A Taxonomy of Answers to the Question of the Meaning of Life

A painting of an autopsy, by Rembrandt, entitled "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp"

Answers to the question of the meaning of life fall into one of three categories:

  1. Negative (nihilistic) answers—life is meaningless;
    1. Affirmation—it is good that life is meaningless;
    2. Acceptance—it is not good that life is meaningless;
  2. Agnostic (skeptical) answers—we don’t know if  life is meaningful;
    1. The question is unintelligible;
    2. The question is intelligible, but we don’t know if we can answer it;
  3. Positive answers—life is meaningful;
    1. Supernatural (theistic) answers—meaning from transcendent gods;
    2. Natural (non-theistic) answers—meaning created/discovered in natural world;
      a) meaning is objective—discovered or found by individuals;
      b) meaning is subjective—created or invented by individuals.

Think of these responses on a continuum:

/                        \

  Unanswerable           Unintelligible


     Meaningless                            Somewhat Meaningful                               Meaningful
/                 \                                                                                                                /                \
Affirm         Accept                                                                                       Natural    Supernatural
/            \
Objective   Subjective

Agnosticism is placed above the continuum because it is a meta-view. Agnostics are not halfway between the two ends of the continuum; they do not think life is partly meaningful and partly meaningless. Instead they argue that the issue cannot be resolved either because the question makes no sense or, if it does make sense, cannot be answered, or, if it can be answered, we have no way of knowing whether that answer is correct.

Note that these divisions are not exclusive or exhaustive but guidelines to the plethora of views. Many philosophers’ views do not fall clearly within a given label. For example, agnostics may hold that the question is basically unintelligible, yet claim that a few positive things can be said, or that the question is mostly, but not completely, unanswerable. And naturalists typically hold that there are both objective and subjective components to meaning.

This latter distinction between objective and subjective naturalists is hard to draw. If philosophers emphasize subjective values that are dependent on individuals as the source of meaning, we categorize them as subjective naturalists. If they emphasize objective values that are independent of people as the source of meaning, we categorize them as objective naturalists. But many thinkers blur this line, arguing that we both create meaning, and discover it in objectively good things. The distinction between the two is that those I call objectivists defend the idea of objective value whereas the subjectivists do not.  At any rate, categorizing responses helps situate particular views within a broader context, although the specifics of various views must speak for themselves.

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2 thoughts on “A Taxonomy of Answers to the Question of the Meaning of Life

  1. I think some version of the existential position should be included. Life has the meaning that you create for it out of your own experience.

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