Carlo Strenger: The Fear of Insignificance: Searching for Meaning in the 21st Century

Posted by on Nov 14, 2015 in Books

A new species is born: homo globalis – and we are defined by our intimate connection to the global infotainment network, which has turned ranking and rating people on scales of wealth and celebrity into an obsession.

Dr. Carlo Strenger in 2010

According to Dr. Carlo Strenger, professor for psychology and philosophy at Tel Aviv university and author of this book, homo globalis suffers from a sense of ‘insignificance’ in the world. As usual for homo sapiens, homo globalis also makes others suffer for this. So what is wrong with us? Ever the psychoanalyst, Strenger starts off by analysing the extremes to which this sense can drive humans. Suicide bombers, according to him, are often too easily dismissed as extreme cases of psychopathology. In fact – rather more puzzling and worrying – no such psychopathology can usually be detected in intercepted would-be martyrs. In the infamous case of Mohammed Atta, who was a ringleader of the 9/11 terror attacks, he even met his fellow ideologues while studying at (a Western) university. What seems to drive people to such acts, is an extreme yearning for meaning and purpose. This yearning is something, however, that all humans share albeit naturally to varying degrees. In a TEDx talk in Jaffa, Strenger made the interesting observation that this inner desire can express itself in, broadly speaking, two forms: An open or closed worldview. In the open version, someone sees all other humans as part of the same journey – on the same boat so to speak – and accepts that other views and opinions exist as part of a larger historical, cultural, biological and ultimately physical context of reality that is the world we live in (or the illusion of it – more in another post to come). In the closed worldview, someone derives meaning and purpose from associating oneself with a sub-group and believing that they are jointly on a fundamentally different course. Both needn’t result in catastrophe if expressed in a pacifist form (although the former is clearly more scientifically sound, if also less graspable). In my blog post about Alban Berg’s opera Lulu, I described the state of confusion society found itself in at the beginning of the 20th century and how this contributed to the world of arts and science but this very ‘instability’ ultimately led to catastrophe. Just as the manufacturing revolution, the early onset of globalisation and the breaking of social taboos, shook society then, today it is the (almost) fully globalised, digital world that rips people out of their cosy set of ‘values’ (read habits) and ‘worldview’ (read dogma). This creates enormous fears that mustn’t be dismissed lightly. Personally, I feared a backlash might finally be on its way as the European migrant crisis threatened to turn the public mood into uncontrolled anger. In his book, the author gives a fitting, personal example by telling that his father was a respected lawyer in Basel, the town he grew up in, at a time when ‘law-firms’ were still very much a local affair and someone would get local recognition for such a role. Nowadays, by contrast, it is much harder for an individual to attain that level of recognition. Firms are global and the ladder has seemingly lengthened far into the clouds for most.

Borrowing from existential philosophy and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (1941) in particular, Strenger explains that humans are the only creatures acutely aware of their own mortality. This, of course, is terrifying and marks our psyche profoundly. It is because we know that we are going to die that we seek for meaning and ideas as a way to to become immortal in them.

From this, the author continues that individuals could find meaning in a context that they understood – for example in working for a small local firm where they know everyone and the business has a clear purpose. Here and in other aspects of life, globalisation has added significant complexity. An individual working for KPMG will find it much harder to see his or her purpose as part of an abstract concept – the international corporation. Beyond this though, there is also another aspect of modern life that seems to cause unhappiness. Strenger calls this the ‘just do it’ culture. The medial landscape constantly portraits the ‘good life’ and all possible desires of materialism and beyond to us. Those are in fact often designed to make us think – oh, why am I not doing this?. That leads to frustration for many people. A part of globalisation is also democratisation, which isn’t always a good thing. The author states that

What is sometimes euphemistically called the democratisation of taste really means that the market puts pressure to produce what appeals to the lowest common denominator.

This is an observation that I, too, have made often and that seems to become more and more of a problem as peer-review systems get replaced by popularity-driven ones. In combination with earlier points, this is the reason why we are seeing an ever-ballooning number of ‘self-help’ books that look to easy answers for hard questions about living meaningful lives. Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret as an example, a book which has been condemned by serious critics as irrational, shallow, morally repugnant and quite simply false, apparently sells millions of copies. Ultimately it proves hard for people to give up believing in something that they really want to believe in. Jean-Paul Sartre himself was blind to the atrocities of Stalin’s regime and continued to believe in communism as an ideal alternative to capitalism. In an interesting comparison, Strenger adds Alan Greenspan to the list who called himself a lifelong libertarian Republican and only recently admitted that his unfettered belief in unregulated markets was probably a mistake that contributed heavily to the 2008 financial crisis.

Ultimately, the author admits that this book is an attempt to salvage the core value of the European Enlightenment from ‘the wreckage of an optimistic philosophy of history‘ and finally drifts into the grander question of whether humanity will eventually self-destruct or prevail. This question surely merits a dedicated book of its own that would do well not to rely too heavily on science-fiction for its thesis (as technological development is about the hardest thing to predict) but should rather analyse humanity’s willingness to cooperate in the face of disaster. The core of this book The Fear of Insignificance, however, has a point of far more relevance: The question of how our psychology and a changing world are leading to fears in society that, when left untreated, end in disaster. Remarkably, this question, which today manifests itself in terrorism and radical political swings, has been left largely unanswered or even ignored. It deserves praise that Dr. Carlo Strenger has taken on this important task.

2 thoughts

  1. […] and yet none of that played a role in their intellectual conection. Both had an open worldview (see my post on Carlo Strenger’s book), that was not driven by prejudice and dogma but rather by respect and curiosity. They were eager […]


  2. […] as doubling your income every other decade or defeating communism). Some of this is outlined in Carlo Strenger’s book The Fear of Insignificance. We are starting to see serious problems that will only grow more disruptive if we don’t […]


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