Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Philosophy and the Meaning of Life

I've been listening again to a radio interview I did some years ago. It was one of those programmes where listeners could ask questions. One of the questions was what I thought the meaning of life was. My reaction was to laugh and then to say that I was sorry, but that I couldn't answer this question because it was "too big" for me. I think I was rather amused by the public's persistent belief that what philosophers do is think about the meaning of life. Because that is, of course, not at all what we do. Now, however, listening to that broadcast again, I suddenly felt slightly ashamed of myself and actually of my whole profession. Why shouldn't people expect a philosopher to think about the meaning of life and to have, as a result, some, however tentative, answer to the question? This is, after all, why most of us start to ask philosophical questions in the first place, isn't it? It is the question that is at the heart of the whole philosophical enterprise. How odd then that professional philosophers shy away from this question and tend to make fun of people who ask it. It is a kind of intellectual cowardice, as if we had given up hope that this crucial question could ever be answered, or we were afraid of the kind of answer that we might find if we only looked hard enough. So it seems to me now that we shouldn't try to avoid this question, but on the contrary tackle it directly and do our best to find an answer. What does it all mean? I have no idea, but I'm determined to find out.


  1. Kant believed that nothing straight can be made out of the crooked timber of humankind. From that I concluded that 'a' meaning of life is our striving to straighten that timber out.

  2. Well, if nothing straight can be made out of the crooked timber of humankind, what use is there in trying to do it anyway? And if it is impossible, can it still be meaningful? Can we derive meaning from unsuccessful endeavours, let alone necessarily unsuccessful ones? And what if there were a chance to succeed, what if we actually succeeded in, say, straightening out the crooked timber of humankind, would that make our lives meaningful? Already while still striving for it or only once we had achieved it? Or on the contrary, only while we were still striving, so that once we have achieved what we've been striving for, life at once loses its meaning. Does "meaning" mean having a purpose in life? Is it important which purpose that is? Can it be just any purpose or does it have to be a partiular one? So many questions.

  3. Right, so many questions. I think it is simpler.

    The meaning of life is in the striving and not in completely straightening things out. If we do straighten one thing out we create something else that is crooked. In solving one problem we create another one. That is meant to be so there is always something to do.

  4. Interesting idea, but saying that something "is meant to be" in a certain way, seems to imply that there is some sort of purpose to our human existence, independent of what we personally happen to want, and that the universe is organised in such a way (by whom?) that we can fulfill this purpose. Are there really things that are "meant to be"?

  5. I found Terry Eagleton's book on the subject quite inspiring.
    Did you have a chance to look at it?

    1. Yes, I know Eagleton's book. There's also one by Julian Baggini. Both of them are actually pretty good, well written and, yes, inspiring. However, they tend to be less about the meaning of life and more about what constitutes a good life. The focus is on the old ancient Greek question how we should lead our lives or how we live our lives well, and it seems to me that the question of meaning goes beyond that. That our lives appear meaningful to us may well be an essential part of a good life, so that our life couldn't be good if it appeared meaningless to us. But that doesn't really answer the question why we need a meaning, what it means for a life to have meaning, and what can lend meaning to life. So, to sum up, although I very much like and admire both Eagleton's and Baggini's books, I'm not convinced that the question that many people are concerned about when they ask about the meaning of life has been answered.