Tariq Ramadan’s The Quest for Meaning is very much a ‘spirit of the age’ book. One of the most influential intellectual trends today is to seek refuge in nature, to search for meaning not in the human-made world but in the natural or biological world. This can be seen in the current fashion for evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, behavioural economics and environmentalism. Another powerful intellectual trend is what we might call a twenty-first-century version of perspectivism, which one-sidedly emphasises the intuitive and contingent aspects of human experience. And The Quest for Meaning tightly embraces both of these fashionable approaches to the world.
Although Ramadan’s book is presented as a spiritual meditation on the problems of existence, it is actually an eclectic mixture of current intellectual prejudices and old-fashioned appeals to revelation and dogma. What is fascinating about the book is the manner in which it leaps from discussing clusters of neurons to issuing poetic homilies about the nature of meaning. Statements such as ‘We are heading for the realm of consciousness and mind where all wisdoms remind us that it is shores that make the ocean one, and that it is the plurality of human journeys that shapes the common humanity of men’ sound like first drafts of the script for Lost. However, while Ramadan’s musings are elliptical, they nonetheless convey a clear message: that truth is very relative, or, as he puts it, ‘we have to begin humbly, by admitting that we have nothing more than points of view’. The only thing we share, he says, is our difference and diversity.