What 3 Famous Thinkers Said About the Meaning of Life

Let’s get philosophical.
Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Albert Camus.
Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Albert Camus. / The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images (Kant), Hulton Archive/Getty Images (Nietzsche), United Press International/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images (Camus)

“What is the meaning of life?” is simultaneously one of the oldest questions in philosophy and a relatively new concept: While the quest for purpose stretches back farther than the ancient Greek thinkers, it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that Arthur Schopenhauer really started asking the question of der Sinn des Lebens (“the meaning of life” in his native German). He concluded that it is the “will to life,” or the instinctive striving, and that peace comes from eradicating that will. Many thinkers have addressed the question of the meaning of life to various ends, and their work can help us confront the same problem ourselves—though their conclusions are rarely straightforward.

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant. / Stefano Bianchetti/GettyImages

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) earned himself the title of the “father of modern ethics” while living what is widely accepted as an exceptionally boring life. So boring, in fact, that according to legend, his neighbors claimed to be able to set their watches by his daily walk.

Because his work came before Schopenhauer’s, Kant didn’t specifically address the question “what is the meaning of life,” but his work engaged with the theme directly, and is so seminal that it’s worth addressing. It’s likely that Kant would have answered one of two ways.

Kant wanted to create a moral system that would allow a person to derive the content of their moral actions (what ought to be done in any individual instance) from the definition of morality (the very essence of the word ought). He felt that this would allow us to formulate a morality based entirely on rationality, which would in turn allow us to discover synthetic a priori knowledge—knowledge derived purely from reason, as opposed to experience that tells us something previously unknown about the world—regarding the moral value of our actions. The result is his “categorical imperative,” which he outlines in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals:

 “I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.”

According to Kant’s view, an action can be deemed acceptable only if the underlying motivating principle, or maxim, could be applied universally without contradiction. The classic example is lying: If everybody lied, then nobody would believe anybody, making it impossible to lie. This only tells us what not to do, but it has profound implications: If we consider ourselves and the world we live in hard enough, we can derive objective standards by which to live.

Kant’s second possible response can be found in his Critique of Pure Reason, in which he attempted to respond to ideas posited by Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776). Kant outlined what he believed were the conditions under which experience is possible, arguing that all knowledge is the result of a dual process: “Intuition and concepts therefore constitute the elements of all our cognition, so that neither concepts without intuition corresponding to them in some way nor intuition without concepts can yield a cognition. Both are either pure or empirical.” In other words, thought is a combination of sense data gained through what Kant called our “Intuition” and interpretive frameworks called “Concepts.” 

But Kant didn’t believe that we could receive all of our sense data or our concepts unfiltered. He felt that there were a priori forms of these faculties that shaped how we could experience the world—and that one form that concepts take is cause and effect.

So when Kant said “the pure or universal laws of nature, which, without being based on particular perceptions, contain merely the conditions of their necessary union in experience,” he was making the case that universal laws (like cause and effect) are actually the product of our minds at work, allowing us to have comprehensible experience. By this reasoning, cause and effect (and space and time) don’t necessarily exist outside of our minds. The upshot of this is that life, an effect, might not have any meaning, a cause, outside of the processes of our minds.

Kant reconciles these views with the ultimate philosophical cop out—he turns to God—but these strands are picked up and expanded on by other great thinkers.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche - portrait
Friedrich Nietzsche. / Culture Club/GettyImages

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is one of our most misunderstood philosophers thanks to the way his sister and literary executor, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, twisted his works after his death. Per Britannica, she “edited them without scruple or understanding” and “gained a wide audience for her misinterpretations.” Even so, he was a deeply troubled thinker whose work would go on to influence millions.

Nietzsche rejected Schopenhauer’s idea that all life is driven by a “will to live,” noting that some beings die for their goals. Instead, he suggested a “will to power” in which living beings want to “vent” their strength (in other words, affirm and actualize their unique individual potential).

But what is our individual strength? Nietzsche rejected Kant’s preference for pure reason, instead turning to psychology to solve the problem: “For psychology is once more the path to the fundamental problems,” he wrote in Beyond Good and Evil. According to Nietzsche, you must cast off societal, religious, and historical expectations in order to become a “free spirit” or one who thinks for themselves (a philosopher). Only this will allow you to move “beyond good and evil,” or the morality that the world imposes upon us. Instead, he writes, we must search for what is “at the bottom of our souls, quite ‘down below,’ there is certainly something unteachable, a granite of spiritual fate, of predetermined decision and answer to predetermined, chosen questions. In each cardinal problem there speaks an unchangeable ‘I am this’; a thinker cannot learn anew about man and woman, for instance, but can only learn fully—he can only follow to the end what is ‘fixed’ about them in himself.”

In Nietzsche’s view, with enough psychological introspection (although he notes that this may not always be enough, or perfectly accurate, on its own), we can find our own unique purpose—buried under layers of society and convention—that we should then strive to actualize at any cost.

Albert Camus

Portrait of Albert Camus
Albert Camus. / Hulton Deutsch/GettyImages

Albert Camus (1913-1960) was a French-Algerian philosopher, author of The Stranger, and a leading thinker of the group associated with the philosophical movement existentialism (though Camus rejected the association, and his position in relation to the movement remains an area of active discussion). His ideas about the meaning of life can be seen as a successor to Kant’s second potential conclusion. Camus realized that it’s human nature when seeing an effect to look for a cause. He also accepted as a premise that all previous attempts at finding an objective “meaning” of life had failed. Existentialist philosophers call this gap—between our need for an explanation and reality’s inherent lack of one—“the absurd.”

Camus likened human existence in the face of the absurd to that of the Greek myth of Sisyphus, a man punished by the gods to roll a rock up a hill for all eternity … only to have it roll back down just before he succeeds. Camus’s response to this situation is to live lucidly in defiance of reality. As he wrote in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” By realizing that meaning is there to be made instead of handed to us, we actually gain the ability to find things meaningful—and are therefore better off for it.

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