Week Five: Three approaches to The Meaning of Life

Susan Wolf – A philosophy professor who has developed a non-faith based answer.

Ikigai – Japanese approach that focuses on the process of developing a personal Ikigai.

Eckhart Tolle – A successful new age guru who sells his approach to millions every year.

Reference Material: This week I am providing limited references for each of these three answers. First, a brief text description of the answer. Then a video that explains the answer in less than 10 minutes. And to supplement this, longer explanations and/or critical comments.

Google is always available. A search will turn up extensive material on all three. If you find something that is particularly insightful, send me a link and I’ll distribute it to the class.

Susan Wolf

A reviewer of Susan Wolf’s The Meaning of Life writes about Wolf’s position: “Without love (or something that lies outside of ourselves), or more precisely the active engagement with something that we love, or that we love engaging with, our lives lack meaning.” That's perhaps the central point that Wolf makes.

Summary of The Meaning of Life, Kansas City Philosophy Club (3 pages)

Video explaining The Meaning of Life (6:37 minutes)

Critical review of The Meaning of Life, by J. Raz (5 pages)


“’Iki’ means to live, and ‘gai’ means reason, so ikigai is literally a reason to live. ... On a grand scale, this would mean what you would like to achieve in your career or what you would like to accomplish in terms of your private life, but on a smaller scale, it’s really a reason to get up in the morning.” Ken Mogi, author of Awakening Your Ikigai.

Ikigai: The Japanese Way, C. Pattemore (4 pages)

Video: “Ikigai: Find Your Way”, (9:03 minutes)

“The Japanese Concept ‘Ikigai’”, M. Wilding (8 pages)

[Japanese version of Ikigai Venn Diagram.]

Eckhart Tolle

“The healing power of bringing awareness to our experience – just as it is here and now – is what Eckhart Tolle calls the ‘power of now’. Tolle ... points to the freedom and inner peace that comes from opening fully to this moment without judgment, resistance or holding.” H. Byrne

“Eckhart Tolle, meditation and benefits of inner peace”, H. Byrne (2 pages)

Oprah Winfrey interviews Eckhart Tolle, featured author (8:37 minutes)

Critical: “Enchantment, take me away”, P. Froese (7 page excerpt)

General Questions

1. Should the focus be on meaning or purpose?

We should focus on purpose because it has a future orientation. For me, a such an orientation is an important element in a good answer to the “big” questions in my life.

2. Is there one “big” answer that is right for all time?

The “easy” response is that my life can have multiple purposes, and that the list of these purposes will shift and change over time, ... but perhaps that is mistaken.

3. Should the answer face an inner assessment and an external test?

A fit purpose needs to be right for me personally. There also needs to be a way to deliver value outside or or beyond myself. Inner and outer assessments are required.

4. Susan Wolf Questions

Susan Wolf’s answers seem to fit our general sense of what should be true of a personal meaning in life. There are small meanings and large meanings, and comparisons are valid. The lived context plays only a small role in Wolf’s approach to meaning in life.

a. Is it necessary for a personal purpose to deliver external value?

b. Should the size of a purpose be an important consideration?

c. What role should be played by the environments shaping us?

5. Ikigai Questions

Ikigai is less a destination than a journey through life. Mostly developing one’s Ikigai requires taking small positive steps. The result should be both that you feel good waking up in the morning and you feel good about where you’re headed. Note that our western view of Ikigai may have been coloured by an almost accidental graphic that depicted earning a good living as one of four Ikigai pillars.

a. Is it right to take small steps in developing a personal Ikigai?

b. Should one’s Ikigai be multi-faceted and developed over time?

c. Should a good income be a part of everyone’s Ikigai?

6. Eckhart Tolle Questions

Eckhart Tolle used his 10 interviews on Oprah Winfrey’s show as a way to reach a large audience. The Power of Now continues to sell millions of copies every year. His advice seems to focus on a deep inward looking concentration on the now. This focus on inner “now” leaves little room to consider the consequences of our thoughts and actions.

a. Is inner well-being the only essential element in personal meaning?

b. Is a forward looking view of meaning of little or no human value?

c. I'm skeptical of spiritual advice about meaning that has mass appeal?

Next Week: Sixth and final conversation

A. Any member of the class who is so inclined is encourage to share the question and answer that they find personally satisfying. Note: I’m ready to distribute any information that members of the class would like to see made available to the class.

B. I’m prepared to explain why (in my view) the correct question is: “What is a fit purpose in my life?” And to explain the characteristics I look for in an answer along with my justification for identifying such characteristics as important.