The Meaning of “The Meaning of Life”

From the Lecture Series: Meaning of Life: Perspectives From the World's Great Intellectual Traditions

By Jay Garfield, Ph.D., Smith College

When asking the question “What is the meaning of life?”, you may want to take a step back, reflect, and begin by asking, “What is meant by the phrase ‘the meaning of life’”?

Man sitting at the dock in twilight, thinking about the meaning of life. Lake, headland with church and hills in the background
(Image: John Christian Fjellestad/Shutterstock)

Three Types of Meaning

The word meaning, itself, has many meanings. Take these three examples:

Linguistic meaning or semantic meaning is the actual meaning of words, such as “red” in English and “rouge” in French. Indicative meaning is language that indicates the meaning in a sentence. For example, looking up at the sky and saying, “Those clouds mean rain.” The clouds aren’t literal signs or symbols in a language and we’re not trying to interpret them. What we mean is they indicate to us that it’s going to rain.

Learn more: Aristotle on Life—The Big Picture

A sense of meaning is when you talk about significance; something being important to you. For example, one might reference their wedding band and say, “This ring is of great meaning to me,” thus it represents my marriage vows. It has a certain sense of value and importance. It’s the third of these, this notion of significance, that’s the core meaning when we ask the question, what is the meaning of life?

Pointing to Something Beyond us

It’s this notion of significance, that’s clearly the core meaning when we ask the question, what is the meaning of life?

While the notion of significance is the core meaning, it’s not the only meaning.

When you ask why life is significant, why it matters, the others are important too. All three of these senses of meaning, though they’re different from one another, are related to one another in an important way—in each case, it is the sense of pointing to something outside ourselves.

This is a transcript from the video series Meaning of Life: Perspectives From the World’s Great Intellectual Traditions. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

All of these types of meaning have a sense of one thing pointing to or indicating something well beyond it. In general, when we ask the question “What is the meaning of life?” what we’re really asking is, what is it beyond our existence that gives our lives significance?

Why Search for the Meaning of Life in the First Place?

Another important question to ask is, what raises the question of the meaning of life in the first place? Why is this one of the questions that we feel bound to answer?

One is a fundamental awareness that human beings develop at some point our finitude in a vast and infinite universe, that we are a very small, limited, and ephemeral phenomenon in a universe that goes far beyond us.

Finitude has several different dimensions. On the one hand, there is the obvious finitude in space and time itself. If you think about the expanse of the world and the universe in which we live, it is quite vast. The globe that we dwell on right now is enormous. It is dwarfed by the solar system, a solar system that is no more than a speck in a galaxy, and a galaxy that is one of billions in a galaxy cluster.

Sand passing through the glass bulbs of an hourglass measuring the passing time
We’re here for a few years but in the course of human history which extends over hundreds of thousands of years already, that’s absolutely nothing. (Image: Min C. Chiu/Shutterstock)

Even if you restrict your gaze and think only about human history, you see that our lives are very small moments in time. We’re here for a few years; perhaps a hundred years, if we’re lucky. But in the course of human history which extends over hundreds of thousands of years already, that’s absolutely nothing. What is it about our ephemeral lives in human history that makes them worth living in the first place?

What Makes us Human?

One of the things that you need to ask if you’re questioning the meaning of life is, what is it that makes us characteristically human?

One of the things ask, if you’re questioning the meaning of life, is what does it mean for a life to be a human life?

Is the answer biological? To be human is perhaps to have a certain kind of DNA, a certain genetic code, or perhaps it’s to have certain organs—for example, the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. To be human might be to be biologically or genetically related to us; to have the kind of functioning organs that we do and ask what is it about that biological nature that’s important and significant.

Is the answer to the question psychological? It’s how we think. It’s what goes on in our minds. It’s what we’re capable of deducing; the intentions we’re capable of forming and so forth.

Is the answer to the question spiritual? We might say that what makes somebody distinctively human involves something like their relationship to a deity, their relationship to religious practice, or a religious tradition, something that transcends biology or psychology and is somehow a deeper effect.

Is the answer to the question within the moral dimension? Is it our capacity for caring about each other, for understanding the difference between right and wrong, for standing under moral imperatives, and for taking responsibility for our actions that make us human? We might say that anything biologically, psychologically, spiritually different from us, however different it may be if it’s morally like us, that’s the kind of thing whose life is significant.

Learn more about the concept of human choice

To What Extent are we in Control of our Lives?

Ship steer in control room to represent taking control of life
To what extent are we in control of our lives? (Image: Artem Markin/Shutterstock)

Before you can begin to ask the big question, we must ask: To what extent are we in control of our lives? Many people would say that our life is meaningful only to the extent that we can do something with it. It may be that everything that we do and everything that happens to us is completely causally determined. Or it might be that we’re free and we have a deep free-will. In either case, our lives might be meaningful or meaningless, but a sense of meaning is going to be very different.

On the other hand, it might be that you can find a middle path: certain things about us are determined, but certain things about our lives are free. Perhaps the meaning lies in the places where we can make choices. It might be that the meaning lies in exactly how we’re determined; it might be, for instance, that it’s what God has in mind for us that makes our lives meaningful. All of these questions require being raised.

Is There One Answer to the Meaning of Life?

There’s yet another important question to ask. Is there only one right answer to the question, “Is there a meaning of life?” If there is one answer, what is the one meaning?

We must consider that this might not be true; there might be many meanings of life and many different answers. For instance, the answer might vary over time; it might be that in one era the meaning of life is one thing, but in another era, it is another. It may be that what makes life meaningful for a small child is different from what makes life meaningful to an adult, and yet different again from what makes life meaningful to an elderly person.

The meaning may vary not only over cultural time, but it might vary over individual time. For example, the meaning of life for somebody growing up in classical India is different from the meaning of life growing up in modern Europe versus the meaning of life growing up in the contemporary United States. There will certainly be many different answers to the question of the meaning of life that come from individuals at different stages in their own lives.

What Counts as an Answer for the Meaning of Life?

What counts as an answer to the question, “what is the meaning of life?” One kind of answer might be: taking very seriously the problem of our finitude and the infinitude of the universe. In one sense, the only thing that could be an answer to this question would be some account of the relationship between finite beings like us and a vast, infinite universe. That’s one possibility.

Another possibility is we take the spiritual dimension to humanity more seriously, that the only possible answer to the question, “what is the meaning of life?” is an answer that gives us some sense of what our relationship is to divinity, to a god, or a greater spiritual existence.

There are other possibilities, too. We might be asking about the relationship of our own lives to the lives of those around us, to our immediate past, to our ancestors, and to those who come after us. For example, placing very special importance on the relationship between our own lives, the lives of our ancestors, and the lives of our children in determining what could make our own lives meaningful.

Learn more about the nature of divinity

Individual Dimensions to the Meaning of Life

There are two other big dimensions that we need to consider as we pose the big question of the meaning of life: the personal dimension and the collective or relational dimension.

When you ask the question in the personal dimension, you’re asking: “If I think of myself as an individual worrying about my own life, in what does the meaning of my life consist?” You might have several different kinds of answers to that.

You might say a meaningful life is a life of reason—a life that is led reflectively, thoughtfully, where you make choices in an informed way, where you’ve got good reasons for the things that you do, and you can look back on your life and say, “Yes I did the right things and I did them for the right reasons.”

You might say: a meaningful life is a life of reason—a life that is led reflectively, thoughtfully, where you make choices in an informed way, where you’ve got good reasons for the things that you do, and you can look back on your life and say, “Yes I did the right things and I did them for the right reasons.”

Or you might say what makes your life meaningful is that you’re able to lead it naturally in harmony with your own nature and in harmony with the nature you find around you. Here, you may think of yourself fundamentally as an organism and you try to shed social accretions, get back to your natural way of being, and live that way.

Learn more about the “six perfections”—the pursuit of generosity, propriety, patience, effort, meditation, and wisdom

Collective Dimensions to Meaning of Life

Beyond this individual dimension, there’s a second, social dimension to thinking about the meaning of life: the dimension of connectedness. In this dimension, you need an account of what your relationships are to others, to the broader world, to the universe, and to society, to answer the question what is the meaning of life.

On this dimension you might ask the question of, are we primarily independent agents in voluntary association with one another? When we think about our society, was it formed of a group of individuals who got together and said let’s form a society and make some agreements? We can base this on what we might see in the social contract tradition where government and social institutions are constituted and legitimated by the wills of individuals.

It might be that we are essentially social beings, that that’s what our fundamental nature is, and when we think about ourselves as individuals, it’s no more appropriate than it is to think of my hand as an individual instead of as a part of my body.

Do we choose our roles in society? Or does society give us our role? Is our context not primarily social but natural? Are we fundamentally animals living in an ecosystem? Is that what gives our lives meaning is our connection to other animals and plants in that broader ecosystem? Are we simply tiny parts of a very vast cosmos and that we need to think of ourselves relationally to the whole?

Common Questions About the Meaning of Life

Q: What is the real meaning of life?

Determining the meaning of life is a highly individualized process. Some people find meaning in serving their community, some find it in their work, still others in forging meaningful relationships, while for some people religion or spirituality is the strongest driving force in their life.

Q: What gives meaning to life?

For some people, serving God and following God’s word brings meaning to their lives. For others, meaning is something that you construct yourself and involves thoughtful reflection and speaking with purpose.

Q: What is the point of living philosophically?

Engaging with philosophical thought helps to bring meaning and purpose to our lives. It engages us with deep questions about why we are here on this earth and encourages us to be better people who conduct ourselves thoughtfully in our words and actions.

Q: What is the meaning of life according to Aristotle?

For Aristotle, a meaningful life was synonymous with a happy life. Happiness according to Aristotle was not a fleeting sensation that one gets from indulging in momentary pleasures but rather a lasting state of contentment that comes from living a virtuous life and forging meaningful relationships with others.

This course was updated on April 30, 2020

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