The Meaning of Meaninglessness

Pierrot by Jean-Antoine Watteau (circa 1718-1719)

I’m reading a book by a philosopher named Susan Wolf about the meaning of life.  Or rather, about the importance of meaning in a good life.

What prompts such a book? you may ask.  Susan Wolf explains that philosophers have been discussing, and differing over, whether it’s better to seek selfish happiness or some universal moral objective in one’s life.  Her contention is that there’s a third thing people seek, or should seek: meaning.

So what gives meaning to a human life?  She thinks two factors confer it.  First is pursuing one’s passion.  Second: one’s passion should be for something that’s got objective worth.

There is a wide range of desiderata that can meet these double requirements.  One can have a passion for philosophy, for example, or for making fine pastries.  Both have “objective worth” in that many people value them.

What concerned me, reading her book, was another matter.  What leads anyone to ask, “What is the meaning of life?”

Most people alive and literate today encounter claims that life is meaningless or absurd.  Different reasons are advanced to support this conclusion.  Here are some of them.

  • We die, all the people who know and care about us also die, and pretty soon no one will know we were ever here.
  • Compared to the size of the universe, or universes, we are but a speck. Too small to matter.
  • Compared to the timeline of this universe, our span of life is too short to matter.
  • All our deepest beliefs, our concepts of self and of value, are fabrications, constructed by the socially dominant group within our culture.

Had enough?  I think I’ll stop there.

Re #1, that’s an empirical question.  There’s a fact of the matter.  Either we die when our bodies die, or we don’t, because we aren’t identical with our bodies.  It’s a real question.  The answer isn’t self-evident.  There is relevant empirical evidence to consider.  I’ll bracket that question for now.

Have you noticed something about 2 – 4?  These next three reasons are highly generic and abstract.  They’ve been introduced into the culture by theorists.  If you’ve embraced them, you’ve pressed into your personal worldview theories that come from outside your experience.  I’ll just say a word or two about these broad claims.

About 2 and 3: why should our filling x amount of time or space decide our importance?  A poem can take less than five minutes to recite and yet be marvelous to hear.  A sympathetic pat on the hand can rebuild the whole world for someone who feels abandoned.

About 4: however derived, if our concepts don’t fit us, we will wear them as uneasily as a pair of shoes that’s the wrong size or shape for our feet.   If it doesn’t fit, we can keep trying till we get a concept that fits better.

Now for the real question:

when does this wondering

about the meaning of life


It arises naturally just when our own life seems meaningless to us.  When does that happen?

In my life, when suddenly all of it seems grey and pointless – the grey extending as far as the horizon — when I can’t find a reason to take another step, the most urgent thing is to find out why I suddenly feel this way.  It’s important to ask that question without delay, because the feeling itself seems quite cosmic, as if there’s no reason to seek its cause because it’s just the way things are.

The question to ask is, what was the trigger, or precipitating occasion?  Often it’s something very small, a sensation or an encounter that triggers a memory.  Something has bumped one’s functions or forces out of alignment.  We are more delicate, more easily disaligned than we realize.

What fashionable contemporary thinkers call the absurdity of life either reflects some personal quandary that they’ve not seen and resolved, or else some highly theoretic claim coming to them from opinion-shapers and embraced to show that they too are in the vanguard.

Life comes to us already purposive.  Every living thing has purposes.  Ours are more individuated, conscious, complex and adjustable, but

there is no purposive void.


About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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4 Responses to The Meaning of Meaninglessness

  1. Gail Pedrick says:

    Well said….Gail


  2. Ken Kaplan says:

    Your conclusion rings true to me…every living thing has purposes. Expanding on the thought can be fun too. I propose that everything is purposive…

    Every “living thing” is comprised of evolved matter (atoms, etc.). That matter is either inanimate as presumed by most scientists or imbued with some level of “consciousness” from the beginning. Either way, matter created chemistry which created biology which led to “life” and ultimately human self awareness.

    We are stardust. We matter. Ergo stardust matters too. Our intuition can lead us to an understanding of purpose but such questions are beyond knowing given the tools we currently have to examine such issues. Perhaps that’s the meaninglessness of meaning. 😉

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