What Is The Meaning Of Life?

"If you were to ask what provides some meaning in life nowadays for a great many people, especially men, you could do worse than reply 'football.' Not many of them perhaps would be willing to admit as much; but sport stands in for all those noble causes--religious faith, national sovereignty, personal honor, ethnic identity--for which, over the centuries, people have been prepared to go to their deaths. It is sport, not religion, which is now the opium of the people." - Terry Eagleton

A synopsis of this book states: The phrase "the meaning of life" for many seems a quaint notion fit for satirical mauling by Monty Python or Douglas Adams. But in this spirited, stimulating, and quirky enquiry, famed critic Terry Eagleton takes a serious if often amusing look at the question and offers his own surprising answer.

Eagleton first examines how centuries of thinkers and writers--from Marx and Schopenhauer to Shakespeare, Sartre, and Beckett--have responded to the ultimate question of meaning. He suggests, however, that it is only in modern times that the question has become problematic. But instead of tackling it head-on, many of us cope with the feelings of meaninglessness in our lives by filling them with everything from football to sex, Kabbala, Scientology, "New Age softheadedness," or fundamentalism.

On the other hand, Eagleton notes, many educated people believe that life is an evolutionary accident that has no intrinsic meaning. If our lives have meaning, it is something with which we manage to invest them, not something with which they come ready made. Eagleton probes this view of meaning as a kind of private enterprise, and concludes that it fails to holds up. He argues instead that the meaning of life is not a solution to a problem, but a matter of living in a certain way. It is not metaphysical but ethical. It is not something separate from life, but what makes it worth living--that is, a certain quality, depth, abundance and intensity of life.

Here is a brilliant discussion of the problem of meaning by a leading thinker, who writes with a light and often irreverent touch, but with a very serious end in mind.

So just what is the meaning of life?

Posted January 23, 2008


Philip Kurian said...

OK help me out. Eagleton says this is the only book on the meaning of life that doesn't mention Bertrand Russell and the taxi driver.

Somebody please mention it to me.


Diana Malcolm said...

There was an excellent piece in The Guardian where Julian Baggini gave his answer to this question. He details the taxi driver discussion as follows.

A taxi driver once had Bertrand Russell in the back of his cab. Since Russell was the most famous philosopher of his day, the cabby asked him "What's it all about?" Russell, however, could not answer. No surprise there, you might think. For isn't the meaning of life the most profound and elusive mystery of them all, unknown to even the greatest minds? Surely anyone who tells you they have the answer is joking, mad or simply mistaken.

Some of the points that particularly intrigued me in Baggini’s article were:

Why was Russell left speechless by the taxi driver? Because the question itself is a hodgepodge. It defies a simple answer because it needs to be carefully unpacked and dissected before it even makes sense. You can't expect to get a sensible answer unless you ask a sensible question. But what is "What's the meaning of life?" or "What's it all about?" supposed to mean? They may be grammatical, but so are "What's the meaning of cheese?" and "What's grass all about?" and I defy anyone to give a serious answer to either.

It might help to start by trying to imagine what the taxi driver really wanted to know. The most natural interpretation is that he was puzzled by why we are all here. But even that is ambiguous. Is that a question about where we came from or where we're going? Compare that to a more mundane question, such as why on earth you are sitting in the front row waiting for a Celine Dion concert to begin. One answer is because you bought a ticket, took a train and then your seat. That explains why you're there in a backward-looking way. Another answer is that you're there because you want to hear Dion sing, which explains your presence in a forward-looking (though somewhat baffling) way. The explanation you are interested in depends on what you need to know. If you just wake up to find yourself in this nightmare scenario, it's the backward-looking explanation you need. If you're having last-minute doubts about the wisdom of your choice of entertainment, the forward-looking explanation is what should exercise you. If we want to know why we are here, we can look backwards or forwards, and the answers we get, or fail to get, are very different and satisfy different needs.

That doesn't mean life has no meaning. It just means, as Jean-Paul Sartre argued, that human life does not come with any pre-assigned meaning. Life's purpose, if it has one, is not given to it by its creator. Perhaps, then, rather than answer the question of why we are here by looking backwards, we should look forwards. What future purpose or goal would make this life worth living? To put it rather dramatically, what the cabby really wanted to know was the answer to what Albert Camus claimed was the only serious philosophical problem: why shouldn't we kill ourselves? Why should we think that this life, with all its problems and pressures, really is valuable in itself?

There can be no final answer to the question of life's meaning. There are many things that make life worth holding on to and savouring. But life is unpredictable and we are often mysteries even to ourselves. We think success, happiness, helping others, or surpassing ourselves will make life worth living, but we can always be wrong or frustrated by events. Philosophers have a lot to say about the value of all these things, and a little less to say about one of the most valuable things of all - love. So we can be clear enough about what it means for life to have meaning and value, but when we put down our philosophy books and actually get on with living, meaning and value can be elusive. Living well is more art than science or philosophy. The only sense we can make of the idea that life has meaning is that there are some reasons to live rather than to die, and those reasons are to be found in the living of life itself

Read the whole article!
Di Di

Avid Reader said...

As I pointed out in an earlier thread on Wittgenstein the irony is that philosophers continually worry over the nature of knowledge - what we can know through experience (if anything), and the nature of truth and whether certain questions are valid etc.

Eagleton acknowledges this problem and refers to Wittgenstein’s position that some questions are real and some are phoney because they are just statements put in the grammatical form of a question. The classic model to illustrate this is well described by Eagleton when he wrote:

Take the statement ‘I have a pain’ which is grammatical similar to ‘I have a hat’. This similarity might mislead us into thinking that pains, or’ experiences’ in general, are things we have in the same way that we have hats. But it would be strange to say ‘Here, take my pain’. And though it would make sense to say ‘Is this your hat or mine?’ it would sound odd to ask ‘Is this your pain or mine?’

So the question ‘What is the meaning of life?’ falls into the same grammatical difficulty as asking ‘Is this your pain or mine?’


Diana Malcolm said...


I'm coming to the same conclusion about questions such as "What is the meaning of life?". The point you brought up about the 'hat' and the 'pain' was brought out again when he was discussing Derrida's term 'deconstruction'. I liked the example of adding up things that are colored pink when Eagleton writes:

We can say 'This is worth a dollar, and so is that, so how much are they worth altogether?' So it feels as though we can also say 'This bit of life has meaning, and so has that bit, so what meaning do all the various bits add up to?' But it does not follow from the fact that the parts have meaning that the whole has a meaning over and above them, any more than it follows that a lot of little things add up to one big thing simply because they are all colored pink.

Eagleton makes all this tough philosophical stuff so simple!

Di Di

Megan Zamprelli said...

Maybe there is no external meaning to life but only the internal meaning that one gives it. Maybe one's life is only meaningful in the way that each of us brings meaning into our own individual lives?

So using the analogies of 'hats' and 'pains' that DM introduced above maybe just like my 'pain' can only be experienced and known by me my 'meanng of life' can only be similarly subjectively experienced.


James Carnaghan said...

MAZ - I think you are right that the search for meaning is a purely personal one. Indeed I wonder if there was a grand answer given to the "What is the meaning of life" question those who didn't arrive at that meaning for their lives, or lived in frustration trying to obtain such a meaning, would be made quite unhappy. Perhaps the question should be raised but not answered and then inquiring minds can seek, or not seek as they choose, the answers that bring them happiness.


Stan Preston said...

This question of the meaning of life only arises because Man is the only living species that is aware of his own death as inevitable. Eagleton describes this as always living in the shadow of one's own death.

If one had no meaning and no existence before one's life began and will have no meaning and no existence after one's life ends then is it just an awful but simple fact that one has no meanng while living either?


Michael N. Hull said...

I would like to discuss the definition of the word 'meaning' as it pertains to the question 'What is the meaning of life?'

My view on this is that MY life has no 'meaning' to ME but my hope is that it has a 'meaning' to others.

What I mean by this might be illustrated by asking the question "What is the meaning of a daffodil?"

It seems to me that the daffodil has no meaning as a 'daffodil' and a daffodil can certainly not ask itself "What is the meaning of my daffodil life?"

However, the daffodil may have a meaning to me individually for 'being' a daffodil. I might like its color, or it may bring particular associations to me associated with past events in my life. Thus the daffodil's 'meaning' is subjectively defined by me and may be subjectively defined quite differently by others. Indeed some people do not like the color of yellow and to them there would be no meaning or point to having daffodils around at all. I might define daffodils as 'beautiful flowers' while others might see them as 'weeds'.

And so how does one make one's own life 'meaningful'? IMHO that can only be done through our relationship with others as we love one another. By loving someone that person becomes 'meaningful' in your life and if they love you in return then you become meaningful in their life. Thus two lives have one aspect of the 'meaning of their lives' defined through the act of the giving and the act of receiving love.

Maybe that is too simple an approach but I have yet to find a better answer for me personally.


Avid Reader said...


You make a great point and one that is very similar to the view of Kant who believed that life had a 'purposiveness without purpose'. Kant argued that one's hand or foot can be described as having a 'purpose' - the foot's purpose is to walk and the hand's purpose is to grip things etc. So while the 'purpose' of a foot or a hand is clear what is the 'meaning' of the foot or hand. This meaning can only be defined within the context of the whole body. That is the hand is meaningful to the body in that it performs several functions that the body as the 'whole' organism needs to have performed.

That is the way you have defined the meaning of life in that your life has purpose (to serve others) and in living out this purpose your life becomes meaningful to the body of humanity with which you interact and serve.


Andrew Wilson said...

DM and Michael

I like both of your points and I think they tie in nicely with the point Eagleton made on the debate in literary criticism about whether the meaning of a poem is already in the work waiting for the reader to extract it or is it something that each reader brings to the poem through individual interpretation. So if you find that your life is empty of meaning why not just fill it as you would a fridge when you run out of food. Meaning is the food of life so don’t complain about your fridge being empty when with a minimum of effort you can head to the grocery store. Some people will even bring food to your doorstep if you don't slam the door in their face. The world is full of 'meaningful food' - go out and receive it thankfully.

Peace, Andy

MIchael N. Hull said...

DM, Andy et al:

Enjoyed your comments! I think we are all in basic agreement and I think Eagleton is on the same page too. Eagleton asks: Is love then the meaning of life? and discusses this in terms of one of the four forms of love, that of 'agape' rather than 'eros', 'philia' or 'storge'.

In biblical literature, agape's meaning and usage is illustrated by self-sacrificing, giving love to all--both friend and enemy. It is used in Matthew 22:39, "Love your neighbour as yourself," and in John 15:12, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you," and in 1 John 4:8, "God is love."

Eagleton says: What we call love is the way we reconcile our search for individual fulfilment with the fact that we are social animals. For love means creating for another the space in which (s)he might flourish, at the same time as (s)he does this for you. The fulfilment of each becomes the ground for the fulfilment of the other. When we realize our natures in this way, we are at our best.

I recommend reading C.S. Lewis's book 'The Four Loves' - I may do a thread on it soon.