Jan 30, 2011

Philosophy and How to Live a Meaningful Life

This discussion at Leiter Reports seems to me to miss the point entirely. The question under discussion is whether contemporary philosophy addresses the question of how to live a meaningful life. There was general agreement that it does, with works like Nagel's Mortal Questions, Susan Wolf's Meaning in Life and Why it Matters, Thomas Hurka's The Best Things in Life, and Frankfurt's The Importance of What We Care About being cited as evidence for that claim. While those works do concern how to live a meaningful life, there are two points worth bearing in mind.

First, many of the books on this question are written by philosophers who are fairly late in their careers. Wolf's, Frankfurt's, and Hurka's were published in their late 50's. Nagel goes against the trend, as Mortal Questions appeared in 1979 when he was 42. One explanation for this is that interest in this topic has picked up in the past few decades, and older philosophers are generally more likely to publish books than younger philosophers. Another possibility is that this may not be a 'safe' topic, relative to others; it would then be more likely to be written about by philosophers with already established careers. I suspect that there's some truth in both of these suggestions.

Second, there's a deeper point here. While these books certainly deal with the issue of what a meaningful life consists in, it is less clear that they are aimed at answering how such a life, once identified as good or meaningful, can be lived. It may be that there is not much to say about the latter, or at least not much philosophers can say; maybe it is a question for psychologists. It is quite misleading, however, to suggest that only doing the first thing is sufficient. Some philosophers, including some of those with Wittgensteinian sympathies, have written about philosophy as therapy, so this is certainly not a matter that has been ignored by the discipline. Whether or not contemporary philosophy adequately addresses this question-- how to live a meaningful life, once we identify what such a life consists in-- is to my mind an open question, and one well worth pursuing.


  1. I've often wondered about this; I want to think philosophy is importantly continuous with everyday life, but my inability even to explain to most people in a simple way what I'm most interested in makes me wonder. At the very least, I know that DOING philosophy is part of living a fulfilling life FOR ME. Beyond that, I'm not so sure. My general impression, though, matches yours - questions about what a fulfilling life might consist in seem open to a philosophical analysis. But the perhaps more important questions about how to live such a life seem more a matter of psychology or, more likely from my point of view, religion.

  2. Thanks, Jeremy. You're quite right to add religion to the mix. Undoubtedly philosophers, and ethicists in particular, have much to learn from the way religious communities have articulated and preserved certain kinds of moral practices. (And this is true for both secular and religious ethics.) Maybe we should be reading Ignatius along with our Kant and Aristotle?

    For more on this question, the links below from Alex Pruss and Brandon Watson are quite helpful.