Category Archives: Meaning of Life – Classics

Jean Paul Sartre on the Meaning of Life

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Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was a French existentialist philosopher, playwright, novelist, screenwriter, political activist, biographer, and literary critic. He was one of the leading figures in 20th century French philosophy, particularly Marxism, and was one of the key figures in literary and philosophical existentialism. Sartre was also noted for his long personal relationship with the feminist author and social theorist Simone de Beauvoir. He was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature which he refused.

In his famous public lecture “Existentialism Is a Humanism,” (1946) Sartre set out the basic ideas of his existential philosophy and its relationship to the question of the meaning of life. He begins by noting that the communists have criticized his philosophy as bourgeois; Christians have rejected it as morally relative; and others have described it as sordid, unappreciative of beauty, and subjective. In response Sartre explains that existentialism is based upon the doctrine that existence precedes essence; that our concrete subjective existence comes before whatever essence we develop.

To help us understand this idea Sartre considers an artifact such as a letter opener. In this case its essence—to open letters—precedes its existence. The artisan had this essence in mind before it existed. When we think of God as creator of human beings we are reasoning similarly. God had our essence in mind first, and then created us in accord with that human nature. Sartre’s atheistic existentialism implies the reverse. For human beings our existence precedes our essence, since there is no God to give us an essence, and we freely choose what we will become. Unlike chairs and tables we have to make ourselves, and in so doing we alone are responsible for the essence we create.

Along with this responsibility comes the anguish that accompanies our decisions. We never know which action we should perform, but perform them we must. Furthermore, as there are no gods or objective moral guidelines, we alone must choose, be responsible for our choices, and accept the accompanying anguish that choice brings. We cannot escape our freedom, Sartre says, and we should offer no excuses for them. When deciding between staying with our mother or going off and fighting the Nazis, in Sartre’s example, no theory of human nature or objective moral values help. We must simply exercise our freedom, choose, and accept the responsibility and anguish that follows.

The benefits of an existential view are first, that it begins with individual consciousness, the only certain beginning for any philosophy; and second, it is compatible with human dignity, as it respects humans as subjects rather than making them manipulated objects. Individuals are artists or moral agents who have no a priori rules to guide them in creating art or living moral lives. And we should not judge others for the choices they make, unless they hide behind a doctrine and dogma. To do that is to deny one’s freedom.

In the end to be human means precisely to recognize oneself as sole legislator of values and meaning, which for Sartre is the logical conclusion of his atheistic position. But even if there were gods it would make no difference, human beings would still have to create their own values and meanings for their lives to be valuable and meaningful. 

Summary – Human beings are not artifacts with a pre-existing essence; they are subjects who must freely choose to create their own meaning.

Summary of Thomas Nagel’s, “The Absurd”

Nagel at a chalkboard

Thomas Nagel (1937- ) is a prominent American philosopher, author of numerous articles and books, and currently University Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University where he has taught since 1980.

In “The Absurd,” (1971) Nagel asks why people sometimes feel that life is absurd. For example, they often say that life is absurd because nothing we do now will matter in the distant future. But Nagel points out that the corollary of this is that nothing in the distant future matters now: “In particular, it does not matter now that in a million years nothing we do now will matter.”[i]

Furthermore, even if what we do now does matter in a distant future, how does that prevent our present actions from being absurd? In other words, if our present actions are absurd then their mattering in the distant future can hardly give them meaning. For the mattering in the distant future to be important things must matter now. And if I claim definitely that what I do now will not matter in a million years then either:  a) I claim to know something about the future that I don’t know; or b) have simply assumed what I’m trying to prove—that what I do will not matter in the future. Thus the real question is whether things matter now—since no appeals to the distant future seem to help us answer that question.

Consider next the argument that our lives are absurd because we live in a tiny speck of a vast cosmos, or in a small sliver of time. Nagel argues that neither of these concerns makes life absurd. This is obvious because even if we were immortal or large enough to fill the universe, this would not change the fact that our lives might be absurd. Another argument appeals to the fact that everything ends in death, and from this infers that there is no final purpose for our actions. Nagel replies that many things we do in life find their justification in the present—when I am hungry I eat!

Moreover, if the chain of justification must always lead to another justification, we would be caught in an infinite regress. And since justification must end somewhere if it is to be justified at all, it might as well end in life. Nagel concludes that the arguments just outlined fail, adding: “Yet I believe they attempt to express something that is difficult to state but fundamentally correct.”[ii]

For Nagel, the discrepancy between the importance we place on our lives from a subjective point of view, and how gratuitous they appear objectively, is the essence of the absurdity of our lives. “… the collision between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpetual possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitrary, or open to doubt.”[iii] Yet, short of escaping life altogether, there is no way to reconcile the absurdity resulting from our pretensions and the nature of reality. This analysis rests on two points: 1) the extent to which we must take our lives seriously; and 2) the extent to which, from a certain point of view, our lives appear insignificant. The first point rests on the evidence of the planning, calculation, and concerns with which we invest in our lives.

Think of how an ordinary individual sweats over his appearance, his health, his sex life, his emotional honesty, his social utility, his self-knowledge, the quality of his ties with family, colleagues, and friends, how well he does his job, whether he understands the world and what is going on in it. Leading a human life is full-time occupation to which everyone devotes decades of intense concern.[iv]

The second point rests on the reflections we all have about whether life is worth it. Usually, after a period of reflection, we just stop thinking about it and proceed with our lives.

To avoid this absurdity we try to supply meaning to our lives through our role “in something larger than ourselves… in service to society, the state, the revolution, the progress of history, the advance of science, or religion and the glory of God.”[v] But this larger thing must itself be significant if our lives are to have meaning by participating in it; in other words, we can ask the same question about the meaning of this larger purpose as we can of our lives—what does it mean? So when does this quest for justification end?

Nagel says it ends when we want it to. We can end the search in the experiences of our lives or in being part of a divine plan, but wherever we end the search, we end it arbitrarily. Once we have begun to wonder about the point of it all, we can then ask of any proposed answer—what is the point of that? “Once the fundamental doubt has begun, it cannot be laid to rest.”[vi] There is no imaginable world that could settle our doubts about its meaning.

Nagel further argues that reflection about our lives doesn’t reveal that they are insignificant compared to what is really important, but that they are only significant by reference to themselves. So when we step back and reflect on our lives, we contrast the pretensions we have about the meaning of them with the larger perspective in which no standards of meaning can be discovered.

Nagel contrasts his position on the absurd with epistemological skepticism. Skepticism transcends the limitations of thoughts by recognizing the limitations of thought. But after we have stepped back from our beliefs and their supposed justifications, we don’t then contrast the way reality appears with an alternative reality. Skepticism implies that we do not know what reality is. Similarly, when we step back from life, we do not find what is really significant. We just continue to live taking life for granted in the same way we take appearances for granted.

But something has changed. Although in the one case we continue to believe the external world exists, and in the other case we continue to pursue our lives with seriousness, we are now filled with irony and resignation. “Unable to abandon the natural responses on which they depend, we take them back, like a spouse who has run off with someone else and then decided to return; but we regard them differently…”[vii] Still, we continue to put effort into our lives no matter what reason has to say about the irony of our seriousness.

Our ability to step back from our lives and view them from a cosmic perspective makes them seem all the more absurd. So what are our options? 1) We could refuse to take this transcendental step back, but that would be to acknowledge that there was such a perspective, the vision of which would always be with us. So we can’t do this consciously. 2) We could abandon the subjective viewpoint and identify with the objective viewpoint entirely, but this requires taking oneself so seriously as an individual that we may undermine the attempt to avoid the subjective. 3) We could respond to our animalistic natures only and achieve a life that would not be meaningful, but at least less absurd than the lives of those who were conscious of the transcendental stance. But surely this approach would have psychological costs. “And that is the main condition of absurdity—the dragooning of an unconvinced transcendent consciousness into the service of an imminent, limited enterprise like a human life.”[viii]

But we need not feel that the absurdity of our lives presents us with a problem to be solved, or that we ought to respond with Camus’ defiance. Instead, Nagel regards our recognition of absurdity as “a manifestation of our most advanced and interesting characteristics.”[ix] It is possible only because thought transcends itself. And by recognizing our true situation we no longer have reason to resent or escape our fate. He thus counsels that we regard our lives as ironic. It is simply ironic that we take our lives so seriously when nothing is serious at all; this is the incongruity between what we expect and reality. Still, in the end, it does not matter that nothing matters from the objective view, so we should simply chuckle at the absurdity of our lives.

Summary – Life has no objective meaning and there is no reason to think we can give it any meaning at all. Still, we continue to live and should respond, not with defiance or despair, but with an ironic smile. Life is not as important and meaningful as we may have once suspected, but this is not a cause for sadness.


[i] Thomas Nagel, “The Absurd,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008,)143.
[ii] Nagel, “The Absurd,” 144.
[iii] Nagel, “The Absurd,” 145.
[iv] Nagel, “The Absurd,” 146.
[v] Nagel, “The Absurd,” 147.
[vi] Nagel, “The Absurd,” 147.
[vii] Nagel, “The Absurd,” 150.
[viii] Nagel, “The Absurd,” 151.
[ix] Nagel, “The Absurd,” 152.

Wittgenstein on the Meaning of Life


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, do 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 followed 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.

Summary of A. J. Ayer’s,”“The Claims of Philosophy”

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A.J. Ayer (1910 – 1989) was the Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at University College London from 1946 until 1959 when he became Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford. He is one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century. Ayer is perhaps best known for advocating the verification principle, the idea that statements and questions are meaningful only if we can determine whether they are true by analytic or empirical methods.

In his 1947 article “The Claims of Philosophy,” Ayer asks: does our existence have a purpose? According to Ayer to have a purpose means to intend, in some situation “to bring about some further situation which … he [she] conceives desirable.”[i] (For example, I have a purpose if I intend to go to law school because that leads to becoming a lawyer which is something I consider desirable.) Thus events have or lack meaning to the extent they bring about, or do not bring about, the end that is desired. But how does “life in general” have meaning or purpose? The above suggests that overall meaning would be found in the end to which all events are tending. Ayer objects that: 1) there is no reason to think that there is an end toward which all things are tending; and 2) even if there were such an end it would do us no good in our quest for meaning because the end would only explain existence (it is heading toward some end) not justify existence (it should move toward that end). Furthermore, the end would not have been one we had chosen; to us this end is arbitrary, that is, it is without reason or justification. So from our point of view, it does not matter whether we receive a mechanical explanation (the end is universal destruction) or a teleological explanation (the end is union with a god). Either way, we merely explain how things are but we do not justify why things are—and that is what we want to know when we ask the meaning of life question. We want to know if there is an answer to this ultimate why question.

Now one might answer that the end toward which all is tending is the purpose of a superior being and that our purpose or meaning is to be a part of the superior being’s purpose. Ayer objects that: 1) there is no reason to think that superior beings exist; and 2) even if there were superior beings it would do us no good in our quest for meaning because their purposes would not be our purposes. Moreover, even if superior beings had purposes for us, how could we know them? Some might claim this has been mysteriously revealed to them but how can they know this revelation is legitimate? Furthermore, allowing that superior beings have a plan for us and we can know it, this is still not enough. For either the plan is absolute—everything that happens is part of the plan—or it is not. If it is absolute then nothing we can do will change the outcome, and there is no point in deciding to be part of the plan because by necessity we will fulfill our role in bringing about the superior being’s end. But if the plan is not absolute and the outcome may be changed by our choices, then we have to judge whether to be part of the plan. “But that means that the significance of our behavior depends finally upon our own judgments of value; and the concurrence of a deity then becomes superfluous.”[ii]

Thus invoking a deity does not explain the why of things; it merely pushes the why question to another level. In short, even if there are deities and our purpose is to be found in the purposes they have for us, that still does not answer questions such as: why do they have these purposes for us? Why should we choose to act in accord with their plans? And regarding the answers to these questions, we can simply ask why again. No matter what level of explanation we proceed to, we have merely explained how things are but not why they are. So the ultimate why question—why does anything at all exist—is unanswerable. “For to ask this is to assume that there can be a reason for our living as we do which is somehow more profound than any mere explanation of the facts…”[iii]  So it is not that life has no meaning. Rather it is the case that it is logically impossible to answer the question—since any answer to why always leads to another why. This leads Ayer to conclude that the question is not factually significant.

However, there is a sense in which life can have meaning; it can have the meaning or purpose we choose to give it by the ends which we choose to pursue. And since most persons pursue many different ends over the course of their lives there does not appear to be any one thing that is the meaning of life. Still, many search for the best end or purpose to pursue, hence the question of meaning is closely related to, or even collapses into, the question: how should we live?  But that issue cannot be resolved objectively since questions of value are subjective. In the end, each individual must choose for themselves what to value; they must choose what purposes or ends to serve; they must create meaning for themselves.

Summary – There is no reason to think there is a purpose or final end for all life and even if there were one, say it was to fulfill a god’s purpose, that would be irrelevant since that purpose would not be ours. Regarding such a plan either we cannot help but be part of it—in which case it does not matter what we do—or we must choose whether to be part of it—which means meaning is found in our own choices and values. Moreover, all this leads us to ask what is the purpose or meaning of the gods’ plans; but any answer to that question simply begets further why questions indefinitely. Thus it is logically impossible to answer the ultimate why question. In the end, the question of the meaning of life dissolves into or reduces to the question of how we should live.

[i] A. J. Ayer, “The Claims of Philosophy,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 199.

[ii] Ayer, “The Claims of Philosophy,” 200.

[iii] Ayer, “The Claims of Philosophy,” 201.