Summary of David Schmidt’s: “The Meanings of Life”

David Schmidt (1955- ) is Kendrick Professor of Philosophy and joint Professor of Economics at the University of Arizona. In “The Meanings of Life” (2002) he admits that philosophy may not be able to deal with the question of the meaning of life, but he’ll try to understand “life’s meaning by reflecting on what it has been like to live one.”[i] Schmidt begins by contrasting the existential attitude—that life’s meaning is of extreme importance and that we must give meaning to our lives—with the Zen attitude—that meaning is not something to worry about and that meaning is found simply by being mindful in the present. Schmidt doesn’t take sides on this matter, admitting that he is no sage and that it is hard to talk profoundly about such matters.

He next notes that while some lives mean more than others, meaning has limits. Why? Because: 1) meaning in life does not last; 2) meaning changes; 3) meaning may not be deep enough to fulfill our longings; 4) life may be the kind of thing that cannot have deep meaning; and 5) life is short. Ultimately our most lasting achievements are ephemeral. Although there are limits to meaning, that does not mean life is meaningless. Schmidt agrees with Taylor that being fully engaged in our lives, however trivial they might seem from a universal perspective, is what gives them limited meaning. Still, sadness accompanies knowing that the meaning of our lives is limited.

Schmidt now lists some of the components of meaningful lives, although he admits there are many ways to live them. First they have impact, maybe not on the cosmos, but on something important to you like your family. So you should not look for an impact where you don’t have any, but where you do. Schmidt wonders about Nozick’s claim that you need to leave permanent traces in the world—a higher standard for meaning—but suggests that we should probably be content with less. Features of meaningful lives are:

  • Meanings are symbolic – For example, we can give meaning to simple worms if we want. Meanings need not be intrinsic, only meaningful to us. Of course two persons could have the same experience with one finding it meaningful, the other finding it meaningless.
  • Meanings are choices – We choose whether our lives have sufficient meaning for us. If we choose to view them as meaningless, then we should not worry about it since that is meaningless too. And if we can’t enjoy meaninglessness, then we should choose to treat life as meaningful.
  • Meanings track relationships – Our lives derive meaning when they mean something to the people around us. Our lives communicate things to others—that they are important or we care about them—and maybe their meaning is in what they communicate.
  • Meanings track activity – Most of us don’t want to plug into “the matrix-like happiness machine” which suggests we want more than experiences; we want the meaning that comes from activities. This raises questions as to whether you would think life in the machine was objectively or only subjectively meaningful. Meaning also seems related to the activity of making contact with external reality, something we cannot do in the machine.

In order to experience deep meaning, we need to bring a personal touch to life or decorate our house in Schmidt’s metaphor. Life is the picture we put on the bare walls. As we age we may lament the path we chose, or regret that we could only choose one path. Maybe meaning is being attentive to the path we chose and, though we cannot state what the meaning of life is, we can still enjoy the process. Just engaging in certain activities—coaching little league football in his example—is sometimes sufficient.

Schmidt wrote a postscript to his original article after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. In it he claimed that the encounter with death had not changed his view of the meaning of life. You cannot live each day as if it is your last and it is hard to make permanent traces in the world. Some say that life is meaningful if we finish painting one big picture which has an impact; others maintain that meaning comes from painting many smaller pictures, which has the advantage of something being done if the brush is taken away unexpectedly. Schmidtz says that our lives can be meaningful because of the little pieces of our lives that slowly add up, even if they never produce a completed work of art.

Summary – Being engaged in our lives is what gives them meaning. There are a few things we can say about life’s meaning, but we can never state its meaning with clarity. The best we can do is find meaning in what we are engaged in.


[i] David Schmidt, “The Meanings of Life” in Life, death, and meaning, ed. David Benatar (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 92.

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