The Meaning of Life

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Abstract The phrase “meaning of life” is difficult to define. Discussions of meaningful lives frequently deal with, among others, lives that have to them high degrees of worth, lives focused on goals or purposes that people ought to pursue, or lives that relate to plans and issues that are “beyond” one's own individual self. Metz 2001 has suggested that no definition (in the sense of a set of necessary and sufficient conditions) of the phrase could be found, and that discussions of the meaning of life are united by family resemblance. Although the phrase has come to be used only in the last two and a half centuries, questions and considerations that we would include today under this rubric are old, and can be found already in Ecclesiastes. Some influential discussions of the topic, such as Tolstoy's 1983 autobiographical essay, are not, strictly speaking, philosophical. In philosophy, many of Schopenhauer's pessimistic claims (see Schopenhauer, Arthur) should be seen as arguments about the meaninglessness of life, although he too does not employ the term. And many classical philosophical discussions about the good life, the happy life (see Happiness), and the right way to live are relevant for discussions on the meaning of life, although the notions are distinct. Until recent decades, the meaning of life was mostly discussed within continental philosophy, and analytic philosophers usually refrained from dealing with it. But in the last few decades, there has been growing interest in the topic also within analytic philosophy, and further work on it comes out every year. This essay discusses both continental and analytic work on the subject.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationInternational Encyclopedia of Ethics
EditorsHugh LaFollette
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherWiley-Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Number of pages5
ISBN (Print)9781444367072
StatePublished - 1 Feb 2013


  • ethics
  • practical (applied) ethics


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