Thaddeus Metz states in 'Meaning in Life' (2014) that:

And a thorough search by professional philosophers has not been undertaken long at all, having begun in earnest only in the 1980s or so.

I'm wondering how could this be the case when there must have been philosophers in the past who have already discussed such kind of topic. For instance, Plato's works on 'The Good Life'?

Metz articulates:

To obtain focus and to make my task manageable, I focus on English-speaking journals and books written by academic philosophers. I do discuss works originally written in, say, French and German, but they are mostly classic sources. To the best of my knowledge, the most systematic attempt to develop an acceptable theory of meaning in life has been undertaken by contemporary Anglo-American analytic philosophers.

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    See of Metz The Meaning of Life : "One part of the field of life's meaning consists of the systematic attempt to clarify what people mean when they ask in virtue of what life has meaning." Thus, Metz's assertion about the recent origin of this field of inquiry stands on the assumption that "menaing" in "the meaning of life" must be addressed with recent theories and tools of analytical origins. If we rephrase this topic as "the aim of life", we can "recover" Plato and Aristotle and Kant and ... Nov 23, 2015 at 15:49
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    Philosophy did start as a 'guide to life', and has only acquired its modern form very recently. Nov 23, 2015 at 16:22
  • See also this answer: philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/12672/32337
    – SK19
    Apr 7, 2018 at 18:49

4 Answers 4


I think the claim that "meaning of life" is new in philosophy may be (a) possibly true in the narrowest sense and (b) empty in any real sense.

First off, it might be possibly true in the narrowest sense. "Meaning of life" is somewhat a neologism. I don't recall it appearing in any classic philosophical texts, but there are at least two reasons for this. First, it has a certain interpretive flavor to it to imagine life has a meaning that existed under realist metaphysical accounts but falls away under nominalist, linguistic, and skeptical accounts of metaphysics. Second, the unit "life" is not always the most well-defined idea.

Now, for why I think even if the above is true that it is trivially true. Among those metaphysical realist accounts are examples like Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle looks at the "end" of all sorts of things including human life (spelled out in the Nicomachean Ethics and Politics). Plato seems to have an account of what humans are for in the Politics but also in the Meno. The Analects attributed to Confucius also seem to give an answer to the meaning of life (which I will abbreviate as participation in family and culture through ritual). We can keep going and find that many views have an account of the meaning of life even if they don't use those terms.

Or if we mean by this "meaning" something more theological in orientation, Plato still has one of those. We and everything else in the universe have the meaning of being shadows of the forms. Aristotle that we are parts of a larger social whole or that we are seeking our final end which is determined by our nature.

The term might have gotten a revival post-existentialism or during the existentialist period as a re-evaluation of the purpose of life without metaphysical underpinnings and the analysis of how we could make sense of that, but its's not the first time people have tried to make sense of our world.


I think it is safe to say that the meaning of life is included in the theoretical concept of Habermas in his Theory of Communicative Acting. And this is translated and discussed for quite a long time as far as I know in English, too, he might just be overseen (or ignored due to its very extensive systematic approach which is hard to understand without going deep into it) by Metz.

He would say that as the meaning of life is a normative notion and the genealogy of normative notions is described within his theory in general, it is also a theory of the meaning of life and how it should be worked out. I am not aware of any work of Habermas regarding the very topic, though, but I am not an expert for each of his various and numerous works. Others might help here.

There definitely have been others, but I go with Metz that in the (worldwide) academic discussion of this topic, the names are Martha Nussbaum, Alisdair MacIntyre, Amartya Sen and other Anglo-American philosophers (I am not so very sure of the tag "analytic" in every case, though). That is simply due to the fact that Anglo-American philosophy pretty much dominates the academic discussion in a global scale.


I'm pretty sure the meaning of life features prominently in the thinking of pre-socratic philosophers. It has been a while, but the piece I'm thinking of is the wisdom of Silenus. I think I first encountered it in Heraclitus' Fragments, but it appears there was a strong tradition of retelling the story so the origin is unclear.

The question purportedly put to Silenus was "What is the (telos) {goal, purpose} of man?" Which could certainly be interpreted as "Why are we here? What is this all about?" Silenus replies, "The best thing for man is impossible, and that's to never have been. The next best thing is to die soon". This seems to imply that from the perspective of a creature steeped in animal instinct --perhaps representing the perspective of nature itself, we are abomination. The telos of other animals (plants, the wind) is clear, it is to follow their natures, but mankind is cut off from our natural purpose. And in this perhaps is our greatest glory. Being cut off from the natural reasons for being we must create our own. What is the meaning of life? Only what we bring to it. Not only is the question not new, it is arguably the foundation of philosophy. Even if it's not historically the first question of philosophy. It may simply be the place that philosophy begins. (edited to provide the reference)


The Nichomachean Ethics, was written by Aristotle, for his son - or at least dedicated to him; it is a guide to life in a broad sense - this is hardly recent.

Roberto Unger, the Brazilian philosopher wrote The Religion of the Future, to examine the place of religion in the life of men - broadly construed. This is definitely more recent, being written in the last few decades.

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