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In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Meaning of Life

Introduction, introductory works.

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  • The Meaning of “Meaning”
  • God-based Theories
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  • Non-Naturalism

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The Meaning of Life by Thaddeus Metz LAST REVIEWED: 11 November 2019 LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010 DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0070

For millennia, thinkers have addressed the question of what, if anything, makes a life meaningful in some form or other. This article concentrates nearly exclusively on approaches to the question taken by analytic philosophers in the postwar era, by and large omitting reference to prewar Anglo-American works, texts from other traditions such as Continental or African philosophy, and writings from nonphilosophical but related fields such as religion and psychology. Much of the contemporary analytic discussion has sought to articulate and evaluate theories of meaning in life, i.e., general and fundamental principles of what all meaningful conditions have in common as distinct from meaningless ones. This entry accordingly focuses largely on these theories, which are distinguished according to the kind of property that is held to constitute meaning in life (see Supernaturalism , Naturalism , and Non-Naturalism ).

These texts are more introductory or have been written in a way that would likely be accessible to those not thoroughly trained in analytic philosophy. Baggini 2004 and Eagleton 2007 are pitched at a very wide, popular audience; Thomson 2003 and Belshaw 2005 would be best for undergraduate philosophy majors; and Belliotti 2001 , Martin 2002 , and Cottingham 2003 are probably most apt for those with some kind of university education or other intellectual development, not necessarily in Anglo-American philosophy.

Baggini, Julian. What’s It All About? Philosophy and the Meaning of Life . London: Granta, 2004.

Defends the view that meaning in life is largely a function of love; addresses approaches or maxims (e.g., Carpe diem ) more than it does principles.

Belliotti, Raymond Angelo. What Is the Meaning of Human Life? Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001.

A thoughtful treatment of a variety of issues; defends an objective naturalist approach to meaning in the context of critical discussion of classic thinkers such as Aristotle, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer.

Belshaw, Christopher. Ten Good Questions about Life and Death . Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.

Engagingly written, analytic treatments of several key “life and death” issues, many of which bear on meaningfulness, which the author cashes out objectively in terms of relationships and projects.

Cottingham, John. On the Meaning of Life . Thinking in Action. London: Routledge, 2003.

An elegantly written book that defends an Aristotelian, God-based (but not soul-based) approach to meaning in life.

Eagleton, Terry. The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

A light and lively essay on a variety of facets of the question of life’s meaning, often addressing linguistic and literary themes. Rejects subjective or “postmodern” approaches to meaning in favor of a need for harmonious or loving relationships.

Martin, Michael. Atheism, Morality, and Meaning . Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2002.

A vigorous defense of a naturalist approach to morality, in the first half of the book, and to meaning, in the second. Very critical of Christian approaches to both.

Thomson, Garrett. On the Meaning of Life . London: Thompson/Wadsworth, 2003.

Argues that nine common views on meaning in life (e.g., that an infinite being is necessary for meaning or that meaning is exhausted by happiness) are flawed. Emphasizes that meaning must reside largely in activities we engage in, lest our lives be reduced to “tools” for the sake of ends beyond us.

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Question of the Month

What is the meaning of life, the following answers to this central philosophical question each win a random book. sorry if your answer doesn’t appear: we received enough to fill twelve pages….

Why are we here? Do we serve a greater purpose beyond the pleasure or satisfaction we get from our daily activities – however mundane or heroic they may be? Is the meaning of life internal to life, to be found inherently in life’s many activities, or is it external, to be found in a realm somehow outside of life, but to which life leads? In the internal view it’s the satisfaction and happiness we gain from our actions that justify life. This does not necessarily imply a selfish code of conduct. The external interpretation commonly makes the claim that there is a realm to which life leads after death. Our life on earth is evaluated by a supernatural being some call God, who will assign to us some reward or punishment after death. The meaning of our life, its purpose and justification, is to fulfill the expectations of God, and then to receive our final reward. But within the internal view of meaning, we can argue that meaning is best found in activities that benefit others, the community, or the Earth as a whole. It’s just that the reward for these activities has to be found here, in the satisfactions that they afford within this life, instead of in some external spirit realm.

An interesting way to contrast the internal and external views is to imagine walking through a beautiful landscape. Your purpose in walking may be just to get somewhere else – you may think there’s a better place off in the distance. In this case the meaning of your journey through the landscape is external to the experience of the landscape itself. On the other hand, you may be intensely interested in what the landscape holds. It may be a forest, or it may contain farms, villages. You may stop along the way, study, learn, converse, with little thought about why you are doing these things other than the pleasure they give you. You may stop to help someone who is sick: in fact, you may stay many years, and found a hospital. What then is the meaning of your journey? Is it satisfying or worthwhile only if you have satisfied an external purpose – only if it gets you somewhere else? Why, indeed, cannot the satisfactions and pleasures of the landscape, and of your deeds, be enough?

Greg Studen, Novelty, Ohio

A problem with this question is that it is not clear what sort of answer is being looked for. One common rephrasing is “What is it that makes life worth living?”. There are any number of subjective answers to this question. Think of all the reasons why you are glad you are alive (assuming you are), and there is the meaning of your life. Some have attempted to answer this question in a more objective way: that is to have an idea of what constitutes the good life . It seems reasonable to say that some ways of living are not conducive to human flourishing. However, I am not convinced that there is one right way to live. To suggest that there is demonstrates not so much arrogance as a lack of imagination.

Another way of rephrasing the question is “What is the purpose of life?” Again we all have our own subjective purposes but some would like to think there is a higher purpose provided for us, perhaps by a creator. It is a matter of debate whether this would make life a thing of greater value or turn us into the equivalent of rats in a laboratory experiment. Gloster’s statement in King Lear comes to mind: “As flies to wanton boys we are to the gods – they kill us for their sport.” But why does there have to be a purpose to life separate from those purposes generated within it? The idea that life needs no external justification has been described movingly by Richard Taylor. Our efforts may ultimately come to nothing but “the day was sufficient to itself, and so was the life.” ( Good and Evil , 1970) In the “why are we here?” sense of the question there is no answer. It would be wrong, however, to conclude that life is meaningless. Life is meaningful to humans, therefore it has meaning.

Rebecca Linton, Leicester

When the question is in the singular we search for that which ties all values together in one unity, traditionally called ‘the good’. Current consideration of the good demands a recognition of the survival crises which confront mankind. The threats of nuclear war, environmental poisoning and other possible disasters make it necessary for us to get it right. For if Hannah Arendt was correct concerning the ‘banality of evil’ which affected so many Nazi converts and contaminated the German population by extension, we may agree with her that both Western rational philosophy and Christian teaching let the side down badly in the 20th century.

If we then turn away from Plato’s philosophy, balanced in justice, courage, moderation and wisdom; from Jewish justice and Christian self-denial; if we recognize Kant’s failure to convince populations to keep his three universal principles, then shall we look to the moral relativism of the Western secular minds which admired Nietzsche? Stalin’s purges of his own constituents in the USSR tainted this relativist approach to the search for the good. Besides, if nothing is absolute, but things have value only relative to other things, how do we get a consensus on the best or the worst? What makes your social mores superior to mine – and why should I not seek to destroy your way? We must also reject any hermit, monastic, sect or other loner criteria for the good life. Isolation will not lead to any long-term harmony or peace in the Global Village.

If with Nietzsche we ponder on the need for power in one’s life, but turn in the opposite direction from his ‘superman’ ideal, we will come to some form of the Golden Rule [‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’]. However, we must know this as an experiential reality. There is life-changing power in putting oneself in the place of the other person and feeling for and with them. We call this feeling empathy .

Persons who concentrate on empathy should develop emotional intelligence. When intellectual intelligence does not stand in the way of this kind of personal growth, but contributes to it, we can call this balance maturity . Surely the goal or meaning of human life is therefore none other than finding oneself becoming a mature adult free to make one’s own decisions, yet wanting everyone in the world to have this same advantage. This is good!

Ernie Johns, Owen Sound, Ontario

‘Meaning’ is a word referring to what we have in mind as ‘signification’, and it relates to intention and purpose. ‘Life’ is applied to the state of being alive; conscious existence. Mind, consciousness, words and what they signify, are thus the focus for the answer to the question. What seems inescapable is that there is no meaning associated with life other than that acquired by our consciousness, inherited via genes, developed and given content through memes (units of culture). The meanings we believe life to have are then culturally and individually diverse. They may be imposed through hegemony; religious or secular, benign or malign; or identified through deliberate choice, where this is available. The range is vast and diverse; from straightforward to highly complex. Meaning for one person may entail supporting a football team; for another, climbing higher and higher mountains; for another, being a parent; for another, being moved by music, poetry, literature, dance or painting; for another the pursuit of truth through philosophy; for another through religious devotions, etc. But characteristic of all these examples is a consciousness that is positively and constructively absorbed, engaged, involved, fascinated, enhanced and fulfilled. I would exclude negative and destructive desires; for example of a brutal dictator who may find torturing others absorbing and engaging and thus meaningful. Such cases would be too perverse and morally repugnant to regard as anything other than pathological.

The meaning of life for individuals may diminish or fade as a consequence of decline or difficult or tragic circumstances. Here it might, sadly, be difficult to see any meaning of life at all. The meaning is also likely to change from one phase of life to another, due to personal development, new interests, contexts, commitments and maturity.

Colin Brookes, Woodhouse Eaves, Leicestershire

It is clearly internet shopping, franchised fast food and surgically-enhanced boobs. No, this is not true. I think the only answer is to strip back every layer of the physical world, every learnt piece of knowledge, almost everything that seems important in our modern lives. All that’s left is simply existence. Life is existence: it seems ‘good’ to be part of life. But really that’s your lot! We should just be thankful that our lifespan is longer than, say, a spider, or your household mog.

Our over-evolved human minds want more, but unfortunately there is nothing more. And if there is some deity or malignant devil, then you can be sure they’ve hidden any meaning pretty well and we won’t see it in our mortal lives. So, enjoy yourself; be nice to people, if you like; but there’s no more meaning than someone with surgically-enhanced boobs, shopping on the net while eating a Big Mac.

Simon Maltman, By email

To ask ‘What is the meaning of life?’ is a poor choice of words and leads to obfuscation rather than clarity. Why so?

To phrase the question in this fashion implies that meaning is something that inheres in an object or experience – that it is a quality which is as discernible as the height of a door or the solidity of matter. That is not what meaning is like. It is not a feature of a particular thing, but rather the relationship between a perceiver and a thing, a subject and an object, and so requires both. There is no one meaning of, say, a poem, because meaning is generated by it being read and thought about by a subject. As subjects differ so does the meaning: different people evaluate ideas and concepts in different ways, as can be seen from ethical dilemmas. But it would be wrong to say that all these meanings are completely different, as there are similarities between individuals, not least because we belong to the same species and are constructed and programmed in basically the same way. We all have feelings of fear, attachment, insecurity and passion, etc.

So to speak of ‘the meaning of life’, is an error. It would be more correct to refer to the ‘meanings of life’, but as there are currently around six billion humans on Earth, and new psychological and cultural variations coming into being all the time, to list and describe all of these meanings would be a nigh on impossible task.

To ‘find meaning in life’ is a better way of approaching the issue, ie, whilst there is no single meaning of life, every person can live their life in a way which brings them as much fulfilment and contentment as possible. To use utilitarian language, the best that one can hope for is a life which contains as great an excess of pleasure over pain as possible, or alternatively, a life in which as least time as possible is devoted to activities which do not stimulate, or which do nothing to promote the goals one has set for oneself.

Steve Else, Swadlincote, Derbyshire

The meaning of life is not being dead.

Tim Bale, London

The question is tricky because of its hidden premise that life has meaning per se . A perfectly rational if discomforting position is given by Nietzsche, that someone in the midst of living is not in a position to discern whether it has meaning or not, and since we cannot step outside of the process of living to assess it, this is therefore not a question that bears attention.

However, if we choose to ignore the difficulties of evaluating a condition while inside it, perhaps one has to ask the prior question, what is the meaning of meaning ? Is ‘meaning’ given by the greater cosmos? Or do we in our freedom construct the category ‘meaning’ and then fill in the contours and colours? Is meaning always identical with purpose? I might decide to dedicate my life to answering this particular question, granting myself an autonomously devised purpose. But is this identical with the meaning of my life? Or can I live a meaningless life with purpose? Or shall meaning be defined by purpose? Some metaphysics offer exactly this corollary – that in pursuing one’s proper good, and thus one’s meaning, one is pursuing one’s telos or purpose. The point of these two very brief summaries of approaches to the question is to show the hazards in this construction of the question.

Karen Zoppa, The University of Winnipeg

One thing one can hardly fail to notice about life is that it is self-perpetuating. Palaeontology tells us that life has been perpetuating itself for billions of years. What is the secret of this stunning success? Through natural selection, life forms adapt to their environment, and in the process they acquire, one might say they become , knowledge about that environment, the world in which they live and of which they are part. As Konrad Lorenz put it, “Life itself is a process of acquiring knowledge.” According to this interpretation of evolution, the very essence of life (its meaning?) is the pursuit of knowledge : knowledge about the real world that is constantly tested against that world. What works and is in that sense ‘true’, is perpetuated. Life is tried and proven knowledge that has withstood the test of geological time. From this perspective, adopting the pursuit of knowledge as a possible meaning of one’s life seems, literally, a natural choice. The history of science and philosophy is full of examples of people who have done just that, and in doing so they have helped human beings to earn the self-given title of Homo sapiens – man of knowledge.

Axel Winter, Wynnum, Queensland

Life is a stage and we are the actors, said William Shakespeare, possibly recognizing that life quite automatically tells a story just as any play tells a story. But we are more than just actors; we are the playwright too, creating new script with our imaginations as we act in the ongoing play. Life is therefore storytelling. So the meaning of life is like the meaning of ‘the play’ in principle: not a single play with its plot and underlying values and information, but the meaning behind the reason for there being plays with playwright, stage, actors, props, audience, and theatre. The purpose of the play is self-expression , the playwright’s effort to tell a story. Life, a grand play written with mankind’s grand imagination, has this same purpose.

But besides being the playwright, you are the audience too, the recipient of the playwrights’ messages. As playwright, actor, and audience you are an heir to both growth and self-expression. Your potential for acquiring knowledge and applying it creatively is unlimited. These two concepts may be housed under one roof: Liberty. Liberty is the freedom to think and to create. “Give me liberty or give me death,” said Patrick Henry, for without liberty life has no meaningful purpose. But with liberty life is a joy. Therefore liberty is the meaning of life.

Ronald Bacci, Napa, CA

The meaning of life is understood according to the beliefs that people adhere to. However, all human belief systems are accurate or inaccurate to varying degrees in their description of the world. Moreover, belief systems change over time: from generation to generation; from culture to culture; and era to era. Beliefs that are held today, even by large segments of the population, did not exist yesterday and may not exist tomorrow. Belief systems, be they religious or secular, are therefore arbitrary. If the meaning of life is wanted, a meaning that will transcend the test of time or the particulars of individual beliefs, then an effort to arrive at a truly objective determination must be made. So in order to eliminate the arbitrary, belief systems must be set aside. Otherwise, the meaning of life could not be determined.

Objectively however, life has no meaning because meaning or significance cannot be obtained without reference to some (arbitrary) belief system. Absent a subjective belief system to lend significance to life, one is left with the ‘stuff’ of life, which, however offers no testimony as to its meaning. Without beliefs to draw meaning from, life has no meaning, but is merely a thing ; a set of facts that, in and of themselves, are silent as to what they mean. Life consists of a series of occurrences in an infinite now, divorced of meaning except for what may be ascribed by constructed belief systems. Without such beliefs, for many the meaning of life is nothing .

Surely, however, life means something . And indeed it does when an individual willfully directs his/her consciousness at an aspect of life, deriving from it an individual interpretation, and then giving this interpretation creative expression. Thus the meaning in the act of giving creative expression to what may be ephemeral insights. Stated another way, the meaning of life is an individual’s acts of creation . What, exactly is created, be it artistic or scientific, may speak to the masses, or to nobody, and may differ from individual to individual. The meaning of life, however, is not the thing created, but the creative act itself ; namely, that of willfully imposing an interpretation onto the stuff of life, and projecting a creative expression from it.

Raul Casso, Laredo, Texas

Rather than prattle on and then discover that I am merely deciding what ‘meaning’ means, I will start out with the assumption that by ‘meaning’ we mean ‘purpose.’ And because I fear that ‘purpose’ implies a Creator, I will say ‘best purpose.’ So what is the best purpose for which I can live my life? The best purpose for which I can live my life is, refusing all the easy ways to destroy. This is not as simple as it sounds. Refusing to destroy life – to murder – wouldn’t just depend on our lack of homicidal impulses, but also on our willingness to devote our time to finding out which companies have murdered union uprisers; to finding out whether animals are killed out of need or greed or ease; to finding the best way to refuse to fund military murder, if we find our military to be murdering rather than merely protecting. Refusing to destroy resources, to destroy loves, to destroy rights, turns out to be a full-time job. Oh sure, we can get cocky and say “Well, oughtn’t we destroy injustice? Or bigotry? Or hatred?” But we would be only fooling ourselves. They’re all already negatives: to destroy injustice, bigotry, and hatred is to refuse the destruction of justice, understanding, and love. So, it turns out, we finally say “Yes” to life, when we come out with a resounding, throat-wrecking “NO!”

Carrie Snider, By email

I propose that the knowledge we have now accumulated about life discloses quite emphatically that we are entirely a function of certain basic laws as they operate in the probably unique conditions prevailing here on Earth.

The behaviour of the most elementary forms of matter we know, subatomic particles, seems to be guided by four fundamental forces, of which electromagnetism is probably the most significant here, in that through the attraction and repulsion of charged particles it allows an almost infinite variation of bonding: it allows atoms to form molecules, up the chain to the molecules of enormous length and complexity we call as nucleic acids, and proteins. All these are involved in a constant interaction with surrounding chemicals through constant exchanges of energy. From these behaviour patterns we can deduce certain prime drives or purposes of basic matter, namely:

1. Combination (bonding).

2. Survival of the combination, and of any resulting organism.

3. Extension of the organism, usually by means of replication.

4. Acquisition of energy.

Since these basic drives motivate everything that we’re made of, all the energy, molecules and chemistry that form our bodies, our brains and nervous systems, then whatever we think, say and do is a function of the operation of those basic laws Therefore everything we think, say and do will be directed towards our survival, our replication and our demand for energy to fuel these basic drives. All our emotions and our rational thinking, our loves and hates, our art, science and engineering are refinements of these basic drives. The underlying drive for bonding inspires our need for interaction with other organisms, particularly other human beings, as we seek ever wider and stronger links conducive to our better survival. Protection and extension of our organic integrity necessitates our dependence on and interaction with everything on Earth.

Our consciousness is also necessarily a function of these basic drives, and when the chemistry of our cells can no longer operate due to disease, ageing or trauma, we lose consciousness and die. Since I believe we are nothing more than physics and chemistry, death terminates our life once and for all. There is no God, there is no eternal life. But optimistically, there is the joy of realising that we have the power of nature within us, and that by co-operating with our fellow man, by nurturing the resources of the world, by fighting disease, starvation, poverty and environmental degradation, we can all conspire to improve life and celebrate not only its survival on this planet, but also its proliferation. So the purpose of life is just that: to involve all living things in the common purpose of promoting and enjoying what we are – a wondrous expression of the laws of Nature, the power of the Universe.

Peter F. Searle, Topsham, Devon

“What is the meaning of life?” is hard to get a solid grip on. One possible translation of it is “What does it all mean?” One might spend a lifetime trying to answer such a heady question. Answering it requires providing an account of the ultimate nature of the world, our minds, value and how all these natures interrelate. I’d prefer to offer a rather simplistic answer to a possible interpretation of our question. When someone asks “What is the meaning of life?,” they may mean “What makes life meaningful?” This is a question I believe one can get a grip on without developing a systematic philosophy.

The answer I propose is actually an old one. What makes a human life have meaning or significance is not the mere living of a life, but reflecting on the living of a life.

Even the most reflective among us get caught up in pursuing ends and goals. We want to become fitter; we want to read more books; we want to make more money. These goal-oriented pursuits are not meaningful or significant in themselves. What makes a life filled with them either significant or insignificant is reflecting on why one pursues those goals. This is second-order reflection; reflection on why one lives the way one does. But it puts one in a position to say that one’s life has meaning or does not.

One discovers this meaning or significance by evaluating one’s life and meditating on it; by taking a step back from the everyday and thinking about one’s life in a different way. If one doesn’t do this, then one’s life has no meaning or significance. And that isn’t because one has the wrong sorts of goals or ends, but rather has failed to take up the right sort of reflective perspective on one’s life. This comes close to Socrates’ famous saying that the unexamined life is not worth living. I would venture to say that the unexamined life has no meaning.

Casey Woodling, Gainesville, FL

For the sake of argument, let’s restrict the scope of the discussion to the human species, and narrow down the choices to

1) There is no meaning of life, we simply exist;

2) To search for the meaning of life; and

3) To share an intimate connection with humankind: the notion of love.

Humans are animals with an instinct for survival. At a basic level, this survival requires food, drink, rest and procreation. In this way, the meaning of life could be to continue the process of evolution. This is manifested in the modern world as the daily grind.

Humans also have the opportunity and responsibility of consciousness. With our intellect comes curiosity, combined with the means to understand complex problems. Most humans have, at some point, contemplated the meaning of life. Some make it a life’s work to explore this topic. For them and those like them, the question may be the answer.

Humans are a social species. We typically seek out the opposite sex to procreate. Besides the biological urge or desire, there is an interest in understanding others. We might simply gain pleasure in connecting with someone in an intimate way. Whatever the specific motivation, there is something that we crave, and that is to love and be loved.

The meaning of life may never be definitively known. The meaning of life may be different for each individual and/or each species. The truth of the meaning of life is likely in the eye of the beholder. There were three choices given at the beginning of this essay, and for me, the answer is all of the above.

Jason Hucsek, San Antonio, TX

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philosophical essays on life

A philosopher makes the case for a thoughtful life – but life is more than a thought experiment

philosophical essays on life

Assistant Professor in Philosophy and History, Bond University

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Svend Brinkmann’s Think is a book in praise of the thoughtful life and an easygoing exploration of the role of thinking in our lives today.

The book is essentially in two parts. The first is descriptive. It explores questions like “what do we mean by thinking?”, “why has it become difficult to think in today’s world?” and “where does thinking come from?”

The second part is prescriptive. Brinkmann provides some quick and relatively simple strategies for bringing more thoughtfulness into our everyday lives.

Think: In Defence of a Thoughtful Life – Svend Brinkmann (Polity)

The reader is introduced to a variety of important and complicated philosophical questions. Brinkmann introduces, for example, the Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates and refers to a challenge that Plato’s brother, Glaucon, raises in The Republic .

Glaucon asks Socrates to imagine that the existence of a ring capable of making one invisible whenever the wearer desired. Anyone with such a power, Glaucon argues, would steal and murder and “in all respects be like a god among men”.

philosophical essays on life

At the heart of Glaucon’s challenge is the claim that it is the possibility of being discovered that compels us to be good. If we could safely be unjust, then we would be.

Brinkmann summarises Socrates’ important response to this challenge, which involves Plato’s views on the intrinsic value of justice, understood as harmony within the soul.

But he does not settle the question of whether or not Socrates’ response is adequate. His point here, and with the many other “thought experiments” that appear in his book, is to exercise our thoughtfulness: “the act of rationally thinking about questions to which there is no single answer”.

Read more: Guide to the classics: Plato’s Republic

What Brinkmann means by thoughtfulness must be distinguished from other popular treatments of rational thinking. For example, he opens his book with references to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011). Kahneman distinguishes between “System 1” and “System 2” modes of thought. System 1 is thinking that is fast, intuitive and automatic. System 2 thinking is slower and more analytical.

philosophical essays on life

Consider the famous Wason selection task . Imagine you are presented with four cards, each with a number on one side and a colour on the other. You are dealt the cards in the following order: 3, 8, Blue, Red.

You are then asked which card or cards you must turn over in order to prove the rule that a card showing an even number is blue on its opposite face. Which card or cards do you turn over?

The test seems simple, but the original experiment found that about one in ten of us answer it correctly.

The Wason test probes our ability to apply rules of classical logic surrounding hypothetical syllogisms, or conditional reasoning. Intuitive answers to the test which utilise only System 1 modes of thought won’t cut it here. It takes slow and careful deliberation, the kind of rational thinking Kahneman attributes to System 2, to deduce that we should turn over the 8 card and the red card to prove the rule.

Brinkmann’s idea of thoughtfulness, however, is not just about exercising our rational powers to solve puzzles like this one. He calls for a greater emphasis on what he calls “the existential dimensions of thinking”.

Just as the mindfulness movement seeks to bring our attention to our being in time and space, Brinkmann’s thoughtfulness is about exercising our capacity to contemplate ourselves and the world around us.

Read more: Finding your essential self: the ancient philosophy of Zhuangzi explained

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The breadth of Brinkmann’s exploration of thought-provoking ideas is likely to please the curious reader. In just the first two chapters, he briefly introduces the ideas of Aristotle , Martin Heidegger , Hannah Arendt , John Dewey , Judith Jarvis Thomson and John Rawls .

Each of these philosophers, either in the study of their work or in the exercise of their thought experiments, offers important lessons in the significance of the thoughtful life.

Each chapter ends with an exercise – mostly famous thought-experiments from various fields of philosophy – which Brinkmann offers as a practical applications of the kind of thoughtfulness he explores.

philosophical essays on life

The second part of his book, the prescriptive part, is unfortunately the shortest part. But Brinkmann offers seven different ways we can all better incorporate thoughtfulness into our lives.

We can think with the world, by which he means we can curate our environments in such a way that is conducive to living a thoughtful life. This might involve learning how best to externalise certain cognitive exercises (for example, by keeping a journal) and creating an “ecology of attention” for ourselves.

philosophical essays on life

We can think with our bodies and think while moving. There is a long tradition of walking and thinking. Socrates famously walked with the citizens of Athens as he practised his distinct line of philosophical questioning. Aristotle’s school in Athens also became known as the peripatetic school, after his habit of walking while lecturing.

We can think with books, so long as we take the time to read slowly, carefully and thoughtfully. We can think with children, who constantly inspire us to imagine, question everything, and think creatively. And we can think in conversation because, Brinkmann argues, “all thinking is dialogical”. Thinking with others and thinking with ourselves requires the time and patience of inquiry in the form of dialogue.

Finally, we can think with history. We ought to direct a thoughtful attention to the past, according to Brinkmann, because the better you understand “the historical forces that shape you, the better you can think”.

Instructing and teaching

The final experiment that Brinkmann leaves us with is thought-provoking. “Leave behind philosophical reflections on ethics, politics, and personal identity,” he says, and instead “undertake a more personal and existential thought experiment”.

Imagine that our lives are to be turned into books. What would the chapters be named? How would the book begin? How would the book end?

Brinkmann here envisions a personal framing of the thoughtful life. Our reflexivity and contemplative abilities are supposedly what distinguish us, homo sapiens (literally “wise human”), from non-human animals. So if we are to lead more meaningful and fulfilling lives, then:

we need to practise thoughtfulness and create better conditions for thinking, particularly in a society that has focused for so long on efficiency over immersion, and utility over meaning.

Despite its merits, this is a book in praise of thoughtfulness which may ultimately fail to prompt the meaningful contemplation it espouses. Its pace and brevity are likely to make the book more accessible and appealing to the modern reader, but Brinkmann risks falling prey to the very “efficiency” and “utility” he criticises.

The philosopher is a lover of wisdom. Inspiring thoughtfulness, and so inspiring the process of being and becoming a philosopher, must involve loving attention, wonder and awe towards the world, and towards our existence as members of a global community.

Reminding us that thinking is what makes us human, Immanuel Kant wrote:

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not merely conjecture them and seek them as though obscured in darkness or in the transcendent region beyond my horizon: I see them before me, and I associate them directly with the consciousness of my own existence.

philosophical essays on life

Perhaps the flaw of Brinkmann’s book can be best summarised in an analogy. A great science teacher does not just lay out the laws that govern the natural world and list the many achievements and discoveries that have resulted from humanity’s collective efforts over millennia. This is merely instruction.

A great science teacher, with the aim of inspiring his students to truly become scientists, fosters the curiosity within them. This is teaching.

The many thought experiments that Brinkmann offers are removed from the context of their debates. They are used as trials of thoughtfulness. But it is not clear how Trolley Problems (to take one example from the book) inspire meaningful thinking about the particularities of our complex and dynamic moral lives.

Instead of being asked yet again if we would pull the lever, Brinkmann should perhaps spend more time challenging us to rethink what thinking really involves. Living more thoughtful lives is hard and not always convenient. Meaningful thought must be done slowly and carefully. It is also easy to forget that it requires practice, patience and guidance from good teachers.

The project of creating a short and accessible book in praise of thoughtfulness and its significance to the modern world is timely and important. Brinkmann is right to remind us of this.

But he also takes on the more challenging task of guiding his readers’ thinking, in an attempt to model what thoughtfulness involves, and this is where he may be underestimating them – where he does more instructing than teaching.

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Processes of Life: Essays in the Philosophy of Biology

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John Dupré,  Processes of Life: Essays in the Philosophy of Biology , Oxford University Press, 2012, 320pp., $55.00 (hbk), ISBN 9780199691982.

Reviewed by Robert A. Wilson, University of Alberta

This collection of sixteen essays, all but three of which have been published in the past five years, provides not only a glimpse into the mind of one of the leading philosophers of biology but also a keen sense of some of the new directions that the field has taken over the past decade. Despite the inevitable repetition one encounters across the essays, this will be a useful volume for those in the field to have. Dupré's writing is crisp and engaging, and given his focus on areas of biological science beyond those that have constituted the bread-and-butter of philosophical discussions, the volume should appeal as well to those wondering what all the excitement has been about in recent philosophy of biology.

One of the chief themes of these essays continues Dupré's signature resistance to reductionism in the philosophy of science in general and the philosophy of biology in particular, a resistance first expressed in Dupré's "Natural Kinds and Biological Taxa" (1981) and developed in his The Disorder of Things: Metaphysical Foundations of the Disunity of Science (1993). In Dupré's view, reductionism, unificationism, and monism, as closely related, general philosophical positions, are badly mistaken as views of the nature of science, especially the biological sciences. In their place, Dupré continues to advocate pluralistic views of scientific categories, methodology, and practice with the first essay, "The Miracle of Monism", arguing against monism because of its putative incompatibility with empiricism.

A second thematic thread that runs through the volume stems from Dupré's reflections on specifically biological phenomena and the concepts invoked to capture those phenomena. Chiefly through joint work with Maureen O'Malley that is reprinted here, Dupré sounds the siren loud and clear for the significance of the microbial world for a range of general views that both philosophers and biologists alike have taken for granted. The microbial world has come to occupy more central territory in a range of biological sciences in the past 50 years -- not only in epidemiology and disease-centred sciences and practices, but also in more obviously philosophically salient research on the levels of selection, on the early history of life, and on systematics and phylogeny. Dupré's view is that neglecting the microbial amounts to a damaging and limiting "macrobist" bias in the field. For example, attending to findings about the microbial world and its relation to the macrobial world provides reason to rethink our concept of a biological individual, and to view post-genetic research programs, such as metagenomics, with some enthusiasm. Dupré's Spinoza Lectures at the University of Amsterdam, "The Constituents of Life", reprinted as chapters 4 and 5, contain perhaps his clearest arguments for pluralism that appeal to the microbial world.

Dupré not only critiques some received views in the field but also offers more positive suggestions about how to think about life, organisms, and the organization of the biological world more generally. Two ideas pervade Dupré's more constructive thinking about key concepts and views about the biological world: the idea that living things in general and organisms in particular are processes, not entities, and the position that he calls promiscuous individualism.

To unpack this tantalizing coinage and to get some sense of how the microbial world is significant for such constructive views, consider symbiosis, the tight, mutually beneficial interdependence between two living things (typically organisms) that is typified by lichens, which are composite organisms made up of a fungus and either a cyanobacterium or some other photosynthesizing organism, such as green algae. Here is what Dupré says about symbiosis in describing the content of one of the essays in the volume:

Here I make for the first time the argument that the omnipresence of symbiosis should be seen as undermining the project of dividing living systems unequivocally into unique organisms, a conclusion I refer to in later chapters as 'promiscuous individualism', in parallel with my doctrine of promiscuous realism about species. (p.8; cf. p.241)

In this case, the appeal is to the putative pervasiveness of a given phenomenon (symbiosis) as the grounds for endorsing pluralism about organisms. Applying Dupré's well-known promiscuous realism here, we have not only the epistemic view that there are many legitimate ways to classify the world into biological individuals, including organisms, but the corresponding ontological view that such legitimation is provided by there being multiple biological individuals there to classify.

One sensible consequence of this view is that there is, at least often enough, no unique answer to the questions, asked of a particular biological situation, "How many biological individuals/organisms are there here?". As Dupré says, "what an organism is, and whether something is part of an organism or not, are not questions that necessarily admit of definitive answers" (p.153). But one should not under-estimate how ontologically radical promiscuous individualism is, and might even wonder whether the implied "not necessarily" here should be the stronger "necessarily do not".

For example, in the case of lichens, in challenging the view that there is just one organism (the lichen) or two organisms (the fungus and the cyanobacterium), an advocate of promiscuous individualism can readily make the case that there are three organisms (the lichen, the fungus, and the cyanobacterium), pointing to the different purposes and goals one might have in opting for either of the more monistic counts of organism numbers here. But given that it is a population of millions of cyanobacteria inhabiting any given fungus that jointly compose a lichen, and that there are multiple ways to draw the boundary between individual fungi of a given species, promiscuity runs rampant here. Dupré himself holds that populations of organisms, including multispecies populations, such as those found in microbial biofilms, can themselves be both biological individuals and organisms (pp.89, 175-176, 194, 203), and that "Whether a group of microbes is a closely connected ecological community or an organism may be a matter of biological judgment" (p.153). Promiscuous individualism thus seems to imply that there are many, many different numbers of individuals present in this paradigm case.

In the preceding paragraph I have shifted between talk of biological individuals and of organisms, and Dupré is clear (e.g., p.207) that the former cannot simply be equated with the latter (see also Wilson and Barker 2012). But what of these and kindred concepts -- biological individual, organism, living thing, life -- themselves? Like pluralism about species, an interesting pluralism about these biological phenomena needs to be more than some kind of disjunctivism about the corresponding concept. In "Varieties of Living Things" (chapter 12), written with O'Malley, Dupré advocates a more complete survey of the putative kinds of living things there are than philosophers of biology are usually content with, calling attention to prions, plasmids, and organelles in addition to more familiar, large, multicellular life forms. Of living things themselves, O'Malley and Dupré say that "matter is living when lineages are involved -- directly or indirectly -- in metabolism" (p.206), and view collaboration as a more central feature of living things than it is often acknowledged as being.

But O'Malley and Dupré are less clear both about how to move beyond these imprecise characterizations of living things and about the relationship between these interesting claims and promiscuous individualism, or how we should think about the various other putative criteria for life, such as reproduction, spatial boundedness, and evolvability. For example, while they rightly point to problems in identifying the exact physical boundaries for individual biological entities as a reason to question whether that criterion is strictly necessary, they appear to take the ability to reproduce to be a necessary condition for being a living thing (pp.208, 224), despite the fact that many organisms do not (and cannot) themselves reproduce. In addition, reproduction and metabolism, as central as they are to their view of living things, remain largely unexplained, despite the attention they have received in the work of others, such as James Griesemer and Peter Godfrey-Smith.

While I sympathize with Dupré's view that organisms are not the only biological entities of significance, the inferences one can draw from this point remain unclear. Consider "Metagenomics and Biological Ontology" (chapter 11), where Dupré and O'Malley argue that the metagenome, the set of genomic resources in a given environment, is a communal resource

and that the entity to which the resource is available is a coordinated, developing, multifunctional, multicellular organism composed of large numbers of cells of different varieties and capabilities, able to work in ways in which the collectivity regulates the functions of individuals (p.200).

Even in the space of this short sentence, a number of questions arise. First, why should we think that there is such a single entity at all, especially if we are proponents of promiscuous individualism? Second, what is the concept of an organism that would support the view that this entity is an organism? (For a pluralist, the same question could be asked of the various entities that make use of this communal resource.) Dupré and O'Malley later talk of biofilms as "organism-like communities" (p.203), and may not strictly endorse the biological ontology of metaorganisms that they at least seriously entertain. Yet this does not obviate but instead highlights the need for some more sustained, positive discussion of what organisms are. One issue is whether Dupré's pluralism implies that the question of whether metagenomics entails the existence of metaorganisms is misplaced.

Regarding organisms themselves, Dupré is clear enough about what they are not: they are not to be identified monogenomically, or as the sole kind of living thing, or as the only or even primary unit of selection. But what are organisms, on Dupré's view, and how are they distinguished from other biological individuals? Dupré identifies organisms as dynamic entities, as processes (not things), as life cycles, as collaboratively oriented, and as determined by the communities they form a part of as well as by what they are constituted by. When he says that "functioning biological individuals are typically symbiotic wholes involving many organisms of radically different kinds" (p.9), Dupré is clearly identifying something significant about both organisms and biological individuals more generally, much as he does when he identifies living things as existing at the intersection of metabolism and lineage. But he is reluctant, perhaps consistently so given his promiscuous individualism, to embrace the idea that there is a single criterion, or set of criteria, that the concept of an organism answers to. The tension that exists between this reluctance and the defence of particular claims about organisms (e.g., that there are metaorganisms) raises the question of whether a promiscuous individualist like Dupré owes us something more informative about what organisms are.

Similar questions might be asked about a range of other issues that Dupré discusses: whether viruses are living things (e.g., p.91), whether a gene really is "any bit of DNA that anyone has reason to name and keep track of" (p.112), and whether, referencing reductionism, genomics is best thought of as "the successor science to genetics that rejects this obsolete epistemology and methodology" (p.115). Dupré's discussion of all three of these issues can come across as flippant at times, in the last case raising some questions about another thread that runs through this volume, one concerning the social locatedness of the biological sciences.

Dupré knows the effects that misdirected biology has had with respect to race and gender, and apart from an essay dedicated to the former (chapter 15, "What Genes Are, and Why There are No 'Genes for Race'"), the volume also contains papers on the concept of disease and evolutionary psychology, the latter of these extending Dupré's critique from his Human Nature and the Limits of Science (2002). In fact, sensitivity to the social context in which both theory and practice in the biological sciences develop is manifest throughout much of the volume. This can make Dupré's enthusiasm for metagenomics seem strangely glib, especially given Dupré's anti-reductionism and that metagenomics itself might be seen as extending the reach of reductive research programs focused on those small agents of life, genes. More explicit reflection by Dupré on the social context not only of metagenomics but of the other theoretical directions in biology that these essays direct us to, such as developmental systems theory and epigenetics, would be a welcome complement to Processes of Life .

Dupré, J., 1981, "Natural Kinds and Biological Taxa", Philosophical Review , 90: 66-90.

Dupré, J., 1993, The Disorder of Things: Metaphysical Foundations of the Disunity of Science . New York: Oxford University Press.

Dupré, J., 2002, Human Nature and the Limits of Science . New York: Oxford University Press.

Wilson, Robert A., and M.J. Barker, 2012, "The Biological Notion of Individual", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy , revised version in press.

philosophical essays on life

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Our tools shape our selves

For bernard stiegler, a visionary philosopher of our digital age, technics is the defining feature of human experience.

by Bryan Norton   + BIO

It has become almost impossible to separate the effects of digital technologies from our everyday experiences. Reality is parsed through glowing screens, unending data feeds, biometric feedback loops, digital protheses and expanding networks that link our virtual selves to satellite arrays in geostationary orbit. Wristwatches interpret our physical condition by counting steps and heartbeats. Phones track how we spend our time online, map the geographic location of the places we visit and record our histories in digital archives. Social media platforms forge alliances and create new political possibilities. And vast wireless networks – connecting satellites, drones and ‘smart’ weapons – determine how the wars of our era are being waged. Our experiences of the world are soaked with digital technologies.

But for the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, one of the earliest and foremost theorists of our digital age, understanding the world requires us to move beyond the standard view of technology. Stiegler believed that technology is not just about the effects of digital tools and the ways that they impact our lives. It is not just about how devices are created and wielded by powerful organisations, nation-states or individuals. Our relationship with technology is about something deeper and more fundamental. It is about technics .

According to Stiegler, technics – the making and use of technology, in the broadest sense – is what makes us human. Our unique way of existing in the world, as distinct from other species, is defined by the experiences and knowledge our tools make possible, whether that is a state-of-the-art brain-computer interface such as Neuralink, or a prehistoric flint axe used to clear a forest. But don’t be mistaken: ‘technics’ is not simply another word for ‘technology’. As Martin Heidegger wrote in his essay ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ (1954), which used the German term Technik instead of Technologie in the original title: the ‘essence of technology is by no means anything technological.’ This aligns with the history of the word: the etymology of ‘technics’ leads us back to something like the ancient Greek term for art – technē . The essence of technology, then, is not found in a device, such as the one you are using to read this essay. It is an open-ended creative process, a relationship with our tools and the world.

This is Stiegler’s legacy. Throughout his life, he took this idea of technics, first explored while he was imprisoned for armed robbery, further than anyone else. But his ideas have often been overlooked and misunderstood, even before he died in 2020. Today, they are more necessary than ever. How else can we learn to disentangle the effects of digital technologies from our everyday experiences? How else can we begin to grasp the history of our strange reality?

S tiegler’s path to becoming the pre-eminent philosopher of our digital age was anything but straightforward. He was born in Villebon-sur-Yvette, south of Paris, in 1952, during a period of affluence and rejuvenation in France that followed the devastation of the Second World War. By the time he was 16, Stiegler participated in the revolutionary wave of 1968 (he would later become a member of the Communist Party), when a radical uprising of students and workers forced the president Charles de Gaulle to seek temporary refuge across the border in West Germany. However, after a new election was called and the barricades were dismantled, Stiegler became disenchanted with traditional Marxism, as well as the political trends circulating in France at the time. The Left in France seemed helplessly torn between the postwar existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and the anti-humanism of Louis Althusser. While Sartre insisted on humans’ creative capacity to shape their own destiny, Althusser argued that the pervasiveness of ideology in capitalist society had left us helplessly entrenched in systems of power beyond our control. Neither of these options satisfied Stiegler because neither could account for the rapid rise of a new historical force: electronic technology. By the 1970s and ’80s, Stiegler sensed that this new technology was redefining our relationship to ourselves, to the world, and to each other. To account for these new conditions, he believed the history of philosophy would have to be rewritten from the ground up, from the perspective of technics. Neither existentialism nor Marxism nor any other school of philosophy had come close to acknowledging the fundamental link between human existence and the evolutionary history of tools.

Stiegler describes his time in prison as one of radical self-exploration and philosophical experimentation

In the decade after 1968, Stiegler opened a jazz club in Toulouse that was shut down by the police a few years later for illegal prostitution. Desperate to make ends meet, Stiegler turned to robbing banks to pay off his debts and feed his family. In 1978, he was arrested for armed robbery and sentenced to five years in prison. A high-school dropout who was never comfortable in institutional settings, Stiegler requested his own cell when he first arrived in prison, and went on a hunger strike until it was granted. After the warden finally acquiesced, Stiegler began taking note of how his relationship to the outside world was mediated through reading and writing. This would be a crucial realisation. Through books, paper and pencils, he was able to interface with people and places beyond the prison walls.

It was during his time behind bars that Stiegler began to study philosophy more intently, devouring any books he could get his hands on. In his philosophical memoir Acting Out (2009), Stiegler describes his time in prison as one of radical self-exploration and philosophical experimentation. He read classic works of Greek philosophy, studied English and memorised modern poetry, but the book that really drew his attention was Plato’s Phaedrus. In this dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus, Plato outlines his concept of anamnesis , a theory of learning that states the acquisition of new knowledge is just a process of remembering what we once knew in a previous life. Caught in an endless cycle of death and rebirth, we forget what we know each time we are reborn. For Stiegler, this idea of learning as recollection would become less spiritual and more material: learning and memory are tied inextricably to technics. Through the tools we use – including books, writing, archives – we can store and preserve vast amounts of knowledge.

After an initial attempt at writing fiction in prison, Stiegler enrolled in a philosophy programme designed for inmates. While still serving his sentence, he finished a degree in philosophy and corresponded with prominent intellectuals such as the philosopher and translator Gérard Granel, who was a well-connected professor at the University of Toulouse-Le Mirail (later known as the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès). Granel introduced Stiegler to some of the most prominent figures in philosophy at the time, including Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida . Lyotard would oversee Stiegler’s master’s thesis after his eventual release; Derrida would supervise his doctoral dissertation, completed in 1993, which was reworked and published a year later as the first volume in his Technics and Time series. With the help of these philosophers and their novel ideals, Stiegler began to reshape his earlier political commitment to Marxist materialism, seeking to account for the ways that new technologies shape the world.

B y the start of the 1970s, a growing number of philosophers and political theorists began calling into question the immediacy of our lived experience. The world around us was no longer seen by these thinkers as something that was simply given, as it had been for phenomenologists such as Immanuel Kant and Edmund Husserl. The world instead presented itself as a built environment composed of things such as roads, power plants and houses, all made possible by political institutions, cultural practices and social norms. And so, reality also appeared to be a construction, not a given.

One of the French philosophers who interrogated the immediacy of reality most closely was Louis Althusser. In his essay ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ published in 1970, years before Stiegler was taught by him, Althusser suggests that ideology is not something that an individual believes in, but something that goes far beyond the scale of a single person, or even a community. Just as we unthinkingly turn around when we hear our name shouted from behind, ideology has a hold on us that is both automatic and unconscious – it seeps in from outside. Michel Foucault , a former student of Althusser at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, developed a theory of power that functions in a similar way. In Discipline and Punish (1975) and elsewhere, Foucault argues that social and political power is not concentrated in individuals but is produced by ‘discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions’. Foucault’s insight was to show how power shapes every facet of the world, from classroom interactions between a teacher and student to negotiations of a trade agreement between representatives of two different nations. From this perspective, power is constituted in and through material practices, rather than something possessed by individual subjects.

We don’t simply ‘use’ our digital tools – they enter and pharmacologically change us, like medicinal drugs

These are the foundations on which Stiegler assembled his idea of technics. Though he appreciated the ways that Foucault and Althusser had tried to account for technology, he remained dissatisfied by the lack of attention to particular types of technology – not to mention the fact that neither thinker had offered any real alternatives to the forms of power they described. In his book Taking Care of Youth and the Generations (2008), Stiegler explains that he was able to move beyond Foucault with the help of his mentor Derrida’s concept of the pharmakon . In his essay ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’ (1972), Derrida began developing the idea as he explored how our ability to write can create and undermine (‘cure’ and ‘poison’) an individual subject’s sense of identity. For Derrida, the act of writing – itself a kind of technology – has a Janus-faced relationship to individual memory. Though it allows us to store knowledge and experience across vast periods of time, writing disincentivises us from practising our own mental capacity for recollection. The written word short-circuits the immediate connection between lived experience and internal memory. It ‘cures’ our cognitive limits, but also ‘poisons’ our cognition by limiting our abilities.

In the late 20th century, Stiegler began applying this idea to new media technologies, such as television, which led to the development of a concept he called pharmacology – an idea that suggests we don’t simply ‘use’ our digital tools. Instead, they enter and pharmacologically change us, like medicinal drugs. Today, we can take this analogy even further. The internet presents us with a massive archive of formatted, readily accessible information. Sites such as Wikipedia contain terabytes of knowledge, accumulated and passed down over millennia. At the same time, this exchange of unprecedented amounts of information enables the dissemination of an unprecedented amount of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and other harmful content. The digital is both a poison and a cure, as Derrida would say.

This kind of polyvalence led Stiegler to think more deliberately about technics rather than technology. For Stiegler, there are inherent risks in thinking in terms of the latter: the more ubiquitous that digital technologies become in our lives, the easier it is to forget that these tools are social products that have been constructed by our fellow humans. How we consume music, the paths we take to get from point A to point B , how we share ourselves with others, all of these aspects of daily life have been reshaped by new technologies and the humans that produce them. Yet we rarely stop to reflect on what this means for us. Stiegler believed this act of forgetting creates a deep crisis for all facets of human experience. By forgetting, we lose our all-important capacity to imagine alternative ways of living. The future appears limited, even predetermined, by new technology.

I n the English-speaking world, Stiegler is best known for his first book Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus (1994). In the first sentence, he highlights the vital link between our understanding of the technologies we use and our capacity to imagine the future. ‘The object of this work is technics,’ he writes, ‘apprehended as the horizon of all possibility to come and of all possibility of a future.’ He views our relationship with tools as the determining force for all future possibilities; technics is the defining feature of human experience, one that has been overlooked by philosophers from Plato and Aristotle down to the present. While René Descartes, Husserl and other thinkers asked important questions about consciousness and lived experience (phenomenology), and the nature of truth (metaphysics) or knowledge (epistemology), they failed to account for the ways that technologies help us find – or guide us toward – answers to these questions. In the history of philosophy, ‘Technics is the unthought,’ according to Stiegler.

To further stress the importance of technics, Stiegler turns to the creation myth told by the Greek poet Hesiod in Works and Days , written around 700 BCE . During the world’s creation, Zeus asks the Titan Epimetheus to distribute individual talents to each species. Epimetheus gives wings to birds so they can fly, and fins to fish so they can swim. By the time he gets to humans, however, Epimetheus has no talents left over. Epimetheus, whose name (according to Stiegler) means the ‘forgetful one’ in Greek, turns to his brother Prometheus for help. Prometheus then steals fire from the gods, presenting it to humans in place of a biological talent. Humans, once more, are born out of an act of forgetting, just like in Plato’s theory of anamnesis. The difference with Hesiod’s story is that technics here provides a material basis for human experience. Bereft of any physiological talents, Homo sapiens must survive by using tools, beginning with fire.

Factories, server farms and even psychotropic drugs possess the capacity to poison or cure our world

The pharmacology of technics, for Stiegler, presents opportunities for positive or negative relationships with tools. ‘But where the danger lies,’ writes the poet Friedrich Hölderlin in a quote Stiegler often turned to, ‘also grows the saving power.’ While Derrida focuses on the ability of the written word to subvert the sovereignty of the individual subject, Stiegler widens this understanding of pharmacology to include a variety of media and technologies. Not just writing, but factories, server farms and even psychotropic drugs possess the pharmacological capacity to poison or cure our world and, crucially, our understanding of it. Technological development can destroy our sense of ourselves as rational, coherent subjects, leading to widespread suffering and destruction. But tools can also provide us with a new sense of what it means to be human, leading to new modes of expression and cultural practices.

In Symbolic Misery, Volume 2: The Catastrophe of the Sensible (2015) , Stiegler considers the effect that new technologies, especially those accompanying industrialisation, have had on art and music. Industry, defined by mass production and standardisation, is often regarded as antithetical to artistic freedom and expression. But Stiegler urges us to take a closer look at art history to see how artists responded to industrialisation. In response to the standardising effects of new machinery, for example, Marcel Duchamp and other members of the 20th-century avant-garde used industrial tools to invent novel forms of creative expression. In the painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No 2 (1912), Duchamp employed the new temporal perspectives made possible by photography and cinema to paint a radically different kind of portrait. Inspired by the camera’s ability to capture movement, frame by frame, Duchamp paints a nude model who appears in multiple instants at once, like a series of time-lapse photographs superimposed onto each other. The image became an immediate sensation, an icon of modernity and the resulting entanglement of art and industrial technology.

Technical innovations are never without political and social implications for Stiegler. The phonograph, for example, may have standardised classical musical performances after its invention in the late 1800s, but it also contributed to the development of jazz, a genre that was popular among musicians who were barred from accessing the elite world of classical music. Thanks to the gramophone, Black musicians such as the pianist and composer Duke Ellington were able to learn their instruments by ear, without first learning to read musical notation. The phonograph’s industrialisation of musical performance paradoxically led to the free-flowing improvisation of jazz performers.

T echnics draws our attention to the world-making capabilities of our tools, while reminding us of the constructed nature of our technological reality. Stiegler’s capacious understanding of technics, encompassing everything from early agricultural tools to the television set, does not disregard new innovations, either. In 2006, Stiegler founded the Institute for Research and Innovation, an organisation at the Centre Pompidou in Paris devoted to exploring the impact digital technology has on contemporary society. Stiegler’s belief in the power of technology to shape the world around us has often led to the charge that he is a techno-determinist who believes the entire course of history is shaped by tools and machines. It’s true that Stiegler thinks technology defines who we are as humans, but this process does not always lock us into predetermined outcomes. Instead, it simultaneously provides us with a material horizon of possible experience. Stiegler’s theory of technics urges us to rethink the history of philosophy, art and politics in order that we might better understand how our world has been shaped by technology. And by acquiring this historical consciousness, he hopes that we will ultimately design better tools, using technology to improve our world in meaningful ways.

This doesn’t mean Stiegler is a techno-optimist, either, who blindly sees digital technology as a panacea for our problems. One particular concern he expresses about digital technology is its capacity to standardise the world we inhabit. Big data, for Stiegler, threatens to limit our sense of what is possible, rather than broadening our horizons and opening new opportunities for creative expression. Just as Hollywood films in the 20th century manufactured and distributed the ideology of consumer capitalism to the rest of the globe, Stiegler suggests that tech firms such as Google and Apple often disseminate values that are hidden from view. A potent example of this can be found in the first fully AI-judged beauty pageant. As discussed by the sociologist Ruha Benjamin in her book Race After Technology (2019), the developers of Beauty.AI advertised the contest as an opportunity for beauty to be judged in a way that was free of prejudice. What they found, however, was that the tool they had designed exhibited an overwhelming preference for white contestants.

The digital economy doesn’t always offer desirable alternatives as former ways of working and living are destroyed

In Automatic Society, Volume 1: The Future of Work (2016), Stiegler shows how big data can standardise our world by reorganising work and employment. Digital tools were first seen as a disruptive force that could break the monotonous rhythms of large industry, but the rise of flexible forms of employment in the gig economy has created a massive underclass. A new proletariat of Uber drivers and other precarious workers now labour under extremely unstable conditions. They are denied even the traditional protections of working-class employment. The digital economy doesn’t always offer desirable alternatives as former ways of working and living are destroyed.

A particularly pressing concern Stiegler took up before his untimely death in 2020 is the capacity of digital tools to surveil us. The rise of big tech firms such as Google and Amazon has meant the intrusion of surveillance tools into every aspect of our lives. Smart homes have round-the-clock video feeds, and marketing companies spend billions collecting data about everything we do online. In his last two books published in English, The Neganthropocene ( 2018 ) and The Age of Disruption: Technology and Madness in Computational Capitalism ( 2019 ), Stiegler suggests that the growth of widespread surveillance tools is at odds with the pharmacological promise of new technology. Though tracking tools can be useful by, for example, limiting the spread of harmful diseases, they are also used to deny us worlds of possible experience.

Technology, for better or worse, affects every aspect of our lives. Our very sense of who we are is shaped and reshaped by the tools we have at our disposal. The problem, for Stiegler, is that when we pay too much attention to our tools, rather than how they are developed and deployed, we fail to understand our reality. We become trapped, merely describing the technological world on its own terms and making it even harder to untangle the effects of digital technologies and our everyday experiences. By encouraging us to pay closer attention to this world-making capacity, with its potential to harm and heal, Stiegler is showing us what else is possible. There are other ways of living, of being, of evolving. It is technics, not technology, that will give the future its new face.

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War and peace

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There are roughly two philosophical literatures on “happiness,” each corresponding to a different sense of the term. One uses ‘happiness’ as a value term, roughly synonymous with well-being or flourishing. The other body of work uses the word as a purely descriptive psychological term, akin to ‘depression’ or ‘tranquility’. An important project in the philosophy of happiness is simply getting clear on what various writers are talking about: what are the important meanings of the term and how do they connect? While the “well-being” sense of happiness receives significant attention in the contemporary literature on well-being, the psychological notion is undergoing a revival as a major focus of philosophical inquiry, following on recent developments in the science of happiness. This entry focuses on the psychological sense of happiness (for the well-being notion, see the entry on well-being ). The main accounts of happiness in this sense are hedonism, the life satisfaction theory, and the emotional state theory. Leaving verbal questions behind, we find that happiness in the psychological sense has always been an important concern of philosophers. Yet the significance of happiness for a good life has been hotly disputed in recent decades. Further questions of contemporary interest concern the relation between the philosophy and science of happiness, as well as the role of happiness in social and political decision-making.

1.1 Two senses of ‘happiness’

1.2 clarifying our inquiry, 2.1 the chief candidates, 2.2 methodology: settling on a theory, 2.3 life satisfaction versus affect-based accounts, 2.4 hedonism versus emotional state, 2.5 hybrid accounts, 3.1 can happiness be measured, 3.2 empirical findings: overview, 3.3 the sources of happiness, 4.1 doubts about the value of happiness, 4.2 restoring happiness to the theory of well-being, 4.3 is happiness overrated, 5.1 normative issues, 5.2 mistakes in the pursuit of happiness, 5.3 the politics of happiness, other internet resources, related entries, 1. the meanings of ‘happiness’.

What is happiness? This question has no straightforward answer, because the meaning of the question itself is unclear. What exactly is being asked? Perhaps you want to know what the word ‘happiness’ means. In that case your inquiry is linguistic. Chances are you had something more interesting in mind: perhaps you want to know about the thing , happiness, itself. Is it pleasure, a life of prosperity, something else? Yet we can’t answer that question until we have some notion of what we mean by the word.

Philosophers who write about “happiness” typically take their subject matter to be either of two things, each corresponding to a different sense of the term:

  • A state of mind
  • A life that goes well for the person leading it

In the first case our concern is simply a psychological matter. Just as inquiry about pleasure or depression fundamentally concerns questions of psychology, inquiry about happiness in this sense—call it the (long-term) “psychological sense”—is fundamentally the study of certain mental states. What is this state of mind we call happiness? Typical answers to this question include life satisfaction, pleasure, or a positive emotional condition.

Having answered that question, a further question arises: how valuable is this mental state? Since ‘happiness’ in this sense is just a psychological term, you could intelligibly say that happiness isn’t valuable at all. Perhaps you are a high-achieving intellectual who thinks that only ignoramuses can be happy. On this sort of view, happy people are to be pitied, not envied. The present article will center on happiness in the psychological sense.

In the second case, our subject matter is a kind of value , namely what philosophers nowadays tend to call prudential value —or, more commonly, well-being , welfare , utility or flourishing . (For further discussion, see the entry on well-being . Whether these terms are really equivalent remains a matter of dispute, but this article will usually treat them as interchangeable.) “Happiness” in this sense concerns what benefits a person, is good for her, makes her better off, serves her interests, or is desirable for her for her sake. To be high in well-being is to be faring well, doing well, fortunate, or in an enviable condition. Ill-being, or doing badly, may call for sympathy or pity, whereas we envy or rejoice in the good fortune of others, and feel gratitude for our own. Being good for someone differs from simply being good, period: perhaps it is always good, period, for you to be honest; yet it may not always be good for you , as when it entails self-sacrifice. Not coincidentally, the word ‘happiness’ derives from the term for good fortune, or “good hap,” and indeed the terms used to translate it in other languages often have similar roots. In this sense of the term—call it the “well-being sense”—happiness refers to a life of well-being or flourishing: a life that goes well for you.

Importantly, to ascribe happiness in the well-being sense is to make a value judgment : namely, that the person has whatever it is that benefits a person. [ 1 ] If you and I and have different values, then we may well differ about which lives we consider happy. I might think Genghis Khan had a happy life, because I think what matters for well-being is getting what you want; while you deny this because you think a life of evildoing, however “successful,” is sad and impoverished.

Theories of well-being—and hence of “happiness” in the well-being sense—come in three basic flavors, according to the best-known taxonomy (Parfit 1984): hedonism, desire theories, and objective list theories. Whereas hedonists identify well-being roughly with experiences of pleasure, desire theorists equate it with the satisfaction of one’s desires— actually getting what you want, versus merely having certain experiences. Both hedonism and desire theories are in some sense subjectivist, since they ground well-being in the individual’s subjective states. Objective list theorists, by contrast, think some things benefit us independently of our attitudes or feelings: there are objective prudential goods. Aristotelians are the best-known example: they take well-being ( eudaimonia ) to consist in a life of virtuous activity—or more broadly, the fulfillment of our human capacities. A passive but contented couch potato may be getting what he wants, and he may enjoy it. But he would not, on Aristotelian and other objective list theories, count as doing well, or leading a happy life.

Now we can sharpen the initial question somewhat: when you ask what happiness is, are you asking what sort of life benefits a person? If so, then your question concerns matters of value, namely what is good for people—the sort of thing that ethical theorists are trained to address. Alternatively, perhaps you simply want to know about the nature of a certain state of mind—happiness in the psychological sense. In this case, some sort of psychological inquiry will be needed, either philosophical or scientific. (Laypersons often have neither sort of question in mind, but are really asking about the sources of happiness. Thus it might be claimed, say, that “happiness is being with good friends.” This is not a view about the nature or definition of happiness, but rather a theory about the sorts of things that tend to make us happy. It leaves unanswered, or takes for granted, the question of just what happiness is , such that friends are a good source of it.)

In short, philosophical “theories of happiness” can be about either of at least two different things: well-being, or a state of mind. [ 2 ] Accordingly, there are essentially two bodies of philosophical literature about “happiness” and two sets of debates about its nature, though writers often fail to distinguish them. Such failures have generated much confusion, sometimes yielding bogus disagreements that prove to be merely verbal. [ 3 ] For instance, some psychologists identify “happiness” with attitudes of life satisfaction while remaining neutral on questions of value, or whether Bentham, Mill, Aristotle, or any other thinker about the good life was correct. Such researchers employ the term in the psychological sense. Yet it is sometimes objected against such claims that life satisfaction cannot suffice for “happiness” because other things, like achievement or knowledge, matter for human well-being. The objectors are confused: their opponents have made no claims about well-being at all, and the two “sides,” as it were, are simply using ‘happiness’ to talk about different things. One might just as sensibly object to an economist’s tract on “banks” that it has nothing to say about rivers and streams.

Which use of ‘happiness’ corresponds to the true meaning of the term in contemporary English? Arguably, both. The well-being usage clearly dominates in the historical literature through at least the early modern era, for instance in translations of the ancient Greeks’ ‘ eudaimonia ’ or the Latin ‘ beatitudo ’, though this translation has long been a source of controversy. Jefferson’s famous reference to “the pursuit of happiness” probably employed the well-being sense. Even later writers such as Mill may have used the term in its well-being sense, though it is often difficult to tell since well-being itself is often taken to consist in mental states like pleasure. In ordinary usage, the abstract noun ‘happiness’ often invites a well-being reading. And the locution ‘happy life ’ may not naturally take a psychological interpretation, for the simple reason that lives aren’t normally regarded as psychological entities.

Contrast this with the very different meaning that seems to attach to talk of “ being happy.” Here it is much less clear that we are talking about a property of a person’s life; it seems rather to be a property of the person herself. To be happy, it seems, is just to be in a certain sort of psychological state or condition. Similarly when we say that so-and-so “is happy” (as opposed to saying that he is leading a happy life). This psychological usage, arguably, predominates in the current vernacular. Researchers engaged in the self-described “science of happiness” usually do not take themselves to be making value judgments when they proclaim individuals in their studies to be happy. Nor, when asserting that a life satisfaction study shows Utahans to be happier than New Yorkers, are they committing themselves to the tendentious claim that Utahans are better off . (If they are, then the psychology journals that are publishing this research may need to revise their peer-review protocols to include ethicists among their referees.) And the many recent popular books on happiness, as well as innumerable media accounts of research on happiness, nearly all appear to take it for granted that they are talking about nothing more than a psychological condition.

Henceforth ‘happiness’ will be used in the long-term psychological sense, unless otherwise specified. Note, however, that a number of important books and other works on “happiness” in recent decades have employed the well-being sense of the term. Books of this sort appear to include Almeder 2000, Annas 1993, 2011, Bloomfield 2014, Cahn and Vitrano 2015, Kenny and Kenny 2006, McMahon 2005, McPherson 2020, Noddings 2003, Russell 2013, White 2006, and Vitrano 2014, though again it is not always clear how a given author uses the term. For discussion of the well-being notion, see the entry on well-being . [ 4 ]

2. Theories of happiness

Philosophers have most commonly distinguished two accounts of happiness: hedonism , and the life satisfaction theory. Hedonists identify happiness with the individual’s balance of pleasant over unpleasant experience, in the same way that welfare hedonists do. [ 5 ] The difference is that the hedonist about happiness need not accept the stronger doctrine of welfare hedonism; this emerges clearly in arguments against the classical Utilitarian focus on happiness as the aim of social choice. Such arguments tend to grant the identification of happiness with pleasure, but challenge the idea that this should be our primary or sole concern, and often as well the idea that happiness is all that matters for well-being.

Life satisfaction theories identify happiness with having a favorable attitude toward one’s life as a whole. This basic schema can be filled out in a variety of ways, but typically involves some sort of global judgment: an endorsement or affirmation of one’s life as a whole. This judgment may be more or less explicit, and may involve or accompany some form of affect. It may also involve or accompany some aggregate of judgments about particular items or domains within one’s life. [ 6 ]

A third theory, the emotional state view, departs from hedonism in a different way: instead of identifying happiness with pleasant experience, it identifies happiness with an agent’s emotional condition as a whole, of what is often called “emotional well-being.” [ 7 ] This includes nonexperiential aspects of emotions and moods (or perhaps just moods), and excludes pleasures that don’t directly involve the individual’s emotional state. It might also include a person’s propensity for experiencing various moods, which can vary over time, though several authors have argued against this suggestion (e.g., Hill 2007, Klausen 2015, Rossi 2018). Happiness on such a view is more nearly the opposite of depression or anxiety—a broad psychological condition—whereas hedonistic happiness is simply opposed to unpleasantness. For example, a deeply distressed individual might distract herself enough with constant activity to maintain a mostly pleasant existence—broken only by tearful breakdowns during the odd quiet moment—thus perhaps counting as happy on a hedonistic but not emotional state view. The states involved in happiness, on an emotional state view, can range widely, far more so that the ordinary notion of mood or emotion. On one proposal, happiness involves three broad categories of affective state, including “endorsement” states like joy versus sadness, “engagement” states like flow or a sense of vitality, and “attunement” states like tranquility, emotional expansiveness versus compression, and confidence. Given the departures from commonsensical notions of being in a “good mood,” happiness is characterized in this proposal as “psychic affirmation,” or “psychic flourishing” in pronounced forms.

A fourth family of views, hybrid theories , attempts an irenic solution to our diverse intuitions about happiness: identify happiness with both life satisfaction and pleasure or emotional state, perhaps along with other states such as domain satisfactions. The most obvious candidate here is subjective well-being , which is typically defined as a compound of life satisfaction, domain satisfactions, and positive and negative affect. (Researchers often seem to identify happiness with subjective well-being, sometimes with life satisfaction, and perhaps most commonly with emotional or hedonic state.) The chief appeal of hybrid theories is their inclusiveness: all the components of subjective well-being seem important, and there is probably no component of subjective well-being that does not at times get included in “happiness” in ordinary usage.

How do we determine which theory is correct? Traditional philosophical methods of conceptual or linguistic analysis can give us some guidance, indicating that some accounts offer a better fit with the ordinary concept of happiness. Thus it has been argued that hedonism is false to the concept of happiness as we know it; the intuitions taken to support hedonism point instead to an emotional state view (Haybron 2001). And some have argued that life satisfaction is compatible with profoundly negative emotional states like depression—a suffering artist might not value emotional matters much, and wholeheartedly affirm her life (Carson 1981, Davis 1981b, Haybron 2005, Feldman 2010). Yet it might seem counterintuitive to deem such a person happy. At the same time, people do sometimes use ‘happiness’ to denote states of life satisfaction: life satisfaction theories do seem faithful to some ordinary uses of ‘happiness’. The trouble is that HAPPINESS appears to be a “mongrel concept,” as Ned Block (1995) called the concept of consciousness: the ordinary notion is something of a mess. We use the term to denote different things in different contexts, and often have no clear notion of what we are referring to. This suggests that accounts of happiness must be somewhat revisionary, and that we must assess theories on grounds other than simple fidelity to the lay concept of happiness—“descriptive adequacy,” in Sumner’s (1996) terms. One candidate is practical utility: which conception of happiness best answers to our interests in the notion? We talk about happiness because we care about it. The question is why we care about it, and which psychological states within the extension of the ordinary term make the most sense of this concern. Even if there is no simple answer to the question what happiness is, it may well turn out that our interests in happiness cluster so strongly around a particular psychological kind that happiness can best, or most profitably, be understood in terms of that type of state (Haybron 2003). Alternatively, we may choose to distinguish different varieties of happiness. It will be less important how we use the word, however, than that we be clear about the nature and significance of the phenomena that interest us.

The debate over theories of happiness falls along a couple of lines. The most interesting questions concern the choice between life satisfaction and affect-based views like hedonism and the emotional state theory. [ 8 ] Proponents of life satisfaction see two major advantages to their account. First, life satisfaction is holistic , ranging over the whole of one’s life, or the totality of one’s life over a certain period of time. It reflects not just the aggregate of moments in one’s life, but also the global quality of one’s life taken as a whole (but see Raibley 2010). And we seem to care not just about the total quantity of good in our lives, but about its distribution—a happy ending, say, counts for more than a happy middle (Slote 1982, Velleman 1991). Second, life satisfaction seems more closely linked to our priorities than affect is, as the suffering artist case illustrates. While a focus on affect makes sense insofar as we care about such matters, most people care about other things as well, and how their lives are going relative to their priorities may not be fully mirrored in their affective states. Life satisfaction theories thus seem to fit more closely with liberal ideals of individual sovereignty, on which how well my life is going for me is for me to decide. My satisfaction with my life seems to embody that judgment. Of course a theory of happiness need not capture everything that matters for well-being; the point is that a life satisfaction view might explain why we should care so much about happiness, and so enjoy substantive as well as intuitive support. [ 9 ]

But several objections have been raised against life satisfaction views. The most common complaint has already been noted, namely that a person could apparently be satisfied with her life even while leading a highly unpleasant or emotionally distressed existence, and it can seem counterintuitive to regard such a person as happy (see section 2.2). Some life satisfaction theorists deny that such cases are possible (Benditt 1978), but it could also be argued that such possibilities are part and parcel of life satisfaction’s appeal: some people may not get much pleasure out of life because they don’t care particularly about affective matters, and a life satisfaction theory allows that they can, in their own fashion, be happy.

Two other objections are more substantive, raising questions about whether life satisfaction has the right sort of importance. One concern is whether people often enough have well-grounded attitudes of life satisfaction or dissatisfaction. Evaluating one’s life as a whole can be a complicated business, and there is some question whether people typically have well-defined attitudes toward their lives that accurately reflect how well their lives measure up relative to their priorities. Some research, for instance, suggests that life satisfaction reports tend to reflect judgments made on the spot, drawing on whatever information comes readily to mind, with substantial influences by transient contextual factors like the weather, finding a dime, etc. (Schwarz and Strack 1999). Debate persists over whether this work undermines the significance of life satisfaction judgments, but it does raise a question whether life satisfaction attitudes tend to be well-enough grounded to have the kind of importance that people normally ascribe to happiness.

The third objection is somewhat intricate, so it will require some explaining. The claim is that a wide range of life satisfaction attitudes might be consistent with individuals’ perceptions of how well their lives are going relative to what they care about, raising doubts about the importance of life satisfaction (Haybron 2016). You might reasonably be satisfied when getting very little of what you want, or dissatisfied when getting most of what you want. One reason for this is that people tend to have many incommensurable values, leaving it open how to add them up. Looking at the various ups and downs of your life, it may be arbitrary whether to rate your life a four out of ten, or a seven. A second reason is that life satisfaction attitudes are not merely assessments of subjective success or personal welfare: they involve assessments of whether one’s life is good enough —satisfactory. Yet people’s values may radically underdetermine where they should set the bar for a “good enough” life, again rendering the judgment somewhat arbitrary. Given your values, you might reasonably be satisfied with a two, or require a nine to be satisfied. While it may seem important how well people see their lives going relative to what they care about, it is not obviously so important whether people see their lives going well enough that they are willing to judge them satisfactory.

If life satisfaction attitudes are substantially arbitrary relative to subjective success, then people might reasonably base those attitudes on other factors, such as ethical ideals (e.g., valuing gratitude or noncomplacency) or pragmatic concerns (e.g., comforting oneself). Shifts in perspective might also reasonably alter life satisfaction attitudes. After the funeral, you might be highly satisfied with your life, whereas the high school reunion leaves you dissatisfied; yet neither judgment need be mistaken, or less authoritative.

As a result, life satisfaction attitudes may be poor indicators of well-being, even from the individual’s own point of view. That people in a given country register high levels of life satisfaction may reflect nothing more than that they set the bar extremely low; they might be satisfied with anything short of pure agony. Another country’s citizens might be dissatisfied with their lives, but only because they set the bar much higher. Relative to what they care about, people in the dissatisfied nation could be better off than those in the satisfied nation. To take another example, a cancer patient might be more satisfied with his life than he was before the diagnosis, for he now looks at his life from a different perspective and emphasizes different virtues like fortitude and gratitude as opposed to (say) humility and non-complacency. Yet he need not think himself better off at all: he might believe himself worse off than he was when he was less satisfied. Neither judgment need seem to him or us to be mistaken: it’s just that he now looks at his life differently. Indeed, he might think he’s doing badly, even as he is satisfied with his life: he endorses it, warts and all, and is grateful just have his not-so-good life rather than some of the much worse alternatives.

For present purposes, the worry is that life satisfaction may not have the kind of significance happiness is normally thought to have. This may pose a difficulty for the identification of life satisfaction with happiness: for people frequently seem to use happiness as a proxy for well-being, a reasonably concrete and value-free stand-in that facilitates quick-and-dirty assessments of welfare. Given the discovery that someone is happy, we might infer that he is doing well; if we learn that someone is unhappy, we may conclude that she is doing poorly. Such inferences are defeasible: if we later find that the happy Ned’s wife and friends secretly hate him, we need not decide that he isn’t happy after all; we simply withdraw the conclusion that he is doing well. So long as happiness tracks well-being well enough in most cases, this sort of practice is perfectly respectable. But if we identify happiness with life satisfaction, then we may have a problem: maybe Sally is satisfied only because she values being grateful for the good things in life. This sort of case may not be merely a theoretical possibility: perhaps the very high rates of self-reported life satisfaction in the United States and many other places substantially reflects a broad acceptance of norms of gratitude and a general tendency to emphasize the positives, or perhaps a sense that not to endorse your life amounts to a lack of self-regard. It is not implausible that most people, even those enduring great hardship, can readily find grounds for satisfaction with their lives. Life may have to be pretty hard for a person to be incapable of affirming it.

Despite these concerns there is significant intuitive appeal in the idea that to be happy is to be satisfied with one’s life. Perhaps a different way of conceiving life satisfaction, for instance dispensing with the global judgment and aggregating particular satisfactions and dissatisfactions, would lessen the force of these objections. Alternatively, it is possible that idealized or qualified forms of life satisfaction would mitigate these concerns for some purposes, such as a theory of well-being. [ 10 ]

A second set of issues concerns the differences between the two affect-based views, hedonism and emotional state. The appeal of hedonism is fairly obvious: the pleasantness of our experience is plainly a matter of great significance; many have claimed it to be the only thing that matters. What, by contrast, motivates the emotional state account, which bears obvious similarities to hedonism yet excludes many pleasures from happiness? The question of motivation appears to be the chief worry facing the emotional state theory: what’s to be gained by focusing on emotional state rather than pleasure?

One argument for taking such a view is intuitive: some find it implausible to think that psychologically superficial pleasures invariably make a difference in how happy one is—the typical pleasure of eating a cracker, say, or even the intense pleasure of an orgasm that nonetheless fails to move one, as can happen with meaningless sexual activity. The intuitive distinction seems akin to distinctions made by some ancient philosophers; consider, for instance, the following passage from Epictetus’s Discourses :

‘I have a headache.’ Well, do not say ‘Alas!’ ‘I have an earache.’ Do not say ‘Alas!’ And I am not saying that it is not permissible to groan, only do not groan in the centre of your being . ( Discourses , 1.18.19, emphasis added).

The Stoics did not expect us never to feel unpleasant sensations, which would plainly be impossible; rather, the idea was not to let such things get to us , to impact our emotional conditions.

Why should anyone care to press such a distinction in characterizing happiness? For most people, the hedonic difference between happiness on an emotional state versus a hedonistic view is probably minimal. But while little will be lost, what will be gained? One possibility is that the more “central” affects involving our emotional conditions may bear a special relation to the person or the self , whereas more “peripheral” affects, like the pleasantness of eating a cracker, might pertain to the subpersonal aspects of our psychologies. Since well-being is commonly linked to ideas of self-fulfillment, this sort of distinction might signal a difference in the importance of these states. Another reason to focus on emotional condition rather than experience alone may be the greater psychological depth of the former: its impact on our mental lives, physiology, and behavior is arguably deeper and more pervasive. This enhances the explanatory and predictive significance of happiness, and more importantly its desirability: happiness on this view is not merely pleasant, but a major source of pleasure and other good outcomes (Fredrickson 2004, Lyubomirsky, King et al . 2005). Compare health on this score: while many think it matters chiefly or entirely because of its connection with pleasure, there are few skeptics about the importance of health. As well, emotional state views may capture the idea that happiness concerns the individual’s psychological orientation or disposition : to be happy, on an emotional state theory, is not just to be subjected to a certain sequence of experiences, but for one’s very being to manifest a favorable orientation toward the conditions of one’s life—a kind of psychic affirmation of one’s life. This reflects a point of similarity with life satisfaction views of happiness: contra hedonism, both views take happiness to be substantially dispositional, involving some sort of favorable orientation toward one’s life. But life satisfaction views tend to emphasize reflective or rational endorsement, whereas emotional state views emphasize the verdicts of our emotional natures.

While hedonism and emotional state theories are major contenders in the contemporary literature, all affect-based theories confront the worries, noted earlier, that motivate life satisfaction views—notably, their looser connection with people’s priorities, as well as their limited ability to reflect the quality of people’s lives taken as a whole.

Given the limitations of narrower theories of happiness, a hybrid account such as a subjective well-being theory may seem an attractive solution. This strategy has not been fully explored in the philosophical literature, though Sumner’s “life satisfaction” theory may best be classified as a hybrid (1996; see also Martin 2012). In any event, a hybrid approach draws objections of its own. If we arrive at a hybrid theory by this route, it could seem like either the marriage of two unpromising accounts, or of a promising account with an unpromising one. Such a union may not yield wholesome results. Second, people have different intuitions about what counts as happiness, so that no theory can accommodate all of them. Any theory that tries to thus risks pleasing no one. A third concern is that the various components of any hybrid are liable to matter for quite different reasons, so that happiness, thus understood, might fail to answer to any coherent set of concerns. Ascriptions of happiness could be relatively uninformative if they cast their net too widely.

3. The science of happiness

With the explosive rise of empirical research on happiness, a central question is how far, and how, happiness might be measured. [ 11 ] There seems to be no in-principle barrier to the idea of measuring, at least roughly, how happy people are. Investigators may never enjoy the precision of the “hedonimeter” once envisaged by Edgeworth to show just how happy a person is (Edgeworth 1881). Indeed, such a device might be impossible even in principle, since happiness might involve multiple dimensions that either cannot be precisely quantified or summed together. If so, it could still be feasible to develop approximate measures of happiness, or at least its various dimensions. Similarly, depression may not admit of precise quantification in a single number, yet many useful if imprecise measures of depression exist. In the case of happiness, it is plausible that even current measures provide information about how anxious, cheerful, satisfied, etc. people are, and thus tell us something about their happiness. Even the simplest self-report measures used in the literature have been found to correlate well with many intuitively relevant variables, such as friends’ reports, smiling, physiological measures, health, longevity, and so forth (Pavot 2008).

Importantly, most scientific research needs only to discern patterns across large numbers of individuals—to take an easy case, determining whether widows tend to be less happy than newlyweds—and this is compatible with substantial unreliability in assessing individual happiness. Similarly, an inaccurate thermometer might be a poor guide to the temperature, but readings from many such thermometers could correlate fairly well with actual temperatures—telling us, for instance, that Minnesota is colder than Florida.

This point reveals an important caveat: measures of happiness could correlate well with how happy people are, thus telling us which groups of people tend to be happier, while being completely wrong about absolute levels of happiness. Self-reports of happiness, for instance, might correctly indicate that unemployed people are considerably less happy than those with jobs. But every one of those reports could be wrong, say if everyone is unhappy yet claims to be happy, or vice-versa, so long as the unemployed report lower happiness than the employed. Similarly, bad thermometers may show that Minnesota is colder than Florida without giving the correct temperature.

Two morals emerge from these reflections. First, self-report measures of happiness could be reliable guides to relative happiness, though telling us little about how happy, in absolute terms, people are. We may know who is happier, that is, but not whether people are in fact happy. Second, even comparisons of relative happiness will be inaccurate if the groups being compared systematically bias their reports in different ways. This worry is particularly acute for cross-cultural comparisons of happiness, where differing norms about happiness may undermine the comparability of self-reports. The French might report lower happiness than Americans, for instance, not because their lives are less satisfying or pleasant, but because they tend to put a less positive spin on things. For this reason it may be useful to employ instruments, including narrower questions or physiological measures, that are less prone to cultural biasing. [ 12 ]

The discussion thus far has assumed that people can be wrong about how happy they are. Is this plausible? Some have argued that (sincerely) self-reported happiness cannot, even in principle, be mistaken. If you think you’re happy, goes a common sentiment, then you are happy. This claim is not plausible on a hedonistic or emotional state view of happiness, since those theories take judgments of happiness to encompass not just how one is feeling at the moment but also past states, and memories of those can obviously be spurious. Further, it has been argued that even judgments of how one feels at the present moment may often be mistaken, particularly regarding moods like anxiety. [ 13 ]

The idea that sincere self-reports of happiness are incorrigible can only be correct, it seems, given a quite specific conception of happiness—a kind of life satisfaction theory of happiness on which people count as satisfied with their lives so long as they are disposed to judge explicitly that they are satisfied with their lives on the whole. Also assumed here is that self-reports of happiness are in fact wholly grounded in life satisfaction judgments like these—that is, that people take questions about “happiness” to be questions about life satisfaction. Given these assumptions, we can plausibly conclude that self-reports of happiness are incorrigible. One question is whether happiness, thus conceived, is very important. As well, it is unlikely that respondents invariably interpret happiness questions as being about life satisfaction. At any rate, even life satisfaction theorists might balk at this variant of the account, since life satisfaction is sometimes taken to involve, not just explicit global judgments of life satisfaction, but also our responses to the particular things or domains we care about. Some will hesitate to deem satisfied people who hate many of the important things in their lives, however satisfied they claim to be with their lives as a whole.

In a similar vein, the common practice of measuring happiness simply by asking people to report explicitly on how “happy” they are is sometimes defended on the grounds that it lets people decide for themselves what happiness is. The reasoning again seems to presuppose, controversially, that self-reports of happiness employ a life satisfaction view of happiness, the idea being that whether you are satisfied (“happy”) will depend on what you care about. Alternatively, the point might be literally to leave it up to the respondent to decide whether ‘happy’ means hedonic state, emotional state, life satisfaction, or something else. Thus one respondent’s “I’m happy” might mean “my experience is generally pleasant,” while another’s might mean “I am satisfied with my life as a whole.” It is not clear, however, that asking ambiguous questions of this sort is a useful enterprise, since different respondents will in effect be answering different questions.

To measure happiness through self-reports, then, it may be wiser to employ terms other than ‘happiness’ and its cognates—terms whose meaning is relatively well-known and fixed. In other words, researchers should decide in advance what they want to measure—be it life satisfaction, hedonic state, emotional state, or something else—and then ask questions that refer unambiguously to those states. [ 14 ] This stratagem may be all the more necessary in cross-cultural work, where finding suitable translations of ‘happy’ can be daunting—particularly when the English meaning of the term remains a matter of contention (Wierzbicka 2004).

This entry focuses on subjective well-being studies, since that work is standardly deemed “happiness” research. But psychological research on well-being can take other forms, notably in the “eudaimonic”—commonly opposed to “hedonic”—literature, which assesses a broader range of indicators taken to represent objective human needs, such as meaning, personal growth, relatedness, autonomy, competence, etc. [ 15 ] (The assimilation of subjective well-being to the “hedonic” realm may be misleading, since life satisfaction seems primarily to be a non -hedonic value, as noted earlier.) Other well-being instruments may not clearly fall under either the “happiness” or eudaimonic rubrics, for instance extending subjective well-being measures by adding questions about the extent to which activities are seen as meaningful or worthwhile (White and Dolan 2009). An important question going forward is how far well-being research needs to incorporate indicators beyond subjective well-being.

The scientific literature on happiness has grown to proportions far too large for this article to do more than briefly touch on a few highlights. [ 16 ] Here is a sampling of oft-cited claims:

  • Most people are happy
  • People adapt to most changes, tending to return over time to their happiness “set point”
  • People are prone to make serious mistakes in assessing and pursuing happiness
  • Material prosperity has a surprisingly modest impact on happiness

The first claim, that most people are happy, appears to be a consensus position among subjective well-being researchers (for a seminal argument, see Diener and Diener 1996). The contention reflects three lines of evidence: most people, in most places, report being happy; most people report being satisfied with their lives; and most people experience more positive affect than negative. On any of the major theories of happiness, then, the evidence seems to show that most people are, indeed, happy. Yet this conclusion might be resisted, on a couple of grounds. First, life satisfaction theorists might question whether self-reports of life satisfaction suffice to establish that people are in fact satisfied with their lives. Perhaps self-reports can be mistaken, say if the individual believes herself satisfied yet shows many signs of dissatisfaction in her behavior, for instance complaining about or striving to change important things in her life. Second, defenders of affect-based theories—hedonistic and emotional state views—might reject the notion that a bare majority of positive affect suffices for happiness. While the traditional view among hedonists has indeed been that happiness requires no more than a >1:1 ratio of positive to negative affect, this contention has received little defense and has been disputed in the recent literature. Some investigators have claimed that “flourishing” requires greater than a 3:1 ratio of positive to negative affect, as this ratio might represent a threshold for broadly favorable psychological functioning (e.g., Larsen and Prizmic 2008). While the evidence for any specific ratio is highly controversial, if anything like this proportion were adopted as the threshold for happiness, on a hedonistic or emotional state theory, then some of the evidence taken to show that people are happy could in fact show the opposite. In any event, the empirical claim relies heavily on nontrivial philosophical views about the nature of happiness, illustrating one way in which philosophical work on happiness can inform scientific research.

The second claim, regarding adaptation and set points, reflects well-known findings that many major life events, like being disabled in an accident or winning the lottery, appear strongly to impact happiness only for a relatively brief period, after which individuals may return to a level of happiness not very different from before. [ 17 ] As well, twin studies have found that subjective well-being is substantially heritable, with .50 being a commonly accepted figure. Consequently many researchers have posited that each individual has a characteristic “set point” level of happiness, toward which he tends to gravitate over time. Such claims have caused some consternation over whether the pursuit and promotion of happiness are largely futile enterprises (Lykken and Tellegen 1996; Millgram 2000). However, the dominant view now seems to be that the early claims about extreme adaptation and set points were exaggerated: while adaptation is a very real phenomenon, many factors—including disability—can have substantial, and lasting, effects on how happy people are. [ 18 ] This point was already apparent from the literature on correlates and causes of happiness, discussed below: if things like relationships and engaging work are important for happiness, then happiness is probably not simply a matter of personality or temperament. As well, the large cross-national differences in measured happiness are unlikely to be entirely an artifact of personality variables. Note that even highly heritable traits can be strongly susceptible to improvement. Better living conditions have raised the stature of men in the Netherlands by eight inches—going from short (five foot four) to tall (over six feet)—in the last 150 years (Fogel 2005). Yet height is considered much more heritable than happiness, with typical heritability estimates ranging from .60 to over .90 (e.g., Silventoinen, Sammalisto et al . 2003). [ 19 ]

The question of mistakes will be taken up in section 5.2. But the last claim—that material prosperity has relatively modest impacts on happiness—has lately become the subject of heated debate. For some time the standard view among subjective well-being researchers was that, beyond a low threshold where basic needs are met, economic gains have only a small impact on happiness levels. According to the well-known “Easterlin Paradox,” for instance, wealthier people do tend to be happier within nations, but richer nations are little happier than less prosperous counterparts, and—most strikingly—economic growth has virtually no impact (Easterlin 1974). In the U.S., for example, measured happiness has not increased significantly since at least 1947, despite massive increases in wealth and income. In short, once you’re out of poverty, absolute levels of wealth and income make little difference in how happy people are.

Against these claims, some authors have argued that absolute income has a large impact on happiness across the income spectrum (e.g., Stevenson and Wolfers 2008). The question continues to be much debated, but in 2010 a pair of large-scale studies using Gallup data sets, including improved measures of life satisfaction and affect, suggested that both sides may be partly right (Kahneman and Deaton 2010; Diener, Ng et al . 2010). Surveying large numbers of Americans in one case, and what is claimed to be the first globally representative sample of humanity in the other, these studies found that income does indeed correlate substantially (.44 in the global sample), at all levels, with life satisfaction—strictly speaking, a “life evaluation” measure that asks respondents to rate their lives without saying whether they are satisfied. Yet the correlation of household income with the affect measures is far weaker: globally, .17 for positive affect, –.09 for negative affect; and in the United States, essentially zero above $75,000 (though quite strong at low income levels). For more recent discussions of empirical work, see Jebb et al. 2018 along with relevant chapters in Diener et al. 2018 and the annual World Happiness Reports from 2012 onward (Helliwell et al. 2012). Research on the complex money-happiness relationship resists simple characterization, but a crude summary is that the connection tends to be positive and substantial, strong at lower income levels while modest to weak or even negative at higher incomes, and stronger and less prone to satiation for life evaluation than emotional well-being metrics. But again, these are very rough generalizations that gloss over a variety of important factors and admit of many exceptions across both individuals and societies.

In short, the relationship between money and happiness may depend on which theory of happiness we accept: on a life satisfaction view, the relationship may be strong; whereas affect-based views may yield a much weaker connection, again above some modest threshold. Here, again, philosophical views about the nature and significance of happiness may play an important role in understanding empirical results and their practical upshot. Economic growth, for instance, has long been a top priority for governments, and findings about its impact on human well-being may have substantial implications for policy.

It is important to note that studies of this nature focus on generic trends, not specific cases, and there is no dispute that significant exceptions exist—notably, populations that enjoy high levels of happiness amid low levels of material prosperity. Among others, a number of Latin American countries, Maasai herders, Inughuit hunter-gatherers, and Amish communities have registered highly positive results in subjective well-being studies, sometimes higher than those in many affluent nations, and numerous informal accounts accord with the data. [ 20 ] Such “positive outliers” suggest that some societies can support high levels of happiness with extremely modest material holdings. The importance of money for happiness may depend strongly on what kind of society one inhabits. An interesting question, particularly in light of common environmental concerns, is how far the lessons of such societies can, or should, be transferred to other social forms, where material attainment and happiness are presently more tightly coupled. Perhaps some degree of decoupling of happiness and money would be desirable.

So the role of money in happiness appears, at this juncture, to be a mixed bag, depending heavily on how we conceive of happiness and what range of societies we are considering. What (else), then, does matter most for happiness? There is no definitive list of the main sources of happiness in the literature, partly because it is not clear how to divide them up. But the following items seem generally to be accepted as among the chief correlates of happiness: supportive relationships, engagement in interesting and challenging activities, material and physical security, a sense of meaning or purpose, a positive outlook, and autonomy or control. [ 21 ] Significant correlates may also include—among many others—religion, good governance, trust, helping others, values (e.g., having non-materialistic values), achieving goals, not being unemployed, and connection with the natural environment. [ 22 ]

An illustrative study of the correlates of happiness from a global perspective is the Gallup World Poll study noted earlier (Diener, Ng et al . 2010; see also Jebb et al. 2020). In that study, the life satisfaction measure was more strongly related to material prosperity, as noted above: household income, along with possession of luxury conveniences and satisfaction with standard of living. The affect measures, by contrast, correlated most strongly with what the authors call “psychosocial prosperity”: whether people reported being treated with respect in the last day, having family and friends to count on, learning something new, doing what they do best, and choosing how their time was spent.

What these results show depends partly on the reliability of the measures. One possible source of error is that this study might exaggerate the relationship between life satisfaction and material attainments through the use of a “ladder” scale for life evaluation, ladders being associated with material aspirations. Errors might also arise through salience biases whereby material concerns might be more easily recalled than other important values, such as whether one has succeeded in having children; or through differences in positivity biases across income levels (perhaps wealthier people tend to be more “positive-responding” than poorer individuals). Another question is whether the affect measures adequately track the various dimensions of people’s emotional lives. However, the results are roughly consonant with other research, so they are unlikely to be entirely an artifact of the instruments used in this study. [ 23 ] A further point of uncertainty is the causal story behind the correlations—whether the correlates, like psychosocial prosperity, cause happiness; whether happiness causes them; whether other factors cause both; or, as is likely, some combination of the three.

Such concerns duly noted, the research plausibly suggests that, on average, material progress has some tendency to help people to better get what they want in life, as found in the life satisfaction measures, while relationships and engaging activities are more important for people’s emotional lives. What this means for happiness depends on which view of happiness is correct.

4. The importance of happiness

Were you to survey public attitudes about the value of happiness, at least in liberal Western democracies, you would likely find considerable support for the proposition that happiness is all that really matters for human well-being. Many philosophers over the ages have likewise endorsed such a view, typically assuming a hedonistic account of happiness. (A few, like Almeder 2000, have identified well-being with happiness understood as life satisfaction.)

Most philosophers, however, have rejected hedonistic and other mental state accounts of well-being, and with them the idea that happiness could suffice for well-being. [ 24 ] (See the entry on well-being .) Objections to mental state theories of well-being tend to cluster around two sets of concerns. First, it is widely believed that the non-mental conditions of our lives matter for well-being: whether our families really love us, whether our putative achievements are genuine, whether the things we care about actually obtain. The most influential objection of this sort is Robert Nozick’s experience machine case, wherein we are asked to imagine a virtual reality device that can perfectly simulate any reality for its user, who will think the experience is genuine (Nozick 1974). Would you plug in to such a machine for life? Most people would not, and the case is widely taken to vitiate mental state theories of well-being. Beyond having positive mental states, it seems to matter both that our lives go well and that our state of mind is appropriately related to how things are. [ 25 ]

A second set of objections concerns various ways in which a happy person might nonetheless seem intuitively to be leading an impoverished or stunted life. The most influential of these worries involves adaptation , where individuals facing oppressive circumstances scale back their expectations and find contentment in “small mercies,” as Sen put it. [ 26 ] Even a slave might come to internalize the values of his oppressors and be happy, and this strikes most as an unenviable life indeed. Related worries involve people with diminished capacities (blindness, Down Syndrome), or choosing to lead narrow and cramped or simpleminded lives (e.g., counting blades of grass). Worries about impoverished lives are a prime motivator of Aristotelian theories of well-being, which emphasize the full and proper exercise of our human capacities.

In the face of these and other objections most commentators have concluded that neither happiness nor any other mental state can suffice for well-being. Philosophical interest in happiness has consequently flagged, since its theoretical importance becomes unclear if it does not play a starring role in our account of the good.

Even as happiness might fail to suffice for well-being, well-being itself may be only one component of a good life , and not the most important one at that. Here ‘good life’ means a life that is good all things considered, taking account of all the values that matter in life, whether they benefit the individual or not. Kant, for example, considered both morality and well-being to be important but distinct elements of a good life. Yet morality should be our first priority, never to be sacrificed for personal happiness.

In fact there is a broad consensus, or near-consensus, among ethical theorists on a doctrine we might call the priority of virtue : broadly and crudely speaking, the demands of virtue or morality trump other values in life. [ 27 ] We ought above all to act and live well, or at least not badly or wrongly. This view need not take the strong form of insisting that we must always act as virtuously as possible, or that moral reasons always take precedence. But it does mean, at least, that when being happy requires acting badly, one’s happiness must be sacrificed. If it would be wrong to leave your family, in which you are unhappy, then you must remain unhappy, or find more acceptable ways to seek happiness.

The mainstream views in all three of the major approaches to ethical theory—consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics—agree on some form of the priority of virtue. Where these views chiefly differ is not on the importance of being good, but on whether being good necessarily benefits us. Virtue ethicists tend to answer in the affirmative, the other two schools in the negative. Building virtue into well-being, as Aristotelians do, may seem to yield a more demanding ethics, and in some ways it does. Yet many deontologists and consequentialists—notably Kant—advocate sterner, more starkly moralistic visions of the good life than Aristotle would ever have dreamt of (e.g., Singer 1972).

Happiness, in short, is believed by most philosophers to be insufficient for well-being, and still less important for the good life. These points may seem to vitiate any substantial role for happiness in ethical thought. However, well-being itself is still regarded as a central concept in ethical thought, denoting one of the chief elements of a good life even if not the sole element. And there are reasons for thinking happiness important, both practically and theoretically, despite the worries noted above.

Even if happiness does not suffice for well-being—a point that not all philosophers would accept—it might still rate a privileged spot in theories of well-being. This could happen in either of two ways.

First, happiness could be a major component of a theory of well-being. Objective list theories of well-being sometimes include happiness or related mental states such as enjoyment among the fundamental constituents of well-being. A more ambitious proposal, originated by L.W. Sumner, identifies well-being with authentic happiness —happiness that is authentic in the sense of being both informed and autonomous (Sumner 1996). The root idea is that well-being involves being happy, where one’s happiness is a response of one’s own (autonomous), to a life that genuinely is one’s own (informed). The authenticity constraint is meant to address both experience machine-type worries and “happy slave” objections relating to adaptation, where happiness may be non-autonomous, depending on manipulation or the uncritical acceptance of oppressive values. Since these have been the most influential objections to mental state accounts of well-being, Sumner’s approach promises to considerably strengthen the position of happiness-centered approaches to well-being, and several philosophers have developed variants or close relations of the authentic happiness theory (Brülde 2007, Haybron 2008a, Tiberius and Plakias 2010, Višak 2015). The approach remains fairly new, however, so its long-term prospects remain unclear. [ 28 ]

A second strategy forsakes the project of giving a unitary theory of well-being, recognizing instead a family of two or more kinds of prudential value. Happiness could be central to, or even exhaustive of, one of those values. Shelly Kagan, for instance, has suggested that welfare hedonism could be correct as a theory of how well a person is doing, but not of how well a person’s life is going, which should perhaps be regarded as a distinct value (Kagan 1992, 1994). In short, we might distinguish narrow and wide well-being concepts. An experience machine user might be doing well in the narrow sense, but not the wide—she is doing well, though her life is quite sad. Happiness might, then, suffice for well-being, but only in the narrow sense. Others have made similar points, but uptake has been limited, perhaps because distinguishing multiple concepts of prudential value makes the already difficult job of giving a theory of well-being much harder, as Kagan pointedly observes. [ 29 ] An interesting possibility is that the locution ‘happy life’, and the corresponding well-being sense of happiness, actually refers to a specific variety of well-being—perhaps well-being in the wide sense just suggested, or well-being taken as an ideal state, an ultimate goal of deliberation. This might explain the continued use of ‘happiness’ for the well-being notion in the philosophical literature, rather than the more standard ‘wellbeing.’

The preceding section discussed ways that happiness might figure prominently even in non-mental state theories of well-being. The question there concerned the role of happiness in theories of well-being. This is a different question from how important happiness is for well-being itself. Even a theory of well-being that includes no mention at all of happiness can allow that happiness is nonetheless a major component or contributor to well-being, because of its relation to the things that ultimately constitute well-being. If you hold a desire theory of well-being, for instance, you will very likely allow that, for most people, happiness is a central aspect of well-being, since most people very much desire to be happy. Indeed, some desire theorists have argued that the account actually yields a form of hedonism, on the grounds that people ultimately desire nothing else but happiness or pleasure (Sidgwick 1907 [1966], Brandt 1979, 1989).

Happiness may be thought important even on theories normally believed to take a dismissive view of it. Aristotelians identify well-being with virtuous activity, yet Aristotle plainly takes this to be a highly pleasant condition, indeed the most pleasant kind of life there is (see, e.g., NE , Bk. I 8; Bk. VII 13). You cannot flourish, on Aristotelian terms, without being happy, and unhappiness is clearly incompatible with well-being. Even the Stoics, who notoriously regard all but a virtuous inner state as at best indifferent, would still assign happiness a kind of importance: at the very least, to be unhappy would be unvirtuous; and virtue itself arguably entails a kind of happiness, namely a pleasant state of tranquility. As well, happiness would likely be a preferred indifferent in most cases, to be chosen over unhappiness. To be sure, both Aristotelian and Stoic accounts are clear that happiness alone does not suffice for well-being, that its significance is not what common opinion takes it to be, and that some kinds of happiness can be worthless or even bad. But neither denies that happiness is somehow quite important for human well-being.

In fact it is questionable whether any major school of philosophical thought denies outright the importance of happiness, at least on one of the plausible accounts of the matter. Doubts about its significance probably owe to several factors. Some skeptics, for example, focus on relatively weak conceptions of happiness, such as the idea that it is little more than the simple emotion of feeling happy—an idea that few hedonists or emotional state theorists would accept. Or, alternatively, assuming that a concern for happiness has only to do with positive states. Yet ‘happiness’ also serves as a blanket term for a domain of concern that involves both positive and negative states, namely the kinds of mental states involved in being happy or unhappy. Just as “health” care tends to focus mainly on ill health, so might happiness researchers choose to focus much of their effort on the study and alleviation of unhappiness—depression, suffering, anxiety, and other conditions whose importance is uncontroversial. The study of happiness need be no more concerned with smiles than with frowns.

5. The pursuit and promotion of happiness

The last set of questions we will examine centers on the pursuit of happiness, both individual and collective. Most of the popular literature on happiness discusses how to make oneself happier, with little attention given to whether this is an appropriate goal, or how various means of pursuing happiness measure up from an ethical standpoint. More broadly, how if at all should one pursue happiness as part of a good life?

We saw earlier that most philosophers regard happiness as secondary to morality in a good life. The individual pursuit of happiness may be subject to nonmoral norms as well, prudence being the most obvious among them. Prudential norms need not be as plain as “don’t shoot yourself in the foot.” On Sumner’s authentic happiness view of well-being, for instance, we stand to gain little by pursuing happiness in inauthentic ways, for instance through self-deception or powerful drugs like Huxley’s soma , which guarantees happiness come what may (Huxley 1932 [2005]). The view raises interesting questions about the benefits of less extreme pharmaceuticals, such as the therapeutic use of antidepressants; such medications can make life more pleasant, but many people worry whether they pose a threat to authenticity, perhaps undercutting their benefits. It is possible that such drugs involve prudential tradeoffs, promoting well-being in some ways while undermining it in others; whether the tradeoffs are worth it will depend on how, in a given case, the balance is struck. Another possibility is that such drugs sometimes promote authenticity, if for instance a depressive disorder prevents a person from being “himself.”

Looking to more broadly ethical, but not yet moral, norms, it may be possible to act badly without acting either immorally or imprudently. While Aristotle himself regarded acting badly as inherently imprudent, his catalogue of virtues is instructive, as many of them (wit, friendliness, etc.) are not what we normally regard as moral virtues. Some morally permissible methods of pursuing happiness may nonetheless be inappropriate because they conflict with such “ethical” virtues. They might, for instance, be undignified or imbecilic.

Outwardly virtuous conduct undertaken in the name of personal happiness might, if wrongly motivated, be incompatible with genuine virtue. One might, for instance, engage in philanthropy solely to make oneself happier, and indeed work hard at fine-tuning one’s assistance to maximize the hedonic payoff. This sort of conduct would not obviously instantiate the virtue of compassion or kindness, and indeed might be reasonably deemed contemptible. Similarly, it might be admirable, morally or otherwise, to be grateful for the good things in one’s life. Yet the virtue of gratitude might be undermined by certain kinds of gratitude intervention, whereby one tries to become happier by focusing on the things one is grateful for. If expressions of gratitude become phony or purely instrumental, the sole reason for giving thanks being to become happy—and not that one actually has something to be thankful for—then the “gratitude” might cease to be admirable, and may indeed be unvirtuous. [ 30 ]

A different question is what means of pursuing happiness are most effective . This is fundamentally an empirical question, but there are some in-principle issues that philosophical reflection might inform. One oft-heard claim, commonly called the “paradox of hedonism,” is that the pursuit of happiness is self-defeating; to be happy, don’t pursue happiness. It is not clear how to interpret this dictum, however, so that it is both interesting and true. It is plainly imprudent to make happiness one’s focus at every moment, but doubtful that this has often been denied. Yet never considering happiness also seems an improbable strategy for becoming happier. If you are choosing among several equally worthwhile occupations, and have good evidence that some of them will make you miserable, while one of them is likely to be highly fulfilling, it would not seem imprudent to take that information into account. Yet to do so just is to pursue happiness. The so-called paradox of hedonism is perhaps best seen as a vague caution against focusing too much on making oneself happy, not a blanket dismissal of the prospects for expressly seeking happiness—and for this modest point there is good empirical evidence (Schooler, Ariely et al . 2003, Lyubomirsky 2007).

That happiness is sometimes worth seeking does not mean we will always do a good job of it (Haybron 2008b). In recent decades a massive body of empirical evidence has gathered on various ways in which people seem systematically prone to make mistakes in the pursuit of their interests, including happiness. Such tendencies have been suggested in several domains relating to the pursuit of happiness, including (with recent surveys cited):

  • Assessing how happy we are, or were in the past (Haybron 2007)
  • Predicting (“forecasting”) what will make us happy (Gilbert 2006)
  • Choosing rationally (Kahneman and Tversky 2000, Gilovitch, Griffin et al . 2002, Hsee and Hastie 2006)

A related body of literature explores the costs and benefits of (ostensibly) making it easier to pursue happiness by increasing people’s options; it turns out that having more choices might often make people less happy, for instance by increasing the burdens of deliberation or the likelihood of regret (Schwartz 2004). Less discussed in this context, but highly relevant, is the large body of research indicating that human psychology and behavior are remarkably prone to unconscious social and other situational influences, most infamously reported in the Milgram obedience experiments (Doris 2002, 2015, Haybron 2014). Human functioning, and the pursuit of happiness, may be more profoundly social than many commentators have assumed. [ 31 ]

Taken together, this research bears heavily on two central questions in the philosophical literature: first, the broad character of human nature (e.g., in what sense are we rational animals? How should we conceive of human autonomy?); second, the philosophical ideals of the good society and good government.

Just a decade ago the idea of happiness policy was something of a novelty. While it remains on the fringes in some locales, notably the United States, in much of the world there has been a surge of interest in making happiness an explicit target of policy consideration. Attention has largely shifted, however, to a broader focus on well-being to reflect not just happiness but also other welfare concerns of citizens, and dozens of governments now incorporate well-being metrics in their national statistics. [ 32 ]

Let’s consider the rationale for policies aimed at promoting well-being. In political thought, the modern liberal tradition has tended to assume an optimistic view of human nature and the individual’s capacities for prudent choice. Partly for this reason, the preservation and expansion of individual freedoms, including people’s options, is widely taken to be a central goal, if not the goal, of legitimate governments. People should be freed to seek the good life as they see it, and beyond that the state should, by and large, stay out of the well-being-promotion business.

This vision of the good society rests on empirical assumptions that have been the subject of considerable debate. If it turns out that people systematically and predictably err in the pursuit of their interests, then it may be possible for governments to devise policies that correct for such mistakes. [ 33 ] Of course, government intervention can introduce other sorts of mistakes, and there is some debate about whether such measures are likely to do more harm than good (e.g., Glaeser 2006).

But even if governments cannot effectively counteract human imprudence, it may still be that people fare better in social forms that influence or even constrain choices in ways that make serious mistakes less likely. (Food culture and its impact on health may be an instructive example here.) The idea that people tend to fare best when their lives are substantially constrained or guided by their social and physical context has recently been dubbed contextualism ; the contrary view, that people do best when their lives are, as much as possible, determined by the individuals themselves, is individualism (Haybron 2008b). Recent contextualists include communitarians and many perfectionists, though contextualism is not a political doctrine and is compatible with liberalism and even libertarian political morality. Contextualism about the promotion of well-being is related to recent work in moral psychology that emphasizes the social character of human agency, such as situationism and social intuitionism. [ 34 ]

Quite apart from matters of efficacy, there are moral questions about the state promotion of happiness, which has been a major subject of debate, both because of the literature on mistakes and research suggesting that the traditional focus of state efforts to promote well-being, economic growth, has a surprisingly modest impact on happiness. One concern is paternalism : does happiness-based policy infringe too much on personal liberty? Some fear a politics that may too closely approximate Huxley’s Brave New World, where the state ensures a drug-induced happiness for all (Huxley 1932 [2005]). Extant policy suggestions, however, have been more modest. Efforts to steer choice, for instance in favor of retirement savings, may be paternalistic, but advocates argue that such policies can be sufficiently light-handed that no one should object to them, in some cases even going so far as to deem it “libertarian paternalism” (Thaler and Sunstein 2008). [ 35 ] The idea is that gentle “nudges,” like setting default options on hiring forms to setting aside money for retirement, interfere only trivially with choice, imposing little or no cost for those who wish to choose differently, and would very likely be welcomed by most of those targeted.

Also relatively light-handed, and perhaps not paternalistic at all, are state efforts to promote happiness directly through social policy, for instance by prioritizing unemployment over economic growth on the grounds that the former has a larger impact on happiness. Other policies might include trying to reduce commute times, or making walkable neighborhoods and green space a priority in urban planning, again on happiness grounds. Some may deem such measures paternalistic insofar as they trade freedom (in the form of economic prosperity) for a substantive good, happiness, that people value unevenly, though it has also been argued that refusing to take citizens’ values like happiness into consideration in policy deliberation on their behalf can amount to paternalism (Haybron and Alexandrova 2013).

A related sort of objection to happiness-based policy argues that happiness, or even well-being, is simply the wrong object of policy, which ought instead to focus on the promotion of resources or capabilities (Rawls 1971, Nussbaum 2000, Quong 2011, Sen 2009). Several reasons have been cited for this sort of view, one being that policies aimed at promoting happiness or well-being violate commonly accepted requirements of “liberal neutrality,” according to which policy must be neutral among conceptions of the good. According to this constraint, governments must not promote any view of the good life, and happiness-based policy might be argued to flout it. Worries about paternalism also surface here, the idea being that states should only focus on affording people the option to be happy or whatever, leaving the actual achievement of well-being up to the autonomous individual. As we just saw, however, it is not clear how far happiness policy initiatives actually infringe on personal liberty or autonomy. A further worry is that, happiness isn’t really, or primarily, what matters for human well-being (Nussbaum 2008).

But a major motivation for thinking happiness the wrong object of policy is that neither happiness nor well-being are the appropriate focus of a theory of justice . What justice requires of society, on this view, is not that it make us happy; we do not have a right to be happy. Rather, justice demands only that each has sufficient opportunity (in the form of resources or capabilities, say) to achieve a good life, or that each gets a fair share of the benefits of social cooperation. However plausible such points may be, it is not clear how far they apply to many proposals for happiness-based policy, save the strongest claims that happiness should be the sole aim of policy: many policy decisions are not primarily concerned with questions of social justice, nor with constitutional fundamentals, the focus of some theories of justice. Happiness could be a poor candidate for the “currency” of justice, yet still remain a major policy concern. Indeed, the chief target of happiness policy advocates has been, not theories of justice, but governments’ overwhelming emphasis on promoting GDP and other indices of economic growth. This is not, in the main, a debate about justice, and as of yet the philosophical literature has not extensively engaged with it.

However, the push for happiness-based policy is a recent development. In coming years, such questions will likely receive considerably more attention in the philosophical literature.

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How to cite this entry . Preview the PDF version of this entry at the Friends of the SEP Society . Look up topics and thinkers related to this entry at the Internet Philosophy Ontology Project (InPhO). Enhanced bibliography for this entry at PhilPapers , with links to its database.
  • World Database of Happiness , Erasmus University of Rotterdam.
  • Positive Psychology Center , University of Pennsylvania.
  • The Happiness and Well-Being Project , with Suggested Readings and links to Funded Research , Saint Louis University.

Aquinas, Thomas | Aristotle | Bentham, Jeremy | character, moral: empirical approaches | communitarianism | consequentialism | economics: philosophy of | emotion | ethics: ancient | ethics: virtue | hedonism | Kant, Immanuel | liberalism | Mill, John Stuart | moral psychology: empirical approaches | pain | paternalism | Plato | pleasure | well-being


For helpful comments, many thanks are due to Anna Alexandrova, Robert Biswas-Diener, Thomas Carson, Irwin Goldstein, Richard Lucas, Jason Raibley, Eric Schwitzgebel, Stephen Schueller, Adam Shriver, Edward Zalta, and an anonymous referee for the SEP. Portions of Section 2 are adapted from Haybron 2008, “Philosophy and the Science of Subjective Well-Being,” in Eid and Larsen, The Science of Subjective Well-Being , and used with kind permission of Guilford Press.

Copyright © 2020 by Dan Haybron < dan . haybron @ slu . edu >

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My Personal Philosophy of Life

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philosophical essays on life


Essay on Philosophy of Life

Students are often asked to write an essay on Philosophy of Life in their schools and colleges. And if you’re also looking for the same, we have created 100-word, 250-word, and 500-word essays on the topic.

Let’s take a look…

100 Words Essay on Philosophy of Life

Understanding life’s philosophy.

Life’s philosophy is a personal outlook or attitude towards life. It’s how one perceives life and its purpose. Some believe in living every moment, while others seek a deeper meaning.

Importance of Life’s Philosophy

Having a life philosophy is crucial. It guides our actions and decisions, helping us navigate life’s challenges. It acts like a compass, pointing us in the right direction.

Varying Philosophies

Life philosophies vary from person to person. Some advocate for happiness, others for knowledge, while some focus on love. It’s all about finding what resonates with you.

In conclusion, life’s philosophy is a personal belief system that gives life direction. It is unique to each individual and shapes our existence.

250 Words Essay on Philosophy of Life

Introduction: the enigma of existence.

Life, a profound mystery, has been a subject of contemplation since the dawn of human consciousness. The philosophy of life, a subfield of philosophy, aims to explore this enigma, seeking answers to fundamental questions about existence, purpose, and the nature of reality.

The Absurdity of Life

Existentialist philosophers like Albert Camus posited the concept of life’s absurdity. They argued that the human quest for meaning is inherently futile in an indifferent, chaotic universe. This perspective encourages individuals to create their own subjective meaning, emphasizing personal freedom and responsibility.

Life as a Journey

Contrarily, some philosophers view life as a journey towards self-realization. Drawing from Eastern philosophies like Buddhism and Hinduism, they suggest that life is a process of learning and growth, with suffering and pleasure acting as essential teachers. This viewpoint promotes mindfulness and compassion as key components of a fulfilling life.

The Social Construct of Life

Other philosophers have emphasized the social aspect of life. They argue that our identities and realities are shaped by societal structures and norms. From this perspective, life becomes a continuous process of negotiating our place within society, highlighting the importance of social justice and equality.

Conclusion: The Personal Philosophy

In conclusion, the philosophy of life is a multifaceted discipline that offers various perspectives on existence. Whether viewing life as an absurdity, a journey, or a social construct, it ultimately boils down to personal interpretation. Each individual, through their experiences and introspection, formulates their unique philosophy, shaping their understanding of life’s complex tapestry.

500 Words Essay on Philosophy of Life

The essence of life.

The philosophy of life is a broad topic that has been explored by numerous philosophers, thinkers, and scholars throughout history. At its core, it concerns the purpose, meaning, and nature of life, as well as the ethical, moral, and existential questions that arise in our everyday lives.

Existentialism and the Search for Meaning

Existentialism, a critical school of thought, emphasizes the existence of the individual as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will. The existentialist believes that life is fundamentally absurd and devoid of objective meaning, and it is up to each individual to create their own purpose. This philosophy, championed by thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, encourages introspection, authenticity, and personal responsibility.

Stoicism and the Art of Living

In contrast to existentialism, Stoicism, an ancient Greek philosophy, teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means to overcome destructive emotions. The Stoics, like Seneca and Epictetus, believed that understanding the nature of the universe, its logic, and our place within it can lead us to live virtuous lives. They stressed that happiness can be achieved by accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or the fear of pain.

Buddhist Philosophy and the Middle Way

Buddhism, on the other hand, offers a different perspective on life’s philosophy. It proposes the Middle Way, a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. The Buddha taught that life is characterized by suffering, but through understanding the nature of suffering and following the Eightfold Path, one can attain a state of enlightenment and peace.

Humanism and the Value of Human Life

Humanism, a philosophical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, posits that humans are capable of morality and self-fulfillment without supernatural intervention. Humanists like Paul Kurtz argue that ethics, knowledge, and the best life can be determined only through reason and human experience.

In the end, the philosophy of life is a deeply personal and subjective topic. Each individual, drawing from their experiences, beliefs, and values, constructs their unique philosophy. It is a continuous process, evolving and changing as we grow and learn. It is a lifelong journey of questioning, discovering, and understanding the world and ourselves. The philosophy of life is not about finding definitive answers, but about seeking wisdom and perspective that can help us navigate the complexities of life.

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Philosophy as a Way of Life Essay

Most of us have values and principles that we depend upon to have a better life and become better individuals. We do everything that we can to be able to hold on to our values and principles, which make us to live a very busy lifestyle. We do so many things in a single day to extent that the day ends without our knowledge.

However, have we ever questioned the real values and principles that we hold? Are we living our life to the fullest? Are we dreaming in most cases in our lives? What do we know about life? Many people are not aware of the real meaning of life. We could breath and do all of our daily activities in every second of our life but it does not mean that we are alive.

Then, how can we live a meaningful life? One of the answers to this question is to live a philosophical life where we live a life that embodies truth, justice and simplicity. It is not easy to live a philosophical life as we are used to our previous ways of living, which turns out to be a habit. Thus, it requires a strong will and commitment. It is very important to know and to apply a philosophical life in our lives in order to have a divine (god-like) life and the better understanding of what life really is.

Not all of us should have the same ways of life to achieve a philosophical life, as it depends on our understandings of living a meaningful life. For instance, two philosophers (Plato and Thoreau) have different ways that they applied to achieve a philosophical life but had the same goal, which was to live a god-like life.

For Plato, living in truth and justice helped him to achieve a philosophical life. He said in the dialogue of Apology in The Trial and Death of Socrates that, “From me you will hear the whole truth, though not, by Zeus, gentlemen, expressed in embroidered and stylized phrases like theirs, for I put my trust in the justice of what I say, and let none of you expect nothing else” (P, 21; 17c).

He still said that the truth was paramount to philosophical life and believed in his philosophical life even though he knew his life was at stake. As an individual, we should know what is right or wrong and act according to what we think is the right thing to do.

Thus, living a philosophical life trough truth and justice could help us examine our life in order to gain knowledge and reflect on our mistakes as he said later in his dialogue. He argued that “On the other hand, if I say that it is the greatest good of man to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living for men (P, 39; 38a).

Through knowledge, we can understand many things that we did not understand previously and correct our mistakes hence it will improve both our mentality and spirituality.

Meanwhile Thoreau, in Walden, his philosophical life is achieved through simplicity and connection to the nature. He observed that people use a very complicated method “to solve the problem of a livelihood by a formula more complicated than the problem itself” (T, 21). We are too bedazzled by the outward appearances of things that bring about values in our life.

We no longer work to live but we live to work. We also tend to change the environment rather than changing our ways and trying to adapt. By living a philosophical life, we can know that “public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself is what determines or rather indicates his fate” (T, 4).

Thoreau is trying to explain that we will realize why we have to work to fulfill things that we need and not to work to fulfill what we want. Thoreau also noted “there are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, not even to establish a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to it dictates a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust” (T, 9).

These elements are needed in our lives to solve problems that we face in life. Thus, real life practice is equally important as philosophical theory in order to understand better what life really is. “Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour” (T, 59), which means we have to be awake and conscious in every aspect of our lives in order to acquire guidance on how we should live our lives in a good way.

There are always obstacles that we have to face when we try to implement philosophical life in our lives. There are always distractions that keep following us whenever we want to give ourselves a chance to live a better life. Greediness is one example that Thoreau used as an example. He agrees that we “shall not buy greedily, but go round and round it as long as [we] live, and be buried in it first, that it may please [us] the more at last” (T, 55).

It is also important not to be distracted by the satisfaction that the body brings, which could lead to addiction. Thoreau said, “Every man is the builder of a temple, called a body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his neither own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead” (T, 144).

Once we focus on the soul (worships to god), we can achieve wisdom without being distracted by others or even by the satisfaction of ourselves due to the body demands. Another obstacle that we face is the lack of motivation to improve our lives. When living a philosophical life, it is advisable never to forget that “it is never too late to give up our prejudices” (T, 5).

It is never too late for us to change our bad habits and we should not be afraid to make a change in our lives in order to become better human beings. Just like what Kurt Hoelting did to his life when he realized how dependent he was to his cars, he decided to “go car-free” (K, 4) and go walking, bicycling, and use public transport for the whole year.

At first, he really wanted to give up but with his strong dedication to the commitment he had made, he even planned to “cover 130 miles in ten days, hiking north through the deltas …. circle back onto the north end of Whidbey Island to walk … creating a continuous estuary of enormous ecological richness” (K, 5). He showed an example of a real philosophical life where many of his actions could give us encouragement to be more motivated to change our lives and to care more about our surroundings.

We should not depend on luxury materials but try to live full of simplicity by doing similar philosophical experiments as Hoelting did. For example, using the bus to go to school instead of using a car, reducing the technology usage such as smart phones, internet, TV, cooking our own food from scratch would be a good example of living a philosophical life. From all of these philosophical experiments, we could get a very meaningful lesson of what life is all about.

Knowing the fact of living a philosophical life is not an easy thing to do. With some of the obstacles mentioned above, there are some ways to help us continue living a philosophical life. First, we would live a philosophical life by acknowledging the fact that we do not know everything, as we are not knowledgeable enough to know all things in the world.

This is similar to what Socrates did since he did not fear death because he did not know what kind of life would follow death or even what death was. On Socrates’ view about death, he said, “to fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know.

No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils” (P, 32; 29a). Socrates succeeded in living a philosophical life, by choosing death rather than to live without the purpose of life. Just like what Thoreau said, “I would say to my fellows, once for all, as long as possible live free and uncommitted.

It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail” (T, 55). Socrates was doing what Thoreau suggested, as he did not want to live without the purpose of life, which was similar to being committed to a county jail.

The second thing that can help us to live a philosophical life is to know the purpose of our life. The most valuable thing that an individual should think about is benefit of living a philosophical life. This would be achieved by asking oneself the importance of living according to one’s principles and values.

Are things that you do likely to help in achieving your goal of life? Two examples that best illustrate these elements are when Thoreau said ‘in proportion as an individual simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty would be poverty, nor weakness would be a weakness” (T, 209). This would also be proved when Hoelting said, “To be human is to swim in a sea of intertwined beauty and loss.

Yet the losses we now contemplate are of a different order of magnitude, beyond the imagining of any former generation of human beings” (K, 248). Both philosophers here are trying to convince us that through living a philosophical life associated with strong dedication, motivation, rationality, and simplicity can help us to achieve our goals.

Implementing philosophical life in our lives is very crucial for us in case we are to live a significant life. Life is a complex concept that cannot be understood through simple explanations. It calls for deeper explanation for which Plato, Thoreau, and Hoelting gave examples on how they implemented philosophical life, as one way to become a better individual.

They used different methods in leading their philosophical lives, but they had the same goal, which was to have a heavenly life. There are always complications in life that could make us desperate to continue living a philosophical life. However, these complications could make individuals to be stronger and acknowledgeable to the significance that life has to offer both spiritually and mentality.

Nevertheless, philosophical life is not an action that is impossible to accomplish because through having strong devotion, purpose, wisdom, and being awake will help an individual to become a better person and achieve the best.


Henry David Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods (Dover, 1995). Cited in text as T, 4, 5, 9, 21, 55, 59, 144, and 209.

Kurt Hoelting, The Circumference of Home: One Man’s Yearlong Quest for a Radically Local Life , (Da Capo Press, 2010). Cited in text as K, 4, 5, and 248.

Plato, The Trial and Death of Socrates, tr . G.M.A. Grube (Hackett Publishing: 2001). Cited in text as P, 21;17c, 39;38a, and 32;29a.

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IvyPanda . 2022. "Philosophy as a Way of Life." April 8, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/what-is-life-2/.

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IvyPanda . "Philosophy as a Way of Life." April 8, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/what-is-life-2/.

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My Philosophy of Life, Essay Example

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In all honesty, the subject here causes me some problems, at least at first. In simple terms, I am not at all sure that I want any type of philosophy of life. In my mind this would somehow translate to a kind of limitation, or an “outlook” that might prevent me from taking in new experience and actually learning more about what life truly means. I have known people who strongly believe in a positive viewpoint, for instance. Their life philosophies are based on seeking the good in the world around them, and I am certainly not about to argue with such beliefs. At the same time, I feel that such a way of thinking creates borders. It is a philosophy as a focus, and I do not believe that life may be so confined, or neatly fit into any such approach. In all fairness, I have the same opinion regarding those who practice philosophies of extreme caution, or who believe that life is an arena in which they are entitled to take as much as possible. Put another way, whenever I have actually heard or read of a life philosophy, my first thought is invariably that life may not nicely accommodate it. Life, as I see it, has ideas all its own and is not concerned with how anyone chooses to view it.

I am aware that, even in saying this, I am in a sense offering a philosophy anyway. I imagine that is my own dilemma, and one I should at least try to explore. I think back on my life thus far, then, and am struck by one consistent factor: it has never failed to surprise me, in ways both good and bad. Even when experience has been painful, I have sometimes been aware that I do not respond to it in a pained way. Similarly, I have gone through whole periods of my life when everything was going well, yet I have felt a sense of dissatisfaction. I know that my reactions in all ways are powerfully influenced by the world around me. I have been disappointed in not feeling happy, I know, because the circumstances were supposed to make me feel that way, and everyone around me encouraged this as natural. Still, those feelings of happiness have sometimes eluded me, just as I have been strangely empowered or happy when things have gone wrong. How can I even consider a “philosophy,” then, when I cannot even follow the course of thinking and feeling in place for the rest of the world? No matter how I move through my life, it always seems that I am not in a place where a common perception about living matches how I truly think and feel, so I tend to veer from any ideology. It is not that I disagree with them; it is that, for me, they do not fit.

This then brings me to another question: what is it that I think life is? If I can better understand that, I may be on my way to realizing that there is a philosophy for me. After all, there can be no real and consistent view of a thing without an idea of the thing itself. Unfortunately, I “hit a wall” here as well. Great minds have struggled to define life since humanity began, and each seems to have ideas as valid as those different from them. For some, it is meaningless, a kind of dream in which we act our parts to no real purpose. For others, life is a boundless opportunity to grow spiritually and expand the mind and heart to unlimited potentials. For most people, I think, life occupies more of a middle ground; it can be fantastic and enabling, just as it can be empty when no purpose is in sight. In other words, it seems that there is no incorrect view or philosophy of life because it may be, simply, anything and everything at all. Given this thinking, I am not encouraged. I am, in fact, more inclined to see any effort at capturing a philosophy an exercise in futility.

When I then allow myself to take this thinking further, however, it seems that I may be nearing the thing I see as pointless or impossible. That is, since I view life as far too unpredictable to be subject to a single approach or philosophy, I then begin to understand my own role in the entire process. I think of what I earlier said, in regard to mt feelings not following usual patterns and my tendency to react to “life” in unexpected ways. It occurs to me that I am then missing a crucial element in this scenario: myself. I think: everyone, great mind or otherwise, who has wondered about life has done so in the same way, in that the views and feelings must be created by their own life itself. We can seek to see beyond our own experience, but I must wonder at how realistic that ambition is. We are all tied to who and what we are, whether that being is expansive or not; in all cases, the individual can only define life through what the individual has experienced and is capable of perceiving from the experience. Life is the self, in a very real sense. We are not channels out outside elements in some vast, inexplicable equation; we are the equation because life is literally what we make it. This happens through actual “living” and action, and it happens equally through our perceptions.

I then begin to feel that I am nearing a truth. I am life, and life is not some external essence I must consider. At the same time, everyone and everything around me is life as well, just as validly as I am. Here, then, is where I can shape a philosophy. It is not a structure, or even a foundation. Rather, it is more an impression accepted. It is that life is a thing completely bound to myself, and in “partnership” with me. It is, most important of all, never fixed. It cannot be, because every moment changes who I am in some way, and because of this intense and purely exponential relationship with the life around me. Life will always be the moment or direction currently affecting or guiding me, and in every sense of living. When my spirit is at its strongest, life is a generous and fine thing because that is what I am giving to it, and life affirms this reality by taking what I can give. When I am small and involved with minor issues or feelings, life shrinks to a cell because I am unable then to see beyond a cell. I referred to what I know is a cliché, in that life is what we make it. This is, however, profoundly true in a literal sense. As I think this is my philosophy, I restate it as: life is what I create, which in turn reflects and creates me.

While I am content with this definition, I am as well unwilling to leave it as so lacking in structure. More exactly, while I firmly believe in the self/life reciprocity I have described, and while I believe this must be a fluid state of being, I nonetheless comprehend that even this shifting relationship places responsibilities on me. On one level, and no matter how “life and I” go on, I believe in good and evil. I believe these are actual forces or energies in the world, and I believe that my mind and my heart must always be directed to knowing and promoting good when I can. This is not necessarily virtuous on my part; I see it more as an acceptance of a reality as basic as the air we breathe. The complex process of life is endlessly open to possibilities generated by my involvement with it, but there remains in the universe, at least in my perception, these polar elements. True meaning is as powerful a thing as good, and meaning may only come when good is pursued, and I believe this because I believe that evil is emptiness. Whatever life becomes for me, then, there is a primal direction to know.

Lastly, there is as well an obligation linked to good, which is that of being expansive. I cannot expect much of life if I do not open myself to the possibilities in place when my openness meets the limitless offerings of what is outside of myself. This is that partnership in place, and when I am doing my part in giving my utmost to it. Strangely, this is not a giving related to effort; rather, it is more a willingness to accept. When I consider all of this, in fact, I find that my philosophy is more complex than I had thought. It insists on my exponential relationship with living as creating life, yet it also demands real awareness. It is open to the new, but it is observant of basic principles. It is what is known through my eyes, but it relies on my expanding my sight to make the most of it. More than anything, my philosophy of life is one that brings life right to me side, always. It holds to the conviction that, no matter how we make it happen, life is what the world around me and I shape every moment.

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Author Interviews

A conversation with the author of 'there's always this year'.

NPR's Scott Detrow speaks to Hanif Abdurraqib about the new book There's Always This Year . It's a mix of memoir, essays, and poems, looking at the role basketball played in Abdurraqib's life.


The new book "There's Always This Year" opens with an invitation. Here's a quote - "if you please imagine with me, you are putting your hand into my open palm, and I am resting one free hand atop yours. And I am saying to you that I would like to commiserate here and now about our enemies. We know our enemies by how foolishly they trample upon what we know as affection, how quickly they find another language for what they cannot translate as love." And what follows from that is a lyrical book about basketball but also about geography, luck, fate and many other things, too. It's also about how the career arc of basketball great LeBron James is woven through the life of the book's author, Hanif Abdurraqib, who joins us now. Welcome back to the show.

HANIF ABDURRAQIB: Thank you for having me again, Scott. It's really wonderful to be here.

DETROW: You know, I love this book so much, but I'm not entirely sure how to describe it. It's part memoir, part meditation, part poetry collection, part essay collection. How do you think about this book?

ABDURRAQIB: You know, it's funny. I've been running into that too early on in the process and now - still, when I'm asked to kind of give an elevator pitch. And I think really, if I'm being honest, that feels like an achievement to me because so much of...


ABDURRAQIB: ...My intent with the book was working against a singular aboutness (ph) or positioning the book as something that could be operating against neat description because I think I was trying to tie together multiple ideas, sure, through the single - singular and single lens of basketball. But I kind of wanted to make basketball almost a - just a canvas atop which I was laying a lot of other concerns, be it mortality or place or fatherhood and sonhood (ph) in my case. I think mostly it's a book about mortality. It's a book about the passage of time and attempting to be honest with myself about the realities of time's passing.

DETROW: Yeah, it seems to me like it could also be a book about geography, about being shaped by the place you grew up in and that moment where you choose to stay or leave, or maybe leave and come back. And I was hoping you could read a passage that that deals directly with that for us.

ABDURRAQIB: Of course. Yeah. This is from the third quarter or the third act of the of the book.

(Reading) It bears mentioning that I come from a place people leave. Yes, when LeBron left, the reactions made enough sense to me, I suppose. But there was a part of me that felt entirely unsurprised. People leave this place. There are Midwestern states that are far less discernible on a blank map, sure. Even with an understanding of direction, I am known to mess up the order of the Dakotas. I've been known to point at a great many square-like landscapes while weakly mumbling Nebraska. And so I get it. We don't have it too bad. People at least claim to know that Ohio is shaped like a heart - a jagged heart, a heart with sharp edges, a heart as a weapon. That's why so many people make their way elsewhere.

DETROW: What does Ohio, and specifically, what does Columbus mean to you and who you are?

ABDURRAQIB: I think at this stage in my life, it's the one constant that keeps me tethered to a version of myself that is most recognizable. You know, you don't choose place. Place is something that happens to you. Place is maybe the second choice that is made for you after the choice of who your parents are. But if you have the means and ability, there are those of us who at some point in our lives get to choose a place back. And I think choosing that place back doesn't happen once. I mean, it happens several times. It's like any other relationship. You are choosing to love a place or a person as they are, and then checking in with if you are capable of continuing to love that place or person as they evolve, sometimes as they evolve without you or sometimes as you evolve without them. And so it's a real - a math problem that is always unfolding, someone asking the question of - what have I left behind in my growth, or what has left me behind in a growth that I don't recognize?

So, you know, Columbus doesn't look the way - just from an architectural standpoint - does not look the way it looked when I was young. It doesn't even look the way it looked when I moved back in 2017. And I have to kind of keep asking myself what I can live with. Now that, for me, often means that I turn more inward to the people. And I began to think of the people I love as their own architecture, a much more reliable and much more sturdy architecture than the architecture that is constantly under the siege of gentrification. And that has been grounding for me. It's been grounding for me to say, OK, I can't trust that this building will stay. I can't trust that this basketball court will stay. I can't trust that this mural or any of it will stay. But what I do know is that for now, in a corner of the city or in many corners of the city, there are people who know me in a very specific way, and we have a language that is only ours. And through that language, we render each other as full cities unto ourselves.

DETROW: Yeah. Can you tell me how you thought about basketball more broadly, and LeBron James specifically, weaving in and out of these big questions you're asking? - because in the first - I guess the second and third quarter, really, of the book - and I should say, you organize the book like a basketball game in quarters. You know, you're being really - you're writing these evocative, sad scenes of how, like you said, your life was not unfolding the way you wanted it in a variety of ways. And it's almost like LeBron James is kind of floating through as a specter on the TV screen in the background, keeping you company in a moment where it seems to me like you really needed company. Like, how did you think about your relationship with basketball and the broader moments and the broader thoughts in those moments?

ABDURRAQIB: Oh, man, that's not only such a good question, but that's actually - that's such a good image of LeBron James on the TV in the background because it was that. In a way, it was that in a very plainly material, realistic, literal sense because when I was, say, unhoused - right? - I...

ABDURRAQIB: ...Would kind of - you know, sometimes at night you kind of just wander. You find a place, and you walk through downtown. And I remember very clearly walking through downtown Columbus and just hearing the Cavs games blaring out of open doors to bars or restaurants and things like that, and not having - you know, I couldn't go in there because I had no money to buy anything, and I would eventually get thrown out of those places.

So, you know, I think playing and watching basketball - you know, even though this book is not, like, a heavy, in-depth basketball biography or a basketball memoir, I did spend a lot of time watching old - gosh, so much of the research for this book was me watching clips from the early - mid-2000s of...

ABDURRAQIB: ...LeBron James playing basketball because my headspace while living through that was entirely different. It's like you said, like LeBron was on a screen in the background of a life that was unsatisfying to me. So they were almost, like, being watched through static. And now when I watch them, the static clears, and they're a little bit more pleasureful (ph). And that was really joyful.

DETROW: LeBron James, of course, left the Cavs for a while. He took his talents to South Beach, went to the Miami Heat. You write - and I was a little surprised - that you have a really special place in your heart for, as you call them, the LeBronless (ph) years and the way that you...


DETROW: ...Interacted with the team. What do you think that says? And why do you think you felt that way and feel that way about the LeBronless Cavs?

ABDURRAQIB: I - you know, I'm trying to think of a softer word than awful. But you know what? They were awful.

DETROW: (Laughter).

ABDURRAQIB: I mean they were (laughter) - but that did not stop them from playing this kind of strange level of hard, at times, because I think it hit a point, particularly in the late season, where it was clear they were giving in and tanking. But some of those guys were, like, old professionals. There's, like, an older Baron Davis on that team. You know, some of these guys, like, did not want to be embarrassed. And...

ABDURRAQIB: ...That, to me, was miraculous to watch where - because they're still professionals. They're still NBA players. And to know that these guys were playing on a team that just could not win games - they just didn't have the talent - but they individually did not want to - at least did not want to give up the appearance that they weren't fighting, there's something beautiful and romantic about that to me.

DETROW: It makes a lot of sense why you end the book around 2016 when the Cavs triumph and bring the championship to Cleveland. But when it comes to the passage of time - and I'll say I'm the exact same age as you, and we're both about the same age as LeBron. When it comes to the passage of time, how do you present-day feel about LeBron James watching the graying LeBron James who's paying so much attention to his lower back? - because I don't have anywhere near the intense relationship with him that you do. But, I mean, I remember reading that Sports Illustrated when it came out. I remember watching him in high school on ESPN, and I feel like going on this - my entire adult life journey with him. And I feel like weirdly protective of LeBron James now, right? Like, you be careful with him.


DETROW: And I'm wondering how you think about him today and what that leads your brain to, given this long, long, long relationship you have with him.

ABDURRAQIB: I find myself mostly anxious now about LeBron James, even though he is still - I think he's still playing at a high level. I mean, I - you know, I think that's not a controversial statement. But I - while he is still playing at a high level, I do - I'm like everyone else. So I'm kind of aware that it does seem like parts of him - or at least he's paying a bit more attention to the aches that just come with aging, right?

ABDURRAQIB: I have great empathy and sympathy for an athlete who's dedicated their life to a sport, who is maybe even aware that their skills are not what they once were, but still are playing because that's just what they've done. And they are...

ABDURRAQIB: ...In some cases, maybe still in pursuit of one more ring or one more legacy-building exploit that they can attach to their career before moving on to whatever is next. And so I don't know. And I don't think LeBron is at risk of a sharp and brutal decline, but I do worry a bit about him playing past his prime, only because I've never seen him be anything but miraculous on the court. And to witness that, I think, would be devastating in some ways.

And selfishly, I think it would signal some things to me personally about the limits of my own miracle making, not as a basketball player, of course, but as - you know, because a big conceit of the book is LeBron and I are similar in age, and we have - you know, around the same age and all this. And I think a deep flaw is that I've perhaps attached a part of his kind of miraculous playing beyond what people thought to my own idea about what miracle is as you age.

And so, you know, to be witness to a decline, a sharp decline would be fascinating and strange and a bit disorienting. But I hope it doesn't get there. You know, I hope - I would like to see him get one more ring. I don't know when it's going to come or how it's going to come, but I would like to see him get one more. I really would. My dream, selfishly, is that it happens again in Cleveland. He'll come back here and team up with, you know, some good young players and get one more ring for Cleveland because I think Cavs fans, you know, deserve that to the degree that anyone deserves anything in sports. That would be a great storybook ending.

DETROW: The last thing I want to ask about are these vignettes and poems that dot the book in praise of legendary Ohio aviators. Can you tell me what you were trying to do there? And then I'd love to end with you reading a few of them for me.

ABDURRAQIB: Yeah. I'm so glad you asked about that. I haven't gotten to talk about that as much, and that - those were the first things I wrote for the book. I wrote 30 of them...

DETROW: Really?

ABDURRAQIB: ...I think. And of course, they all didn't make it. But that was kind of an exercise, like a brain exercise. And I was trying to play with this idea of starting out with folks who were literally aviators. So it begins with John Glenn and Lonnie Carmen, and then working further and further away from aviation in a literal sense, much like the book is working further and further away from, say, basketball in this concrete sense - because ascension in my mind isn't just moving upward, it is expansion, too. It is, I think, any directional movement away from where your position is. And so I got to be kind of flexible with ideas of ascent and growth and moving upward.

DETROW: And the last aviator you did this for was you. And I'm hoping you can read what you wrote about yourself to end this.

ABDURRAQIB: Oh, gosh. OK, yeah. This is Hanif Abdurraqib, Columbus, Ohio, 1983 to present. (Reading) Never dies in his dreams. In his dreams, he is infinite, has wings, feathers that block the sun. And yet in the real living world, the kid has seen every apocalypse before it arrives, has been the architect of a few bad ones. Still wants to be alive most days. Been resurrected so many damn times, no one is surprised by the magic trick anymore.

DETROW: That's Hanif Abdurraqib, author of the new book "There's Always This Year: On Basketball And Ascension." Thank you so much.

ABDURRAQIB: Thank you, Scott. I really appreciate it.


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Guest Essay

When I Became a Birder, Almost Everything Else Fell Into Place

An illustration showing a birder standing quietly looking through binoculars in four scenes. In the third scene, he says, “Amazing.”

Mr. Yong is a science writer whose most recent book, “An Immense World,” investigates animal perception.

Last September, I drove to a protected wetland near my home in Oakland, Calif., walked to the end of a pier and started looking at birds. Throughout the summer, I was breaking in my first pair of binoculars, a Sibley field guide and the Merlin song-identification app, but always while hiking or walking the dog. On that pier, for the first time, I had gone somewhere solely to watch birds.

In some birding circles, people say that anyone who looks at birds is a birder — a kind, inclusive sentiment that overlooks the forces that create and shape subcultures. Anyone can dance, but not everyone would identify as a dancer, because the term suggests, if not skill, then at least effort and intent. Similarly, I’ve cared about birds and other animals for my entire life, and I’ve written about them throughout my two decades as a science writer, but I mark the moment when I specifically chose to devote time and energy to them as the moment I became a birder.

Since then, my birder derangement syndrome has progressed at an alarming pace. Seven months ago, I was still seeing very common birds for the first time. Since then, I’ve seen 452 species, including 337 in the United States, and 307 this year alone. I can reliably identify a few dozen species by ear. I can tell apart greater and lesser yellowlegs, house and purple finches, Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks. (Don’t talk to me about gulls; I’m working on the gulls.) I keep abreast of eBird’s rare bird alerts and have spent many days — some glorious, others frustrating — looking for said rare birds. I know what it means to dip, to twitch, to pish . I’ve gone owling.

I didn’t start from scratch. A career spent writing about nature gave me enough avian biology and taxonomy to roughly know the habitats and silhouettes of the major groups. Journalism taught me how to familiarize myself with unfamiliar territory very quickly. I crowdsourced tips on the social media platform Bluesky . I went out with experienced birders to learn how they move through a landscape and what cues they attend to.

I studied up on birds that are famously difficult to identify so that when I first saw them in the field, I had an inkling of what they were without having to check a field guide. I used the many tools now available to novices: EBird shows where other birders go and reveals how different species navigate space and time; Merlin is best known as an identification app but is secretly an incredible encyclopedia; Birding Quiz lets you practice identifying species based on fleeting glances at bad angles.

This all sounds rather extra, and birding is often defined by its excesses. At its worst, it becomes an empty process of collection that turns living things into abstract numbers on meaningless lists. But even that style of birding is harder without knowledge. To find the birds, you have to know them. And in the process of knowing them, much else falls into place.

Birding has tripled the time I spend outdoors. It has pushed me to explore Oakland in ways I never would have: Amazing hot spots lurk within industrial areas, sewage treatment plants and random residential parks. It has proved more meditative than meditation. While birding, I seem impervious to heat, cold, hunger and thirst. My senses focus resolutely on the present, and the usual hubbub in my head becomes quiet. When I spot a species for the first time — a lifer — I course with adrenaline while being utterly serene.

I also feel a much deeper connection to the natural world, which I have long written about but always remained slightly distant from. I knew that the loggerhead shrike — a small but ferocious songbird — impales the bodies of its prey on spikes. I’ve now seen one doing that with my own eyes. I know where to find the shrikes and what they sound like. Countless fragments of unrooted trivia that rattled around my brain are now grounded in place, time and experience.

When I step out my door in the morning, I take an aural census of the neighborhood, tuning in to the chatter of creatures that were always there and that I might have previously overlooked. The passing of the seasons feels more granular, marked by the arrival and disappearance of particular species instead of much slower changes in day length, temperature and greenery. I find myself noticing small shifts in the weather and small differences in habitat. I think about the tides.

So much more of the natural world feels close and accessible now. When I started birding, I remember thinking that I’d never see most of the species in my field guide. Sure, backyard birds like robins and western bluebirds would be easy, but not black skimmers or peregrine falcons or loggerhead shrikes. I had internalized the idea of nature as distant and remote — the province of nature documentaries and far-flung vacations. But in the past six months, I’ve seen soaring golden eagles, heard duetting great horned owls, watched dancing sandhill cranes and marveled at diving Pacific loons, all within an hour of my house. “I’ll never see that” has turned into “Where can I find that?”

Of course, having the time to bird is an immense privilege. As a freelancer, I have total control over my hours and my ability to get out in the field. “Are you a retiree?” a fellow birder recently asked me. “You’re birding like a retiree.” I laughed, but the comment spoke to the idea that things like birding are what you do when you’re not working, not being productive.

I reject that. These recent years have taught me that I’m less when I’m not actively looking after myself, that I have value to my world and my community beyond ceaseless production and that pursuits like birding that foster joy, wonder and connection to place are not sidebars to a fulfilled life but their essence.

It’s easy to think of birding as an escape from reality. Instead, I see it as immersion in the true reality. I don’t need to know who the main characters are on social media and what everyone is saying about them, when I can instead spend an hour trying to find a rare sparrow. It’s very clear to me which of those two activities is the more ridiculous. It’s not the one with the sparrow.

More of those sparrows are imminent. I’m about to witness my first spring migration as warblers and other delights pass through the Bay Area. Birds I’ve seen only in drab grays are about to don their spectacular breeding plumages. Familiar species are about to burst out in new tunes that I’ll have to learn. I have my first lazuli bunting to see, my first blue grosbeak to find, my first least terns to photograph. I can’t wait.

Ed Yong is a science writer whose most recent book, “An Immense World,” investigates animal perception.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips . And here’s our email: [email protected] .

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  1. Philosophical Essays


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  1. The Meaning of Life

    3. Naturalism. Recall that naturalism is the view that a physical life is central to life's meaning, that even if there is no spiritual realm, a substantially meaningful life is possible. Like supernaturalism, contemporary naturalism admits of two distinguishable variants, moderate and extreme (Metz 2019).

  2. The Meaning of Life

    1. The Meaning of "Meaning". One part of the field of life's meaning consists of the systematic attempt to clarify what people mean when they ask in virtue of what life has meaning. This section addresses different accounts of the sense of talk of "life's meaning" (and of "significance," "importance," and other synonyms).

  3. PDF Philosophy for Everyday Life

    Journal of Philosophy of Life Vol.5, No.1 (July 2015):1-18 [Essay] Philosophy for Everyday Life Finn Janning* Abstract The aim of this essay is two-sided. The first is to illustrate to what extent philosophy can contribute to our everyday living. The second is to illustrate how. The implicit thesis that I try to unfold in this

  4. The Meaning of Life: What's the Point?

    The meaning of life might be the true story of life's origins and significance.[7] In this sense, life cannot be meaningless, but its meaning might be pleasing or disappointing to us. When people like Tolstoy regard life as meaningless, they seem to be thinking that the truth about life is bad news.[8] 2.

  5. The Meaning of Life

    The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. A light and lively essay on a variety of facets of the question of life's meaning, often addressing linguistic and literary themes. Rejects subjective or "postmodern" approaches to meaning in favor of a need for harmonious or loving relationships.

  6. What Is The Meaning Of Life?

    The meaning of life may never be definitively known. The meaning of life may be different for each individual and/or each species. The truth of the meaning of life is likely in the eye of the beholder. There were three choices given at the beginning of this essay, and for me, the answer is all of the above. Jason Hucsek, San Antonio, TX

  7. Philosophy

    After losing his sight, a skateboarder takes an unexpected path to realising his dreams. 12 minutes. More. Philosophy Essays from Aeon. World-leading thinkers explore life's big questions and the history of ideas from Socrates to Simone de Beauvoir, political philosophy to philosophy of mind, the Western canon and the non-Western world.

  8. A philosopher makes the case for a thoughtful life

    The reader is introduced to a variety of important and complicated philosophical questions. Brinkmann introduces, for example, the Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates and refers to a challenge that ...

  9. Aristotle, His Life and Philosophical Ideas Essay (Biography)

    Aristotle, His Life and Philosophical Ideas Essay (Biography) Aristotle is considered to be one of the greatest Greek philosophers that ever lived according to the Encyclopedia of Classical philosophy (1997). He lived between 384 B.C. and 322 B.C. having accomplished a lot in philosophy and all other fields of Education.

  10. 1000-Word Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology

    Welcome to 1000-Word Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology, an ever-growing set of over 180 original 1000-word essays on philosophical questions, theories, figures, and arguments.. We publish new essays frequently, so please check back for updates, follow us on Facebook, Twitter / X, and Instagram, and subscribe by email on this page to receive notifications of new essays.

  11. Processes of Life: Essays in the Philosophy of Biology

    One of the chief themes of these essays continues Dupré's signature resistance to reductionism in the philosophy of science in general and the philosophy of biology in particular, a resistance first expressed in Dupré's "Natural Kinds and Biological Taxa" (1981) and developed in his The Disorder of Things: Metaphysical Foundations of the ...

  12. What is philosophy as a way of life? Why philosophy as a way of life

    The idea of "philosophy as a way of life" has been gaining currency both among the general public and among professional philosophers. Among the public, the interest can be seen in the increasing popularity of events such as Stoic Week, and in a variety of bestselling books. 1 Among professional philosophers, it can be seen in the surge of new grants, book series, and course offerings ...

  13. Philosophy as a Way of Life

    Word Count: 998. If you have ever learned a philosophical idea and tried to incorporate it into your daily living, you may be interested in an approach called philosophy as a way of life (PWOL). Instead of analyzing concepts or arguments, or constructing a theory of the world, PWOL's approach emphasizes the practice of living philosophically.

  14. Free Life Philosophy Essay Examples & Topic Ideas

    In this article, our team has offered you some advice in writing such a complicated paper. You will also find free philosophy in life essay samples created by other students. We will write a custom essay specifically for you. for only 11.00 9.35/page. 809 certified writers online.

  15. What Makes a Life Worth Living: a Philosophy of Life

    Socrates's account of philosophical life. Socrates was an ancient Greek scholar, teacher, and philosopher. He thought that philosophy should produce practical outcomes that benefit society. ... A Glimpse into My Philosophy in Life Essay. Life is how we go about day by day, month by month, year by year. Our actions, even the slightest, can ...

  16. Philosophy

    Alan Watts, for all his faults, was a wildly imaginative and provocative thinker who reimagined religion in a secular age. Christopher Harding. More. Philosophy Essays from Aeon. World-leading thinkers explore life's big questions and the history of ideas from Socrates to Simone de Beauvoir, political philosophy to philosophy of mind, the ...

  17. Life and Death Philosophical Essays in Biomedical Ethics

    Table of Contents. Part I. Physicians and Patients Making Treatment Decisions: 1. Informed consent 2. The ideal of shared decision making between physicians and patients 3. When competent patients make irrational choices (co-authored by Steven A. Wartman) Part II. Life-and-Death Decisions in the Clinic: 4. Moral rights and permissible killing 5. Taking human life 6.

  18. Bernard Stiegler's philosophy on how technology shapes our world

    In his philosophical memoir Acting Out (2009), Stiegler describes his time in prison as one of radical self-exploration and philosophical experimentation. He read classic works of Greek philosophy, studied English and memorised modern poetry, but the book that really drew his attention was Plato's Phaedrus.

  19. Happiness (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

    In this sense of the term—call it the "well-being sense"—happiness refers to a life of well-being or flourishing: a life that goes well for you. Importantly, to ascribe happiness in the well-being sense is to make a value judgment: namely, that the person has whatever it is that benefits a person. [ 1]

  20. My Personal Philosophy of Life: [Essay Example], 495 words

    Get original essay. One of the fundamental pillars of my personal philosophy is the power of positivity. I firmly believe that adopting an optimistic outlook can greatly enhance our overall well-being and contribute to a fulfilling life. By maintaining a positive mindset, we can overcome obstacles, remain resilient in the face of adversity, and ...

  21. Essay on Philosophy of Life

    500 Words Essay on Philosophy of Life The Essence of Life. The philosophy of life is a broad topic that has been explored by numerous philosophers, thinkers, and scholars throughout history. At its core, it concerns the purpose, meaning, and nature of life, as well as the ethical, moral, and existential questions that arise in our everyday lives.

  22. Philosophy as a Way of Life

    For example, using the bus to go to school instead of using a car, reducing the technology usage such as smart phones, internet, TV, cooking our own food from scratch would be a good example of living a philosophical life. From all of these philosophical experiments, we could get a very meaningful lesson of what life is all about.

  23. My Philosophy of Life, Essay Example

    It is what is known through my eyes, but it relies on my expanding my sight to make the most of it. More than anything, my philosophy of life is one that brings life right to me side, always. It holds to the conviction that, no matter how we make it happen, life is what the world around me and I shape every moment.

  24. Philosophical razors: cutting through life's complexities

    Philosophical razors: cutting through life's complexities. Yoy Luadha 4:00 pm Mon Apr 1, 2024 ... In philosophy, a razor is a principle or rule of thumb that allows one to eliminate ...

  25. How to Write a Philosophical Essay

    1. Planning. Typically, your purpose in writing an essay will be to argue for a certain thesis, i.e., to support a conclusion about a philosophical claim, argument, or theory.[4] You may also be asked to carefully explain someone else's essay or argument.[5] To begin, select a topic. Most instructors will be happy to discuss your topic with ...

  26. A conversation with the author of 'There's always this year'

    NPR's Scott Detrow speaks to Hanif Abdurraqib about the new book There's Always This Year. It's a mix of memoir, essays, and poems, looking at the role basketball played in Abdurraqib's life.

  27. A Book Found in a Cairo Market Launched a 30-Year Quest: Who Was the

    For Iman Mersal, the slim novel was "life altering." She narrates her journey in the footsteps of its largely forgotten author in "Traces of Enayat." By Aida Alami Reporting from Rabat ...

  28. Opinion

    In a life skills class, we learned how to get our G.E.D.s. My college dreams began to seem like delusions. Then one afternoon a staff member handed me a library copy of "Barron's Guide to the ...

  29. When I Became a Birder, Almost Everything Else Fell Into Place

    Mr. Yong is a science writer whose most recent book, "An Immense World," investigates animal perception. Last September, I drove to a protected wetland near my home in Oakland, Calif., walked ...