Life, meaning of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L044-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 18, 2024, from

4. Subjective and objective meaning

Although discussions of the meaning of life are often associated with considerations about our place in the universe, there are also contexts in which the intelligibility of the contrast between meaningful and meaningless lives appears to be wholly independent of the cosmic issue.

We have already mentioned the view that the kind of meaning it makes sense to care about is subjective meaning. Some, like David Wiggins (1976), believe that a wholly subjective account of meaning cannot do justice to the ordinary use of the term. As Wiggins points out, the idea of a distinction between a meaningful life and a meaningless one is not equivalent to the more obvious and uncontroversial difference between a life that is subjectively satisfying or fulfilling and one that is not. When we wonder whether our lives have meaning, we are not engaged in a wholly introspective enterprise, and when we search for a way to give meaning to our lives, we are not looking for a pill that will make us happy. The life of Sisyphus, condemned by the gods perpetually to roll a stone up a hill only to see it roll down again, has been offered, at least since Camus’ writings, as a paradigm of meaninglessness. If we imagine Sisyphus as perversely fulfilled by this repetitious and futile activity, it is not clear whether we would evaluate his life as more meaningful or more dreadful.

Accounts of meaning in life need not be restricted to purely subjective and purely objective alternatives, however. The most natural paradigms of meaningful lives are both abundantly fulfilling subjectively and admirable or worthwhile as judged from points of view external to the agents themselves. The kind of life most comfortably described as meaningful appears to be one in which there is a happy connection between a subject’s lively interests and the range of things that are worthy of interest. Meaning seems to arise when subjective attraction meshes with objective attractiveness.

Whether and how this kind of meaningfulness relates to the concern that seems most naturally to call for a connection to some divine or cosmic purpose are difficult issues. Moreover, the notion of ‘objective attractiveness’ (or objective worth or value), to which this conception of meaningfulness makes reference, is notoriously controversial. Whether such a notion is ultimately intelligible, particularly in the absence of a religious metaphysics, constitutes a major philosophical question on its own (see Moral realism). That the issue of the meaning of life should open onto and connect with other major philosophical issues, however, should come as no surprise. It is, after all, one of the deepest and most basic topics in all of philosophy.

Citing this article:
Wolf, Susan. Subjective and objective meaning. Life, meaning of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L044-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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