Comments on “An appetizer: purpose”


5 Confused Attitudes

Are these 5 your list? Can you give a source or are you trying to divorce this from Buddhism?

Old stuff

No, this is old stuff... It's from my thinking as of about 2004 (written up originally in 2006-7). There's a connection with eternalism and nihilism in Buddhism, and also in Western philosophy. And "mission" tends to go along with monism. But there's no direct source.

"meaning" "purpose" and the misuse of English

Karmakshanti's picture

One of the constant difficulties of writing in English is its tendency to degenerate into deceptive dead metaphors. "Meaning" and "purpose" as they are used here are such degenerated metaphors. The non-metaphoric use of "meaning" applies to language and other proto-linguistic structures. "Life" is not a language and it does not literally have "meaning". "Meaning" is a metaphor for whatever it is in life that is "like meaning in language". So what does life possess that is like meaning in language? Good question.

In fact, it is so good that it is the real question that we should be asking rather than "What is the meaning of life?" Without reanimation of the metaphor and the acknowledgment that it is a metaphor the "meaning of life" question is literally nonsense and the set of five different pat answers given above are also literally nonsense.

When we stop asking "What is the meaning of life?" and start asking "What does life have that is like "meaning" in language?" what becomes clear is that we do not have a choice of pat answers from which we have to pick the right one. We have no immediate answer at all. We also have the real possibility that there may not be an answer at all.

"Purpose" is a literal characteristic of objects such as tools. Life is not a tool, and the "purpose of life" is a metaphor that has died into mere nonsense. So what is in life that is like "purpose" for tools? Ask it that way and again the pat answers evaporate into nonsense. And we are left with the fact that we have no immediate answer at all, not even a wrong one.

But matters are even worse than this, for without the metaphors we have no obvious place to even look for the answers. This is strong evidence that we are not only asking the wrong question, we are also asking the question about the wrong thing.

What life does have is praxis, which is neither "meaning" nor "purpose" and is in no way like real "meaning" in language or real "purposes" for tools. Everything that lives is in the middle of doing something and remains so for the duration of life.

The wrongly asked questions about the wrong thing can now easily be framed into two correctly asked [and easily answerable] questions about praxis: What am I doing? and What should I be doing? Looked at this way there is no such thing as a "subjective" answer to either question. There are merely things that are possible to do [go to college and get a degree] and things which are not possible to do [sprout wings and fly like an eagle]. Everything in either of the categories is objective, objectively possible or objectively not possible.

This allows us to put the subjectivity back where it belongs, into the reasons for the action and the legitimate questions you can now ask are Why am I doing this? and Why should I be doing that? These questions are legitimately subjective and make it possible to articulate our subjective opinions, not about life, but about the world in which life exists.

Use the categories of subjective answers [eternalism, nihilism, search for a mission, and existentialism] as answers about the world, and not about "life", and use the subjective answers they propose as reasons to do objective things and most of the proliferation of derivative neologisms [such as "meaningness"] offered here is simply not necessary.

Pace Wittgenstein: The solution to the problem is the disappearance of the problem.

On retreat...

Hi, Karmakshanti,

Thank you for your thoughtful comment here, and another one elsewhere on the site today.

I've just come out of three days of retreat, and am about to go into a different retreat for a week, so I am unfortunately unable to reply immediately. I promise to do so shortly after emerging.

Best wishes,



Karmakshanti's picture

Good luck. I'm having to remind myself once again that my real business is sitting and meditating, so I a welcome a break.

Wrong and right questions

Sorry for the delay in replying, due to having been away from the internet for ten days.

Most likely we are in substantive agreement here.

In case this wasn't obvious, my point on the page was not that any of these five stances to purpose is right. They are all bad ones. In fact, they are obviously bad, and actually unworkable, so it's practically impossible to adhere to any of them consistently. Rather, the point is that because no good approach is readily available, these are the stances that people typically adopt in practice. (I will present what I consider a good approach later.)

You are right that it is a major problem in writing about this material that the word "meaning" has two meanings—the linguistic "meaning of a sentence" one and the "meaning of life" one. I invented the word "meaningness" partly to address that problem. (Probably not very successfully.)

And, I agree strongly that "the meaning of life" is a wrong framework for thinking about the issues. It suggests there is a single, "true" meaning; and that hasn't been plausible for a hundred years at least.

However, the wrong formulation "the meaning of life" points at a set of issues that I think are important and not meaningless: purpose, value, the relationship between self and other, ethics, and so forth. I don't think these issues can be dissolved by Wittgensteinian linguistic analysis.

I do think that what you say about praxis is pointing in the right direction. Your point that "everything that lives is in the middle of doing something and remains so for the duration of life" will be a central theme (in a part of the book none of which I've yet posted to the web).

I'll be using the terms "participation", "activity", and "interaction" in discussing this. Meaningness can only be understood in terms of doing things in the world; not as an isolated individual but as an inseparable part of a physical, social, and cultural context; and not as a box whose contents can be examined and understood at an instant in time, but as a varying process that extends through time.

(Probably that is gibberish at this point; it will take tens of thousands of words to explain in common-sense terms.)

The comment from Karmakshanti

The comment from Karmakshanti made me think of Jordan Peterson's book, "Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief". Have you looked at it at all?

He is more concerned with addressing belief. His background is Psychology. But, I think the book could be useful to your project and help out in developing your terms "participation", "activity" and "interaction".

(I say this now in ignorance, only now starting to read what you have done on "Meaningness". I felt the connection come up in my head and thought I should communicate it now rather than lose the thought.)


Jordan Peterson

Andrew, thank you very much indeed for pointing me at Jordan Peterson's work. I was entirely unaware of it. I've been poking around on his web site and have found much of interest. This paper, for instance, directly addresses both the AI issues and the social/pschological development issues I wrote about in my last page. Remarkable timing.



His book, M o M, has become an important resource for me. In fact, maybe I rely upon it a little too much (ah, the neophyte in me...).

He has some vids too, I think on his webpage. Basically just a lecture series on the text. And there are two hour-long, more condensed versions through TVO (Canadian public broadcasting, kinda like PBS).

I haven't read the C M Theory paper yet. Thank you back for the link, and further reading! :-)

Cannot be unseen

Weston 's picture

I'm curious David,

What are your thoughts on this text with respect to making life more enjoyable? Do you feel this endeavor has created more enjoyment or less enjoyment with life? I'm a fringe rationalist reader... meaning I mostly let friends select things I'd like readings and send them my way. I'm not a hyper-truth seeker, and am perfectly fine walking around with horse blinders on if the barn is going to burn down on me anyway. Sometimes I find rationalists to be great at solving problems, and too trapped in their truth to find enjoyment in things that are common, incorrect, but use to make them smile.

Unique Personal Gifts

Hey David,

Just had a clarifying question about this sentence:

"The problem is that no one actually has a 'unique personal gift.'"

I assume you're referring to something like a divinely-endowed gift that one is more or less predestined to discover and pursue? It seems to me that we do all in fact have "unique personal gifts," in a broader sense. You, for instance, have an ability to write this book in the way you're writing it that no one else could precisely duplicate. Every human being seems to do things in such a way that no one else could precisely duplicate their activity. And it seems that this entails that we perform our talents in ways that only we could perform them, making them "unique personal gifts." Perhaps you could clarify your meaning on this.


Sasha's picture

Excellent site/book! Fascinating topic.

On the terminology, especially following the comments discussion on this page:
- Perhaps "meaning" in this context actually refers to something more like "value". That is: "What is the value of my life (or of any particular activities or aspects thereof)?" If value is construed only instrumentally, then value collapses into mere purpose, one's life as a "tool".
The problem, of course, with defining the value of one's life by one's purpose (instrumental value as a tool), is that actually devalues your life intrinsically. Consider: If you were to fulfill that purpose, wouldn't your value then disappear? You would become superfluous.

Regarding the term "eternalism", is this your own coinage of use? In philosophy, "eternalism" typically refers to a certain philosophy of time.

Thank you for this site and your comments.


Glad you like what you have read so far!

Yes, there are multiple "dimensions" of value; purpose is just the one I used as an example in this introductory page.

I'm using the word "eternalism" in a way derived from Buddhist philosophy; specifically Dzogchen. I'm using it not exactly the same way, but pretty close. I thought I had explained this somewhere, but I can't find it. Maybe I never got around to writing it up, because I thought I already had!

The original meaning of "eternalism" in Buddhist philosophy is the view that there is an eternal soul (which most brands of Buddhism reject). Later it came to mean "denial of emptiness," where "emptiness" means roughly what I mean by "nebulosity." And that's quite close to my usage.

I'm aware of the quite different usage in Western philosophy. Unfortunately, there aren't enough words to go around, so they get reused!


Sasha's picture

Thank you for the response. Understood.
Perhaps "absolutism" would work? That also goes beyond the temporal dimension to include spatial (geographic, trans-cultural, etc). That is, such "meanings" are supposed to apply absolutely across all times, places, cultures, individuals, etc.

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This page is in the section Why meaningness?.

The next page in this section is Preview: eternalism and nihilism.

This page’s topics are Purpose and Starting points.

General explanation: Meaningness is a hypertext book (in progress), plus a “metablog” that comments on it. The book begins with an appetizer. Alternatively, you might like to look at its table of contents, or some other starting points. Classification of pages by topics supplements the book and metablog structures. Terms with dotted underlining (example: meaningness) show a definition if you click on them. Pages marked with ⚒ are still under construction. Copyright ©2010–2017 David Chapman.