The question “what is the meaning of life? ” is often treated as a paradigmatic “head in the clouds” sort of philosophical question that more practical people shouldn’t have the time for, but its actually a question of tremendous practical importance. Further, it is a question to which most people, even those who claim to have no interest in such questions, answer implicitly with the lives they chose to lead. So if you don’t want to bother with such questions, and just want to enjoy yourself, you are effectively saying that enjoyment is the ultimate point of human life.
If you spend your life pursuing one of, say, money, power, pleasure, or religious understanding, then you implicitly commit yourself to such organizing principles representing what is really important in life. The choices we make in our lives are often governed by such implicit conceptions of what is most important to us, and while it may be that, say, being happy is the most important thing, it may take a certain amount of reflection on these larger questions to become clear about this.
Some might think that thinking about questions like the meaning of life is itself the most important thing for us to do, but even if we don’t, we can still see that it is very important to spend at least some time doing, since such organizing principles are too important for us to accept without reflecting on them at all. Further, if there really is a point or meaning to our lives, and we live our lives according to a different principle (say if we live for enjoyment when serving God is the real purpose of life, or (conversely) if we spend our lives in prayer when enjoying life is its real purpose) then we may have literally wasted our lives.
Since that is something we shouldn’t want to do, it seems that, if life does have a purpose, we would do well to know what it is. On the other hand, if life doesn’t have a purpose, it might be good to know that rather than spending it serving some illusory ideal, though this latter point is more controversial. If life did have no meaning, and there was no point to anything we did, then it might seem better not to investigate this topic at all, since looking in to it would only cause us distress.
(Though if life really were meaningless, the fact that we were so distressed would not really matter. ) 2. Four Approaches to the question of life’s meaning. While the authors covered in the class give many varied answers to the question of what the meaning of life is, and some don’t give a clear answer to it at all, they all fall into one of four groups when it comes to thinking about that kind of answer the questions should have. That is to say, there are four different approaches to the question: What is it that determines the meaning of our lives? 1 I. Radical Objectivists.
This first group (which includes Plato, Epictetus, Schopenhauer, as well as James and Tolstoy in their ‘post-crisis’ periods) take what really matters to be determined by factors that are completely independent of us (be it God, Reason, Nature, the ‘Form of the Good’ or just ‘the way things are’). It’s our responsibility to live up to these standards, but there is no sense in which these standards come from us. (Schopenhauer, while he denies that God exists, has a touch of this when he insists that a life of intellect just is objectively better (and not just ‘happier’) than a life of passion and willing).
This might, of course, seem to make life’s purpose too remote from our actual lives, which might lead one to become one of the … II. Theorists of Human Nature In this second group we can include Aristotle, Marx and Epicurus. Like the radical objectivists they take the purpose of life to be something ‘given’, that is, its an objective fact that we aren’t at liberty to change, but unlike the radical objectivists, they think that this fact is grounded in objective facts about our own natures.
Our shared human nature is what determines what is the best life for all of us. Still, it may be hard to defend this sort of view unless one were already a radical objectivist, since without such an overarching framework, it’s much harder to think of humans as having a such a fixed essence or nature, which might lead one to become one of the… III. ‘Constructivists’ This third group (which includes Nietzsche, Sartre, Hare, and Nagel (from his more ‘subjective’ perspective)) ground the purpose of our lives in our own drives, desires and wants.
However, unlike the theorists of human nature, they don’t take such drives to be objective in the sense of being independent of our attitudes towards them. For these philosophers, the drives etc. that ground the purpose of our lives can change, and are (to a certain extent) under our (not always conscious) control. Because of this, the meanings of our lives, such as they are, are things that we make.
Unfortunately, one might doubt that transient creatures like ourselves are up to the task of making such meanings, in which case one might become one of the … IV. ‘Nihilists’ This last group (which includes Camus, Nagel (from his more ‘objective’ perspective) and James & Tolstoy (when they were in ‘crisis’ mode)) agree with the constructivists that there are no ‘objective’ facts which could determine a purpose to our lives, but also believe that something as ephemeral as our passing desires and drives is not enough to make a life really meaningful.
Consequently, in the absence of any objective meaning, life must ultimately have no meaning at all, and there is, ultimately, no ‘point’ in doing anything. This final spot is not a happy one to be in, and its perhaps not surprising that James and Tolstoy both bounce from #4 back to #1 when the prospect of living with #4 becomes too bleak.
Still, while it can seem natural to slip from 1 to 2, from 2 to 3 and from 3 to 4, and 4 to despair, lots of people have argued that the slide can be stopped at various points along the way. 1 As a result, every point on the spectrum has it supporters, though no position on it seems completely stable, which is why the question will probably always continue to be debated. 1 H a r e , f o r in s ta n c e , c a n b e u n d e r s to o d a s a r g u in g th a t th e th r o u g h th a t 3 le a d s to 4 c o m e s f r o m a c o n f u s io n a b o u t w h a t it is to ” m a tte r ” .