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The Meaning of Life


For millennia, thinkers have addressed the question of what, if anything, makes a life meaningful
in some form or other. This article concentrates nearly exclusively on approaches to the question
taken by analytic philosophers in the postwar era, by and large omitting reference to prewar
Anglo-American works, texts from other traditions such as Continental or African philosophy, and
writings from nonphilosophical but related fields such as religion and psychology. Much of the
contemporary analytic discussion has sought to articulate and evaluate theories of meaning in life,
i.e., general and fundamental principles of what all meaningful conditions have in common as
distinct from meaningless ones. This entry accordingly focuses largely on these theories, which
are distinguished according to the kind of property that is held to constitute meaning in life (see
Supernaturalism, Naturalism, and Non-Naturalism).

These texts are more introductory or have been written in a way that would likely be accessible to
those not thoroughly trained in analytic philosophy. Baggini 2004 and Eagleton 2007 are pitched
at a very wide, popular audience; Thomson 2003 and Belshaw 2005 would be best for
undergraduate philosophy majors; and Belliotti 2001, Martin 2002, and Cottingham 2003 are
probably most apt for those with some kind of university education or other intellectual
development, not necessarily in Anglo-American philosophy.

Baggini, Julian. What’s It All About? Philosophy and the Meaning of Life. London:
Granta, 2004.

Defends the view that meaning in life is largely a function of love; addresses approaches
or maxims (e.g., Carpe diem) more than it does principles.

Belliotti, Raymond Angelo. What Is the Meaning of Human Life? Amsterdam: Rodopi,

A thoughtful treatment of a variety of issues; defends an objective naturalist approach to

meaning in the context of critical discussion of classic thinkers such as Aristotle,
Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer. Page 1 of 21
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Belshaw, Christopher. Ten Good Questions about Life and Death . Malden, MA:
Blackwell, 2005.

Engagingly written, analytic treatments of several key “life and death” issues, many of
which bear on meaningfulness, which the author cashes out objectively in terms of
relationships and projects.

Cottingham, John. On the Meaning of Life. Thinking in Action. London: Routledge,


An elegantly written book that defends an Aristotelian, God-based (but not soul-based)
approach to meaning in life.

Eagleton, Terry. The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction . Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2007.

A light and lively essay on a variety of facets of the question of life’s meaning, often
addressing linguistic and literary themes. Rejects subjective or “postmodern” approaches
to meaning in favor of a need for harmonious or loving relationships.

Martin, Michael. Atheism, Morality, and Meaning . Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2002.

A vigorous defense of a naturalist approach to morality, in the first half of the book, and
to meaning, in the second. Very critical of Christian approaches to both.

Thomson, Garrett. On the Meaning of Life. London: Thompson/Wadsworth, 2003.

Argues that nine common views on meaning in life (e.g., that an infinite being is
necessary for meaning or that meaning is exhausted by happiness) are flawed.
Emphasizes that meaning must reside largely in activities we engage in, lest our lives be
reduced to “tools” for the sake of ends beyond us.

Encyclopedia entries are a natural place to obtain a bird’s-eye view of the field. Written when
ordinary language philosophy and logical positivism were still prominent, Edwards 1967 provides
a substantial, opinionated review mostly of the “cosmic” aspects of the meaning of life as
discussed by Schopenhauer and Tolstoy and a few authors from the 20th century. Wolf 1998
presents a short, incisive overview of major themes such as death, absurdity, and objectivity. Metz
2008 is the longest and most thorough treatment of the postwar, analytic literature. Page 2 of 21
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Edwards, Paul. “Meaning of Life.” In The Encyclopedia of Philosophy . Vol. 4. Edited

by Paul Edwards, 467–477. New York: Macmillan, 1967.

Includes a useful bibliography of texts ranging from the 1900s to the 1960s.

Metz, Thaddeus. “The Meaning of Life.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy .

Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2008.

Freely available online and includes an extensive bibliography of more than one hundred
texts, most of which are contemporary discussions.

Wolf, S. “Life, Meaning of.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy . 10 Vols. Edited

by Edward Craig. London: Routledge, 1998.

Makes very selective references to only a handful of the most influential philosophers.

For those interested in teaching a course devoted solely to life’s meaning, the most recommended
collections are Westphal and Levenson 1993 and Klemke and Cahn 2007. Hanfling 1988, Benatar
2004, and Cottingham 2007 would be good for those wanting either to teach more than just
meaning in life or to prescribe readings in fields that are ostensibly distinct from meaning, but
clearly related to it. Bortolotti 2009 is not meant to be a comprehensive treatment, but it should be
of interest to those interested in research.

Benatar, David, ed. Life, Death, and Meaning: Key Philosophical Readings on the Big
Questions . Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004.

Includes not only six key contemporary readings placed under the heading of “the
meaning of life,” but also papers on the same or similar issues under headings such as
“pessimism,” “immortality,” and “death.”

Bortolotti, Lisa, ed. Philosophy and Happiness . New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

A collection of fresh papers meant to provide a kaleidoscopic view of happiness. Many of

the texts explicitly address meaning in life, and many others do this implicitly in contexts
such as worthwhileness, authenticity, wisdom, and objective accounts of the human good.

Cottingham, John, ed. Western Philosophy: An Anthology . 2d ed. Oxford: Blackwell, Page 3 of 21
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A massive book covering many philosophical topics; the last section includes twelve
historically wide-ranging entries devoted to the meaning of life.

Hanfling, Oswald, ed. Life and Meaning: A Philosophical Reader. Cambridge, UK:
Wiley-Blackwell, 1988.

The first section includes eight papers devoted to the topic of meaning, including some
classic selections from Ecclesiastes and Tolstoy’s Confession , but focusing more on 20th-
century texts. The other sections include papers on related topics such as death,
happiness, and self-realization.

Klemke, E. D., and Steven M. Cahn, eds. The Meaning of Life: A Reader. 3d ed. New
York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Consisting of twenty-two entries, the largest collection of texts available, nearly all from
the postwar era, that focus strictly on meaning.

Westphal, Jonathan, and Carl Avren Levenson, eds. Life and Death . Indianapolis, IN:
Hackett, 1993.

The most historically comprehensive collection on the meaning of life, with nineteen texts
ranging from Plato and Aristotle to Augustine and Aquinas to present day thinkers.


Contemporary analytic philosophers are influenced by a variety of non-hedonist traditions in value
theory that range over a large span of time, from the thesis that “all is vanity” in Ecclesiastes, to
self-realization accounts of the human good in ancient Greek philosophy, to theistic accounts of
value as classically advanced by Aquinas, to Christian fideism of the sort held by Pascal and
Kierkegaard (Tolstoy 2001), to Hegelian and Marxist criticism of alienation (Schlick 1987), to
Weberian concern about instrumental rationalization (Jaspers 1957), to Nietzschean esteem for
aesthetic values, to cosmically pessimistic accounts of human life (Schopenhauer 1974, Camus
1991), to relativist conceptions of value (James 1899, Sartre 1956), to existentialist concern for
authentic relationships (Buber 1970), to theories of the intrinsic value of certain kinds of
knowledge. For the sake of focus, this entry restricts mention of precursors to the contemporary
debate to a selection of the most influential or interesting texts that explicitly address meaning in
life from the 19th century and first half of the 20th. Page 4 of 21
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Buber, Martin. I and Thou. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Touchstone,

Expresses a supernaturalist view according to which a certain kind of personal relationship

with God is the key to meaning in life. Originally published in 1923.

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays . Translated by Justin
O’Brian. New York: Vintage 1991.

Maintains that life is absurd largely because of the incongruence between the irrational,
chaotic nature of the world and our expectation for it to be rationally ordered. First
published in 1942.

James, William. “What Makes a Life Significant” In Talks to Teachers on Psychology,

and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals. By William James. New York: Henry Holt,

Argues that passionate and effortful realization of an ideal one holds is sufficient for a
significant life.

Jaspers, Karl. Man in the Modern Age. Translated by Eden Paul and Cedar Paul.
Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1957.

Appealing to existentialist, Weberian, and Marxist ideas, this work, originally published in
1931, criticizes the “massification,” “instrumentalization,” and “reification” of many areas
of modern life as undercutting meaningfulness.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism is a Humanism . Translated by Philip Mairet, edited

by Walter Kaufmann. Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre. New York: World,

Originally published in 1946, defends an extreme form of subjectivism according to which

the meaning of an individual’s life is constituted by whatever choices she has made.

Schlick, Moritz. “On the Meaning of Life.” In Life and Meaning: A Philosophical
Reader. Edited by Oswald Hanfling. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1987.

Influenced by Marx, this 1927 article can be read as holding an objective account of
meaning in life, according to which it is a function of creative play, innovative activities
that are good for their own sake and that the agent takes pleasure in doing.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. “Additional Remarks on the Doctrine of the Suffering of the

World.” In Parerga and Paralipomena: Short Philosophical Essays . Vol. 2. By Arthur Page 5 of 21
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World.” In Parerga and Paralipomena: Short Philosophical Essays . Vol. 2. By Arthur

Schopenhauer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Famously advocates a nihilist perspective, based largely on how much dissatisfaction

there is in human life, how short it lasts, and how little positive impact it can make on the
world. Also see “Additional Remarks on the Doctrine of the Vanity of Existence.” Originally
published in 1851. Reprinted in Arthur Schopenhauer: Philosophical Writings, translated
by E. F. Payne, edited by W. Schirmacher (New York: Continuum, 1996).

Tolstoy, Leo. Confession. Translated by Louise Maude and Aylmer Maude. Classical
Library, 2001.

Argues that a mortal life is meaningless since nothing is worth doing unless it will make a
permanent difference to the world. Published in 1884, one of the most widely published
reflections on the meaning of life.


There is a lack of consensus in the field about the sense of the question of life’s meaning. It is
standard to distinguish between the meaning of human life as such, on the one hand, and the
meaning of (or in) an individual’s life, on the other, with most finding the latter question to be of
ultimate interest. The literature suggests a number of different ways of understanding what we are
asking when posing the question of what, if anything, could make a person’s life meaningful.
Attempts to define the key terms of this question were common in the 1960s, the heyday of
linguistic analysis, and texts from this period are well represented in the third part of Klemke and
Cahn 2007 (cited under Anthologies). This entry instead focuses on more recent attempts to
indicate what it means to ask what would make an individual’s existence significant. The most
simple analyses are provided by Wohlgennant 1987 and Levy 2005, who claim that talk of “life’s
meaning” can plausibly be taken to express a single idea. Baier 1997 and Quinn 2000 maintain
that it connotes two different ideas, while Markus 2003 and Thomson 2003 argue that it signifies
three. Metz 2007 argues against many of these suggestions, and contends that talk of “life’s
meaning” probably does not admit of necessary and sufficient conditions. Taylor 1990 does not
seek to analyze the concept of meaningfulness, but implicitly provides useful suggestions for
those who do.

Baier, Kurt. Problems of Life and Death: A Humanist Perspective. Amherst, NY:
Prometheus, 1997.

Distinguishes the concept of meaning from concepts such as a good life or a worthwhile
one and draws a distinction between life having meaning and having a meaning. See
especially pp. 45–70. Page 6 of 21
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especially pp. 45–70.

Levy, Neil. “Downshifting and Meaning in Life.” Ratio 18 (2005): 176–189.

Contends that the concept of meaning is best analyzed as the idea of self-transcendence
qua connecting with goods beyond one’s animal nature.

Markus, Arjan. “Assessing Views of Life: A Subjective Affair?” Religious Studies 39

(2003): 125–143.

Maintains that a full analysis of the concept of meaning includes the ideas of a coherent,
purposeful and valuable life.

Metz, Thaddeus. “New Developments in the Meaning of Life.” Philosophy Compass 2

(2007): 196–217.

Holds that talk of “meaning” is united in virtue of family resemblance and that it, contra
Levy 2005, Markus 2003, and Taylor 1990, cannot be united by the ideas of coherence,
purpose, transcendence, or admiration; also differentiates the concept of meaninglessness
from related ones such as futility and absurdity.

Quinn, Philip. “How Christianity Secures Life’s Meaning.” In The Meaning of Life in
the World Religions. Edited by Joseph Runzo and Nancy M. Martin, 53–68. Oxford:
Oneworld, 2000.

Claims that enquiries into whether life is meaningful could be asking either an axiological
question about its worth or a teleological one regarding its purposiveness.

Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Analyzes the concept of meaning in terms of what is qualitatively higher and worthy of
admiration or awe, and claims, interestingly, that what it is to be a self is to be concerned
with meaning in life.

Thomson, Garrett. “Untangling the Questions.” In On the Meaning of Life. By Garrett

Thomson. South Melbourne, Australia: Wadsworth, 2003.

Contends that the question of life’s meaning is about whether a person has realized a
purpose, exhibited final value or lived so as to signify something intelligible.

Wohlgennant, Rudolf. “Has the Question about the Meaning of Life Any Meaning?”
In Life and Meaning: A Philosophical Reader. Edited and translated by Oswald
Hanfling. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1987. Page 7 of 21
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Hanfling. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1987.

Suggests that a sensible way to understand the question of whether our life is meaningful
is in terms of whether we feel satisfied upon reaching our goals.

There is debate in the literature about which facets of a life are capable of being meaningful or
meaningless. Holism is roughly the view that only the pattern of life as a whole is the bearer of
meaning, with ideas about narrative order and life-stories often invoked. In contrast, an additive
view is that only the parts of a life (e.g., experiences, relationships, actions) can exhibit meaning,
with the meaning of an entire life consisting of merely the sum of the value of its parts. Perhaps
most in the field hold a mixed view, according to which both the sum of the parts of a life and the
pattern of the life as a whole are independent sources of meaning. However, most theories of
meaning in life focus nearly exclusively on the additive respects in which life appears meaningful,
with holist respects not receiving much comprehensive analysis as yet. Works that have advocated
holism in notable ways include Taylor 1990, Velleman 1991, Brännmark 2003, Tabensky 2003 and
Levinson 2004. Taylor 1987, Hurka 1993, and Kamm 2003 seem more open to a mixed
conception of which aspects of a life can exhibit meaning, though their discussions should be of
interest to anyone seeking to develop an adequate holist theory.

Brännmark, Johan. “Leading Lives: On Happiness and Narrative Meaning.”

Philosophical Papers 32 (2003): 321–343.

While using the language of “happiness” in the first instance, this defense of holism is
usefully transposed to the topic of meaning in life.

Hurka, Thomas. Perfectionism . New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Although set in the context of a moral theory prescribing the development of the valuable
facets of human nature, much of the discussion on how to distribute goods in the course
of a life and between lives can be easily applied to issues of meaning. See especially pp.

Kamm, F. M. “Rescuing Ivan Ilych: How We Live and How We Die.” Ethics 113 (2003):

Discusses ways in which death can be bad for upsetting desirable distributive patterns of
goodness and badness in a life, claiming, for example, that, all things being equal, it is
better for life to end on a high note. Page 8 of 21
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Levinson, Jerrold. “Intrinsic Value and the Notion of a Life.” The Journal of
Aesthetics and Art Criticism 62 (2004): 319–329.

Argues that only life as a whole is the bearer of the human good.

Tabensky, Pedro Alexis. “Parallels between Living and Painting.” The Journal of
Value Inquiry 37 (2003): 59–68.

Draws analogies between a creating a visual artwork and living a life, and argues that the
value of a given part of either is ultimately a function of its relation to the other parts.

Taylor, Charles. The Sources of the Self . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,

Claims that the concern to make one’s life meaningful is a matter of having an entire life
story with purpose and unity (e.g., where earlier times of a life are redeemed by later
ones). See especially pp. 47–52.

Taylor, Richard. “Time and Life’s Meaning.” Review of Metaphysics 40 (1987): 675–

Contends that repetitiveness, so frequent in human life, undercuts meaning.

Velleman, David. “Well-Being and Time.” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 72 (1991):


An influential paper that argues that whether a life goes well, one facet of which includes
being meaningful, is not a function of the amount of value in it, but rather the narrative
order in which it comes.

Many analytic philosophers writing on life’s meaning are monists who hold that a theory of
meaning is possible—i.e., that what constitutes the meaning of a person’s life can be at least
largely expressed by a general and fundamental principle. However, there are some prominent
pluralists in the literature—those who maintain that no theory of meaning in life is possible
because what constitutes it varies too much to admit of unification in the form of necessary and
sufficient conditions or anything close to an “essence.” That said, most friends of pluralism do not
merely list many constitutive conditions of meaning, although Schmidtz 2001 largely does that.
Instead, what many pluralists do (e.g., Wolf 1997, Dworkin 2000, and Kekes 2000) is provide a Page 9 of 21
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Instead, what many pluralists do (e.g., Wolf 1997, Dworkin 2000, and Kekes 2000) is provide a
very abstract characterization of meaning in life as being conferred when, in Wolf’s pithy and
influential phrase, “subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness”—i.e., when an individual is
fulfilled by, identifies with, or cares about a project that is intrinsically desirable, where the latter
is left widely open.

Dworkin, Ronald. “Equality and the Good Life.” In Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and
Practice of Equality. By Ronald Dworkin, 237–284. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 2000.

Advocates a “challenge” model of meaning, according to which one’s life is meaningful

insofar as it is a skillful performance that one endorses, and claims that what constitutes a
skillful performance cannot be captured in a principle.

Kekes, John. “The Meaning of Life.” In Life and Death: Metaphysics and Ethics.
Edited by Peter A. French and Howard Wettstein, 17–34. Midwest Studies in
Philosophy 24. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000.

Maintains that it is futile to seek a general answer to the question of what makes life
meaningful; rather, meaning consists in identifying with, and carrying out, projects that
make one’s life better, where the latter does not admit of a monistic account.

Schmidtz, David. “The Meanings of Life.” In If I Should Die: Life, Death, and
Immortality. Edited by Leroy S. Rouner, 170–188. Boston University Studies in
Philosophy and Religion 22. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001.

Provides a list of different elements that confer meaning on life (e.g., symbols,
relationships, activities, gifts, choices) and suspects there is no “underlying structure” to
them all.

Wolf, Susan. “Happiness and Meaning: Two Aspects of the Good Life.” Social
Philosophy and Policy 14 (1997): 207–225.

Argues that meaning is conferred on a life when one is fulfilled by projects of worth and
variegated moral and nonmoral pursuits.

Supernaturalism is the general theory that what constitutes meaning in life are facts about a
spiritual realm that is beyond space and time (or at least our space and time). In the Western Page 10 of 21
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tradition, the spiritual realm is usually conceived as populated by substances—specifically, God

and individual souls. Many supernaturalists, following Aquinas, believe that both God and a soul
are necessary for meaning in life, which is constituted by one’s soul communing with God in some
way (e.g., Morris 1992 and Craig 1994). However, it is worth distinguishing between God-based
and soul-based theories, for two reasons. First, some supernaturalists reject this composite view,
maintaining that only one substance is constitutive of meaning in life, with Hartshorne 1984 and
Cottingham 2005 being clear instances of those who believe that meaning requires God but not a
soul. In addition, some of the rationales offered for the composite view in fact entail only one of
the more limited accounts.

God-based Theories

According to these views, meaning in life is a function of relating in the right way with God,
conceived as a spiritual person who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good and who is the
ground of the physical universe. The literature offers a wide variety of reasons why a relationship
with God might constitute meaning in life. The most common suggestion is that God alone could
ground values such as an invariant moral purpose and that our lives would be meaningless in the
absence of such, as Craig 1994, Adams 1999, and Cottingham 2005 argue. Additional properties
of God that have been invoked as essential for meaning include infinity (Nozick 1981), unity
(Hartshorne 1984), redemption (Davis 1987), stability (Morris 1992), and atemporality and
simplicity (Metz 2000).

Adams, Robert Merrihew Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics . New
York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Although uses the language of “well-being” rather than “meaning,” the latter talk is not
out of place. Contends, with sophistication and subtlety, that the human good is
constituted by divinity.

Cottingham, John. “Religion and Value: The Problem of Heteronomy.” From The
Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy, and Human Value. By John Cottingham,
37–57. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Argues with clarity and some thoroughness that a life would be meaningless without an
objective morality, which could come only from God.

Craig, William Lane. “The Absurdity of Life without God,” 1994.

Discusses several reasons for thinking God is necessary for meaning in life, including the
ideas that without God, one’s life could not avoid being contingent and devoid of any
moral worth. Page 11 of 21
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Davis, William H. “The Meaning of Life.” Metaphilosophy 18 (1987): 288–305.

Maintains that life would be meaningless if reality did not conform to principles of justice,
something only God could effect.

Hartshorne, Charles. “God and the Meaning of Life.” In On Nature . Edited by Leroy S.
Rouner, 154–168. Boston University Studies in Philosophy and Religion 6. Notre
Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.

The famous process theologian critically discusses Nozick 1981 and submits that since we
could be part of an everlasting unity only by constituting part of God’s mental life,
particularly by being remembered by God, God is essential for our lives to be meaningful.

Metz, Thaddeus. “Could God’s Purpose Be the Source of Life’s Meaning?” Religious
Studies 36 (2000): 293–313.

Argues that if God were necessary for meaning, it would have to be in virtue of properties
such as atemporality and simplicity, properties that human beings cannot conceivably
exhibit to any degree.

Morris, Thomas V. Making Sense of It All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life. Grand
Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992.

Suggests that meaning in life is a function of loving what is most worth loving, which is a
matter of permanent personhood, i.e., only God and his ensouled offshoots.

Nozick, Robert. “Philosophy and the Meaning of Life.” In Philosophical Explanations .

By Robert Nozick, 571–650. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

In a very thoughtful text, argues that it is the fact that God alone would be unlimited that
plausibly makes God essential for meaning in our lives.

Soul-based Theories

Some supernaturalists provide arguments for thinking that meaning is a function not necessarily
of God, but of having a soul, an indestructible, spiritual substance that is the bearer of one’s
identity as a person. Implicit in much of the discussion is that what ultimately matters is
immortality, for which having a soul is necessary. However, a purely physical immortality seems
possible, and there is much contemporary debate about the desirability of immortality among
ethicists in the context of life-extending (anti-aging or “prolongevity”) therapies and techniques,
a representative sample of which is Harris 2003. Much of the most interesting debate about
immortality is between extreme views. On the one hand, there are those who maintain that Page 12 of 21
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immortality is between extreme views. On the one hand, there are those who maintain that
immortality is necessary for meaning, represented here by Morris 1992 and Craig 1994, whose
arguments Metz 2003 deems invalid. On the other hand, there are those who contend that
immortality is sufficient for meaninglessness, namely, Williams 1973, to whom Fischer 1994
responds, and Nussbaum 1989 and Kass 2001, whose views Harris 2002 criticizes.

Craig, William Lane. “The Absurdity of Life without God, 1994.

Expounds both Tolstoy’s rationale that nothing would be worth doing if we were not
immortal and the argument reminiscent of Ecclesiastes that life would be meaningless if
the injustice of this world were not corrected in an afterlife.

Fischer, John Martin. “Why Immortality Is Not So Bad.” International Journal of

Philosophical Studies 2 (1994): 257–270.

Responds to Williams 1973 by contending that immortality need not get boring because
some goods are “repeatable,” capable of being experienced and appreciated over and over

Harris, John. “Intimations of Immortality: The Ethics and Justice of Life-Extending

Therapies.” In Current Legal Problems 2002. Vol. 55. Edited by Michael Freeman, 65–
96. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Critically discusses an array of moral issues, implicitly relevant to meaning, regarding

anti-aging science and technology. Critically discusses Williams 1973 and Kass 2001.

Kass, Leon R. “L’Chaim and Its Limits: Why Not Immortality?” First Things 113
(2001): 17–24.

Argues that immortality would be sufficient for meaninglessness for a variety of reasons,
including the idea that mortality is necessary for goods such as motivation and

Metz, Thaddeus. “The Immortality Requirement for Life’s Meaning.” Ratio 16 (2003):

A reconstruction of the major arguments for thinking that immortality is necessary for
meaning, inspired by Tolstoy’s Confession and Ecclesiastes and recently advanced by
Craig 1994. Works to shore up the inferential structure of these arguments, but does not
evaluate the truth of the premises. Page 13 of 21
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Morris, Thomas V. Making Sense of It All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life. Grand
Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992.

A largely love-based rationale for immortality, contending that meaning is a matter of

loving what is most worth loving, which means communing with something stable rather
than transitory.

Nussbaum, Martha C. “Mortal Immortals: Lucretius on Death and the Voice of

Nature.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 50 (1989): 303–351.

Is sympathetic to the claim that immortality would be sufficient to make our lives
insignificant, either because it could not be us who lives forever, or because we would be
incapable of exhibiting important virtues such as courage and justice.

Williams, Bernard. “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of

Immortality.” In Problems of the Self: Philosophical Papers, 1956–1972. By Bernard
Williams, 82–100. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

The most widely read text on immortality, it argues that an eternal life could not avoid
being meaningless since it would either become boring or involve a loss of our personal

Naturalism is the view that life in a purely physical world, or a world as known by empirical means,
could be sufficient for meaning. Although some naturalists maintain the extreme view that the
existence of God would reduce the meaning of our lives, a large majority instead believe that
God’s existence or nonexistence makes no real difference. There are three basic forms of
naturalism, which are a function of whether, and how, the relevant physical properties depend on
our minds: subjectivism, intersubjectivism, and objectivism. Subjectivists and intersubjectivists
claim that meaning is utterly created by the mind, either singly or collectively, while objectivists
claim that the mind discovers facts about meaning that obtain independent of it.


Subjectivists believe that being an object of an individual’s attitudes can be sufficient to confer
meaning on her life. Nearly always the relevant attitudes are thought to be positive ones: Taylor
1970 contends that one’s life is meaningful if one gets whatever one most wants, Murdoch 1970
suggests it is if one pays careful attention to something beyond oneself, Williams 1976 claims it is
if one’s “ground projects” are realized, and Frankfurt 1988 believes it is if one loves something.
However, Starkey 2006 is an interesting exception, contending that a condition can be meaningful
in virtue of being the object of an intense negative emotion. Since people’s desires, attentions, Page 14 of 21
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in virtue of being the object of an intense negative emotion. Since people’s desires, attentions,
projects, loves, and other dispositions vary tremendously, subjectivism entails that what is
meaningful varies substantially from person to person. Motivations for subjectivism are often
meta-ethical doubts about whether there is objective value, or whether we could know it (Trisel
2002). However, some defend subjectivism at the normative level by contending that it best
explains intuitions about the relevance of authenticity to meaning, as Frankfurt 1988 does, and
about which lives are meaningful, per Hooker 2008. Although not a subjectivist himself, Markus
discusses several “formal” respects by which to appraise meaning in life that should be of interest
to specifying a suitably complex subjectivism (Markus 2003).

Frankfurt, Harry G. “The Importance of What We Care About.” In The Importance of

What We Care About . By Harry G. Frankfurt, 80–94. New York: Cambridge University
Press, 1988.

Among the most thoughtful defenses of subjectivism, this is the initial statement of
Frankfurt’s view that one’s life is meaningful if one cares for or loves something.

Hooker, Brad. “The Meaning of Life: Subjectivism, Objectivism, and Divine Support.”
In The Moral Life: Essays in Honour of John Cottingham . Edited by Nafsika
Athanassoulis and Samantha Vice, 184–200. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Defends the idea that subjective factors can be sufficient for meaning by reflecting on a
case of one who seeks to maximize luxury in her life.

Markus, Arjan. “Assessing Views of Life: A Subjective Affair?” Religious Studies 39

(2003): 125–143.

Although open to the possibility of meaningfulness being constituted by objective values,

Markus’s main contribution is to articulate a variety of non-substantive ways to appraise a
life—for example, in terms of whether one’s values are internally consistent, cohere with
one’s factual beliefs, inspire one, and are put into practice.

Murdoch, Iris. The Sovereignty of Good. New York: Routledge, 1970.

Although she does not speak in terms of “meaning” and might disavow being counted as a
“subjectivist,” Murdoch can be read as saying that meaning is constituted by a selfless
attention to the details of another being, where even a blade of grass is said to count.

Starkey, Charles. “Meaning and Affect.” The Pluralist 1 (2006): 88–103.

Starkey believes that certain subjective conditions are necessary for meaning but are not
sufficient. Even so, he is one of the few to carefully consider which subjective conditions Page 15 of 21
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sufficient. Even so, he is one of the few to carefully consider which subjective conditions
should be thought necessary, defending the view that certain emotions are key and not,
for example, desires, per Taylor 1970.

Taylor, Richard. “The Meaning of Life.” In Good and Evil: A New Direction . By
Richard Taylor, 319–334. New York: Macmillan, 1970.

One of the most widely reprinted and read texts on life’s meaning, which is based on the
thought experiment of Sisyphus. In it Taylor maintains that an important kind of meaning
in life comes from obtaining whatever one most strongly desires.

Trisel, Brooke Alan. “Futility and the Meaning of Life Debate.” Sorites 14 (2002): 70–

Defends the Sartrean argument that since “no purpose has been imposed on humankind
from without,” realizing goals confers meaning our lives simply because we have chosen

Williams, Bernard. “Persons, Character and Morality.” In The Identities of Persons .

Edited by Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, 197–216. Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1976.

Contends that meaning in life is constituted by whatever basic reasons a person has for
continuing to live, which are often threatened by moral demands, impartially conceived.


Intersubjectivists maintain that being an object of a group’s attitudes can be sufficient to confer
meaning on the life of a member of this group. One point of debate among intersubjectivists
concerns whether the relevant group is actual, per Brogaard and Smith 2005 and Wong 2008, or
hypothetical, per Darwall 1983. A hypothetical version will naturally tend to entail a more
universally applicable conception of meaning than will an actual one.

Brogaard, Berit, and Barry Smith. “On Luck, Responsibility, and the Meaning of Life.”
Philosophical Papers 34 (2005): 443–458.

Provides a thoughtful account of “internal” and “external” criteria for one’s projects to be
meaningful, with external criteria being, roughly, standards that one’s community uses to
rank projects of the sort one has undertaken. Page 16 of 21
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Darwall, Stephen L. “The Pervasiveness of Intersubjective Valuation.” In Impartial

Reason . By Stephen L. Darwall. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983.

Spells out a theory of meaning in life as part of a complex and comprehensive

hypothetical contractualist account of normativity. Maintains that a state of affairs is
meaningful insofar as all human agents would prefer it to obtain, when considering it
dispassionately and abstracting from the way in which it would bear on their own lives in

Wong, Wai-hung. “Meaningfulness and Identities.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice
11 (2008): 123–148.

Contends that a person’s life can be meaningful if the person and others consistently
value facets of her identity for their own sake.


Objectivists hold that subjective and intersubjective responses are not sufficient for something to
confer meaning on anyone’s life, although they may be necessary. Instead, some mind-
independent feature of the natural world is necessary to exhibit or engage with, in order for
meaning to accrue. Creativity and beneficence are quintessential examples of conditions taken to
be meaningful at least partially “in themselves,” apart from the fact that anyone wants to do them,
loves doing them, or what have you. Theorists usually accept objectivism to avoid counterintuitive
implications about which lives would count as meaningful if it were determined by variable pro-
attitudes. Objective theories almost always are universalist in the sense of articulating conditions
of meaning that are intended to apply to all humans at all times, and they can be categorized in
terms of rough parallels with universalist moral theories. The theories of meaning in Singer 1995
and Audi 2005 refer to many utilitarian ideas, emphasizing the relevance of promoting well-being,
conceived as either preference satisfaction or pleasant experiences. Hurka 1993 and Smith 1997
are Aristotelian in a broad sense, contending that one’s basic aim should be to develop the
valuable aspects of a (human) being’s nature. Nozick 1981, Gewirth 1998, and Levy 2005 are
fairly Kantian about meaning, holding that it comes from transcending one’s animal nature and
using one’s reason either to connect with objects of worth (such as persons) or to realize
worthwhile goals (such as moral ones). Taylor 1987 does not quite fit this schema, grounding a
person’s meaning solely in the extent to which she has been creative.

Audi, Robert. “Intrinsic Value and Meaningful Life.” Philosophical Papers 34 (2005):

Defends the view that a life is meaningful largely to the extent that it either contains
reward in itself or promotes it in the lives of others, where reward is mainly “higher” Page 17 of 21
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reward in itself or promotes it in the lives of others, where reward is mainly “higher”
experiences that are variegated and engage people’s rational faculties.

Gewirth, Alan. “Ultimate Values, Rights, Reason.” In Self-Fulfillment. By Alan

Gewirth, 159–228. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Maintains that a “transcendent” or “spiritual” (viz., meaningful) existence is a function of

transcending oneself by exercising reason in ways that would satisfy an impersonal
perspective or impartial norms.

Hurka, Thomas. Perfectionism . New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Although ostensibly presenting a moral theory, Hurka’s intricate account of how to

develop the valuable facets of human nature could be read as a plausible theory of how to
make one’s life meaningful.

Levy, Neil. “Downshifting and Meaning in Life.” Ratio 18 (2005): 176–189.

Presents an account of the source of what is most meaningful in life, according to which it
comes from striving to realize highly desirable ends that are “open-ended” in the sense
that we cannot fully realize them since we can have no stable conception of what it would
be like to do so.

Nozick, Robert. “Philosophy and the Meaning of Life.” In Philosophical Explanations.

By Robert Nozick, 571–650. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1981.

While sympathetic toward supernaturalism, Nozick articulates a potentially naturalist

theory according to which a person’s life is meaningful just insofar as it transcends limits
to connect with something of worth.

Singer, Peter. How are We to Live? Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest. Amherst, NY:
Prometheus, 1995.

Advocates a consequentialist approach, according to which the more a person acts in

accordance with the “point of view of the universe,” impartially promoting interest
satisfaction, the more meaningful her life is.

Smith, Quentin. “Normative Ethics.” In Ethical and Religious Thought in Analytic

Philosophy of Language. By Quentin Smith, 179–221. New Haven, CT: Yale
University Press, 1997.

Critically discusses the version of perfectionism advanced by Hurka 1993 and advocates
an alternative one, positing that life is meaningful solely to the extent that it develops the Page 18 of 21
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an alternative one, positing that life is meaningful solely to the extent that it develops the
valuable nature of things in general.

Taylor, Richard. “Time and Life’s Meaning.” Review of Metaphysics 40 (1987): 675–

Argues that life is meaningful just insofar as it avoids repetitiveness by producing

aesthetic objects that have features such as beauty, elegance, and originality.

Non-naturalists hold that meaning in life is constituted by properties that are neither natural nor
spiritual, but that may supervene on substances of the latter sort. There is comparatively little
literature on a non-naturalist approach to meaning in life, but it is worth taking seriously. If one
finds Euthyphro concerns about divine command theories of normativity compelling, and if one
doubts that good reasons for action are in space and time, then one should be inclined, with Audi
2005, to find non-naturalism attractive. In addition, those who find libertarian freedom the only
sort worth wanting should be drawn, as Williams 1999 notes that Immanuel Kant was, to postulate
that a non-natural realm is constitutive of meaning in life. Finally, Cooper 2005 believes that we
are driven to accept non-naturalism by the intuitive claim that a thing’s significance is a function
of how it relates to something beyond itself.

Audi, Robert. “Intrinsic Value and Meaningful Life.” Philosophical Papers 34 (2005):

Is the most explicit about taking seriously the idea of non-naturalism about what
constitutes meaning in life.

Cooper, David E. “Life and Meaning.” Ratio 18 (2005): 125–137.

Contends that, since something can obtain meaning only from something apart from it,
human life, which is discursable, must obtain its meaning from “what lies beyond the
human,” or what is not discursable, a realm of reality as it is exists in itself, apart from our
apprehension of it.

Williams, Garrath. “Kant and the Question of Meaning.” Philosophical Forum 30

(1999): 115–131.

Critically explores the non-naturalist facets of Immanuel Kant’s thought as they bear on
life’s meaning. Page 19 of 21
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Nihilism, or pessimism, as applied to the individual’s life, is the claim that all individual lives are
meaningless; and as applied to human life as such, is normally the claim that it is absurd. The
issue of whether anyone’s life is in fact meaningful is distinct from what the monist theories and
pluralist accounts above address; strictly speaking, these are views of what the constitutive
conditions of meaning are, and they are not views about whether these conditions obtain. For
example, one could hold a God-based supernaturalist theory about meaning in combination with
atheism about whether God exists, which would entail the conclusion that all individual lives are
meaningless. Interestingly, most contemporary arguments for nihilism (e.g., Murphy 1982, Nagel
1986, Martin 1993, Smith 2003, Benatar 2006) do not appeal to supernaturalism as an account of
what would confer meaning on life; they rather contend that the relevant naturalist requirements
for a meaningful life are nowhere present. Feinberg 1992, Baier 1997, and Trisel 2004 defend a
more optimistic answer to the question of whether anyone’s life is meaningful, often pointing out
respects in which the nihilist requirements for meaning are too extreme or out of the ordinary.

Baier, Kurt. “A Good Life.” In Problems of Life and Death: A Humanist Perspective. By
Kurt Baier, 59–74. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1997.

Implicitly rejects nihilism by contending that the proper way to appraise the worth of
human life is in terms of what is normal for, and accessible to, the human species.

Benatar, David. Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. New
York: Oxford University Press 2006.

A fresh defense of nihilism; it argues, by ostensible appeal to widely shared premises, that
a person’s being created is always a harm that outweighs any possible benefit to be had.

Feinberg, Joel. “Absurd Self-Fulfillment.” In Freedom and Fulfillment: Philosophical

Essays. By Joel Feinberg, 297–330. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Discusses nihilistic tendencies in the work of Camus 1991, Taylor 1970, and Nagel 1986;
a revealing treatment. Originally published in 1980.

Martin, Raymond. “A Fast Car and a Good Woman.” In The Experience of Philosophy .
2d ed. Edited by Daniel Kolak and Raymond Martin, 556–565. Belmont, CA:
Wadsworth, 1993. Page 20 of 21
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Is sympathetic to Schopenhauerian nihilism, the view that our lives are meaningless
because we are invariably dissatisfied; for either we have not yet achieved our aims, or we
have and are then bored or left with nothing to do.

Murphy, Jeffrie G. “Morality, Religion, and the Meaning of Life.” In Evolution,

Morality, and the Meaning of Life. By Jeffrie G. Murphy, 9–30. Totowa, NJ: Rowman
and Littlefield, 1982.

Argues that our lives are meaningless since we cannot rationally justify any beliefs about
value. It would be of interest to consider whether this position can avoid self-refutation.

Nagel, Thomas. “Birth, Death, and the Meaning of Life.” In The View from Nowhere.
By Thomas Nagel, 208–232. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

The most widely read contemporary thinker who defends a kind of nihilism. Maintains
that, from an objective standpoint—one that comprehends all of space-time—our lives
are meaningless. In addition, claims that human life unavoidably appears absurd when its
meaninglessness from the objective standpoint is compared to the importance ascribed to
it from the subjective standpoint.

Smith, Quentin. “Moral Realism and Infinite Spacetime Imply Moral Nihilism.” In
Time and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection . Edited by Heather Dyke, 43–54.
Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer, 2003.

Argues that because the physical world contains an infinite degree of value, nothing we do
can make a difference in terms of either morality or meaning; infinity plus any amount of
value we could add will invariably be infinity.

Trisel, Brooke Alan. “Human Extinction and the Value of Our Efforts.” Philosophical
Forum 35 (2004): 371–391.

Argues against the attempt to draw a nihilist conclusion from the fact that humanity is
limited and will not exist forever.

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