The Meaning of Life: a philosophical approach

People may be surprised to learn that analysing the meaning of life has not been central to the western philosophical tradition. Philosophers in the English-speaking world have focused for the past 100 years on analytical philosophy, reluctant to consider big questions which they felt could not be tackled in a rigorous way. The meaning of life was also in the past a matter that was addressed by religion rather than philosophy.

However, in recent years, a number of thinkers including Thomas Nagel and Robert Nozick have considered the topic. It has also become important in twentieth century European philosophy, particularly in the writing of existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre.

Here I will consider what the question "What is the meaning of life?" actually means, and I will show how some people have attempted to answer it. The modern philosophical approach takes a number of lines of attack, sometimes looking at what people are talking about when they talk about "the meaning of life", sometimes considering what goals would be valid, beneficial and non-self-contradictory, and sometimes considering the different ways different things can have "meaning". Many of these answers are concerned with what sort of life we should live, and what the goals of human existence should be, but some of them find other sorts of meaning, and some find no meaning at all.

The question, and why it matters

What is "the meaning of life"? Or specifically, what sort of thing is a meaning of life? Would we recognise it if we found it? What are we looking for? We must answer all these questions before we embark on any inquiry.

Traditionally, "the meaning of life" has been taken as roughly synonymous with "the purpose of life". Therefore, if you ask, "what is the meaning of life?" you really want to be told what you need to do to live a good life, or what goals you should be striving for in life.

On the other hand, some people think the meaning of life should tell them why life is better than death, why they should bother living, or why they should respect human life. But the meaning of something is not always the same as its value. An example of this is a painting, which may well have a meaning, and may also have a value, and a painting with a meaning may be more valuable than one without a meaning, but the meaning and the value are not the same thing.

Historical answers

Although philosophers in the past 2500 years have spend more time debating other topics such as the nature of knowledge, what it means to call an action good, and the relationship between names and objects, the topic of the meaning of life has been addressed by a variety of people. Philosophers from Aristotle to the present day have set out to ask what the goal of life is, and how that goal should be reached.

Aristotle was far more concerned with the question of how to live a good life than most western philosophers. He believed that the highest goal was a state of contemplative wisdom. The way to reach this, he felt, was to lead a balanced life, doing all things in moderation, being neither foolhardy nor cowardly, neither indifferent to others nor over-emotional, neither passive nor domineering. However, it is not certain how applicable these rules are to all circumstances1, and few people these days desire to spend their days in a quiet contemplation.

After Aristotle's day, the main force in Europe promoting the idea of the purpose and meaning of life has been the Christian church. A central principle of Christianity is that only a divine plan gives life meaning. Ultimately, the consequences of our actions in leading a good life will be the glorification of God and a place in Heaven.

The Christian view depends on two principles, that a meaning of life must be imposed from outside by an omnipotent being, and the idea that only immortality can give life meaning: "If we are to believe that all our striving is without final consequence, life is meaningless ... it scarcely matters how we live if all will end in dust and death" 2. Both of these suppositions will be attacked below. In addition, you can argue from observation that any apparent grand plan which someone claims exists is flawed (see David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion).

More recently, science has fundementally altered our views of the origins of life, and hence of its purpose. Science suggests life is contingent, with no external power giving meaning to it. According to William Grey, biology gives a causal explanation of "why are we here?" but not a teleological explanation3. In other words, it can tell you why you exist, if what you want to hear about is evolution and genetics and star formation and protein synthesis, but it cannot tell you the purpose of this.

Following on from this, the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre is a branch of modern philosophy which places the meaninglessness of life at its heart. Sartre begins by considering questions of existence and essence. He finds he must start with the fact that he exists, an existence which in the absence of God has no external purpose. Whether he was born or not is of no interest to any cosmic force. From there he must construct his own human nature: "Man, with no support and no aid, is condemned every moment to invent man". The meaning of life must be determined by each person on his or her own: he "exists only to the extent that he fulfills himself; he is therefore nothing else than the ensemble of his acts, nothing else than his life." (Quotes from Jean-Paul Sartre, "Existentialism is a Humanism").


A common criticism to the quest for a meaning to life is: how can something which is finite have a meaning or a purpose? According to this objection, life is short, and we will soon be dead and forgotten. People saying this believe something must be eternal to have a meaning. Clearly many things which have meanings are abstract, and thus eternal or everlasting, for instance mathematical symbols.

However, if we consider practical examples from life we see that not all meanings are eternal, for example the grades on a college assignment have meaning only until you get your degree. Some things mean a lot at the time, but their value proves to be ephemeral.

We can also approach the question from another angle and ask, could eternal life have a meaning? Bernard Williams has argued that only a finite life has meaning, because infinite life would be intolerable, and we would eventually tire of it.4 In fact, being short might give life more meaning. Being close to death seems to increase many people's desires to accomplish things. And the fact that we fear death so much indicates that life has value and importance, at least to ourselves.

Does it matter if we don't have a meaning?

For those who do not believe in a god, modern science seems to suggest that life is contingent and without a masterplan. Life has not been created with any purpose. We are just a collection of organic molecules thrown into existence by complex statistical and chemical processes. No higher power cares if we live or die. Life in that sense has no meaning.

This may be an insuperable problem for some people. With no one to tell you what to do, what is there to fall back on? Is there any way of knowing what is right or wrong, what you should or shouldn't do? In practice, most people find answers to these problems. People seem to have a natural need to invent goals, tasks, purposes and beliefs. So does it matter if life has no God-given meaning? If we treat life as though it has a meaning, does that make life valuable in itself? To answer this, it is necessary to consider what are the legitimate sources of value and purpose.

The source of meaning

The debate above focussed largely upon whether meaning must be externally given or can be internally given. For a Christian, meaning is defined by the will of God and the teachings of Jesus and the prophets. Similar considerations tell a Jew or a Moslem the purpose, goal and meaning of life. The meaning of life is to follow the rules of a religion, obey its precepts, love and worship its God. This might lead you to question whether a meaning not derived from an external source is valid. Does the absence of religion and a higher intelligence mean life can have no meaning?

In fact you can turn the question around. Is an externally-given purpose sufficient? A chicken in a factory farm has a purpose to its life, to produce eggs or be killed and eaten. This bird has a meaning to its life, but such a purpose would not be sufficient for a human being. (Incidentally, a similar thing applies to all moral principles: is the fact that an instruction is given by God sufficient to ensure that it is moral? If God demanded you to kill your child, as he did of Abraham, would you be justified to refuse? Is there a higher law than that of God? Such issues cannot be answered here, but they suggest we might dispute an externally-imposed meaning of life, even if one was to be found.)

If we reject external forces as the source for the meaning of life, or fail to find any meaning in the universe, it is left to us to give our own lives meaning. If we are choosing our own meaning, this raises another development. Perhaps there are different rules for different people; perhaps the meaning of life varies according to who you are.

Maybe when people are looking for the meaning of life they should look inward, not outwards. If you are asking "what is the meaning of life?" you might need to unlock your inner goals. The psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg felt that people moved through six stages of personal development. 1) respect for power and punishment, aged 1-5, 2) self-interest, aged 5-10, 3) seeking approval, aged around 8-16, 4) internalised social rules, aged 16 and over, 5) belief in democracy as a social contract which is only ever achieved by some people, culminating in the rarer-still stage 6, where people formulate their own moral principles and seek to live by them.5

However, there are a number of things which people commonly regard as giving life meaning. Many of the simpler ideas fall apart quickly under philosophical inspection, but we are left with a number of ideas that show how people can and do attach a purpose to life.

Common ideas

If you ask people to come up with the goal of life, the single reason we are here on this planet, there are a few answers you might hear. Some of these derive from philosophies or religions, while others appear common sense. However, these simple ideas all prove somewhat inadequate, leading to the conclusion that the meaning of life is not one thing, but is a cluster of elements and ideas.

To help others. Altruism is commonly considered a virtue. However, it arguably has most value in a world where everyone else is selfish. It fails as a universal principle. If the highest goal is to help others, then no one would accept help or let another person put him or herself out for you.

To reproduce. Many people believe the single thing that gives their lives most meaning is to have children, which ensures a little bit of immortality, both in passing on their DNA and in passing on their wisdom. According to the philosopher Schopenhauer, Will, the driving force of human beings, seeks to perpetuate itself through history. However, it is unclear where the value lies in a perpetual sequence of reproduction if the lives being lived are not themeselves of value. If all we do is pass on the same struggle to our children, is that a gift? And even if you see it as a way of achieving immortality, an eternal series perpetuating through existence would rapidly lose all track of who you are in memory and diluted genes, and in any case the universe may be finite in time (either through heat death or contraction).

To achieve the maximum pleasure for oneself. Hedonism is an ancient goal of mankind, promoted in a moderate form by the Epicureans as the highest good. But there are practical problems. Is it better to live a short and very happy life or a long and content one? And most people would not want (if given the chance) to spend the rest of their days hooked up to a morphine drip, never moving; or living as a brain in a tank fed pleasurable perceptions through wires.

The features of a meaning of life

People find a meaning to their lives in a number of ways. Most common is through personal relationships, although commitment to a political cause or occasionally another goal (e.g. science and art) can give life purpose. What are the factors that determine the meaningfulness of a life?

Meaning derives from impact. People feel their lives are so small when compared to the immensity of space and time. This makes them feel their lives have no meaning. However, while we can't affect the universe, but we can affect some things. A component of the meaning of life is therefore the desire to make an impact, to leave a legacy, to make a change, to erect a monument more lasting than bronze. Is the desire to produce things and leave things behind good? It produces great works, but it may not be sufficient: it ignores the ephemeral and privileges the future against the present.

Meaning derives from relationships. Our lives get meanings as we come to matter to other people. Meanings are often conferred to things not in isolation, but in groups. And our lives can come to have meanings if they are assigned value by other people who depend on us. There is however a problem with this: can meaning be conferred by other people if their lives have no meaning either? We may be able to circumvent this objection if you are working towards a greater goal, although that presupposes the existence of a greater goal.

Meaning derives from activities. Real experiences seem to give life meaning, while false experiences do not. This is why people would not want to spend their life as a brain in a tank watching Simpsons reruns while a steady trickle of single malt Scotch runs through their veins. Many people devote a large amount of time to seeking out authentic experiences, for example backpacking through Asia. The meaning of life must derive from interaction with the world, from sensation and feeling.

Symbolic meaning

Finally there is another type of meaning. Things can have meaning as symbols. In this case, the meaning is not intrinsic, and is not necessarily felt by the person living the life. But they come to represent something enormously important to other people.

Many people's lives have meanings as icons, exemplars or stories. Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain, John F. Kennedy, and Jesus all have distinctive cultural significances as heroes or victims. Their lives have meanings, although in those cases the meanings all come from deaths. But other people can serve as symbols while still alive: Nelson Mandela became a symbol of the possible freedom of South Africa while in prison, and his release took on enormous symbolic importance as a result.

Of course, there is no necessity for a meaning to be a good one. Myra Hindley had become a symbol of pure evil before her recent death, and Adolf Hitler, Chairman Mao and Stalin will doubtless be remembered for far longer than any of their victims. This sort of meaning to life is haphazard, depending on a myth-making machine, although self-publicity may go a long way, and doing something of value or note is nearly essential.

The answer

In conclusion, the meaning of life is...

...not anything I can tell you. It isn't something a philosopher can impose on you. This article should have shown that it is not even something your god, goddess or pantheon of assorted divinities can tell you. Hopefully, the above account will act as a guide, by telling what features will give your life meaning, and what will prove to be irrelevant or valueless. But I don't recommend you spend too much time worrying about it. To that intent, I shall finish with a proverb. Life is like Moby-Dick: Ahab and the whale are cool and there's lots of interesting stuff about nineteenth-century seafaring, but if you try and work out what it all means, you'll only go mad and ruin it for yourself.

On the other hand, if you are up in your attic one day this winter, and you come across a little black book with a silver lock, and if you can find the key, and within you find an answer, please tell me what it says.


1Richard Kraut, "Aristotle's Ethics", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, May 1, 2001, <, accessed December 5, 2002.

2(Clark, C.H.D. 1958 1967. Christianity and Bertrand Russell. Quoted in Paul Edwards, "Meaning of Life." In The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. P. Edwards, 4:467-77. New York: Macmillan. Quoted by William Grey, "Evolution and the Meaning of Life", Zygon Vol 22, No 4 (1987), pp. 479-496, reprinted at <>, accessed December 5, 2002.

3William Grey, "Evolution and the Meaning of Life", Zygon Vol 22, No 4 (1987), pp. 479-496, reprinted at <, accessed December 5, 2002.

4Bernard Williams. 1973. "The Makropulos Case." In Problems of the Self, 81-100. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, referenced in William Grey, "Evolution and the Meaning of Life", Zygon Vol 22, No 4 (1987), pp. 479-496, reprinted at <>, accessed December 5, 2002.

5 L Kohlberg The psychology of moral development: The nature and validity of moral stages. Harper and Row, San Francisco, 1984. Discussed in Clayton E. Tucker-Ladd, "Psychological Self-Help", Mental Health Net, <>, accessed December 5, 2002.


This write-up is based in part on my recollections the course on The Meaning of Life, taught as part of the philosophy honours program at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. It also draws on the following sources:
  • Brenda Almond, "What's The Meaning of All This?", reprinted from Philosophy Now Issue 24, 1999, <>, accessed December 5, 2002.
  • Keith Augustine, "Death and the Meaning of Life", Internet Infidels, <>, accessed December 5, 2002.
  • William Grey, "Evolution and the Meaning of Life", Zygon Vol 22, No 4 (1987), pp. 479-496, reprinted at <>, accessed December 5, 2002.
  • Richard Kraut, "Aristotle's Ethics", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, May 1, 2001, <>, accessed December 5, 2002.
  • Thomas Nagel, What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1987.
  • David Schmidtz, "The Meanings of Life", 2001, <>, accessed December 5, 2002.
  • Clayton E. Tucker-Ladd, "Psychological Self-Help", Mental Health Net, <>, accessed December 5, 2002.