Irving Singer: The Meaning of Life

Irving Singer (1925 – 2015) was Professor of Philosophy at MIT where he began teaching in 1958. He was a voluminous writer, and the author of Meaning in Life in three volumes, as well as the three volume trilogy, The Nature of Love.

Singer says there are basically three positions regarding the meaning of life: a) traditional religious answers; b) nihilistic answers; and c) create our own meaning answers. Singer grants that religious answers provide many persons with meaning but he rejects them: “this pattern of belief is based on non-verifiable assumptions that exceed the limits of natural events and ordinary experience. Take away the transcendental props, which nowadays have become wobbly after centuries of criticism, and the grand edifice cannot stand. The challenge in our age is to understand how meaning can be acquired without dubious fantasying beyond the limits of our knowledge.”[i]

Singer also rejects nihilism, especially the idea that the universe is indifferent to whatever we value. Singer counters that what we want is valuable to us whether or not the universe cares. Our values originate in our human condition; they spring from, but do not contradict, a world that we should not expect to care about us anymore than we expect this of other inanimate things. One can consistently hold that they both act with purpose and that the universe is purposeless. Our values do not exist from the eternal perspective, but they are not arbitrary, irrational, or absurd; our values emanate from our evolved nature.

While Singer’s thoughts on the topic are vast and complex, the secret to understanding it is found in the title of his first major book on the subject, Meaning in Life: The Creation of Value (Volume 1)Meaning is something we create. Yet he is sensitive to the rejoinder that regardless of what matters to us subjectively, nothing matters objectively. Here he notes two responses: 1) if something matters to an individual then it matters, period; and 2) if nothing matters then it doesn’t matter that nothing matters. However, neither response reassures. That things matter only to us is not enough, and that things do not matter at all provides no comfort.

In response to this conundrum we might welcome the notion that nothing matters. If we embrace this thought we may no longer be tormented by a social faux pas or even by the fact that all our efforts will finally come to nothing. We may no longer need to contrast the meager with the important; we could leave self-righteousness behind, accepting ourselves and others. But what then should we do, what then should we value? The idea that nothing matters is ultimately unhelpful.

Instead Singer argues that accepting that nothing matters is to lose touch with one’s instincts, as we naturally find things matter to us. By simply being alive we reveal that things do matter to us; in large part being alive is about choosing what does and does not matter to us. That something matters is a prerequisite for life, and specifically what matters is what brings happiness and meaning to individuals.

Yet none of this means there is a reality behind the appearances that gives meaning to life as the optimists claim. “Our mere existence in time, as creatures whose immersion in past and future prevents us from adequately realizing the present, convinces me that the optimists are deluding themselves.”[ii] Like Emily Gibbs in Wilder’s Our Town, we seem incapable of realizing life while we life it. And while some like Plato and Whitehead have posited eternal objects as a solution to the passage of time, Singer rejects these as mere abstractions and static—unlike life.

All of this leads Singer back to the question: Is life worth living? He answers that we must participate in significant creative acts to make our lives meaningful. To clarify what he means Singer quotes George Bernard Shaw:

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. And also the only real tragedy in life is the being used by personally minded men for purposes which you recognize to be base. All the rest is at worst mere misfortune or mortality: this alone is misery, slavery, hell on earth; and the revolt against it is the only force that offers a man’s work to the poor artist, whom our personally minded rich people would so willingly employ as pander, buffoon, beauty monger, sentimentalizer and the like.[iii]

Singer grants that Shaw does not tell us how to be forces of nature or what it means to be true to our nature. But for Singer this includes at a minimum an acceptance of our nature and self-love. Self-love is not the same as vanity; rather it enhances our ability to love others. And although we may not be able to love all of life, or love others as much as we love ourselves, we can see others as possible objects of our love. As everything loves itself, inasmuch as they do what they can to preserve themselves, there is love in everything. We can try to love the love that is in everything. As Singer puts it:

Those who love the love in everything, who care about this bestowal and devote themselves to it, experience an authentic love of life. It is a love that yields its own kind of happiness and affords many opportunities for joyfulness. Can anything in nature or reality be better than that?[iv] 

Summary – We give meaning to life by loving the good in everything.


[i] Irving Singer, Meaning in Life: The Creation of Value (New York: Free Press, 1992), 73.
[ii] Singer, Meaning in Life: The Creation of Value, 133.
[iii] George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman, 1903.
[iv] Singer, Meaning in Life: The Creation of Value, 148.

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