Summary of John Wisdom’s, “The Meanings of the Questions of Life”

A Meaningful but Mostly Unanswerable Question

Not all philosophers agree that the ultimate why question is meaningless. A notable exception was John Wisdom (1904–1993), who spent most of his career at Trinity College, Cambridge, and became Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University.

In his article 1965, “The Meanings of the Questions of Life,” Wisdom asks why some people think the question of the meaning of life is senseless. Because, he argues, answers to why questions appear to go on infinitely. (For example, if we ask what holds up the world and are told that it rests on a giant turtle, we may ask, what holds up the turtle? And if the answer we are given to that question is “super turtle,” we can then ask, what holds that up? And if we are told the answer to that question is “super duper turtle,” well, it is easy to see that we can just keep asking these questions forever and never resolve the issue.) Asking what supports everything is absurd and non-sensible; there cannot by definition be something outside of everything which supports everything. In short, there cannot be an answer to the ultimate why question.

Perhaps the meaning of life question cannot be answered because it asks for the why of everything rather than of just of a specific thing. Just because some particular thing supports some other particular thing does not mean that something supports everything. Similarly we can say that there is a meaning of something, but that does not mean there is a meaning for everything. Perhaps the meaning of life question is like this. If I tell you why I think something is meaningful, I always refer to something else and you can always ask: but why is that meaningful? So maybe the question of the meaning of life is like asking, what is the largest number? Or what supports everything? These all look for something outside everything but nothing is outside everything. Similarly, there cannot be a big meaning outside all the little inside meanings. (Essentially, this was the argument given by Edwards, Ayer, and Nielsen.)

So when we ask about the meaning of life we are asking about the meaning of the whole thing. And though there cannot be anything other than the whole thing, the question of what the whole thing means is not absurd. It’s like coming in in the middle of a movie and not seeing the end. In that case, we want to know what went before and after to make sense of it. We want to go outside of our experienced meaning to see the whole. But we might have seen the whole movie and still not know the meaning. In that case we might ask, what did the whole thing mean? And that is not an absurd question. We might ask whether the play or movie is a tragedy, comedy, or farce. It is a tough question but it is not senseless. From an eternal perspective I could sensibly ask: what does it all mean?

Of course, we have only seen a small part of the movie or of life; we do not know much about what went before and what will come after. Nonetheless we want to know what the whole thing means; in Wisdom’s words we are trying to find “the order in the drama of Time.”[i] We don’t know the answer but the question is sensible, and we may move toward an answer as we learn more. An answer, if there is one, lies not outside but within the complex whole that is life.

Summary – The question of the meaning of everything makes sense. There cannot by definition be anything outside of everything that gives it meaning, since there is nothing outside of everything, but we can still meaningfully ask: what does the whole thing mean? That question may be unanswerable, but if there is an answer it comes from within life.


[i] John Wisdom, “The Meanings of the Questions of Life,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 220-222.

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