The Meaning of Life

18.1 Overview: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life

Thinking about the meaning of life is complicated by the vagueness of the term, “meaning.” For some, it is defined in terms of external value (i.e., meaning as coming from outside humanity). Whatever meaning people have in their lives is bestowed or assigned by God, by some metaphysical order, or by the workings of some universal principle. Others speak of meaning in terms of internal value (i.e., meaning is what humans give to themselves). On this view, life can be meaningful for persons if they come to see their goals or purposes as inherently valuable or worthwhile. In this chapter, meaning is defined as that which has significant value and purpose over time. It is distinguished by some philosophers from happiness and morality.

18.2 Pessimism: Life Has No Meaning

For the pessimist (or nihilist), meaning requires a divine entity or transcendent reality—meaning is externally given. Since, however, the pessimist denies that such an entity or reality exists, they conclude that life has no meaning. Tolstoy, before his conversion to Christianity, and Schopenhauer provide examples of the pessimistic view.

18.3 Optimism: Life Can Have Meaning

Optimists argue that human life can be meaningful, but differ on how this meaning is possible. Externalists like Leo Tolstoy believe a meaningful existence requires a divine entity or transcendent reality, while internalists believe that meaning emerges from within human life. For internalists, life can be meaningful when we see our goals and purposes as valuable or worthwhile. Internalists can be divided into two camps. Subjectivists like Jean-Paul Sartre hold that meaning is relative to each person and depends on his or her attitudes, desires and goals, while objectivists like Susan Wolf hold that meaning is mind-independent. For objectivists, the meaningfulness of a life depends on activities or states that are objectively worthwhile rather than an individual’s subjective preferences or desires. 

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