Life, meaning of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L044-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 09, 2023, from

1. The meaning of ‘the meaning of life’

The question, ‘What is the meaning of life?’, probably arouses both more contempt and more respect for philosophy than any other. On the one hand, the question is notoriously vague and has encouraged much pompous nonsense. On the other, the urge to understand the point of our existence is deep and pervasive, and is indicative of qualities of mind that are arguably central to being human.

A major difficulty besetting the topic is lack of clarity about the subject itself. Drawing comparisons with other contexts in which we ask for meanings tends to increase confusion. When we ask for the meanings of words or phrases, we ask what they are typically used to communicate. Life, however, is not an item in a system of communication. It does not seem to be used or intended to represent something beyond itself. In certain circumstances we also talk about the meaning of nonlinguistic items: footprints mean someone else has been here; a rash on the skin means the child has measles. Analogies with these uses of ‘meaning’, however, have not proved helpful.

Religion, particularly Judaeo-Christianity, provides a natural context for the question of the meaning of life (see Religion and morality). If one believes that a supernatural being created the world with some grand design, the question asks for the purpose of that design or the place of life within it. However, the philosophical topic of the meaning of life – or the set of overlapping topics that have come over time to be associated with the phrase – cannot be restricted to issues that make sense only on religious assumptions.

Central concerns that come under the topic include questions about whether life has a purpose, whether life is worthwhile, and whether people have any reason to live, independently of their specific circumstances and interests. Any of these questions may be asked about life, or, more commonly, about human life, but they can also be asked about individual lives, particularly about one’s own life. We can search for purposes, reasons, values that are acceptable from points of view external to ourselves, or we can restrict our attention to the realm of desires and goals found in our psyches or our communities, indifferent to possible perspectives beyond the human. Although the phrase ‘the meaning of life’ seems to assume only one meaning to life, we may be led to reject this assumption without concluding that life is meaningless. Often, the focus of the question shifts in the very process of trying to answer it.

To inquire into the meaning of life, then, is like engaging in a search in which you are not sure quite what you are looking for until you find it. Any attempt to give an unambiguous paraphrase of ‘the meaning of life’ is bound, like the phrase itself, to foreclose certain options and cut off paths of inquiry that should not be ruled out in advance.

Citing this article:
Wolf, Susan. The meaning of ‘the meaning of life’. Life, meaning of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L044-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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