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.