I know that many philosophers might scoff upon being asked some variation of "What is the meaning of life or living" but isn't it about the most relevant question one can ask in relation to philosophy and its relationship with humankind? It seems this is studied very little or at all by philosophers in academia. As a follow-up, do philosophers either in the continental or analytic tradition place any value in the metaphysical writings of yogis or mystics from India; isn't it at least worth investigating?

To the contrary there is a reasonable amount of attention paid to the question. (My colleague at Connecticut College teaches a whole course on the meaning of life, and has a long reading list.... but immediately coming to mind is Thomas Nagel's well-known essay "The Meaning of Life.") Why it should be the "most" relevant question, though, I'm less sure -- no doubt for many it's closely related to questions of morality -- what sort of life should we live, what is a good life,e tc -- and courses on ethics are taught everywhere, and the corresponding literature is enormous. And no doubt, too, for many it is closely related to matters of religion -- and courses on religious studies, and the philosophy of religion, are taught everywhere, with an equally enormous corresponding literature. If you google "meaning of life in philosophy" or something like that you'll find plenty ... And there are some western philosophers, analytically inclined, who are very learned in eastern traditions (to indirectly address your last question) -- one particularly prominent and talented one is Jay Garfield: http://www.smith.edu/philosophy/jgarfield.html.



Thank you for this inquiry. Actually, philosophers have returned to the question of the meaning of life after a sort of sabbatical in the 1980s and 1990s. The latest is The Purpose of Life by Stewart Goetz published by Continuum. He thinks that most philosophers have agreed about the meaning of life, at least as far as human beings are concerned. The meaning (or true, desirable end) of life is happiness. Philosophers, according to Goetz, have disagreed about what does or should make one happy or the ultimate end of living a life of happiness, but agree in the abstract on the importance of happiness. I think there is some truth to this. Interestingly, Goetz is a Christian theist, so he ultimately weaves together his view of life's meaning with a whole philosophy of the cosmos, which he understands in teleological (purposive) terms as opposed to a matter of blind mechanism. Other recent contributors on the meaning of life include Thomas Nagel, who has written eloquently on the mystery of the cosmos and his own struggle to come up with a satisfying account of meaning from an atheistic point of view.

As for Yogis and Asian thought on Hinduism and Buddhism, these traditions are studied by both philosophers and scholars in religious studies. And the truth of either of those traditions (for example) would directly impact questions about the meaning of life. For example, let's say a person is in the grip of the greedy desire to acquire as much wealth for himself as possible, and Buddhism turns out to be true. Well, in that case, I think we would have to conclude (regardless of what the person thought his life was about) he wasted his life in the pursuit of an illusion. Similarly, if some Yogic Hindu teaching is right about the self, then an ego-maniac is also mistaken about her presumed autonomy and the importance of others. And back to my earlier points, if Nagel is right, then Goetz as a Christian has devoted his life to a profoundly mistaken view of the cosmos, and if Goetz is right, then Nagel is missing out on a widening horizon in which human beings can be in relationship with the living God.

I suggest those who reject the question of the meaning of life by saying it all comes down to what you want it to be have not really rejected the question. It appears they think the meaning of life IS up to the individual. But I further suggest this seeming autonomy seems a bit limited, for it is hard for an individual to control the significance and impact of what he or she wants. I might choose to become "a new atheist" and, in a sense, the meaning of my life may then partly be living on the grounds that there is no God, but it is not up to you or me whether there actually is a God of some kind or not. So, the meaning of life seems to stretch beyond what we happen to want and requires (in my view) substantial philosophical inquiry into values, the structure and significance of the cosmos, and the possibility of some divine transcendent reality (Brahman or God)

It would be unbecoming of a philosopher to scoff at the question rather than engage it in some way, and philosophers do engage it. Another book to investigate is the third edition of The Meaning of Life: A Reader, edited by Klemke and Cahn. In his article "The Absurd" (widely anthologized, including in Klemke and Cahn), Nagel makes a tantalizingly brief suggestion that many who seek the meaning of life are seeking something flatly impossible: a life purpose so significant, so clearly ultimate, that it would make no sense to question it. Take happiness, for example. We can't simply define it as "the ultimate goal of life," because that would be a circular definition in this context. So we can question it as a goal: Is it the same as pleasure, or is it more like lasting satisfaction? Is it tied to virtue or not? Whichever answers we give to those questions invite the further sensible question "If that's what happiness is, then why is it the ultimate goal?" In this short magazine article, I follow up Nagel's suggestion in the context of traditional theism. [By the way, Chapter 1o of Nagel's introductory book What Does It All Mean? (1987) is entitled "The Meaning of Life," but it's barely seven short pages. More likely Prof. Pessin meant to refer to Nagel's "The Absurd" in his comment above.]

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