Our Campus: We will never know the meaning of life — and that’s OK, says Steven Taubeneck

Our Campus: We will never know the meaning of life — and that’s OK, says Steven Taubeneck

Photo Kosta Prodanovic / The Ubyssey

Photo Kosta Prodanovic / The Ubyssey

Steven Taubeneck picked up his first copy of Nietzsche when he was 12 years old.

Enthralled by the text, he gave his 15-year-old girlfriend a copy. The relationship, as he put it, quickly ended. But philosophy stuck with him.

At UBC, Taubeneck teaches existentialism in the department of philosophy. Difficult to define, existentialism is a branch of philosophy that focuses on the individual finding meaning in a meaningless world. According to Taubeneck, being happy is not the goal of life. Searching for so-called “happiness” only leads to disappointment and — no disrespect to those with inspirational quotes on their wall — we as a human race will never know the meaning of life.

If existentialists don’t advocate searching for happiness, would Taubeneck call himself happy?

“I’m a joyful pessimist,” he chuckles. “I’m pessimistic about conventional goals.”

Taubeneck’s academic career is as unconventional as his philosophical views. After pursuing multiple majors at multiple universities over the span of 11 years, he finally earned his bachelor of arts at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1981. He chose to take only two or three courses a term and refused to stay in courses or universities he didn’t like.

Taubeneck is concerned about our “culture of compulsory happiness.” Any perspective or idea that questions the “don’t worry, be happy” motto is considered suspicious in society. “Happiness itself,” he said, “is a big part of the problem.”

Talking about how to live life makes for a lively class. In a regular lecture of 80 people, more than a third will engage in discussion during class. Reactions from students tend to be strong and disagreement is encouraged.

The class isn’t just for Arts students, either. “I get many [students] from the natural sciences,” said Taubeneck. “Right now, I have a student from computer science and I think she’s happy to talk about some of these issues in a [more] open way than she would otherwise.”

So given the gloomy semblance of existentialism, why is this particular type of philosophy appealing to college students?

“People [of college age] often find themselves torn,” Taubeneck said. “Torn into the outside world, into a future they can barely see…. There’s a great deal of anxiety, of despair.”

Taubeneck knows a thing or two about using the teachings of dead philosophers to make sense of life. As a child, he started reading Nietzsche when he was trying to make sense of his family life. Through Kant and Nietzsche, he realized there were alternatives to the conventional views of family as presented on television and in church.

“Existentialism tells you that you are not alone,” he said. “You not only can cope with it, but [you] have to … as part of being in this world.”

PHIL 385A: “Existentialism” will be offered again in the Fall term of 2014. Taubeneck is also supervising several student-directed seminars that he highly recommends.