What analytic philosophers were concerned primarily with meaninglessness, and where can I read what they said about it?

I just find the idea interesting, but I want to circumvent existentialism for a bit. I can tell you that the philosophy 101 handout mentions Wittgenstein and logical empiricism on metaphysics. Not much else.

  • I made some edits. You may roll these back or continue editing. Welcome to this SE! Oct 19, 2018 at 17:13
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    It would help if you could be more specific. For example, analytic philosophers would tend to associate meaning with language and so any concern they would tend to have with meaninglessness would be linguistic meaninglessness and the conditions for the meaningfulness of concepts and words. Whereas your reference to existentialism makes me think what you're really interested in is the meaningless of life. A clarification of this issue would make it easier to answer your question in a way that responds to your specific concerns. Oct 19, 2018 at 23:53
  • I would keep Existentialism out of this. This does not concern meaning of life issues, except tangentially. The question is more: what can philosophy properly speak about, and what may be meaningless chatter? What is the proper role for philosophy to play?
    – Gordon
    Oct 20, 2018 at 16:50
  • Perhaps start here: Wittgenstein en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Picture_theory_of_language And this is speaking about the end of certain "extreme" views of logical positivism. Putnam. m.youtube.com/watch?v=oLJfEVu3kbY Putnam has himself been criticized but I have not kept up with it all.
    – Gordon
    Oct 21, 2018 at 4:48
  • Also, A.J.Ayer, Logical Positivism and its Legacy: m.youtube.com/watch?v=nG0EWNezFl4
    – Gordon
    Oct 21, 2018 at 5:02

3 Answers 3


Frege was definitely into meaning and definitions. Bertrand dealt with reference, but I am not sure if he dealt with meaninglessness or not. Saul Kripke was also into names and reference. Searle might have something too. These I know off the top of my head, If I am not mistaken.

Frege: On sense and denotation. Russell: On denoting. Kripke: Various books google will help. He has a lot on Philosophy of Language.

However, If you want to read something meaningless, then read continental philosophy.


Nagel would be your best bet: try Mortal Questions.


It feels important to mention David Hume in this context! Hume presents a theory of the mind, and of cognitive content, that he takes to ground a theory of definition and thus of what it means for a term to have and/or lack meaning.

The account is broadly this: we start with perception, and break it down into ideas (thoughts that we have about things) and impressions (which are feelings, seeings, hearings and so on - the distinction, as he puts it, is between thinking about being in pain and actually feeling the pain).

All ideas are ultimately derived from impressions, and so definitions are legitimate ones if we can sketch out the impressions from which an idea associated with a term or concept is derived, and they are illegitimate if not.

So, to speak loosely about Hume's theory, if you can trace a concept back to basic sensations then it is meaningful, and if you cannot then it is meaningless.

Hume's theory of mind, and his concept of definition, does a lot of work in his philosophy and underpins a lot of what ultimately became Logical Empiricism. It's always worth having another re-read of Hume's ideas, particularly if we want to construct more elaborate senses of what human meaning could be.

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