Sooner or later we all face death. Will a sense of meaning help us?


Detail from the Dance with Death by Johann Rudolf Feyerabend. Courtesy the Basel Historical Museum, Switzerland/Wikipedia

Warren Ward | Aeon Ideas

‘Despite all our medical advances,’ my friend Jason used to quip, ‘the mortality rate has remained constant – one per person.’

Jason and I studied medicine together back in the 1980s. Along with everyone else in our course, we spent six long years memorising everything that could go wrong with the human body. We diligently worked our way through a textbook called Pathologic Basis of Disease that described, in detail, every single ailment that could befall a human being. It’s no wonder medical students become hypochondriacal, attributing sinister causes to any lump, bump or rash they find on their own person.

Jason’s oft-repeated observation reminded me that death (and disease) are unavoidable aspects of life. It sometimes seems, though, that we’ve developed a delusional denial of this in the West. We pour billions into prolonging life with increasingly expensive medical and surgical interventions, most of them employed in our final, decrepit years. From a big-picture perspective, this seems a futile waste of our precious health-dollars.

Don’t get me wrong. If I get struck down with cancer, heart disease or any of the myriad life-threatening ailments I learnt about in medicine, I want all the futile and expensive treatments I can get my hands on. I value my life. In fact, like most humans, I value staying alive above pretty much everything else. But also, like most, I tend to not really value my life unless I’m faced with the imminent possibility of it being taken away from me.

Another old friend of mine, Ross, was studying philosophy while I studied medicine. At the time, he wrote an essay called ‘Death the Teacher’ that had a profound effect on me. It argued that the best thing we could do to appreciate life was to keep the inevitability of our death always at the forefront of our minds.

When the Australian palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware interviewed scores of people in the last 12 weeks of their lives, she asked them their greatest regrets. The most frequent, published in her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying (2011), were:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me;
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard;
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings;
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends; and
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

The relationship between death-awareness and leading a fulfilling life was a central concern of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, whose work inspired Jean-Paul Sartre and other existentialist thinkers. Heidegger lamented that too many people wasted their lives running with the ‘herd’ rather than being true to themselves. But Heidegger actually struggled to live up to his own ideals; in 1933, he joined the Nazi Party, hoping it would advance his career.

Despite his shortcomings as a man, Heidegger’s ideas would go on to influence a wide range of philosophers, artists, theologians and other thinkers. Heidegger believed that Aristotle’s notion of Being – which had run as a thread through Western thinking for more than 2,000 years, and been instrumental in the development of scientific thinking – was flawed at a most fundamental level. Whereas Aristotle saw all of existence, including human beings, as things we could classify and analyse to increase our understanding of the world, in Being and Time (1927) Heidegger argued that, before we start classifying Being, we should first ask the question: ‘Who or what is doing all this questioning?’

Heidegger pointed out that we who are asking questions about Being are qualitatively different to the rest of existence: the rocks, oceans, trees, birds and insects that we are asking about. He invented a special word for this Being that asks, looks and cares. He called it Dasein, which loosely translates as ‘being there’. He coined the term Dasein because he believed that we had become immune to words such as ‘person’, ‘human’ and ‘human being’, losing our sense of wonder about our own consciousness.

Heidegger’s philosophy remains attractive to many today who see how science struggles to explain the experience of being a moral, caring person aware that his precious, mysterious, beautiful life will, one day, come to an end. According to Heidegger, this awareness of our own inevitable demise makes us, unlike the rocks and trees, hunger to make our life worthwhile, to give it meaning, purpose and value.

While Western medical science, which is based on Aristotelian thinking, sees the human body as a material thing that can be understood by examining it and breaking it down to its constituent parts like any other piece of matter, Heidegger’s ontology puts human experience at the centre of our understanding of the world.

Ten years ago, I was diagnosed with melanoma. As a doctor, I knew how aggressive and rapidly fatal this cancer could be. Fortunately for me, the surgery seemed to achieve a cure (touch wood). But I was also fortunate in another sense. I became aware, in a way I never had before, that I was going to die – if not from melanoma, then from something else, eventually. I have been much happier since then. For me, this realisation, this acceptance, this awareness that I am going to die is at least as important to my wellbeing as all the advances of medicine, because it reminds me to live my life to the full every day. I don’t want to experience the regret that Ware heard about more than any other, of not living ‘a life true to myself’.

Most Eastern philosophical traditions appreciate the importance of death-awareness for a well-lived life. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, for example, is a central text of Tibetan culture. The Tibetans spend a lot of time living with death, if that isn’t an oxymoron.

The East’s greatest philosopher, Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha, realised the importance of keeping the end in sight. He saw desire as the cause of all suffering, and counselled us not to get too attached to worldly pleasures but, rather, to focus on more important things such as loving others, developing equanimity of mind, and staying in the present.

The last thing the Buddha said to his followers was: ‘Decay is inherent in all component things! Work out your salvation with diligence!’ As a doctor, I am reminded every day of the fragility of the human body, how closely mortality lurks just around the corner. As a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, however, I am also reminded how empty life can be if we have no sense of meaning or purpose. An awareness of our mortality, of our precious finitude, can, paradoxically, move us to seek – and, if necessary, create – the meaning that we so desperately crave.Aeon counter – do not remove

Warren Ward is an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Queensland. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Lovers of Philosophy (2021).

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

We all know that we will die, so why do we struggle to believe it?


Tolstoy photographed by Karl Bulla in 1902. Courtesy Wikipedia

James Baillie | Aeon Ideas

In the novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), Leo Tolstoy presents a man who is shocked by suddenly realising that his death is inevitable. While we can easily appreciate that the diagnosis of a terminal illness came as an unpleasant surprise, how could he only then discover the fact of his mortality? But that is Ivan’s situation. Not only is it news to him, but he can’t fully take it in:

The syllogism he had learned from Kiesewetter’s logic – ‘Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal’ – had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but by no means to himself. That man Caius represented man in the abstract, and so the reasoning was perfectly sound; but he was not Caius, not an abstract man; he had always been a creature quite, quite distinct from all the others.

Tolstoy’s story would not be the masterpiece that it is were it describing an anomaly, a psychological quirk of a fictional character with no analogue in real life. The book’s power resides in its evocative depiction of a mysterious experience that gets to the heart of what it is to be human.

In 1984, on the eve of my 27th birthday, I shared in Ivan’s realisation: that one day I will cease to exist. That was my first and most intense episode of what I call ‘existential shock’. It was by far the most disorienting event of my life, like nothing I’d ever experienced.

While you need to have undergone existential shock to really know what it is like, the experience need not yield any understanding of what you have gone through, either at the time or later. The acute anxiety induced by the state renders you incapable of thinking clearly. And once the state has passed, it is almost impossible to remember in any detail. Getting back in touch with existential shock is like trying to reconstruct a barely remembered dream, except that the struggle is to recall a time when one was unusually awake.

While granting the strangeness of existential shock, the revealed content itself is not peculiar. Indeed, it is undeniable. That’s what makes the phenomenon so puzzling. I learned that I would die? Obviously, I already knew that, so how could it come as a revelation? It is too simple to merely say that I had long known that I would die, because there is also a sense in which I didn’t – and still don’t – really believe it. These conflicting attitudes emerge from the two most basic ways of thinking about oneself, that I will call the outside and inside views.

Let’s consider the way in which my inevitable death is old news. It stems from the uniquely human capacity to disengage from our actions and commitments, so that each of us can consider him or herself as an inhabitant of the mind-independent world, one human being among billions. When I regard myself ‘from the outside’ in this manner, I have no trouble in affirming that I will die. I understand that I exist because of innumerable contingencies, and that the world will go on without me just as it did before my coming to be. These reflections do not disturb me. My equanimity is due to the fact that, even though I am reflecting on my inevitable annihilation, it is almost as if I am thinking about someone else. That is, the outside view places a cognitive distance between myself as the thinker of these thoughts and myself as their subject.

The other basic way of conceiving of ourselves consists of how our lives feel ‘from the inside’ as we go about our everyday activities. One important aspect of the inside view has recently been discussed by Mark Johnston in Surviving Death (2010), namely the perspectival nature of perceptual experience. The world is presented to me as if it were framed around my body, particularly my head, where my sensory apparatus is mostly located. I never experience the world except with me ‘at the centre’, as if I were the axis on which it all turned. As I change location, this phenomenologically central position moves with me. This locus of perceptual experiences is also the source from which my thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations arise. Johnston calls it the ‘arena of presence and action’. When we think of ourselves as the one at the centre of this arena, we find it inconceivable that this consciousness, this point of view on the world, will cease to be.

The inside view is the default. That is, the automatic tendency is to experience the world as if it literally revolved around oneself, and this prevents us from fully assimilating what we know from the outside view, that the world can and will go on without us.

In order to fully digest the fact of my mortality, I would need to realise, not just intellectually, that my everyday experience is misleading, not in the details, but as a whole. Buddhism can help identify another source of radical distortion. As Jay L Garfield puts it in Engaging Buddhism (2015), we suffer from the ‘primal confusion’ of seeing the world, and ourselves, through the lens of a substance-based metaphysics. For example, I take myself as a self-contained individual with a permanent essence that makes me who I am. This core ‘me-ness’ underpins the constant changes in my physical and mental properties. Garfield is not saying that we all explicitly endorse this position. In fact, speaking for myself, I reject it. Rather, the primal confusion is the product of a non-rational reflex, and typically operates well below the level of conscious awareness.

When we combine the phenomenological fact of our apparent centrality to the world with the implicit view of ourselves as substances, it is easy to see how these factors make our non-existence unthinkable ‘from the inside’, so that the best understanding of our own mortality we can achieve is the detached acknowledgement that comes with the outside view.

The Buddhist alternative to a substance-based view of persons is the ‘no-self’ account, which was independently discovered by David Hume. Hume introspected only a constantly shifting array of thoughts, feelings and sensations. He took the absence of evidence of a substantial self to be evidence of its absence, and concluded in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40) that the notion of a ‘self’ is merely a convenient device for referring to a causally linked network of mental states, rather than something distinct from them.

While remarkably similar lines of thought can be found within Buddhist texts, philosophical argument comprises only part of their teaching. Buddhists maintain that a developed practice of meditation allows one to directly experience the fact of no-self, rather than just inferring it. The theoretical and experiential methods are mutually supporting, and ideally develop in tandem.

Let us return to existential shock. One might be tempted to look for some unusual factor that has to be added to our normal condition in order to bring the state about. However, I believe that a better approach is to consider what must be subtracted from our everyday experience. Existential shock emerges from a radical alteration of the inside view, where the primal confusion lifts so that the person directly experiences herself as insubstantial. I see the truth of no-self, not merely as an idea, but in an impression. I see that my ego is an imposter, masquerading as a permanent self. The most perplexing feature of existential shock, namely the sense of revelation about my inevitable death, comes from my mortality being re-contextualised as part of a visceral recognition of the more fundamental truth of no-self.

But this raises the question as to what causes the primal confusion to temporarily withdraw when it does. The answer lies in Hume’s observation that the natural movement of our mental states is governed by associative principles, where the train of thought and feelings tends to run on familiar tracks, with one state effortlessly leading to another. The relentless operation of our associative mechanisms keeps the shock at bay, and the collapse of these mechanisms lets it come through.

It is no coincidence that my first encounter with existential shock took place towards the end of a long and rigorous retreat. Being away from my habitual surroundings – my social routines, my ready-to-hand possessions, all my trusted distractors and de-stressers – created conditions in which I functioned a little less on autopilot. This created an opening for existential shock, which brought about an inner STOP! – a sudden and radical break in my mental associations. Just for a moment, I see myself for what I am.Aeon counter – do not remove

James Baillie is a professor of philosophy at the University of Portland in Oregon. He is the author of the Routledge Philosophy GuideBook to Hume on Morality (2000).

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

The Humanitarian Crisis of Deaths of Despair


Image by cocoparisienne from Pixabay

David V. Johnson | Blog of the APA

Last April, Princeton University economists and married partners Anne Case and  Sir Angus Deaton delivered the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Stanford University. The title of their talks, “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism,” is also the provisional name of their forthcoming book, to be published in 2020.

The couple’s research has focused on disturbing mortality data for a specific demographic: white non-Hispanic Americans without college degrees. This century, they have been dying at alarming rates from what Case and Deaton call “deaths of despair,” which cover suicide, alcohol-related disease, and drug overdoses (primarily driven by opioids). These deaths have, along with US obesity, heart disease, and cancer rates, contributed to a shocking recent decline in US life expectancy for three straight years—something which hasn’t happened since World War I and the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. The rates for “deaths of despair” are not as high for college-educated whites or for other racial minorities, and there are many potential economic and sociological reasons for this.

Case and Deaton’s research raises important questions for the US political economy and the legacy of neoliberalism. But I am more interested in the framing of the mortality statistics as “deaths of despair.” Assume for the sake of argument that a large segment of the US population—non-Hispanic white Americans without college degrees—are suffering despair. What does it mean to say this?

We can gain some insight by contrasting its opposite, hope, which has received a lot of philosophical attention for the puzzles it raises about rationality and agency. Hope is a forward-looking emotion with cognitive and desiderative elements. We hope for things that are possible in the future (we don’t hope for the impossible or the certain), which means we make a judgement about their possibility. And when we hope for them, we desire for them to come about, and this desire can motivate our action if we think our acting can help bring it about. Is it rational to hope for something that has a miniscule chance of happening, and if so, under what circumstances? And when is it rational to act based on hope? Much ink has been spilt on these questions.

Philosophers have also thought about hopefulness—about hope as an emotional tendency or character trait that undergirds agency. People who are hopeful or optimistic are generally better able to pursue their plans and succeed, which gives the adoption of a hopeful outlook a pragmatic justification. One could argue that some minimal level of hopefulness is requisite for anyone to plan, act, and live one’s life, insofar as these involve forward-looking judgments and desires that are characteristic of hope.

We can see why despair, as a condition opposed to hope and hopefulness, can be such a debilitating state of mind. Despair undermines agency. The despairing person may conceive of plans and goals but feel that he is so unlikely to achieve them that they are not worth the investment of time and energy, or that even if he does achieve them, it won’t make a substantive difference to his life. So despair undermines the requisite motivation to pursue our plans and goals. A despairing person tends to passivity, to go along with the flow of life and focus on getting by, making due, and assuaging pain and foreboding however she can at the moment.

But despair—or at least the sort of despair I identify in Case and Deaton’s analysis—has a very different structure from hope. If despair were structurally like hope, then it would also be a forward-looking emotion with the appropriate cognitive and desiderative elements. We would be in a state of despair if we believed there was something that could possibly happen in the future that we do not want to have happen, so much so that its possibility gives us anguish and depresses us, to the point that we have difficulty summoning the motivation to avoid it or to go about our lives generally. To be sure, there are forms of despair that are like this. If my boss gives me a poor performance review and warns that I may be subject to termination, and the livelihood of my family depends upon my employment, this may send me into despair. I see my future firing as possible and something I desperately want to avoid, to the point of anxiety and depression. My despondent feelings may undermine my ability to perform better, making my firing even more likely. I may also have trouble living my life in general due to my negative feelings. I may struggle to talk to my spouse about her day or plan my daughter’s after-school activities.

But there is another form of despair that is not like this. This kind of despair is not forward looking, per se, but rather focused narrowly on the present. It sees the present as dark, dreary, painful, and uninteresting, and anticipates this state of consciousness to extend indefinitely into the future. It’s the feeling of unrelenting misery and ennui. No one wants to feel like this, but the person who despairs in this way does not form the desire to avoid it, or is not motivated by such a desire, because he does not see a means of escape or because the present sense of pain and dreariness is so overwhelming that it disrupts his ability to imagine such means. This form of despair is what Case and Deaton have in mind: people who have not only lost the will to live—i.e. to direct their lives, make plans, pursue them—but are so miserable and distressed that they either die by suicide or self-medicate with drugs and binge drinking to lessen their immediate pain, and do so as a way of slowly dying by suicide. It is the constant feeling associated with present consciousness that life is bad, and that it will continue to be bad indefinitely into the future. A sizable portion of the American public feels this way.

Case and Deaton’s appeal to despair, if we understand it correctly, should shock us. The prevalence of despair represents a horrific communal collapse. It goes well beyond statistics of poor welfare outcomes that alarm economists. It is about the obliteration of human lives—the undermining of the very basis of living a life, the ability to enjoy experience moment to moment, have enough peace of mind and stability to anticipate the future, make plans, and pursue them. It is nothing less than a humanitarian crisis.

David V. Johnson is the public philosophy editor of the APA Blog and deputy editor of Stanford Social Innovation Review. He is a former philosophy professor turned journalist with more than a decade of experience as an editor and writer. Previously, he was senior opinion editor at Al Jazeera America, where he edited the op-ed section of the news channel’s website. Earlier in his career, he served as online editor at Boston Review and research editor at San Francisco magazine the year it won a National Magazine Award for general excellence. He has written for The New York Times, USA Today, The New Republic, Bookforum, Aeon, Dissent, and The Baffler, among other publications.

This article was republished with the permission of the APA Blog and the author. View the original article here.

Memento Mori


The Charnel House by Henry de Groux (1866-1930), Musée des Beaux-Arts, Mons, Belgium. Photo by Getty

Antonia Macaro | Aeon Ideas

Memento mori – invitations to reflect on our own mortality – have been common throughout history. Two ancient traditions that made reflection on death central to their paths are Buddhism and Stoicism. For both, the starting point is the fact that our normal perceptions of value are deeply flawed, as we are constantly craving or loathing things that in reality are unimportant. The Buddhist texts offer a neat list of these: gain and loss, fame and disrepute, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. The Stoics had a word for them, which translates as ‘indifferents’. The things that we are so keen to pursue – wealth, material possessions, sense pleasures, comfort, success, people’s approval, romantic love and so on – are bound to disappoint and distract us from what really matters, which is our ethical and spiritual progress.

But arguing that we shouldn’t spend our lives seeking those things is not enough. The urges are strong and engrained in us, and both traditions knew it takes more than reason to begin to shake them. It takes sustained reflection on vivid and even shocking imagery to make the point on a more visceral level. This is where death meditations come in.

One of the most striking examples of this is the meditation on corpses presented in the Buddhist Satipatthana Sutta. In ancient India, corpses were left out in ‘charnel grounds’, and people would have had the opportunity to observe the various stages of decomposition. The text is nothing if not thorough, describing in some detail ‘a corpse thrown aside in a charnel ground – one, two or three days dead, bloated, livid, and oozing matter … being devoured by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals or various kinds of worms’, eventually turning into ‘bones rotten and crumbling to dust’. On observing this, the monk reminds himself that ‘This body too is of the same nature, it will be like that, it is not exempt from that fate.’

Reminders of death are everywhere in the Stoic literature, albeit generally less graphic. The nearest the Stoics come to such detailed descriptions is with the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: ‘Bear in mind that everything that exists is already fraying at the edges, and in transition, subject to fragmentation and to rot. Or that everything was born to die.’ He is also concise and to the point in his assessment of human life, which is ‘brief and trivial. Yesterday a blob of semen; tomorrow embalming fluid, ash.’

Epictetus advises to keep death always at the front of our minds: ‘Day by day you must keep before your eyes death and exile, and everything that seems terrible, but death above all; and then you will never have any abject thought, or desire anything beyond due measure.’

These reflections are meant to alert us to the fact that the things we find attractive and desirable are ‘shiny on the outside, but on the inside are pitiful’, as Seneca put it. Practices that instigate detachment from the things of the world are a preparation for death in the sense that the recognition that they are not important should make it easier to accept that soon enough we will not be around to enjoy them.

The ancients knew that such practices should be handled with care. Their intention was to elicit equanimity, not aversion. The Buddha warns that if a meditation of this kind were to evoke loathing, the monk should switch to a different one. To illustrate this, one discourse reports the case of a group of monks who engage so enthusiastically with contemplating the unattractiveness of the body that a number of them end up killing themselves. On finding out what happened, the Buddha decides to teach the survivors the more soothing practice of mindfulness instead.

As the Buddha advised, we need to be alert to the possibility that death meditation could be detrimental if we overdo it, or do it in the wrong spirit or state of mind. But why do it at all, if we’re not Buddhists or Stoics? Not everyone is convinced that preparing for death is a good idea. In ‘On Physiognomy’ (1580), Michel de Montaigne muses that it’s a bit like putting on a fur coat in summer because we’ll need it at Christmas: ‘It is certain that most preparations for death have caused more torment than undergoing it.’ Why weigh ourselves down with thoughts of our demise when we can choose to enjoy life and leave the end to take care of itself?

While that is an appealing perspective, there are reasons to keep mortality towards the front of our minds. According to the existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom’s Staring at the Sun (2008), the fear of death is with us all the time, whether we realise it or not. Even if we are not racked with it, death anxiety sneaks into our life in many disguises. It is what causes us to distract ourselves through the pursuit of wealth and status, for instance, or seek comfort through merging with another, or a cause. But such denial ‘always exacts a price – narrowing our inner life, blurring our vision, blunting our rationality. Ultimately self-deception catches up with us.’

Sometimes, we are shaken out of our denial by a great crisis, such as terminal illness or bereavement, or by another significant life event. Unexpectedly, Yalom argues, such experiences can evoke a sense of awakening, leading to a dropping away of trivial concerns, to reprioritising what matters in life and a heightened perception of the beauty around us: ‘[T]hough the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death saves us.’

But we needn’t wait for pivotal experiences, says Yalom. By confronting our finitude through therapy, or reflection on death, a lasting shift in perception can arise. Yes, the process might evoke some anxiety, but ultimately it is worth it, as it can make our life richer and more vibrant.

By highlighting the fact that time is short, death meditation can help us to put things in perspective and appreciate the present more. It can remind us that the things we get so worked up about are not worth it – our appearance, career, how our achievements compare with those of our peers, the satisfaction of material desires, disputes with neighbours and tradespeople. Marcus Aurelius draws out this aspect of it well: ‘think of the list of people who had to be pried away from life. What did they gain by dying old? In the end, they all sleep six feet under.’

Death can happen at any time, as Seneca is fond of reminding us: ‘There’s no way to know the point where death lies waiting for you, so you must wait for death at every point.’ But this thought need not lead us to brood on the unsatisfactory quality of the human condition. Instead, it can open the way to a deep acceptance of it, together with the awareness that we had better make the most of what we have here and now. This is no glib hedonism, but a bittersweet recognition that any joy in life is always and necessarily intermingled with death and transience.Aeon counter – do not remove

Antonia Macaro

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

What is the Life of Meaning?

Depending upon whom one asks, the question, “What is the meaning of life?” may be one of the most profound questions of human existence or nothing more than a nonsensical request built on conceptual confusion, much like, “What does the color red taste like?” Ask a non-philosopher, “What do philosophers discuss?” and a likely answer will be, “The meaning of life.” Ask the same question of a philosopher within the analytic tradition, and you will rarely get this answer. Within the analytic philosophical community, the disinterest in the question of life’s meaning, and in some cases outright logical suspicion, is likely partly a result of the question’s inherent lack of clarity and partly a result of the suspicion that it is a request for which no answer exists because it is built on suspect assumptions about what would have to be the case in order for life to have a meaning. Indeed, it is not immediately clear what is being requested in asking the question of life’s meaning, nor is it clear that life could have such a meaning, given latent assumptions often accompanying the asking of the question.

Despite the relative disinterest in the question of life’s meaning among analytic philosophers for a large part of the twentieth century, there has been a growing body of work on the topic by contemporary analytic philosophers since the 1980’s. The parameters in which the philosophical discussion of the meaning of life is unfolding within analytic philosophy largely center on two dimensions: the first, with bringing clarity and sense to the question, and the second, on fitting the concept of meaning within the realm of normativity in general, and then with discovering the necessary and sufficient conditions for a meaningful life.

This article surveys the important trajectories in discussions of life’s meaning within contemporary analytic philosophy. It begins with a consideration of an important generating condition of the question of life’s meaning, one that Thomas Nagel has particularly noted (Nagel 1971, 1989)—the human ability to view life sub specie aeternitatis. Next, it surveys current analytic philosophical discussions over the following prominent themes: (i) strategies for understanding what the question is asking, (ii) extant views of how a meaningful life can be secured, and (iii) the connection between death, futility, and a meaningful life. This article concludes by noting some considerations that may bring further depth to discussions over life’s meaning as they progress.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. The Human Context
  3. The Meaning of Life in Contemporary Analytic Philosophy
    1. Addressing the Question’s Lack of Clarity: Securing a Non-linguistic Usage of “Meaning”
    2. Addressing the Question’s Lack of Clarity: The Amalgam Thesis
    3. A Meaningful Life: Current Views
      1. Supernaturalism
      2. Objective Naturalism
      3. Subjective Naturalism
      4. Pessimistic Naturalism: Nihilism
    4. Death, Futility, and a Meaningful Life
  4. The Future of the Discussion
  5. References and Further Reading
  1. Introduction

Vis-à-vis the meaning of life, there are two juxtaposed and incongruent realities. On the one hand, for a large part of the twentieth century, analytic philosophers generally ignored the question of life’s meaning because they were doubtful that it had no answer. This doubt was because of latent assumptions on the part of many who ask the question about what would have to be the case for life to have a meaning or because they were suspicious that it is incoherent and meaningless. On the other hand, most non-philosophers consider it one of the most important questions, if not the most important question, of human existence. This, of course, creates a prima facie impasse, given that the question of life’s meaning is one that many of those supposedly functioning as guardians of the canons of reason think is rationally sub-par or at least less deserving of philosophical energy than is a consideration of, for example, how consciousness and accompanying qualia arise from matter or whether discussions of epistemic luck and control hold the key to discovering the necessary and sufficient conditions of propositional knowledge.

While this trend of neglect is unfortunate, it is partly understandable given that the question, “What is the meaning of life?” is at least moderately characterized by a lack of clarity (and some would say a lack of coherence). Philosophically, the question therefore has seemed unmanageable to many. It is surely not a question about the semantic meaning of the word “life,” but what then is it a question about? Is it a question about human life? Is it a question about all biological life? Is it a question about all of existence? Is it asking for a comprehensive explanation of why the universe exists and of our place within it? And if so, is it asked with strong teleological assumptions at the fore, such that a purely efficient, mechanistic causal story would leave the inquirer unsatisfied? These latter questions with aglobal focus seem to track a request like, “What is it all about?” Indeed, there is a profound human impulse to seek a sweeping, deep explanation, context, or narrative through which to interpret existence, and then to move beyond localized foci by living into this universal, totalizing narrative. This first cluster of questions highlights the explanatory dimension of the question of life’s meaning whereby some sort of explanation (perhaps even narrativeexplanation) is sought that will render the universe and our lives within it intelligible. Conceding the question’s lack of clarity, these requests partially illuminate what is being asked.

However, raising these questions alone neglects other important questions in the neighborhood of life’s meaning. Though connected, they are conceptually distinct from the first set; although, depending on how robust the above explanation of what it is all about is, one might have good reason to think that it would also encompass this second dimension. In any case, while related to the explanatory dimension, these next questions highlight thenormative dimension of the meaning of life question. When asking these, we are more concerned with the aim of securing a meaningful life. We wonder what we must, or should, or ought to order our lives around so as to render them meaningful. Meaningfulness, then, perhaps supervenes on a life properly ordered around the right stuff. Questions within this dimension include, “What is (are) the purpose(s) of life (my life)?” “What makes life valuable?” or “What makes life worthwhile and not irredeemably futile?”

Most philosophers currently writing on the topic think the question of life’s meaning is somehow a question about all of these and other related topics, but only insofar as it is viewed as a long disjunctive question or an amalgam of related yet distinct requests about purpose, value, worth, significance, death, and futility, among others. Furthermore, though it is viewed as a request that moves us into normative territory, this question is thought to be distinct from purely ethical requests about rightness and wrongness, purely aesthetic requests about the good and beautiful, and purely eudaimonistic requests about human happiness and flourishing, while bearing some relationship to all three. There is little consensus beyond this minimal agreement.

  1. The Human Context

The human preoccupation with the question of life’s meaning is at least partly generated by our capacity to get-outside-of ourselves and view our pursuits and very lives first-person oriented and distantly from a detached, more-or-less dispassionate standpoint (see Nagel 1971; 1989; Fischer 1993). We, unlike butterflies or cats for example, can take a  critical viewpoint on our lives. We possess the ability to shift from engagement to reflection. We question what we do. We question how what we do coheres with the rest of reality, and whether reality, at the deepest level, in any way cares about us and our pursuits. We can view our lives sub specie aeternitatis, after which we can either experience profound angst, indifference, or hope, among other reactions, depending upon what we think that viewpoint entails. Whether, in normative appraisals of life, it is reasonable to privilege this detached perspective over our immediate, human perspective is beside the point. The fact is we often do, and this human propensity is correlated with inquiring into the meaning of life.

  1. The Meaning of Life in Contemporary Analytic Philosophy

Contemporary analytic philosophy has inherited important trajectories from the ancient and modern worlds, whether from Qohelet, Schopenhauer, Tolstoy, Camus, or Sartre among others, vis-à-vis the meaning of life. But, understandably, the analytic philosophical impulse toward conceptual clarification has given discussions of the meaning of life within this tradition a unique shape. Indeed, a significant portion of the discussion within this contemporary context has been primarily concerned with trying to understand the question itself. Is it coherent? Is it meaningful? What is it asking? What assumptions motivate the question? Asking such questions is necessary because the question of life’s meaning lacks clarity and has an elusive quality to it. Analytic philosophers have rightly noticed this. There exist a couple of options for addressing this lack of clarity short of the outright charge of incoherence that was common for a substantial portion of the twentieth century in the wake of logical positivism’s once strong grip.

  1. Addressing the Question’s Lack of Clarity: Securing a Non-linguistic Usage of “Meaning”

One option for addressing the clarity problem is to retain the use of the word “meaning” and to secure a usage that applies to non-linguistic phenomena, given that in asking the question of life’s meaning, one is not asking for the semantic meaning of the word “life.” This strategy is especially concerned with finding a natural interpretation of the question through a plausible employment of the term “meaning.” “Meaning” has multiple meanings, and at least some of the more prominent ones mitigate its usefulness in the context of trying to formulate the intuitions driving the question of life’s meaning. Indeed, if one is asking for the semantic meaning of life rather than “life,” then the accusation of incoherence is plausible. We ask for the meanings of semantic constructions, but not of things like physical entities, events, or life in general. The problem then is that “meaning” is a term which appears to most naturally find its home within a linguistic context. However, life itself is not such a context. That is to say, in asking the question, one is not asking for any sort of definition of “life” or a description of this term’s usage. But then, what is being asked? This is where the problem lies.

The problem is solvable, though, given that asking what something means need not be a request for a definition or description. There are additional non-linguistic contexts in which the locution, “What is the meaning of x?” makes perfect sense (for example, intentional signification, non-intentional signification (that is, natural signs), and so forth.) (see Nozick 1981). Some of them even share family resemblances to the question of life’s meaning. One in particular is especially relevant.

The question, “What is the meaning of x?” functions naturally in the largely non-linguistic context in which we seek to know how something fits within a larger context or narrative. We naturally and legitimately invoke the formula, “What is the meaning of x?” in situations wherex is some fact, event, or phenomenon we encounter and of which we want to know the fact’s or event’s or phenomenon’s “. . . implication in the wider world within which this notion [or fact, event, or phenomenon] makes the sense it makes” (Wright 2003: 719). This “wider world” Wright considers to be a worldview, metanarrative, or something similar.

To make his point, Wright uses the example of how one comes to understand the Easter Event (that is, the putative bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazerath). For example, a well-educated Roman soldier who comes to learn of the event may contextualize it, and therefore “fix” its meaning, through the myth of Nero redivivus, the idea that Nero had come back to life in order to return to Rome in all his glory. The event means something different for him than for, say, Saul of Tarsus. The wider worldview framework or narrative (or even simply a more localized narrative which is, itself, part of a larger worldview narrative) will play a heavy hermeneutical role, then, in “discovering” (some may prefer determining) what any given fact, event, or phenomenon means. Discovering this meaning will be a product of asking and answering questions like: In what larger narrative(s) does the sentence (intended to refer to a fact, event, or phenomenon) belong? What worldviews do such narratives embody and reinforce? What are the universes of discourse within which this sentence, and the event it refers to, settle down and make themselves at home – and which, at the same time, they challenge and reshape from within? (Wright 2003: 719).

In terms of the meaning of life, one could argue that we are trying to find the “wider world” (i.e., worldview, metanarrative) in which the existentially salient elements and accompanying questions of life fit. These existentially salient elements and accompanying questions of life, for which the word “life” is a marker, are perennial meaning of life themes. They are what often prompt in us the grand question: “What is the meaning of life?” and include:

(1) Fact—something exists, we [humans] exist, and I exist / Question—Why does anything or we or I exist at all?

(2) Question—Does life have any purpose(s), and if so, what is its nature and source?

(3) Fact—we are often passionately engaged in life pursuits and projects that we deem valuable and worthwhile / Question—Does the worth and value of these pursuits and projects need grounding in something else, and if so, what?

(4) Fact—pain and suffering are part of the universe / Question—Why?

(5) Question—How does it all end? Is death final? Is there an eschatological remedy to the ills of this world?

(1) – (5) constitute the cluster of considerations that track discussions of life’s meaning, even though reasonable debate will exist about the details. In asking, “What is the meaning of life?” it is plausible to view this as the request for a “wider world” (that is, worldview, metanarrative) through which to secure answers to these questions. Viewed as such, this renders the question, “What is the meaning of life?” coherent and intelligible by securing a usage of “meaning” that fits naturally within a non-linguistic context.

  1. Addressing the Question’s Lack of Clarity: The Amalgam Thesis

The most common interpretive strategy for understanding what the question, “What is the meaning of life?” involves discarding the word “meaning” and reformulating the question entirely. With this approach, the question is morphed into a cluster of other supposedly less vague questions, even if no less difficult to answer:  “What is (are) the purpose(s) of life?”, or “What makes life valuable?”, or “What makes life worthwhile and not irredeemably futile?” among others.

Following precedent in the literature, especially R. W. Hepburn, this approach for addressing the vagueness in the question of life’s meaning may be called the amalgam thesis (Hepburn 1966). Roughly, the amalgam thesis entails that the original question, framed in terms of meaning, is a largely ill-conceived place-holder for a cluster of related requests, and thus, not really a single question at all. One way of understanding the amalgam thesis is to view it as making the question of life’s meaning little more than a disjunctive question:

What is the purpose of life, or what makes life valuable, or what makes life worthwhile?

On amalgam thesis premises the question, “What is the meaning of life?” ought  to be a question about purpose, or value, or worth or something else. However one worry is that these questions are primarily about purpose, value, and worth and  then secondly about the meaning of life.

Due to the dominance of the amalgam thesis as an interpretive strategy and its arguable philosophical merit, most contemporary philosophical treatments of the question of life’s meaning consider it in one of its reformulated versions such as, “What makes life valuable?”, “What makes life significant?”, “What is (are) the purpose(s) of life?”, “Does a particular life achieve some good purpose?”, or “What makes life worth living?” among others. So, there exist at least two interpretive levels of the question using the amalgam thesis, one tracking something like the question’s formal properties, and the other tracking the subsequent questions’ material content. In other words, the amalgam thesis implies that the question, “What is the meaning of life?” is really just a disjunctive question whereby requests about purpose, value, worth, and significance are made.

  1. A Meaningful Life: Current Views

Beyond discussions over the nature of the question itself, one will find competing views on what gives life meaning, whereby meaningfulness is meant. That is to say, by virtue of what can life be said to be meaningful, if it all? The four primary competitors are: (1) Supernaturalism, (2) Objective Naturalism, (3) Subjective Naturalism, and (4) Nihilism (inter-subjectivism and non-naturalism are additional options, but are much less prevalent). Importantly, both objective and subjective naturalism can be categorized as optimisticnaturalisms, in that these views allow for a meaningful existence in a world devoid of finite and infinite spiritual realities. Pessimistic naturalism is what is commonly called “nihilism.” Nihilism is generally a view adopted alongside an entirely naturalistic ontology (though vigorous debate exits about whether naturalism entails nihilism), although there is nothing logically impossible about someone adopting nihilism while being a religious believer. One will be hard-pressed, however, to find genuine examples of this belief, save some sort of rhetorical, provisional nihilism, as found in Ecclesiastes in the Bible.

  1. Supernaturalism

Roughly, supernaturalism maintains that God’s existence, along with “appropriately relating” to God, is both necessary and sufficient for securing a meaningful life, although different accounts can be given as to the nature of this relationship. Among countless others, historic representatives of supernaturalism in the Near-Eastern ancient world and in subsequent Western history are Qoheleth, Jesus, Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Edwards, Pascal, and Tolstoy. The supernaturalist position can be plausibly viewed as possessing three distinct yet related dimensions: metaphysical, epistemological, and relational-axiological. Metaphysically, it is argued that God’s existence is necessary in order to ground a meaningful life because, for example, conditions necessary for securing a meaningful existence like objective value are most plausibly anchored in an entity like God (Cottingham 2005; Craig 2008). In addition to the metaphysical dimension, supernaturalism often requires, at some level, orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice), although much debate exists on the details. God’s existence may be a necessary condition for securing a meaningful life, but it is generally thought that one must additionally relate to God in some relevant way in the epistemological and axiological dimensions (In addition to God-based supernaturalist theories, there are soul-based theories, where meaning in life is thought to be a function, not so much of God, but rather of having an indestructible soul whereby immortality is possible).

  1. Objective Naturalism

Objective naturalism, like supernaturalism, posits that a meaningful life is possible, but denies that a supernatural realm is necessary for such a life. Life in a purely physical world, devoid of finite and infinite spiritual realities, is sufficient for meaning according to objective naturalism. Objective naturalists claim that a meaningful life is a function of appropriately connecting with mind-independent realities that are, contra supernaturalism, entirely natural. Objective naturalism is further distinguished (from subjective naturalism) by its emphasis onmind-independence. One way of putting the point is to say that wanting or choosing is insufficient for a meaningful life. For example, choosing to spend one’s waking hours counting and re-counting blades of grass is likely insufficient for meaning on objective naturalism. Rather, meaning is a function of linking one’s life to inherently valuable, mind-independent conditions that are not themselves the sole products of what one wants strongly and chooses (contra subjective naturalism). Put simply, with objective naturalism it is possible to be wrong about what confers meaning on life—something is meaningful, at least partly, in virtue of its intrinsic nature, irrespective of what is believed about it. This is why spending one’s entire existence counting blades of grass or reading and re-reading phone books is probably not meaningful on objective naturalism, even if the person strongly desires to do so.

iii. Subjective Naturalism

Like objective naturalism, subjective naturalism posits that a meaningful life is possible apart from something like supernaturalism being true, but unlike objective naturalism, it differs on what confers meaning to life. According to subjective naturalism, what constitutes a meaningful life varies from person to person, and is a function of one getting what one strongly wants, or by achieving self-established goals, or through accomplishing what one believes to be really important. Caring about or loving something deeply has been thought by some to confer meaningfulness to life (Frankfurt 1988). Subjectivism seems most plausible to some in light of perceived failures to ground objective value, either naturally, non-naturally, or supernaturally. A worry for subjective naturalism, however, is analogous to ethical worries over moral relativism. Many protest that surely deep care and love simpliciterare not sufficient to confer meaningfulness on life. What if someone claims to find meaning in life counting blades of grass, or reading and re-reading the phone book, or worse, torturing people for fun? Can a life centering on such pursuits be a meaningful life? The strong, nearly universal intuition here towards objective value in some form inclines in the direction of requiring an objective standard that comes to bear on the meaningfulness of an activity or life in general. Subjectivism still has its defenders, with some proposals moving towards grounding value inter-subjectively—in community—as opposed to in the individual exclusively.

Nuanced forms of naturalism, vis-à-vis meaningfulness in life, make room for both objective and subjective elements, as is captured nicely by Susan Wolf, “Meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness” (Wolf 1997: 211). On this view, the objective and the subjective must unite in order to give birth to robust meaningfulness. Meaningfulness is not present in a life spent believing in, being satisfied by, or caring about worthless projects.However neither is it present in a life spent engaging in worthwhile, inherently valuable projects without believing in, or caring about, or being satisfied by them.

Though they are in disagreement on the conditions for meaningfulness, both objective and subjective naturalism are united in their rejection of supernaturalism and supernaturalism’s insistence that God is necessary in order to secure a meaningful life. In this way, both forms of naturalism, vis-à-vis meaningfulness in life, can be thought of as optimistic naturalisms—that is, meaningful life is possible in a godless universe. An optimistic naturalist sees no problem in thinking that a meaningful life can be secured within an entirely naturalistic ontology. Nothing additional, nothing of the transcendent sort, is needed to ground those things in life that we, pre-philosophically, find to be meaningful. The raw materials for meaningfulness are available apart from God.

  1. Pessimistic Naturalism: Nihilism

Against all views which think a meaningful existence is possible, is the view of pessimistic naturalism, more commonly called nihilism. Roughly, nihilism is the view that denies that a meaningful life is possible because, literally, nothing has any value. One way to understand nihilism is by seeing it as the fusion of theses and assumptions drawn from both supernaturalism and naturalism. That is to say, nihilism may be seen as requiring (i) that God or some supernatural realm is likely necessary for value and a meaningful existence, but (ii) that no such realm exists, and therefore nothing is of ultimate value. Other forms of nihilism focus on states like boredom or dissatisfaction, arguing that boredom sufficiently infuses life so as to make it meaningless, or that human lives lack the requisite amount of satisfaction to confer meaning upon them. Another form of nihilism that is logically compatible with the existence of God is one based upon a disparity between standpoints. It has been argued that from the most distant, detached viewpoint, nothing we do seems to matter at all. If one thinks that it is possible to view even God and the economy of his workings from some more distant standpoint, then even supernaturalism may face a nihilistic threat of this form.

  1. Death, Futility, and a Meaningful Life

The meaning of life is closely linked with a cluster of related issues surrounding death, futility, and the way life is going to end, in regards to both the individual life and to the universe as a whole. These are common threads in the meaning of life literature, from Ecclesiastes to Camus to contemporary analytic philosophy. Death (and the end of the universe itself) often is thought to bear a close relationship with futility. The common pessimistic claim is that cosmic futility supervenes upon the entirety of human existence, given a naturalistic view of the ultimate fate of life, both human life as well as the universe itself, where death and entropy will very likely be the final, irreversible state of reality.

Why is death in an exclusively naturalistic world thought by many to be a challenge to a meaningful life? One reason may be the widespread view that, ceteris paribus, meaningful things last, as in ’diamonds are forever’’. Vis-à-vis the meaning of life, most people judge various aspects of life, pre-philosophically, to be meaningful. When subsequently engaged in conscious reflection on the necessary conditions for meaningfulness, immortality is often thought to be transcendentally necessary (though not sufficient) for meaningfulness. Many people desire consciousness, memory, personhood, love, creativity, and achievement to be part of the deep structure of reality, in that the universe, in the long run, makes space for these things. An exclusively naturalistic universe likely does not. From the perspective of a universe that will very likely become unfavorable to the existence of intelligent life, nothing we do seems of any real consequence or value. Death, both our own and the universe’s (speaking metaphorically of course), is a profound barrier to the meaningful properties and activities that populate human existence continuing on in any robust sense. And so the threat of futility lingers for many who worry that we live in an exclusively naturalistic universe.

The kind of futility surfacing in this context can be thought of as strong futility or weak futility. In the strong sense, it is claimed that if the final state of affairs of the universe (e.g. heat death) is one in which nothing matters, then nothing ever really mattered and everything is irredeemably futile. In the weaker sense, it is claimed that if the final state of affairs of the universe is one in which nothing matters, then the mattering or significance of current states of affairs is in some way mitigated, either minimally or considerably, though not completely destroyed. This futility partly arises, then, through an asymmetry between the vantage points of the lifeless, distant future that lacks consciousness of any sort, and the present filled with conscious life and its various dimensions. A “bad” ending is thought to threaten the meaningfulness of the entire story.

Critics of these strong and weak futility claims counter by calling into question what can be called the-arbitrary-privileging-of-the-future. They ask, “Why should the end state of affairs be given such veto power over the worth and meaning of the here and now?” It has been noted that appealing to such asymmetry by which to charge naturalism with irredeemable futility is contingent upon a suspect assumption; namely, arbitrarily placing an undue amount of importance (perhaps all the importance) on the final state of affairs to which life leads. But why give the future priority over the present and the past? If life is meaningful now, how can the fact that it will cease to exist make it less meaningful now? And, if life is not meaningful now, how could its un-ending continuation confer meaningfulness to it? Critics of such futility claims argue that the most plausible way to appraise the meaningfulness and worth of life here and now, is by adopting the here and now perspective, not the distant, detached perspective of some indifferent future of a universe in ruins. Of course, one might make the converse claim, “Why privilege the present over the future?” Principled reasons must be offered that will help settle the question of which viewpoint—the distant-future or theimmediate-present—gets normative priority for appraisals of life as either worthwhile or futile.

  1. The Future of the Discussion

Within normative theory, one underexplored question is where the concept ofmeaningfulness fits within the normative realm shared by the ethical, aesthetic, and eudaimonistic. Meaning seems closely connected to these other normative categories, but reducible to none (though it is perhaps closest to the third). One can perhaps imagine ethical lives that are, for example, profoundly unsatisfying to the one who lives them. And even if the ethical is one component of the meaningful, it seems implausible to think that an apathetic, yet morally exemplary life, qualifies as fully meaningful, especially if one thinks that meaningfulness is at least partly a function of being subjectively attracted to objective attractiveness. Meaningfulness extends beyond the ethical, while somehow including it. These same sorts of questions can be raised regarding the relationship between meaningfulness and other normative categories.

In addition, the debate between reductive naturalists and non-reductive naturalists has direct implications for whether it can be thought that normative properties are part of the deep structure of reality on naturalism. If they are, then optimistic naturalism of the objective variety will gain the upper hand over subjective optimistic naturalism. So, progress in the debate between objective and subjective naturalism will track progress in discussions within metaphysics more generally.

Or, consider the problem of evil in the philosophy of religion. The experience of evil links to the meaning of life, especially when one considers death and futility. Quite apart from philosophical reflections on the problem, the experience of evil is often one of those generating conditions of the question of life’s meaning born out of existential angst. Is there an intelligible, existentially satisfying narrative in which to locate the experience of pain and suffering and to give the sufferer some solace and hope? Evil in a meaningful universe may not cease from being evil, but it may be more bearable. In this way, the problem of meaning may be more foundational than the problem of evil. And one especially thinks of what we might call the eschatological dimension of the problem of evil—is there any hope in the face of pain, suffering, and death, and if so, what is its nature? Bringing future-oriented considerations of pain and suffering into the philosophical discussion will also naturally link to perennial meaning of life topics like death and futility. Additionally, it will motivate more vigorous research and debate over whether the inherent human desire for a felicitous ending to life’s narrative, including, for example, post-mortem survival and enjoyment of the beatific vision or some other blessed state is mere wishful thinking or a cousin to our desire for water, and thus, a truly natural desire that points to a referent capable of fulfilling it. In any case, discussions over the problem of evil are correlated with discussions over the meaning of life, and progress in one might be significant for progress in the other.

Finally, an underexplored area in contemporary analytic philosophy is how the concept ofnarrative might shed light on the meaning of life. One reason this is important can be seen in the following. Historically, most of the satisfying narratives that in some way narrated the meaning of life were also religious or quasi-religious. Additionally, many of these narratives count as narratives in the paradigmatic sense as opposed to non-narrative modes of discourse. However, with the rise of modern science, both the narratives and the religious or quasi-religious worldviews embodied in them were diminished in certain spheres. This led to the anxious questioning of life’s meaning and the fear that a thoroughly scientific-naturalistic narrative of the universe is far from existentially satisfying. This elicits the following important question: Are such paradigmatic instances of narratives which, in some way, narrate the meaning of life, thought to be more existentially satisfying in virtue of their explicitly religious perspective on the world or in virtue of the fact that they are paradigmatic instances of narrative or both? In terms of an interdisciplinary approach, the work of cognitive scientists who are informing us that personal identity has a substantial narrative component may be of benefit here. Perhaps our deep human need to construct meaningful narratives in order to contextualize parts of our lives and our very lives themselves is genetically hardwired. More specifically, perhaps our existential need to locate our lives and the profound elements that populate human life within grand narratives that are paradigmatic instances of narrative is genetically hardwired. If something like this is correct, then it may become clearer why questioning the meaning of life with such intensity and angst is correlated with the rise of a grand narrative (that is, naturalism) that is not a narrative in the paradigmatic sense.

Within a philosophical tradition that has had relatively little to say about the meaning of life, there are signs of change. Since the 1980’s, some within the ranks of analytic philosophy have turned their attention to life’s great question. The question is approached with an analytic rigor that will hopefully illumine some of the assumptions motivating it and point in the direction of possible approaches for answering it. Much work remains to be done. The philosophical waters remain murky, but they are clearing.


Further Reading: