Virtue and the Bonds of Love


Photo by Graeme Scott.

“A thing must be loved before it is loveable,” G. K. Chesterton once said.[1] Many of us want to know how we can become better people. We want to know how we can help our children and our students to become better people. Indeed, philosophers since Plato and Aristotle have been interested in how it is that people become virtuous, perhaps because, as Julia Annas puts it, “We cannot understand what virtue is without coming to understand how we acquire it.”[2] And although philosophers have largely ignored Chesterton’s insight,[3] he appears to have been exactly right, even prophetic.


Recent psychology suggests that an enormous factor in moral development—perhaps the great factor—is attachment. ‘Attachment’ is a fancy word for enduring love, the sort we see between parents and children, and in marriages and close friendships. None of us would want to live without such love. Few of us have ever lacked it completely, and the times we’re made to go without enough of it are oppressively painful, like going without sunlight or fresh air.


All of this is taken onboard by attachment theory, a research program in developmental psychology that aims at explaining the nature and significance of human attachments.[4] One of the major claims of attachment theory is that, through their early experiences with a caregiver, infants form an internal “map” of what they can expect from others. If, for instance, the caregiver is warm and attentive, the infant will write this down on his map. He will then use his map to go about future socializing. He will expect others to be warm and attentive. He will trust that, if he shows his needs to them, they will care. He will be, as the experts say, “securely attached”.


If, on the other hand, the caregiver is a lousy bum, the infant will expect others to be lousy bums. Perhaps he will decide that he had better rely on himself to get his needs met. He will be “insecurely attached”.


Of course, both the writing of the map and the using of it are unconscious processes, only entering consciousness as a whiff of anxiety here or a sigh of relief there. And this may sound like so much Freudian mysticism. But the “map” here is really just a stored mental representation, and it is by now commonplace that the brain unconsciously creates mental representations of how things are, that it uses these to make predictions, and that it begins to do so no later than when we come screaming into the world.[5]


Children who are securely attached have more of the stuff that virtues are made of. It is alarming, in fact. In a study from Jude Cassidy’s lab,[6] for example, researchers interviewed children using puppets (they say it’s for the kids). They ask the children questions that elicit self-reflection. They code their answers in one of three ways:

Perfect: No negative comments about the self at all.

Negative: Globally negative remarks about the self.

Flexible: Globally positive remarks about the self, mixed with specific negative remarks.

What they found? Securely attached children were more likely to talk about themselves in the flexible way. What this seems to suggest is that being securely attached means you are better able to love and respect yourself while admitting to specific ways you could improve.


It’s worth underlining this. Consider how important this ability is to personal growth. Indeed, one of the great challenges of human life is finding a way to admit one’s gruesome imperfections without being crushed by the shame of it. One meets many people who deal with this by only embracing one side of the dilemma. One tells the truth, and is crushed. Or one avoids the crushing but only through self-deceit. The trick is to tell the truth, the whole damn thing, without sentencing yourself to life without parole. (An analogous challenge arises when it comes to our love for others: How do we love them when we discover their vileness?)


The Cassidy study only scratches the surface. Here is a list of eleven other virtue-related areas where the securely attached are better off:[7]

  1. Self-worth[8]


  1. Realistic self-image[9]


  1. Emotion regulation[10]


  1. Cooperative problem solving[11]


  1. Self-reliance[12]


  1. Understanding of others’ needs and emotions[13]


  1. Understanding of one’s own needs and emotions[14]


  1. Acceptance of vulnerability[15]


  1. Resilience[16]


  1. Conscience development[17]


  1. Open and elaborative conversational style[18]


In light of this stunning list, it appears Chesterton was right: A thing must be loved before it is loveable. We must be loved before we are loveable. As Steinbeck writes, “underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love.”


One of the most sublime scenes in Peter Pan has Wendy telling the lost boys how she and her brothers came to the Neverland. The boys are concerned, though. Won’t their parents miss them? This is her response:

“If you knew how great is a mother’s love,” Wendy told them triumphantly, “you would have no fear. … You see,” Wendy said complacently, “our heroine knew that the mother would always leave the window open for her children to fly back by; so they stayed away for years and had a lovely time.”

Wendy, too, is prophetic. The world can be for us a Neverland, a place of enchantment and wonder, where good things run wild, only if we know there is someone who has left the window open for us.


There is a thorn in all this, given the many people who endure a fraught childhood followed by a lonely adulthood. Aristotle thought that it was through practicing the virtues that we acquire them. “We become just by doing just actions,” he says. Recently, Julia Annas has taken this up, drawing an analogy with learning the piano:


I need first to work out consciously what is the right thing to do and then get used to doing it over and over again. This goes on from learning notes to learning scales and arpeggios and then learning how to play sonatas. As I become a skilled piano player … I can play sonatas and other pieces in a way that, as with driving, proceeds without conscious thinking.[19]


Annas thinks acquiring virtues is like this, a view we might call the skill model. There is something right about the skill model, but something it leaves out as well. If you want to become virtuous, the research we’ve seen here suggests, not the practicing of the virtues, but the healing of the attachments. This is something done in therapy and by working towards healthy intimate relationships. Learning the virtues is like learning the piano, but many of us are playing with hands that have been broken and mangled. We do not need practice. We need rehab.



Annas, J., (2011), Intelligent Virtue, Oxford University Press.

Bowlby, J., (1980), Attachment and Loss, Vol. 3: Loss, Sadness, and Depression, New

York: Basic Books.

Cassidy, J., (1988), “Child-Mother Attachment and the Self in Six-Year-Olds”, Child

Development 59(1): 121-134.

Chesterton, G. K., (1909), Orthodoxy, New York: John Lane Company; London: John

Lane, The Bodley Head.

Clark, S., and D. Symons, (2000), “A Longitudinal Study of Mother-Child Relationships

and Theory of Mind in the Preschool Period”, Social Development 9(1): 3-23.

Colman, R., and R. Thompson, (2002), “Attachment Security and the Problem-Solving

Behaviors of Mothers and Children”, Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 48(4): 337-359.

Dykas, M., and J. Cassidy, (2011), “Attachment and the Processing of Social

Information across the Life Span: Theory and Evidence”, Psychological Bulletin

137(1): 19-46.

Fivush, R., Haden, C., and E. Reese, (2006), “Elaborating on Elaborations: Role of

Maternal Reminiscing Style in Cognitive and Socioemotional Development”,

Child Development 77(6): 1568-1588.

Goodvin, R., S. Meyer, R. Thompson, and R. Hayes, (2008), “Self-Understanding in

Early Childhood: Associations with Child Attachment Security and Maternal

Negative Affect”, Attachment and Human Development 10: 433-450.

Harcourt, E., (2013), “Attachment Theory, Character, and Naturalism”, Ethics in

Contemporary Perspective, Julia Peters (ed.), New York: Routledge.

Kobak, R., Cole, H., Ferenz-Gillies, R., Fleming, W., and W. Gamble, (1993),

“Attachment and Emotion Regulation during Mother-Teen Problem Solving: A Control Theory Analysis”, Child Development 64(1): 231-245.

Laible, D., and R. Thompson, (2000), “Mother-Child Discourse, Attachment Security,

Shared Positive Affect, and Early Conscience Development”, Child Development 71(5): 1424-40.

Laible, D., and R. Thompson, (1998), “Attachment and Emotional Understanding in

Preschool Children”, Developmental Psychology 34(5): 1038-1045.

LeDoux, Joseph, (1996), The Emotional Brain, New York: Simon & Schuster.

Mikulincer, M., and P. Shaver, (2012), “An Attachment Perspective on

Psychopathology”, World Psychiatry 11(1): 11-15.

Mikulincer, M., Shaver, P., and D. Pereg, (2003), “Attachment Theory and Affect

Regulation: The Dynamics, Development, and Cognitive Consequences of

Attachment-Related Strategies”, Motivation and Emotion 27(2): 77-102.

Narvaez, D., (2016), “Baselines for Virtues”, Developing the Virtues, J. Annas, D.

Narvaez, and N. Snow, Oxford University Press.

Oppenheim, D., and N. Koren-Karie, (2009), “Mother-Child Emotion Dialogues: A

Window into the Psychological Secure Base”, Stress and Memory Development: Biological, Social and Emotional Considerations, J. Quas and R. Fivush (eds.), Oxford University Press.

Pollak, S., (2011), “Mechanisms Linking Early Experience and the Emergence of

Emotions: Illustrations From the Study of Maltreated Children”, Current

Directions in Psychological Science 17(6): 370-375.

Raikes, H., Virmani, E., Thompson, R., and H. Hatton, (2013), “Declines in Peer Conflict

from Preschool through First Grade: Influences from Early Attachment and Social Information Processing”, Attachment and Human Development 15(1): 65-82.

Raikes, H., and R. Thompson, (2008), “Attachment Security and Parenting Quality

Predict Children’s Problem-Solving, Attributions, and Loneliness with Peers”,

Attachment and Human Development 10(3): 319-44.

Reese, E., (2002), “Social Factors in the Development of Autobiographical Memory: The

State of the Art”, 11(1): 124-142

Sroufe, L., (1983), “Individual Patterns of Adaptation from Infancy to Preschool”,

Minnesota Symposium on Child Psychology, Vol. 16, M. Perlmutter (ed.), University of Minnesota Press.

Sroufe, L., Fox, N., and V. Pancake, (1983), “Attachment and Dependency in

Developmental Perspective”, Child Development 54(6): 1615-1627.

Thompson, R., (2015), “The Development of Virtue: A Perspective from Developmental

Psychology”, Cultivating Virtue, N. Snow (ed.), Oxford University Press.

Thompson, R., (2000), “The Legacy of Early Attachments”, Child Development 71: 145-


Waters, S., Virmani, E., Thompson, R., Meyer, S., Raikes, H., and R. Jochem, (2010),

“Emotion Regulation and Attachment: Unpacking Two Constructs and Their Association”, Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment 32(1): 37-47



[1] Chesterton (1909), p. 89.

[2] Annas, (2011), p. 21.

[3] An important exception is Harcourt (2013).

[4] See, for instance, Bowlby (1980).

[5] LeDoux (1996), Ch. 7.

[6] Cassidy (1988).

[7] I’m offering here a laundry list. Naturally, some psychologists have developed more systematic views that incorporate data in this area; see, for instance, Narvaez (2016) and Thompson (2015).

[8] Colman and Thompson (2002); Goodvin et al. (2008); Sroufe (1983).

[9] Clark and Symons (2000); Dykas and Cassidy (2011).

[10] Kobak et al. (1993); Mikulincer et al. (2003) et al.; Waters et al. (2010).

[11] Raikes and Thompson (2008); Raikes et al. (2013).

[12] Sroufe et al. (1983); Thompson (2000).

[13] Laible and Thompson (1998); Pollak (2008).

[14] Openhaim and Koren-Karie (2009).

[15] Mikulincer and Shaver (2008).

[16] Colman and Thompson (2002).

[17] Kochanska et al. (2004); Laible and Thompson (2000)

[18] Fivush et al. (2006); Reese (2002).

[19] Annas (2011), p. 13.

Brian Ballard recently earned his doctorate from the philosophy department at the University of Pittsburgh. His work address the nature of emotion and its role in the good life, and he was a participant in the 2016 summer seminar “Virtue & Happiness” for the Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life project.

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.

The invention of “the Meaning of Life”

“Herr Diogenes” by Edmund J. Sullivan. Scanned image by George P. Landow.

This is part 1 of a 5-part series, “Don’t Ask about ‘the Meaning of Life’ (An argument in five blog posts)”.

 Part 1. The invention of “the Meaning of Life”

As we’re used to hearing, the question of the meaning of life is a timeless philosophical concern.  Rooted deep in the human heart, it has been explored by great philosophers including Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Pascal and Rousseau, Kant and Marx.  It is so fundamental a question it has occupied intelligent minds from outside of formal philosophical circles by pastors and men of letters, by essayists like Montagne and Emerson, by poets like Virgil and Dante, Milton and Shakespeare.  Indeed, one could hardly count as an educated person without having surveyed history’s rich variety of answers to the question of “the meaning of life.”  Just to ask the question is to participate in a fundamental human quest.


That’s the common account, anyway, so familiar as to be trite.  It is also entirely false.  Every single claim of it, false.  The question of the meaning of life is not a timeless philosophical concern.  No character in a Platonic dialogue ever asks about the meaning of life, no Aristotelian treatise considers it, no homily or tract by Augustine addresses it.  Aquinas never formulated a questio about it.  None of the people I named – not Pascal or Rousseau, Kant or Marx, Virgil or Dante, Milton or Shakespeare, Montagne or Emerson – not one of them ever wrote about “the meaning of life.”  One could study almost all of intellectual history and never come across the question of the “meaning of life.”  To think of intellectual history in terms of that question is, in the best case scenario, valiantly creative revisionism; more likely, sloppy naivety.  The documentary record simply does not support the idea of a fundamental human quest for “the meaning of life.”


The question of the meaning of life has a particular, and very short, recent history.  It is a 19th Century invention.  Before about 1850, almost nobody asked about the meaning of life, and even then it barely gained any attention.  The question of the meaning of life was asked only in fits and starts through the later 19th century, until the question took hold at the beginning of the 20th Century, and it was only then that past thinkers were interpreted through the lens of this new, very late-modern question.


Even when the phrase “the meaning of life” originally entered the English language, it seems to have been as part of a joke.  Apparently the first known English use of the phrase was by Thomas Carlyle, in Sartor Resartus (1834).  (An earlier Unitarian tract from 1827 twice refers to “life’s meaning.”)  The strange book (originally serialized) imagines a fictional philosopher, Diogenes Teufelsdröckh (whose last name means “Devil’s-filth”), author of a philosophical treatise about clothing; a fictional narrator tries to make sense of Teufelsdröckh’s work, which includes the following reflection:

‘Temptations in the Wilderness!’ exclaims Teufelsdröckh: ‘Have we not all to be tried with such? Not so easily can the old Adam, lodged in us by birth, be dispossessed.  Our Life is compassed round with Necessity; yet is the meaning of life itself no other than Freedom, than Voluntary Force: thus have we a warfare; in the beginning, especially, a hard-fought battle.  For the God-given mandate, Work though in Welldoing, lies mysteriously written, in Promethean, Prophetic Characters, in our hearts; and leaves us no rest, night or day, till it be deciphered and obeyed; till it burn forth, in our conduct, a visible, acted Gospel of Freedom.’ (Chapter IX, “The Everlasting Yea”.)

Freedom, necessity, interior restlessness and struggle, the self’s attempt to transcend the world – Carlyle was writing a send-up of German idealism. There are genuine, redeemable insights here to be sure, about the challenge of human freedom, insights that we will later come to associate with existentialism.  But Carlyle has the narrator criticize this particular passage as an “ambitious figure,” and the philosopher’s work generally as pompous and vague, “Nothing but innuendoes, figurative crotchets: a typical Shadow, fitfully wavering, prophetico-satiric; no clear logical Picture.”  If there is a timeless, universal question about human life, do we really want to trace it only back this far, and to a comic stunt, a parody of philosophy, a fictional crazy German pronouncing about “the meaning of life”?


This might seem to be pressing too hard on a narrow, pedantic, and purely linguistic point.  Even if the particular phrase “the meaning of life” has a short history, that phrase could capture a common underlying idea, about the significance of the human condition. Might it be reasonable to think that there is something rather universal about the quest for this, whatever particular label we might put on it in one age or another?  Perhaps.  On the other hand, even if the phrase “the meaning of life” is only a novel linguistic phenomenon, it is one reflected not only in English.  The emergence of a formulation for “the meaning of life” was a general Western phenomenon, occurring during the same specific period in all major European languages.  We should be curious why it emerged, and what else might have accompanied its emergence.  What prompted people to speak in terms of “the meaning of life,” when they had never done so before?  And [a question to be addressed in a subsequent post], if people didn’t used to ask about “the meaning of life,” what question did they once ask instead, and what does it say if today we might no longer be asking that question?



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

The Role of Epistemic Virtue in the Realization of Basic Goods

Preston Bradley Hall (Chicago). Photo by Chris Smith.

Note: Anne Baril was a participant in the Virtue, Happiness, & Meaning of Life 2016 Summer Seminar. This post is an excerpt of a piece originally published June 6, 2017, on the blog Imperfect Cognitionswhere Baril summarizes a paper she recently published in Episteme.

Click the above link to Imperfect Cognitions for the full post.

Getting clear about the nature of epistemic virtue is an important first step not only for empirical investigations, but for philosophical investigations as well. Is there some more-than- 
merely-instrumental relationship between epistemic virtue and well-being, or between epistemic virtue and some contributor to well-being, that can be uncovered through philosophical, rather than empirical, investigation?

This is one of the questions I seek to answer in my work. What I have found is that epistemic virtue–on at least one plausible interpretation–is importantly implicated in the realization of some of the goods that are widely believed to be instrumental to, or even constitutive of, well-being: goods such friendship, autonomy, and aesthetic experience. There is (what I call) a constitutive overlap between epistemic virtue and many such goods.

Take, for example, aesthetic experience. Aesthetic experience, understood as a general type of good, is realized in token instances – for example, in viewing Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, or reading George Eliot’s Silas Marner. It is not a passive experience that just ‘washes over one’; it consists in a certain kind 
of active engagement. It consists in charitably interpreting the work; transcending one’s 
familiar or default cognitive standpoint to open-mindedly engage with it (Baehr 2011: 
103); honestly assessing it; confronting the darker parts of human nature; not being overly 
influenced by others’ opinions about the work. What one is doing, in part, in the active experience that is aesthetic experience, is exercising epistemic virtue – for example, intellectual charity, open-mindedness, intellectual honesty, intellectual courage, and intellectual autonomy. In this sense there is constitutive overlap between epistemic virtue and aesthetic experience.

What exactly the upshot of this is for well-being depends on one’s account of well-being. But finding extensive overlap between epistemic virtue and goods like aesthetic experience supports the view that that epistemic virtue is an integral part of the kind of personality that is well-suited to realize the most important goods in one’s life. And this, in turn, goes a long way towards showing that–despite the anecdotal and empirical evidence cited at the beginning of this entry–epistemic virtue’s net contribution to a person’s well-being is a positive one. Epistemic virtue makes us better off.


Anne Baril is a Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis.  She has research interests in ethics, epistemology, social and political philosophy, and their intersection.  In her current central research project, she argues that epistemic virtue is both integral to the development of moral character and a constitutive contributor to well-being.