What Does Philosophy Say About the Meaning of Life?

Dealing with the search for the meaning of life can be overwhelming, but philosophy has answers to this profound question for human beings. Keep reading to discover them!
What Does Philosophy Say About the Meaning of Life?
Sergio De Dios González

Written and verified by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Last update: 25 June, 2024

You’ve probably often asked yourself questions about life, both your own and life in general. But, the frenzy of everyday life often puts you in a corner, and you’re forced to pay attention to higher-priority issues. In this article, we’re going to consider the meaning of life from a philosophical perspective.

We all ask questions such as “Why are we here?” or “What are we here for?” Philosophy has reflected on themes such as anguish, despair, being in the world, and everyday life. Today, we’re going to explore what the great philosophers, such as Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre have said on the issue.

The meaning of life for Existentialists

Existentialism is a philosophical current that invites us to reason about human existence and the search for meaning and purpose in life. It arose at the end of the 19th century. It proposes that existence comes first and then thought. Its followers defend that first, we exist, and then we live. Its main representatives were Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Anguish and despair

Life without a purpose can be an uphill struggle. As a rule, we have, for aspiration, material and worldly objectives that make us endure existence with some success. However, according to Kierkegaard, it’s essential to find a philosophical foundation that gives meaning to living.

“The crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find that idea for which I am willing to live and die.”

-Soren Kierkegaard –

For this, the theologian proposes the concepts of despair and anguish, to which he associates a vital attitude. In this sense, our discomfort with life begins when we reflect on our limitations, beginning with the finiteness of our existence.

One way of removing this anguish is aesthetics. It means immersing ourselves in worldly and superfluous pleasures. It motivates us to opt for the kinds of alternatives capable of producing emotion and passion. But, this way of life ends up with us feeling desperate.

So, what can we do about this situation? There are two paths to choose from. Firstly, to take delight in the daily activities that take us away from the question of the meaning of living. Secondly, to change reality and the way we see the world, including in it our undeniable biological finiteness.

Therefore, we need to overcome the anguish generated by asking ourselves about the meaning of living by making a choice. But, which should we choose? The answer is a life according to ethical rules. It’s within our power to do good or evil. The better our decisions are, the closer we’ll be to overcoming the anguish and despair of a mortal and finite existence.

Woman sitting contemplating the sunset and reflecting on the meaning of life
One of the reflections raised by philosophers is the common concern of the human being to feel like a grain of sand on a limitless beach.

Heidegger and being-in-the-world

Martin Heidegger was a German philosopher of considerable influence during the 20th century. He was interested in topics such as human existence, the relationship between man and nature, as well as ontology.

In his book, Time and Being, Heidegger argued that the human subject is a being in the world. In fact, they’re thrown into the world. We can feel really anguished for being just a grain of sand with a finite existence on a limitless beach. Moreover, as human beings, we know that our destiny is death. But, what can we do about it?

The philosopher maintains that we can choose to live with our backs turned to our mortality, thus leading artificial lives. The other way out is to accept that we’re going to die and to live facing this reality. It gives us the power to generate the fear that emanates from a possibility that we accept.

The human being as a project

Jean-Paul Sartre was a French philosopher and playwright. His philosophical works dealt with existentialism, while his theatrical works explored the human condition.

Sartre proposed the existence of the concepts of being and nothing. He believed that existing corresponds to being, while non-existence (or death) corresponds to nothing. However, he attached great importance to being, because without it, nothing can exist. Without existence, nothing would have any meaning.

“Man is the being through whom nothingness comes into the world.”

-Jean-Paul Sartre-

The valuable emphasis that the philosopher placed on existence or being was such that he considered it to be a project. That’s to say, in the course of life, we forge our own being. We can see it in everyday life. In living, we forge our own lives, with meaning for us.

Therefore, doing and deciding are fundamental to finding the meaning of life. Because living always implies making decisions and, by doing so, we do what we decide. It means building the meaning of living in doing and deciding.

Woman open her arms in the middle of a field of flowers
The meaning of living, from a less existentialist point of view, states that everyone is the architect of their own life and the foundations are their daily acts and their ties.

The meaning of living from everyday life

Leaving aside the existentialist positions, there are other currents that focus on exploring the meaning of life from a socio-cultural perspective. According to this perspective, individual life is framed in certain contexts of daily activity and in the relationships we establish with others.

This perspective suggests that we have the power to establish ourselves as our own architects via reflection. Said existence is social, because, as individuals, we don’t move alone or in isolated ways, but we live with other human beings and build our vital senses with others.

It’s in everyday life, made up of the activities and social relationships of individuals, where each of us would naturally build the meaning of life. But, we must be careful, because we can get lost in routine, monotony, and conformism, and become thoughtless beings who lose the sense of life that society promotes.

The meaning of life

Philosophy offers us different vantage points from which we can reflect on the meaning of life. Indeed, fundamental questions like existence, morality, and freedom can help us understand our own lives and find purpose.

Philosophy also teaches us that life doesn’t have a universal meaning. In fact, the meaning and value of life is a construction that we must make ourselves, as individuals. As such, there’s no magic recipe for the meaning of life, but philosophy serves as a guide for it.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.