Karl Britton on Philosophy and the Meaning of Life

Le Penseur in the Musée Rodin in Paris

Karl William Britton (1909-83) was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He graduated from the University of Cambridge (Clare College) where he was President of the Union and a personal friend of Ludwig Wittgenstein. He did postgraduate work at Harvard University, and then held lectureships at Aberystwyth and Swansea before being appointed in 1951 to the chair of philosophy at King’s College, Newcastle upon Tyne.

In the first chapter of his 1969 book, Philosophy and the Meaning of Life, Britton claims that the question of the meaning of life is composed of two related and interconnected questions: 1) why does the universe exist, does it have meaning? And 2) why do I exist, what gives my life meaning? These queries lead to Britton’s first conclusion: “that for life to have a meaning it is necessary that there should be some things worth doing for their own sakes.”[i] For some, intrinsically worthwhile values are sufficient, but others claim that this is not enough; they need goals outside of themselves set by a god or nature to make life fully meaningful. Britton suggests that the reasons people seek more than just intrinsic values and goals in life are: 1) they don’t agree on what the intrinsically valuable things are; 2) they are driven to think they were born for something; and 3) it is hard to live without believing there is some goal for their lives outside of themselves. Britton concludes that if one finds an intrinsically valuable goal in life, as well as a goal set by a god or nature, one can be said to have lived a meaningful life. The problem is whether the latter goal exists.

The first kinds of answers that Britton explores to the question of meaning are authoritative answers—particularly Western religious answers. The basic problem with such answers is that they assume problematic concepts like the existence of gods and an afterlife. He then turns to what he calls a metaphysical answer—Aristotelian contemplation. While contemplation is worthwhile, it leads to theoretical knowledge and does not fully answer the question of meaning. There are also some informal or common sense answers—meaning is to be found in service to church, country, other people, or in work, family, or self-realization. The problems here are: a) to say there is a list of meaningful things does not tell us what the list is composed of; and b) while all of these may be necessary for a meaningful life they hardly seem sufficient; we can imagine having all of them and still wondering whether our lives are meaningful.

All of this brings Britton back to his original questions. As for his first question—what is the meaning, cause, or explanation of the universe—this is a theoretical question best answered by science, although people often try to answer it in non-scientific ways. The second question—what is the meaning of my life—is a practical question about how one should live and what one should value. An answer to this question must assert both facts and principles of conduct and can be criticized because it is mistaken about either.

Britton states that for a person’s life to be meaningful it must be true that: 1) persons are guided by their convictions; 2) persons matters to themselves and others; 3) the relationships between persons matter intrinsically; and 4) persons detect a pattern in their life. Britton concludes that the possibility of these conditions being met is enough for life to be meaningful. And since it is possible for these conditions to be met then life has meaning by virtue of this possibility, whether or not that possibility is actualized.

Regarding whether there is meaning to the whole thing, Britton reminds us that this requires some teleology that is external to us. However, we could be mistaken that such teleology is real or good. In the end, it is not gods or the creation of meaning that gives life meaning. Instead, it is “that life has a meaning and that this arises from the possibilities which remain in the fact of all actualities. I am not merely saying that the lives of some people have meaning: I am saying that the life of any man does have meaning.”[ii] 

Summary – Life has meaning because the facts of the world are such that a person’s life does matter both to themselves and to others.


[i] Karl William Britton, Philosophy and the Meaning of Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 16.
[ii] Britton, Philosophy and the Meaning of Life, 192.

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