Videos from Lumen Christi programs


Our partner Lumen Christi‘s November program videos are now available through the links below. We hope you enjoy them!

Paul Mariani (Boston College) | November 2 | “A Final Seriousness: Wallace Stevens’ Late Poems Revisited” | Video and Details HERE.
David O’Connor (Notre Dame) | November 16 | “Plato’s Bedroom: Desire, Union, and Procreation” | Video and Details HERE.


Richard Garnett (Notre Dame) and Andrew Koppelman (Northwestern) | November 20 | “Trinity Lutheran and the Future of Public Funding for Religious Entities” | Video and Details HERE.

James Baldwin among the Philosophers

Image from 2LeafPress.

Curated by University of Chicago Bibliographer for Religion, Philosophy, & Jewish Studies Anne Knafl, the exhibit “James Baldwin Among the Philosophers” is on display Sept. 25, 2017 – Dec. 31, 2017 in the Regenstein 4th Floor Reading Room and will remain online permanently.


James Baldwin’s work is widely recognized for its religious overtones and influences as well as for its critiques of racism and heterosexual norms. This exhibit displays books and essays by James Baldwin, alongside philosophical works that engage his work.


Said Knafl of the exhibit’s genesis, “I have wanted to mount an exhibit about James Baldwin since the release of the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” in 2016. Baldwin’s works are known for their religious imagery but, given his complicated relationship to the church, I was curious about his philosophical influences and influence. I found a number of works that situated Baldwin in American philosophical traditions. In the exhibit, I juxtapose these with early editions of Baldwin’s works from the Library’s collection.”


Baldwin rose to prominence after the publication of his first novel in 1953, Go Tell It on the Mountain, a semi-autobiographical account of his childhood. By the 1960s, Baldwin had become the most recognizable African-American writer in the U.S. and the de facto spokesperson for the Civil Right Movement, a title he opposed.

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us. But white Americans do not believe in death, and this is why the darkness of my skin so intimidates them.

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time



The meaning of life and the crisis of reason

The explorer

This is part 5 of a 5-part series, “Don’t Ask about ‘the Meaning of Life’ (An argument in five blog posts)”.

Part 5.  Epilogue:  The meaning of life and the crisis of reason.

Is the question of the meaning of life even a meaningful question?  That challenge was posed by positivist philosophers, who in their eagerness to identify truly scientific questions, capable of verification by empirical observation, dismissed whole classes of inquiry as meaningless.  The positivists were right, in a way – the question of the meaning of life is a meaningless question – but in recognizing that they were not so much announcing a new discovery, as springing a trap positivists themselves had set.  The trap was the dismissal of all moral evaluation as merely the expression of personal feeling.


This trap was built with the materials inherited from their predecessors in modern philosophy.  The key figure in this story, as in so much else of modern philosophy, was David Hume.  Hume embraced, and made others face, the inevitable consequence of the rationalist’s view of instrumental reason, that the mind cannot know the purposes or natures of things – or even whether there are purposes and natures of things – and so moral conviction cannot be grounded in knowledge of what things are.  Given the continued power and success of science, it was only a matter of time before someone made the positivist move: to re-characterize science, formerly thought of pursuing the natures of things, as the formulation of empirically verifiable laws, with the concomitant relegation of all evaluative judgment (moral, aesthetic, and theological) to the expressions of feelings, technically irrational and meaningless.


Through much of modernity, even through early positivism, the question of the purpose of life was so powerful as to reassert itself even as the conception of reason grew ever more antithetical to it.  Pascal responded to the early modern conception of scientific rationality, showing its limits in light of the “reasons of the heart,” and even coopting instrumental reason (in his “wager”) to reassert the question of how one is to live.  Kant resisted Hume’s skepticism, trying valiantly to relocate ethics, metaphysics and even religion itself within the scope of rational inquiry.  And as we have seen, in response to positivist conception of reason, Kierkegaard embraced the irrationality of religious faith as the very sign of its superior sort of truth.  But in doing so – in accepting the positivist conception of rationality – Kierkegaard so subjectivized the question of purpose as to frame it in new terms, no longer as an intelligibly grasped purpose or goal or chief good of life, but as a personally felt, and extra-rational, meaning of life.


I think the reflections here and in the previous posts suffice to show that the emergence of the question of the meaning of life is not just a trivial semantic shift, superficially covering the persistence of a common, underlying question within a stable, coherent conceptual framework.  The shift in the formulation of the question embodies a shift in the actual question being asked, which reflects a dramatic change in the general conceptual framework assumed by those questions – a dramatic change in the assumptions made about the world, about the human condition, about rationality, and about the kinds of questions that can intelligibly be asked.  The question of the meaning of life just is not, and should not be confused with, the question of the end of man or the purpose of life.  The two questions entertain different sorts of answers, give rise to different associated questions, and make different assumptions about the nature of man and reality.


In the face of this realization, we seem to face three options about how to proceed in talking about these questions and their relationship:

Option 1: We can ignore the differences, and continue acting as if the new and old questions are really different versions of the same question.  This seems to have been the default approach, but it is, we now see, untenable.

Option 2: We can celebrate the shift, adopt the new question, and bid good riddance to the old question.  Presumably there are some who would embrace that option; I will leave it to them to defend.

Option 3: We can find the new question problematic, and recommend not asking it, and work to recover the old question.  The argument I’ve presented points strongly in this direction.


A fourth option is worth entertaining, but won’t be explored here.  The 20th Century development of Catholic social and moral teaching suggests that it is at least possible to believe that the old question (the question of purpose) is more important and fundamental, while judging that the new question (the question of meaning) has a cultural purchase which cannot be ignored.  Certain documents of Vatican II, and then the major writings of John Paul II, suggest an intentional strategy to use the meaning question to reawaken the older question of purpose – a development of the Catholic intellectual tradition that deserves further study by philosophers, theologians, and intellectual historians.

Joshua P. Hochschild is the Monsignor Robert R. Kline Professor of Philosophy at Mt. Saint Mary’s University.

Assessing the difference between meaning and purpose


This is part 4 of a 5-part series, “Don’t Ask about ‘the Meaning of Life’ (An argument in five blog posts)”.

Part #4: Assessing the difference between meaning and purpose.

In the three previous posts, we saw that the question of the meaning of life is a late 19th Century invention, which effectively displaced what had previously been the dominant question about human life, namely its purpose or goal.  Now we may take stock of the significance of this shift.


To suppose that the question of “the meaning of life” is a timeless, universal question, would be to insist that it captures what is formulated in terms of the question about man’s ultimate end or good or purpose.  This would be very hard to sustain.  The question of the purpose of life, if taken seriously, is intrinsically teleological and essentialist.  It presumes that there is such a thing as true human fulfillment, rooted in human nature, which reflects a definite purpose or intention of its maker.  In Aristotelian terms, the question implicates three of the four causes: in asking about the end (final cause) of man, it presumes that there is an essential human nature (formal cause), which has been communicated to man from an agent (efficient cause).


Put another way, to ask after the purpose or end of human life is at once to create a field for practical moral questions – How should we live? For what end should I act? – and to frame that field in the context of fundamentally metaphysical questions – what is the true origin, nature, and destiny of human beings?  This is exactly what we see reflected in the the design of the whole of Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae – which places the moral reflection of the Secunda Pars (previously mentioned) in relation to God, as creator of human nature (explored in the Prima Pars), and Who alone can lead us to the fulfillment of our end (explored in the Tertia Pars).


By contrast, the question of the meaning of life almost seems formulated precisely to avoid both the moral field and metaphysical frame.  Meaning is subjective, placing an emphasis on the interior life, feelings, emotions, awareness, consciousness.  What makes me feel purposive doesn’t necessarily speak to the question of an intrinsic, essential purpose.  “Meaning” does indeed suggest directionality – something is meaningful or significant if it makes reference to something else.  But this is not the directionality of action toward an end, rather it is the directionality of symbol to what is symbolized.  To ask about the meaning of life is almost to ask an aesthetic question: what will my life evoke, what will it represent?


As a consequence, notice what questions further arise after we open up the question of “the meaning of life”: is it the same for everyone, or a matter of individual perspective?  Do we make meaning, or discover it?  Do we entertain the possibility that there is no meaning?  If my life feels meaningful to me, is it really meaningful?  These are existentialist questions – questions of real moral seriousness, to be sure, but raised from a position disconnected from a moral or metaphysical framework.  By contrast, notice what further questions arise from the question of the purpose or end of life: where does it come from?  How can I achieve it?  Is this or that action compatible with it?  These are questions of theology and ethics – questions of moral seriousness strongly rooted in a metaphysical framework.  The question of life’s meaning places an emphasis on subjective fulfillment; the question of life’s purpose can include that, but relates the notion of personal fulfillment to a question that draws one outside of oneself: what is my life for, how can I bring my life into its intended order.  It is the difference between asking what might happen to make me feel fulfilled given my circumstances, and asking what should fulfill me in light of the true structure of reality.


So consider the kind of answers one could give to the old, more permanent question about the goal or end of life: virtue, happiness, union with God, life everlasting.  “Why did God make you? God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.”  No wonder the authors of the Baltimore Catechism, like Thomas Aquinas, could use the question of human purpose to structure an instruction in Christian wisdom.  Do answers like this even make sense as answers to the question of the meaning of life?  One would have to say, in Kierkegaardian fashion, only if one chose to make the leap of faith, to believe those answers, to make them meaningful for you.


Alasdair MacIntyre has defended a teleological approach to ethics by connecting it to the possibility of making life intelligible as a narrative.  This might sound like it is a version of making life “meaningful,” although MacIntyre strongly denies an easy equation between an Aristotelian purpose and existential meaning.  Simply finding meaning cannot be the telos of life.  True, if one is not aware of a purpose in one’s life, one will feel that one’s life is meaningless, but that doesn’t mean that “living a meaningful life” makes sense as the goal of life.  MacIntyre is even willing to allow that Kierkegaard, for instance, did have a teleological view of life.  Kierkegaard departed from Aristotle in his understanding of the mode of perceiving one’s actions as oriented toward a telos.  MacIntyrean narrative is a kind of rationality, but Kierkegaard (as Tolstoy) was eager to place “meaning” outside of rationality.  For Kierkegaard, man’s fundamental motives are more a matter of non-rational psychological mechanisms – hence Kierkegaard’s “ethical” reasoning is closer to “aesthetic” feeling than to more familiar forms of rational intelligibility.


So it is not a surprise that, even when taken seriously as the ultimate question of human life, it is widely recognized that the question of the meaning of life is highly personal.  Unlike the question of the end of man, which is a general question about the essential good of human nature as such, the question of the meaning of life is individualistic and particular.  The strength, and the weakness, of the question is that it seems to put the weight of responsibility on the one asking it to supply an answer from his or her own private, inarticulate resources.


As a consequence, those who take the question of the meaning of life most seriously seem to turn the question around, and make it less a question of abstract moral theorizing than a question of personal commitment.  As earnestly characterized by Viktor Frankl, the question of the meaning of life seems to transform from a common question about human life, to a personal question about finding one’s unique vocation.  Describing the challenge of life in the concentration camp, he says:

We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.


These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way.


So even for Frankl, concerned as he is with helping to find meaning in the face of what could so easily seem meaningless, the question of the meaning of life admits of no general answer, and is not even the right question to ask.




Joshua P. Hochschild is the Monsignor Robert R. Kline Professor of Philosophy at Mt. Saint Mary’s University.

What “the meaning of life” replaced

Aristophanes & Sophocles. Photo by rai_19 on Flickr.

This is part 3 of a 5-part series, “Don’t Ask about ‘the Meaning of Life’ (An argument in five blog posts)”.

Part 3. What “the meaning of life” replaced.


In the previous two posts, we traced the circumstances of the emergence of the question of “the meaning of life,” which, far from being a timeless question rooted deep in the human heart, is a late 19th Century invention in a particular European intellectual context.


What then did people wonder about before they wondered about the meaning of life?  This is not a difficult to discover.  The question about human life asked for most of Western history, up into the 20th Century, is not about the meaning of life, but about the goal, good, or end of life.  The question was most commonly formulated in terms of “the end of man” or “man’s chief good” (where “man” is obviously the gender-neutral term for the human species).  The Greeks called it the “telos,” Latins the summum bonum or ultimus finis.  We may call it the question of human purpose – where by “purpose” we don’t mean an individual agent’s intention or conscious sense of purpose, nor a personal vocation or path to fulfill, but the intrinsic, essential why of the species.  What are human beings for?  What is the ultimate point of our existence?


This is the question that dominates the center and largest of the three parts of Thomas’ Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae – Question 1 of the First Part of the Second Part is “On Man’s Last End,” and the following several hundred questions examine all that is entailed in answering that question.  The question of man’s purpose or end is addressed in Augustine’s City of God and Confessions.  It is the question that motivates Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.  Many of Plato’s dialogues consider the human good or end explicitly (e.g. Republic and Philebus), and those that don’t can easily be read as relating their subjects – virtues, laws, speech, knowledge, pleasure, friendship, love and death – to that question.


The tone could be said to be set by Greek drama.  Could we imagine trying to interpret Sophocles’ Antigone as a meditation on the meaning of life?  Hardly.  It is clearly and forcefully about the end or good of man.  Even the great Western stories about a particular character finding his personal path – Illiad and Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy – only make sense as reflections on how an individual’s destiny makes sense as a the pursuit of the human good.  It would seem to trivialize these epic stories to force them into the paradigm of exploring “the meaning of life.”


Into the 19th Century, even as the new question of the meaning of life was beginning to be formulated, the question of an intrinsic human purpose remained dominant in secular and religious contexts.  When Thoreau set out “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” he did so explicitly questioning the catechism’s answer to “the chief end of man,” but still in pursuit of his own, alternative answer.  We do not find Marx speaking of “the meaning of life,” though he did formulate his materialistic anthropology in terms of “the purpose of life.”  Herbert Spencer, even while articulating a utilitarian ethics grounded in positivism, still speaks of human nature and human purpose; the question of life having “meaning” does not arise for him.


The purpose of life was, quite explicitly, the primary pedagogical question of Catholic instruction.  Major 19th Century Catholic thinkers, like John Henry Newman and Orestes Brownson, never asked about “the meaning of life,” but frequently spoke of “the end of man” or “the chief good of man.”  And of course the 1885 Baltimore Catechism’s very first lesson – the starting point from which it proceeded to instruct in the essentials of the faith – was entitled, “The End of Man” – a phrase further glossed by the catechism as “the purpose for which he was created.”



Joshua P. Hochschild is the Monsignor Robert R. Kline Professor of Philosophy at Mt. Saint Mary’s University.

The emergence of “the Meaning of Life”

Tungsten lamp bulb, old vintage design style.
Tungsten lamp bulb, old vintage design style.

This is part 2 of a 5-part series, “Don’t Ask about ‘the Meaning of Life’ (An argument in five blog posts)”.

Part 2. The emergence of “the Meaning of Life”

The question of “the meaning of life” is a late modern invention, and it is not difficult to trace their emergence, all around the same time, in major European languages.  In German, der Sinn des Lebens is sometimes said to have been first formulated by Neitzsche in 1875.  (Google turns up scattered, apparently uninfluential, earlier uses: in an 1825 play by Ernst von Houwald, and in an 1811 work of political history by Heinrich Luden.)


In French, in 1865, Emile Zola wrote that one morning “le sens de la vie” escaped his semi-autobiographical character Claude.  The phrase was not common before then.  “Le sens de la vie” was also the title of an 1889 moralistic novel by Eduoard Rod.  This use which may be attributable to Russian influence: Leo Tolstoy might have been the first to use the relevant Russian phrase (“смысл жизни”), in his “Confession,” published in 1882.  Rod probably read “Confession”; he and Tolstoy corresponded, and shared a critique of Schopenhauer’s pessimistic reflections on the meaninglessness of life.  So this French and Russian connection points in the same direction as Carlyle’s joke, that “the question of the meaning of life” has its roots in the legacy and critique of German idealism.


It is perhaps not incidental that the question of the meaning of life seems to have been first formulated in order to articulate an essentially negative answer.  The question appears to have arisen as a way of making intelligible, even if only for the purpose of escaping, the threat of meaninglessness: the articulation of the question reflects a felt need to overcome a pessimistic or negative view about human life – the kind of answer implied by materialism, positivism, and the scientific critique of religion.  Kierkegaard was reflecting on the meaning of life (in Danish, “meningen med livet”) in the mid-1800s – but even his positive answer was in response to the looming possibility of the negative alternative – that life was Meningslost, “meaningless”.


In any case, from these scattered philosophical references, “the question of the meaning of life,” finds its home in a certain kind of late-modern discourse, romantic, existential, psychological, aesthetic – a world populated as much by poets, novelists and artists as by philosophers and theologians: it is used by Freud and Spengler, Thomas Mann and William James; Camus and Sartre; Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Set.  Even those who propose a positive answer, advancing something satisfying as “the meaning of life,” seem to feel the pressure of a looming, barely escapable negative answer, that perhaps life is meaningless or absurd.


It would perhaps be a permissible shorthand, then, to say that “the question of the meaning of life” is an existentialist question, and as such about as historically contingent as existentialism itself, a philosophical movement rooted in particular cultural circumstances.  True, existentialism claimed to get at universal questions of human life, but it is a feature of existentialism that it articulates those questions in terms of “the meaning of life” – and related questions like the meaning of suffering, the meaning of death, the meaning of freedom, or finding meaning in life – all questions of meaning – instead of some other sorts of questions.


Interestingly, “the question of the meaning of life,” although new, did not grow into a proper new field or sub-discipline in philosophy.  To the extent that it survived outside of existentialism, it was subsumed under ethics, where it was taken to be commensurate with previous questions of ultimate moral concern.  We have mentioned its role in novels and plays.  At the same time, and perhaps ironically, “the meaning of life” also came to be adopted outside of philosophy and literature by the social sciences, as a neutral, objective way to characterize certain phenomenon, of individuals and cultures finding value or direction.  Treating questions that might have traditionally been thought of as having religious or moral stakes, instead as questions of “the meaning of life,” allowed the social sciences to attend to the powerfully value-laden dimensions of human experience without taking sides – indeed pretending that it is possible and preferable to avoid taking sides – in answering those questions.


It will be interesting to see how much longer the question of the meaning of life will survive.  By the late 20th Century, in popular discourse the phrase “the meaning of life” had attained (or reverted to?) joke status.  Whether as the title of a Monty Python movie or of Kelly Clarkson’s latest album, its tone is often now more corny and pretentious than earnestly philosophical.


Whatever its fate, the history of “the meaning of life” question is clear: along with other 19th Century inventions like the telephone, the electric lightbulb, and the internal combustion engine, it may be hard to imagine life without it, but it is late civilizational invention.  Far from being a timeless, eternal, fundamentally human question, “the” question of “the meaning of life” is a contingent social construct.  Culturally and politically, its context is one of uncertainty and secularism.  The connotation of the question is subjective, and the implicit pressure to answer it is the weight of pessimism and doubt: it is hard to escape the impression that the question of the meaning of life only emerges in response to political, intellectual, and social conditions that otherwise suggest that life is “meaningless.”


Given the novelty, and specific context, of the question of “the meaning of life,” we should be very curious about what question it might have replaced.


Joshua P. Hochschild is the Monsignor Robert R. Kline Professor of Philosophy at Mt. Saint Mary’s University.