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Life, meaning of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L044-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2020
Retrieved January 22, 2021, from

Article Summary

Focusing on recent Anglo-American (analytic) philosophical books devoted to the question of what, if anything, would make life meaningful, it is standard to draw a distinction between the meaning ‘in life’ and ‘of life’. The latter is about what might make the life of the human race as a whole meaningful, whereas the former – which a large majority of the field has addressed – concerns what could make the life of an individual human person meaningful. By ‘meaning’ (in life) most contemporary philosophers have in mind a cluster of related final values, such as: making sense of one’s life; composing an interesting life-story; living in ways that merit reactions such as esteem; realising purposes that are much higher than animal pleasures; or making a contribution to something greater than oneself. Characteristic instances of meaning include love, knowledge, and creativity. Such an analysis indicates that meaning in life is an evaluative category distinct from subjective happiness and moral rightness.

There are two major theoretical ways that analytic philosophers have sought to answer the question of how an individual should live so as, say, to merit esteem or achieve higher purposes. For supernaturalism, a person’s life is meaningful if and only if she engages in the right way with God or a soul, as they are typically construed in the Abrahamic faiths. Salient versions of supernaturalism posit that God’s purpose could be the only source of superlative final value, or that any finitely meaningful conditions in the universe would have to obtain their meaning from God’s infinitude. One important objection to supernaturalist theories is that it intuitively seems that some lives have been meaningful, even supposing the absence of God or a soul; suppose that the likes of Mother Teresa, Einstein, and John Coltrane lived in a purely material universe. However, many supernaturalists reply by granting that although some small, shallow, or transient meaning would be possible without anything spiritual, a much greater meaning would be available with it.

The other major theory of meaning in life is naturalism, according to which a person’s life is meaningful if (and perhaps only if) she lives in a certain way in a world that is merely physical. Three salient instances of naturalism are subjectivism, objectivism, and a hybrid theory according to which meaningfulness consists of being subjectively attracted to what is objectively attractive. The hybrid theory has been the most influential, since it avoids and explains powerful objections facing its rivals, namely, that subjectivism oddly entails that engaging in an objectively unattractive project, such as collecting a ball of string, could be meaning-conferring and that objectivism counterintuitively entails that not being subjectively attracted to what one is doing, perhaps even hating it, could be meaning-conferring. Bolder forms of naturalism have arisen, according to which the existence of a spiritual realm is not merely unnecessary for a meaningful life, but would in fact make it more difficult to obtain. For example, perhaps God would undercut the sort of independence essential for real meaning, while one’s immortal soul would at some point get bored from, or repeat, its activities, thereby undercutting meaning.

New directions in the meaning of life include systematic debate about whether a spiritual realm would enhance, or conversely detract from, the meaning available to human persons. They also include reflection on how what is often called the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ might bear on meaning, with discussions taking up transhuman genetic enhancements and artificial intelligence leading to widespread automation.

Citing this article:
Metz, Thaddeus. Life, meaning of, 2020, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L044-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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