Every now and then people talk about whether there is meaning to life, including myself. However recently I have realised I have assumed the definition. My understanding of it is that it is asking whether there is an objective value, or objective purpose to life. Is this correct?


3 Answers 3


The question you seem to be asking is: what do we mean by the meaning of life in the first place? This is a good question that lacks an obvious answer, as some of the immediate candidates just don't hold up. Lives do not literally have meaning, the same way words and sentences do. Being a morally good person doesn't seem to encompass all of the ways in which a life can be meaningful. Presumably being an accomplished pianist or discovering a planet can add to the meaningfulness of one's life, even if these achievements do not make one a more morally good person. Happiness and meaningfulness also come apart. A person could be as happy as a clam eating pizza and playing video games. This life is not one that seems to have great meaning. Conversely, one could lead a very meaningful life while being profoundly sad, miserable, or in physical agony.

So what should we think of meaning? Maybe whether or not a life is meaningful has to with the relationship that the person has with God or the status of their soul. Maybe a life is meaningful if the person engages in activities that have objective value or subjective value (that the person believes is valuable.) Or maybe no life has meaning or the concept of a meaningful life is incoherent to begin with.

There has been work on this question in the philosophical literature. Susan Wolf recently wrote a book Meaning in Life and Why It Matters that addresses this very question, and some of the lectures it contains can be found online. For a more in depth overview, the Stanford Enclycopedia of Philosophy has an entry on the question.


My understanding of it is that it is asking whether there is an objective value, or objective purpose to life.

I don't believe that your meaning, if found, will be objective. I'm concerned that looking for objective meaning limits a person to only those candidate meanings that apply equally to everyone, while in Western society we tend to agree that individual people have unique contributions to make.

By analogy, the meaning of a sentence is the thing the person who said it wants you to understand, once you heard it. Not all utterances are the same sentence, and a speaker may not intend for all hearers to understand the same thing from the same sentence. With sentences, meaning is individual.

The meaning of a sentence is that thing without which the sentence would have been pointless to express. By analogy, we might say that for persons, meaning is the thing without which our lives would have been pointless to live, and anything that disappears when a person dies is not that person's meaning.

It is easy to think of "ought", "should", and "mission" concepts that satisfy this criterion for what kind of thing a person's life's meaning is.


I would agree, but would assert further that the very act itself represents a fundamental impulse or spark that at its core is fueled by pleasure.

Therefore, meaning of meaning is that meaning is simply a fundamental impulse toward understanding of ______, which is pleasurable.

An interesting aspect of meaning of meaning is it need not be objective. It can simply be the act.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .