PHIL E -105 The Meaning of Life


Many of us have good reasons for doing this or that, making this decision rather than that, choosing this path over another, etc. There is often a point to these choices that we can identify, and sometimes have thought hard about. But is there a point, is there significance to life as a whole? That is the question about the “meaning of life.” Though the question is notoriously hard to make precise, one way or another it has animated much literature and art, and also much philosophy. Some philosophers have provided disheartening answers: life is suffering, and then it ends; life is absurd, and never gains any meaning; life is all about creating hell for each other, and we cannot escape. But other philosophers have provided more uplifting answers to support the quest for personal significance. Both kinds of answers deserve scrutiny. Such scrutiny should be of interest to anybody who wishes to reflect on her/his life as a whole as part of her/his education. After reviewing several pessimistic and more optimistic approaches to the meaning of life we turn to the subject of death. We will all die eventually. We normally encounter death among family and friends before we must deal with our own. These themes too are the subject of philosophical reflection. The class finishes with a discussion of an important set of lectures on the topics of this course by a contemporary philosopher. This class is wide-ranging, and will integrate historical figures, references to art and literature as well as to science as appropriate. But its main focus is on contributions by recent thinkers in the Anglo-American analytical tradition of philosophy. The methodology is philosophical. Some topics may touch you quite personally, and you should take this into account before enrolling. Please do not expect an answer of the sort “The meaning of life is X.” But short of that, there is much exciting material to be encountered here that combines intellectual depth with valuable personal advice.