Please pardon me if this question does not make sense. My training is in history not philosophy - although philosophy has always been a passing interest.

Are there philosophies/philosophers that/who attempt to answer the existential "why" - as in "why am I here?" Or is philosophy more an exploration or contextualization of the world in which we live? I think of it as the "why" vs. the "while" (as in, "while we are here, we might as well try to make sense of it all").

I ask because, in a recent discussion, when the question turned to "why" the conversation quickly entered the realm of theology which, it appears, is largely devoted to the "why."

Is this the typical and accepted territorial divide? Or does philosophy address both? And if so, who specifically and how?

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    It was, and still is (for some philosophers) a matter for philosophy also. Who/What caused all this, and what is the purpose of it? Traditional metaphysics, starting with Greek philosophy, Medieval philosophy, right up to today, though today this would be considered a minority strain, but you never know how things could develop. – Gordon Jul 9 '19 at 6:52
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    SEP Medieval philosophy may interest you. plato.stanford.edu/entries/medieval-philosophy ; Aristotle's pre-Christian Metaphysics archive.org/details/aristotlesmetaph00aris – Gordon Jul 9 '19 at 6:59
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    i can't comment really, but i find it interesting how theology answers in one swoop why (justification) and why (reason) and why (purpose) and... – another_name Jul 9 '19 at 14:36
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    In the Medieval article at SEP you will see the importance of Augustine, even though Aristotle sort of steals the show in the later Middle Ages (influence on Aquinas etc). Now, note this fairly recent dialogue between philosophers Habermas and Ratzinger. Augustine comes in from the Ratzinger side! stthomas.edu/media/catholicstudies/center/logosjournal/archives/… – Gordon Jul 9 '19 at 15:36
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    @another_name Your 3 meanings of "why" is neat! And suggests the next question : Is there some sense of "why" that is more fundamental than all these 3? I think not... at the verbal level. But pre-verbal we may remember as children: a state of confusion, mystery, wonder.. And as we begin to verbalize, "why" is often the word associated. Trouble is theology gives answers too facilely. And philosophy, especially the modern analytic, logical positivist traditions rejects the questions too eagerly. – Rusi-packing-up Jul 10 '19 at 17:27

Michael J. Murray and Michael Rea offer the following Thomistic distinction between philosophy and theology:

According to the Thomistic model, philosophy and theology are distinct enterprises, differing primarily in their intellectual starting points. Philosophy takes as its data the deliverances of our natural mental faculties: what we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. These data can be accepted on the basis of the reliability of our natural faculties with respect to the natural world. Theology, on the other hand takes as its starting point the divine revelations contained in the Bible. These data can be accepted on the basis of divine authority, in a way analogous to the way in which we accept, for example, the claims made by a physics professor about the basic facts of physics.

A "why" question seeks an explanation. Wikipedia notes the following in referring to Aristotle's four causes:

Aristotle held that there were four kinds of answers to "why" questions (in Physics II, 3, and Metaphysics V, 2).

The kind of explanation associated with "why am I here" might be viewed as a "final cause":

End or purpose: a change or movement's final cause, is that for the sake of which a thing is what it is. For a seed, it might be an adult plant. For a sailboat, it might be sailing. For a ball at the top of a ramp, it might be coming to rest at the bottom.

Both philosophy and theology attempt to provide explanations or answer "why" questions. So providing explanations would not be a way to divide them. The Thomistic distinction based on "starting points" may be a more useful way to separate these two activities.

Note that the above distinction of starting points does not prohibit the philosopher from talking about God or Platonic Forms or the One of Plotinus. If some philosopher claims that the existential why is some form of absurdity or that the question is meaningless or that the question shouldn't be asked, these would also be answers to this why question from a philosophic perspective. Other philosophers, such as Martin Buber or Gabriel Marcel, would likely disagree with them.

Murray, Michael J. and Rea, Michael, "Philosophy and Christian Theology", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/christiantheology-philosophy/.

Wikipedia contributors. (2019, February 17). Four causes. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:23, July 10, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Four_causes&oldid=883754450


I just found this quote, googling the phrase "why am I here"

When I consider the brief span of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and behind it, the small space that I fill, or even see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces which I know not, and which know not me, I am afraid, and wonder to see myself here rather than there; for there is no reason why I should be here rather than there, now rather than then.”

Blaise Pascal

Yes, it's that Pascal's wager. You might read this just as clever linguistic play (translated from the French), or you might read it as a description of psychological dread, or you might read someone asking the same question as you are.

I can't comment on whether Pascal means it literally: there is no reason. For more contemporary analyses you might want to look into 'actuality'

  • i think that's fair, though i don't link to 'actuality' but 'actualism', which seems to be a discussion or thesis about the nature of what is actual. any help with my answer would be appreciated... i think it's a fair reading of the quote, that he's discussing 'actuality', by which i mean how things really are rather than could be. aside from why there is something rather than nothing, it seems like an important quality of existence and metaphysics – another_name Jul 10 '19 at 15:35

"The why" or "purpose" is not intrinsic to a thing, it is extrinsic, meaning that it depends completely on something else ascribing it. That makes "why" questions necessarily subjective without a real fact-of-the-matter, which is just perfect for theology!

To elaborate further, "purpose" is an emergent property like "beauty", and where do emergent properties manifest? In the things that ascribe / interpret them, such as minds. So if something is "beautiful", it's only because something else sees it as "beautiful". It's possible for such a thing to be inter-subjective, but it's still subjective, and so there really isn't a fact-of-the-matter. Analytic Philosophy is concerned with facts that we can reason about, and while it's an interesting exercise to reason about subjective truths, it's difficult to make progress and come to a consensus about them. That gives a space for Theology to flourish.

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    Why am I hungry? Because I've not eaten for 2 days. Why am I cold? Happens to be winter and I'm ill-clad. Extrinsic to me? Maybe... Subjective??? In particular "necessarily"? – Rusi-packing-up Jul 10 '19 at 5:47
  • You are conflating the "how" definition of "why" with the "to what end" definition. What is the purpose of hunger? What is the purpose of cold? The OP is asking about this sort of "why", not the "how" sort of "why". – reasonet Jul 10 '19 at 14:25
  • @reasonet Yes, exactly. – Speakpigeon Jul 10 '19 at 16:21

Why - (adv.) For what purpose, reason, or cause; with what intention, justification, or motive.

Why-questions imply a subject. To ask why the world exists is to ask what purpose serves the world. This implies a subject conceiving of this purpose and therefore an agent somehow responsible for the existence of the world.

The existence of such an agent is an irrational assumption and as such will be of little interest for rationalist philosophers, i.e. most philosophers in the West.

That being said, there is also, obviously, no reason that philosophy would abstain from ever addressing the question of the reasons or motives human beings may have for their actions and behaviour. Maybe the more interesting question would be why there is no scientific investigation of that to begin with.

Well, there is, some. One example is "behavioural economics" (see https://scholar.google.fr/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C5&q=behavioral+economics+review&oq=behavioral+economics).

The assumption behind behavioural economics is that our behaviour is to a large extent guided by the rational choices we makes, which is to say that what we do is interpreted in terms of purposes and reasons we may have.

More generally, psychology and the cognitive sciences may be considered as the scientific investigation into, among other things, the purposes and reasons human beings may have to do what they do and behave the way they behave.

Not quite what your question is about, but it goes on to show that your assumption is not born out by the facts. It is not the why-question which is not considered by philosophers and indeed by scientists, it is the question of God.

But then, the answer is obvious. The question of God is best left to religious thinkers who believe in God to begin with.

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