Philosophy The Meaning of Life
Thaddeus Metz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0070


For millennia, thinkers have addressed the question of what, if anything, makes a life meaningful in some form or other. This article concentrates nearly exclusively on approaches to the question taken by analytic philosophers in the postwar era, by and large omitting reference to prewar Anglo-American works, texts from other traditions such as Continental or African philosophy, and writings from nonphilosophical but related fields such as religion and psychology. Much of the contemporary analytic discussion has sought to articulate and evaluate theories of meaning in life, i.e., general and fundamental principles of what all meaningful conditions have in common as distinct from meaningless ones. This entry accordingly focuses largely on these theories, which are distinguished according to the kind of property that is held to constitute meaning in life (see Supernaturalism, Naturalism, and Non-Naturalism).

Introductory Works

These texts are more introductory or have been written in a way that would likely be accessible to those not thoroughly trained in analytic philosophy. Baggini 2004 and Eagleton 2007 are pitched at a very wide, popular audience; Thomson 2003 and Belshaw 2005 would be best for undergraduate philosophy majors; and Belliotti 2001, Martin 2002, and Cottingham 2003 are probably most apt for those with some kind of university education or other intellectual development, not necessarily in Anglo-American philosophy.

  • Baggini, Julian. What’s It All About? Philosophy and the Meaning of Life. London: Granta, 2004.

    Defends the view that meaning in life is largely a function of love; addresses approaches or maxims (e.g., Carpe diem) more than it does principles.

  • Belliotti, Raymond Angelo. What Is the Meaning of Human Life? Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001.

    A thoughtful treatment of a variety of issues; defends an objective naturalist approach to meaning in the context of critical discussion of classic thinkers such as Aristotle, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer.

  • Belshaw, Christopher. Ten Good Questions about Life and Death. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.

    Engagingly written, analytic treatments of several key “life and death” issues, many of which bear on meaningfulness, which the author cashes out objectively in terms of relationships and projects.

  • Cottingham, John. On the Meaning of Life. Thinking in Action. London: Routledge, 2003.

    An elegantly written book that defends an Aristotelian, God-based (but not soul-based) approach to meaning in life.

  • Eagleton, Terry. The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    A light and lively essay on a variety of facets of the question of life’s meaning, often addressing linguistic and literary themes. Rejects subjective or “postmodern” approaches to meaning in favor of a need for harmonious or loving relationships.

  • Martin, Michael. Atheism, Morality, and Meaning. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2002.

    A vigorous defense of a naturalist approach to morality, in the first half of the book, and to meaning, in the second. Very critical of Christian approaches to both.

  • Thomson, Garrett. On the Meaning of Life. London: Thompson/Wadsworth, 2003.

    Argues that nine common views on meaning in life (e.g., that an infinite being is necessary for meaning or that meaning is exhausted by happiness) are flawed. Emphasizes that meaning must reside largely in activities we engage in, lest our lives be reduced to “tools” for the sake of ends beyond us.

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