Edit 1: As pointed out in the comments, the question implies the existence of a purpose and agency so I would like to re-phrase the question to match what I'm after:

What should a person do? (What is the ideal way for one to use the resources at their disposal?)


I know this question has been asked but please read the following:

I'm asking this question with a different intent to the previous askers. What I'm trying to understand is what is the best answer to this question based on the current state of the study of Philosophy (I would love to hear from those who have academically studied philosophy)

Now I know that Philosophy is a very large area of study and it has its own sub-categories (eg. Ethics, Religion, traditional philosophies) which potentially means that there are several best answers depending on what school of thought you listen to.

This is precisely what I'm trying to address. I want to hear what the best 'sub-answers' to this question are along with a comment pointing out which school of thought this answer belongs to.

If you think there is a better way to gather this information, I'm open to suggestions as well. (Or perhaps you think my paradigm itself is wrong and maybe I can ask in a better way)

Could you please post what you think an answer is along with which sub-category of Philosophy this answer belongs to

  • Hello, RaviSingh: welcome to PSE. Your question does at least assume that there is a purpose of life, but whether there is a purpose of life is logically prior to the question you put. How btw do you know that you are 'asking this question with a different intent to the previous askers'. All other askers ? But let's see what answers your question elicits. Best - Geoffrey.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jun 30, 2022 at 17:46
  • Thank you for your comment @GeoffreyThomas. You are right that my question implies a purpose and therefore an agency. I guess what I'm really trying to ask is: What should a person do? To put it more concretely: What is the ideal way for a sentient being to use the resources at their disposal?
    – RaviSingh
    Jun 30, 2022 at 18:06
  • I would say the best definition of philosophy is precisely the quest for one's own meaning and purpose in this world. So the best answer is your answer according to your own philosophy.
    – Nikos M.
    Jun 30, 2022 at 18:25

1 Answer 1


The normal question is meaning, rather than purpose. I interpret purpose in life as, what our job is, what we should be doing or focusing on. Outside of religion where there are generally clear answers, offering universal answers has become increasingly less popular in philosophy - and those that do generally provide more like general guidance, even where it's wrapped up in a term.

I would say there is guidance that can be drawn from how religions construct meaning, even for non-believers, through a proper understanding of how they form social cohesion around holding up specific stories and ways of being, discussed here: What are some philosophical works that explore constructing meaning in life from an agnostic or atheist view?

"The unexamined life is not worth living" -Socrates

Plato saw our purpose as to attain our higher self, something clearer more fundamental and universal, like pure mathematics is drawn from specific objects.

Aristotle described our telos, purpose or aim, as eudaimonia, which literally translates as good-spirited, but given how he draws it out from his botanical studies as it being how a seed seeks to manifest it's nature, we can better translate as 'human flourishing'. In the Stoic tradition they use the same term eudaimonia, and interpret as 'living in accordance with nature'. For each of us it will be different, so really eudaimonia means seeking our own picture of our nature or spirit, and understanding from that what it means for it to flourish. A seed doesn't have loads of choices on the way to being it's kind of plant or tree, whereas humans do..

Epicurus had our aim as ataraxia, achieving sustainable pleasure which leads to a state of tranquility and freedom from fear. That seems like parameters to find our purpose within, guiding habits that enable free action, rather than what our job is.

Kant grounded his thinking in universal principles, so he could use that to make universal claims, saying the purpose of human life is to understand and fulfil universal principles, like the categorical imperative. Hume's observation that we cannot get an 'Ought' from an 'Is' basically puts a bullet between the eyes of finding a universal purpose to life if you accept his reasoning, and his thought 'awoke Kant from his dogmatic slumbers'.

"Of all things the measure is Man, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not" -Protagoras

I would say subsequent traditions are either humanistic, in this tradition of Protagoras, including Absurdism which aims at constructing purpose even while recognising it is in a deep way futile. Or nihilistic, saying there is no purpose beyond the temporary or illusory.

Philosophy is therapy according to Wittgenstein, where we could say purposelessness is a spook generated by bad use of language.

Durkheim shifted to looking at humans in action, in terms of anomie and suicide vs binding together through enactment of shared values, which constitute living together with a community's own internally-defined purposes.

I would describe the modern trends in philosophy as more like 'toolbox' approaches, that follow the Postmodern's recognition there is no universal framing or metanarrative we can expect everyone to share. Instead, pockets of cultures defined by their specific discourses, which we should ask more limited questions about to understand the dynamics of groups and cultures, which might include a specific understanding of purpose illustrated by choices actions or works.

  • 1
    Nice summary of philosophical views
    – Nikos M.
    Jun 30, 2022 at 18:37
  • If I am not mistaken Hume's argument is not that we can't derive an ought from an is, but rather that there is no universally and a·contextual defined procedure to do that, leaving open specific cases where this might indeed be possible. Else the argument would settle once and for all such an open issue.
    – Nikos M.
    Jun 30, 2022 at 18:44
  • 1
    @NikosM.: I had meant to add something about how in Hume's picture we don't reason to our values, we use reason from them, that retrospectively looks to justify them. Haidt's Moral Foundations can be understood in evolutionary terms, so with some degree of the universality we feel about them (though some differences like herders vs agrarian cultures, & secure/prosperous groups vs those that feel under threat) discussed here: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/91259/…
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 30, 2022 at 19:08
  • 1
    Can also relate the universalising approach of Kant to another kind of materially evidencable relative universality: that involved in intersubjectivity philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/84498/…
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 30, 2022 at 19:10

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