Author: Matthew Pianalto
Categories: Ethics, Phenomenology and Existentialism, Philosophy of Religion
Word Count: 1000
Editors’ note: this essay and its companion essay, Meaning in Life: What Makes Our Lives Meaningful? both explore the concept of meaning in relation to human life. This essay focuses on the meaning of life as a whole, whereas the other addresses meaning in individual human lives.
At the height of his literary fame, the novelist Leo Tolstoy was gripped by suicidal despair. He felt that life is meaningless because, in the long run, we’ll all be dead and forgotten. Tolstoy later rejected this pessimism in exchange for religious faith in life’s eternal, divine significance.
Tolstoy’s outlook—both before and after his conversion—raises many questions:
- Does life’s having meaning depend on a supernatural reality?
- Is death a threat to life’s meaning?
- Is life the sort of thing that can have a “meaning”? In what sense?
Here we will consider some approaches to questions about the meaning of life.
1. Questioning the Question
Many philosophers begin thinking about the meaning of life by asking what the question itself means. Life could refer to all lifeforms or to human life specifically. This essay focuses on human life, but it is worth considering how other things might have or lack meaning, too. This can help illuminate the different meanings of meaning.
Sometimes, we use “meaning” to refer to the origin or cause of something’s existence. If I come home to a trashed house, I might wonder, “What is the meaning of this?” Similarly, we might wonder where life comes from or how it began; our origins may tell us something about other meanings, like our value or purpose.
We also use “meaning” to refer to something’s significance or value. Something can be valuable in various ways, such as by being useful, pleasing, or informative. We might call something meaningless if it is trivial or unimportant.
“Meaning” can also refer to something’s point or purpose. Life could have some overarching purpose as part of a divine plan, or it might have no such purpose. Perhaps we can give our lives purpose that they did not previously possess.
Notice that even divine purposes may not always satisfy our desire for meaning: suppose our creator made us to serve as livestock for hyper-intelligent aliens who will soon arrive and begin to farm us. We might protest that this is not the most meaningful use of our human potential! We may not want our life-story to end as a people-burger.
Indeed, a thing’s meaning can also be its story. The meaning of life might be the true story of life’s origins and significance. In this sense, life cannot be meaningless, but its meaning might be pleasing or disappointing to us. When people like Tolstoy regard life as meaningless, they seem to be thinking that the truth about life is bad news.
Supernaturalists hold that life has divine significance. For example, from the perspective of the Abrahamic religions, life is valuable because everything in God’s creation is good. Our purpose is to love and glorify God. We are all part of something very important and enduring: God’s plan.
Much of the contemporary discussion about the meaning of life is provoked by skepticism about traditional religious answers. The phrase “the meaning of life” came into common usage only in the last two centuries, as advances in science, especially evolutionary theory, led many to doubt that life is the product of intelligent, supernatural design. The meaning of life might be an especially perplexing issue for those who reject religious answers.
Nihilists think that life, on balance, lacks positive meaning. Nihilism often arises as a pessimistic reaction to religious skepticism: life without a divine origin or purpose has no enduring significance.
Although others might counter that life can have enduring significance that doesn’t depend on a supernatural origin, such as our cultural legacy, nihilists are skeptical. From a cosmic perspective, we are tiny specks in a vast universe–and often miserable to boot! Even our most important cultural icons and achievements will likely vanish with the eventual extinction of the species and the collapse of the solar system.
Naturalists suggest that the meaning of life is to be found within our earthly lives. Even if life possesses no supernatural meaning, life itself may have inherent significance. Things are not as bad as nihilists claim.
Some naturalists argue that life—at least human life—has objectively valuable features, such as our intellectual, moral, and creative abilities. The meaning of life may be to develop these capacities and put them to good use.
Other naturalists are subjectivists about life’s meaning. Existentialists, for example, argue that life has no meaning until we give it meaning by choosing to live for something that we find important.
Critics (including nihilists and supernaturalists) argue that the naturalists are fooling themselves. What naturalists propose as sources of meaning in life are at best a distraction from life’s lack of ultimate or cosmic significance (if naturalism is true). What is the point of personal development and good works if we’ll all be dead sooner or later?
Naturalists may respond that the point is in how these activities affect our lives and relationships now rather than in some distant, inhuman future. Feeling sad or distressed over our lack of cosmic importance might be a kind of vanity we should overcome. Some also question whether living forever would necessarily add meaning to life; living forever might be boring! Having limited time may be part of what makes some of our activities and experiences so precious.
In Douglas Adams’ novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the supercomputer Deep Thought is prompted to discover “the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.” After 7 ½ million years of computation, Deep Thought determines that the answer is…
Reflecting on this bizarre result, Deep Thought muses, “I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”
Adams may be wise to offer some comic relief. Furthermore, given the various meanings of “meaning,” perhaps there is no single question to ask and thus no single correct answer.
Tolstoy’s crisis is a reminder that feelings of meaninglessness can be distressing and dangerous. However, continuing to search for meaning in times of doubt may be one of the most meaningful things we can do.
 Tolstoy (2005 ). For discussion of Tolstoy’s rediscovery of meaning that extends his ideas beyond the specific religious outlook he adopted, see Preston-Roedder (2022).
 For more detailed overviews of the meaning of life, see Metz (2021) and the entries on the meaning of life by Joshua Seachris and Wendell O’Brien in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
 Ayer (2008) suspects the question is incoherent. For a response, see Nielsen (2008). For helpful discussion of the meanings of meaning, see Thomas (2019).
 For discussion of meaning beyond humans (and agents), see Stevenson (2022).
 Notice that purpose appears to be one type of value, as discussed in the preceding paragraph.
 Nozick (1981) develops this point about purpose; Nozick (2008) offers the key points, too. In a different spirit, the ancient Daoist philosophy of Zhuangzi (2013) provides some perspective on the advantages of being “useless” (having no purpose) and the dangers of being “useful.”
 On this proposal of the meaning of life as narrative, see Seachris (2009). A similar approach that emphasizes the notion of interpretation rather than story or narrative is proposed in Prinzing (2021).
 A starter list of life’s features that might lead one to tell such a story about life: war, poverty, physical and mental illness, natural disasters, addiction, labor exploitation and other injustices, and pollution. For more, see Benatar (2017).
 Some, like Craig (2013), argue vigorously that life can have meaning only if supernaturalism is true. For further discussion and examples, see discussions of supernaturalism in Seachris, “The Meaning of Life: Contemporary Analytic Perspectives” and Metz (2021).
 See Landau (1997) and Setiya (2022), Ch. 6, for discussion of the origin of the phrase.
 Nietzsche’s discussion of the “death of God” in The Gay Science (2001 ) reflects these sorts of concerns.
 For recent defenses of this view, see Benatar (2017) and Weinberg (2021).
 See I. Singer (2009) for a wide-ranging naturalist approach. Wolf’s (2010, 2014) approach to meaning in life is one of the most widely accepted views amongst contemporary philosophers.
 For a helpful discussion of the idea that some things might be objectively valuable, see Ethical Realism by Thomas Metcalf.
 Metz (2013) and P. Singer (1993) defend this sort of view of meaning in life. Transhumanists would argue that the best uses of our abilities will be those that help us overcome the problems, like disease and mortality, that beset humans and may transform us in substantial ways: perhaps we can achieve a natural form of immortality through technology! On transhumanism, see Messerly (2022).
 Representative subjectivists include Taylor (2000) and Calhoun (2015). Susan Wolf’s works (2010 and 2014) develop a “hybrid” account of meaning that combines objective and subjective elements.
 For classic expressions of this existentialist view, see Sartre (2021 ) and Beauvoir (2018 ). For a brief overview of existentialist philosophy, see Existentialism by Addison Ellis. For a more detailed, contemporary overview, see Gosetti-Ferencei (2020).
 On this point, see Nagel (1971), Nagel (1989), and “The Meanings of Lives” in Wolf (2014). For further discussion see Kahane (2014).
 Marquard (1991); see Hosseini (2015) for additional discussion. Albert Camus makes a similar point, invoking the notion of “moderation,” at the end of The Rebel (1992 ).
 Williams (1973) gives the classic expression of this idea. For a brief overview of Williams’ argument, see Is Immortality Desirable?, by Felipe Pereira.
 Of course, this outlook does mean that death can sometimes rob people of potential meaning, since death can be untimely. But death would not erase the meaningfulness of whatever one had already experienced or achieved. For arguments concerning whether death harms the individual who dies, see Is Death Bad? Epicurus and Lucretius on the Fear of Death by Frederik Kaufman.
 Adams (2017), Chapters 27-28. Asking a computer to give us the answer might also be a problem.
 For additional comic relief, see the film Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983). Such playfulness may seem irreverent of these “deep” philosophical questions, but Schlick (2017 ) argued that the meaning of life is to be found in play!
 For discussion of crises of meaning and an introduction to psychological research on meaning in life, see Smith (2017).
 William Winsdale relates that the existential psychiatrist Viktor Frankl was once asked to “express in one sentence the meaning of his own life” (in Frankl (2006), 164-5). After writing his answer, he asked his students to guess what he wrote. A student said, “The meaning of your life is to help others find the meaning of theirs.” Frankl responded, “That is it exactly. Those are the very words I had written.”
Adams, Douglas (2017). The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Del Rey. Originally published in 1979.
Ayer, A.J. (2008). “The Claims of Philosophy.” In: E.D. Klemke and Seven M. Cahn, eds. The Meaning of Life, Third Edition. Oxford University Press: 199-202.
Beauvoir, Simone de (2018). The Ethics of Ambiguity. Open Road Media. Originally published in French in 1947.
Benatar, David (2017). The Human Predicament. Oxford University Press.
Calhoun, Cheshire (2015). “Geographies of Meaningful Living,” Journal of Applied Philosophy 32(1): 15-34.
Camus, Albert (1992). The Rebel. Vintage. Originally published in French in 1951.
Craig, William Lane (2013). “The Absurdity of Life Without God.” In: Jason Seachris, ed. Exploring the Meaning of Life. Wiley-Blackwell: 153-172.
Frankl, Viktor E. (2006). Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon Press.
Gosetti-Ferencei, Jennifer Anna (2020). On Being and Becoming: An Existentialist Approach to Life. Oxford University Press.
Hosseini, Reza (2015). Wittgenstein and Meaning in Life. Palgrave Macmillan.
Kahane, Guy (2014). “Our Cosmic Insignificance.” Noûs 48(4): 745–772.
Landau, Iddo (2017). Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World. Oxford University Press.
— (1997). “Why Has the Question of the Meaning of Life Arisen in the Last Two and a Half Centuries?” Philosophy Today 41(2): 263-269.
Marquard, Odo (1991). “On the Dietetics of the Expectation of Meaning.” In: In Defense of the Accidental. Translated by Robert M. Wallace. Oxford University Press: 29-49.
Messerly, John (2022). Short Essays on Life, Death, Meaning, and the Far Future.
Metz, Thaddeus (2013). Meaning in Life. Oxford University Press.
— (2021). “The Meaning of Life.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2022 Edition), Edward N. Zalta & Uri Nodelman (eds.).
Nagel, Thomas (1971). “The Absurd,” Journal of Philosophy 68(20): 716-727.
— (1989). The View From Nowhere. Oxford University Press.
Nielsen, Kai (2008). “Linguistic Philosophy and ‘The Meaning of Life.’” In: E.D. Klemke and Seven M. Cahn, eds. The Meaning of Life, Third Edition. Oxford University Press: 203-219.
Nietzsche, Friedrich (2001). The Gay Science. Translated by Josephine Nauckhoff. Cambridge University Press. Originally published in German in 1882.
Nozick, Robert (1981). Philosophical Explanations. Harvard University Press.
— (2018), “Philosophy and the Meaning of Life,” in: E.D. Klemke and Seven M. Cahn, eds. The Meaning of Life, Fourth Edition. Oxford University Press: 197-204.
O’Brien, Wendell. “The Meaning of Life: Early Continental and Analytic Perspectives.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Last Accessed 12/19/2022.
Preston-Roedder, Ryan (2022). “Living with absurdity: A Nobleman’s guide,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (Early View).
Prinzing, Michael M. (2021). “The Meaning of ‘Life’s Meaning,’” Philosopher’s Imprint 21(3).
Sartre, Jean-Paul (2021). Being and Nothingness. Washington Square Press. Originally published in French in 1943.
Schlick, Moritz (2017). “On the Meaning of Life,” in: In: E.D. Klemke and Seven M. Cahn, eds. The Meaning of Life, Third Edition. Oxford University Press: 56-65. Originally published in 1927.
Seachris, Joshua. “The Meaning of Life: Contemporary Analytic Perspectives.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Last Accessed 12/19/2022.
— (2009). “The Meaning of Life as Narrative.” Philo 12(1): 5-23.
Setiya, Kieran (2022). Life is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way. Riverhead Books.
Singer, Irving (2009). Meaning in Life, Vol. 1: The Creation of Value. MIT Press.
Singer, Peter (1993). How Are We to Live? Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest. Prometheus.
Smith, Emily E. (2017). The Power of Meaning. Crown.
Stevenson, Chad Mason (2022). “Anything Can Be Meaningful.” Philosophical Papers (forthcoming).
Taylor, Richard (2000). Good and Evil. Prometheus. Originally published in 1970.
Thomas, Joshua Lewis (2019). “Meaningfulness as Sensefulness,” Philosophia 47: 1555-1577.
Tolstoy, Leo (2005). A Confession. Translated by Aylmer Maude. Dover. Originally published in Russian in 1882.
Weinberg, Rivka (2021). “Ultimate Meaning: We Don’t Have It, We Can’t Get It, and We Should Be Very, Very Sad,” Journal of Controversial Ideas 1(1), 4.
Williams, Bernard (1973). “The Makropulos case: reflections on the tedium of immortality.” In: Problems of the Self: Philosophical Papers, 1956-1972. Cambridge University Press: 82-100.
Wolf, Susan (2010). Meaning in Life and Why It Matters. Princeton University Press. (Wolf’s lecture is also available at the Tanner Lecture Series website).
— (2014). The Variety of Values. Oxford University Press.
Zhuangzi (2013). The Complete Works of Zhuangzi. Translated by Burton Watson. Columbia University Press.
Meaning in Life: What Makes Our Lives Meaningful? by Matthew Pianalto
Existentialism by Addison Ellis
Camus on the Absurd: The Myth of Sisyphus by Erik Van Aken
Nietzsche and the Death of God by Justin Remhof
Is Death Bad? Epicurus and Lucretius on the Fear of Death by Frederik Kaufman
The Badness of Death by Duncan Purves
Is Immortality Desirable? by Felipe Pereira
Hope by Michael Milona & Katie Stockdale
Ethical Realism by Thomas Metcalf
Download this essay in PDF.
About the Author
Matthew Pianalto is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University. He is the author of On Patience (2016) and several articles and book chapters on ethics. philosophy.eku.edu/pianalto
2 thoughts on “The Meaning of Life: What’s the Point?”
Comments are closed.