Wittgenstein on the Meaning of Life

Meaningless Question or Ineffable Answer?

Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein (1889 –1951) was an Austrian philosopher who held the professorship in philosophy at the University of Cambridge from 1939 until 1947. He first went to Cambridge in 1911 to study with Bertrand Russell who described him as: “the most perfect example I have known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense, and dominating.” Wittgenstein inspired two of the century’s primary philosophical movements, logical positivism and ordinary language philosophy, and is generally regarded as one of the two or three most important philosophers of the twentieth century.

Given his stature as a 20th century giant of philosophy, we would be remiss if we did not mention Wittgenstein’s doubt regarding the sensibility of the question of life’s meaning, with the caveat that his positions are notoriously difficult to pin down and that we cannot, in this short space, due justice to the depth of his thought. To get the briefest handle on his thought on the question of the meaning of life, we will ruminate briefly upon the haunting lines that conclude his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

For an answer which cannot be expressed the question too cannot be expressed. The riddle does not exist. If a question can be put at all, then it can also be answered. Skepticism is not irrefutable, but palpably senseless, if it would doubt where a question cannot be asked. For doubt can only exist where there is a question; a question only where there is an answer, and this only where something can be said. We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer. The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem.(Is not this the reason why men to whom after long doubting the sense of life became clear, could not then say wherein this sense consisted?) There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical …Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.[i]

One problem with these famous lines is that they are open to at least two different interpretations. On one interpretation the question of the meaning of life lacks meaning; hence there is no answer to a meaningless question. Worries about the question end when we forget it and start living, but this is not the same as learning an answer—there is no answer to a meaningless question. On the other interpretation there is an answer to the question but we cannot say what it is—the answer is ineffable. If we take the question in the first way, then we no longer have to worry about it since there is nothing to know. If we take the question the second way, then we are somewhat comforted by the existence of a truth which cannot be spoken.

The problem is the tension between these two interpretations. How do we reconcile the claim that the question is meaningless with the claim that there is an ineffable answer? (One way to reconcile the two might be to say that the inexpressible only reveals itself after the question has disappeared.) However we interpret Wittgenstein’s enigmatic remarks, we can say this. If the question is senseless, then we waste our time trying to answer it; and if the answer is ineffable, then we waste our time trying to verbalize it. Either way there is nothing to say. Thus we probably ought to follow Wittgenstein’s advice and simply “be silent.” (l  have obviously not follow his advice.)


[i] Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1922, trans. C.K. Ogden (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul). Originally published as “Logisch-Philosophische Abhandlung”, in Annalen der Naturphilosophische, XIV (3/4), 1921.

3 thoughts on “Wittgenstein on the Meaning of Life

  1. The “meaning of life” fallacy has always irritated me. To me it’s fairly easy to recognize that neither human life on the individual subjective level, nor the collective category of natural life, belong to any of the classes of objects or phenomena to which “meaning” can be assigned.

    Because meaning is a subjective concept assigned in terms of function, purpose, or value – often with temporal connotations – “meaning” cannot be used as a descriptor for human life.

    For “meaning” – defined as an end, purpose, or significance, assigned to objects or phenomena by human beings – is powerless to designate properties of functional utility (purpose), temporal objective (ends), or subjective/symbolic import (significance) to the abstract, emergent, metaphysical, sentient phenomenon of human consciousness. The evolutionary sophistication, neural structure, emotional repertoire, intelligence, and spirituality of the human being cannot be diminished to a class of phenomenon subject to the concept of meaning.

    It’s not that life has no meaning — it’s that life can’t have meaning, because life transcends meaning.

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