October 2010 | Status: First Draft
This is one of the two standard questions that I expect to be asked when I tell someone that I study philosophy. (The other one concerns God and religion, but let’s save that for later.) So, seriously, what the heck is the meaning of life?
Standard questions deserve standard answers, and here’s my canned response: Why are you asking me for the meaning of your life? I mean, it’s not just anybody’s life that you’re interested in. If you’re wondering about the meaning of life, it’s probably because you expect life to mean something for you, or at most for people whom you care about. Even if somebody gave you the perfect answer, like 42, you’d still have to figure out what it means for you.
In general, philosophy doesn’t give you a whole lot of answers. What you get instead is a bunch of conflicting views, each of which claims to be an answer, but none of which really seems to get the job done. Philosophers today are still trying to answer many of the same kinds of questions that Plato and Aristotle grappled with 2,400 years ago. Although both the questions and their potential solutions have been greatly refined over the centuries, nobody has come up with an unequivocal answer to any of those timeless questions. You usually end up grappling with more questions than you brought to the table.
But answers aren’t what make philosophy so powerful. Rather than dispensing shrink-wrapped answers, philosophy teaches you to how to ask questions, so that you are better placed to go looking for your own answers. Sometimes you hear people say that in philosophy there is no right answer. To the extent that that’s true, it’s because the answer depends on the question, and asking the right question is so much more important. After all, you’ve got to know what your question is before you can even tell what kind of answer you should be searching for. But finding the answer is your job and your job only. Even if somebody tells you they’ve found an answer, philosophy says that you have to check it yourself.
So, what is the meaning of life? Here’s my take on it: you’re asking it wrong. Whatever the answer is, I don’t think it’s something that can be sliced and diced into unambiguous propositions. It’s something that needs to be lived, not said.