the civil war of 1936-39), for example, was: it was the main anti-Franco opposition party and it diluted into nothingness in a few years. Or of the people who became enthusiastic doing really dangerous things back then and that, later, became easily accommodated to the system we have now. It seemed to me that telling that experience and where it came from was important, in order not to let this false narration of a history, which is much more complex than people usually say, be accepted without protest.

But you have opted for a personal memoir. Why not an analytical book?

This, for two subjective reasons. Firstly, when I started I felt incapable of analysis. I was too worried by the possibility that my life ended soon. Secondly, I knew I had a storyteller inside. Even in my job -in the field of Political Philosophy and Philosophy of Law- I have been very narrative. I wanted to test myself in this field because I thought I could do well.

Death changes one’s view because, without it, everything would be different. Does it give meaning to life?

No. Death is what takes meaning away from life. Life can be lived and well, in the worst circumstances, as long as you have a project. When you can’t carry it forward, life has no meaning. I have heard this from other people who were at a real risk of losing their lives and I agree. Life has a meaning while there’s a project to follow or chase. If not, life is a mere biological fact.

In your book you talk about giving existence a meaning. How does one do that?

Accepting a project and rejecting others. In the philosophical perception I’m more of a negativist than a stater of things. Colleagues of mine and great authors like Perelman and Amartia Sen have devoted many pages to the idea of justice. Pages and very refined formulations by Sen and his school. However, in this world justice doesn’t exist. There are injustices. People have devoted many efforts to elaborating theories of justice and how to achieve it, about what it consists of. More or less we already know what it consists of. We know formally. But, at the time of truth, what there really is are injustices and many of them happen to people who have no voice to express the injustice that is done to them. I believe this negative perception is more fecund for thought and for action than the rather platonic or modelic -kantian, if you will- view about what’s good, what’s just.

When you talk about a project are you talking about a collective or an individual one?

In my case it’s a collective project, but for an artist it may be an individual one. These days I was thinking about the case of André Weil, Simone Weil’s brother. That man has been one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century. Unlike her sister, when World War II started, he went to Finland and refused to go back to France to fight the Germans. He had to spend the rest of his life in the United States because in France that attitude of objecting to a war -which was defensive and, probably not unfair- wasn’t well considered. He was a mathematician and he knew he could contribute more to humanity as a mathematician than as a short-sighted person taken to the front to act as an artillery officer or something like that. In this case, the individual project was justified.
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