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References - General

When I offered to moderate this course, I recognized that the subject matter could connect to many different areas within philosophy and the social sciences. I didn't initially realize just how extensive the connections could be. In the few months I've been focused on preparing for this course, my library of relevant material has grown to over 500 hundred titles. Clearly, I've found far more material than could (or should) be mentioned in the course.

This note will contain general information about relevant material. More detailed references will be included with the notes that are to accompany class presentations. The projected flow of topics to be concerned will begin with a brief introduction one week, plus notes and references on the class website, followed by a more detailed discussion the next week. Class participants are encouraged to explore the notes and references in the week between introduction and detailed discussion.

Finding Information

The web is a great information tool, but general searching on the web often leads to far too much information. For example, searching on Google for “meaning of life” produced a list of 11,300,000 references that contain that exact phrase. That's way too much of a good thing. It's been compared to drinking from a fire hose. How to find a reasonable starting place?

  • Wikipedia offers a reasonable 20 page introductory article on the Meaning of Life.
  • The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers its own 20 page article on the Meaning of Life.
  • And the bookos.org website offers to provide nearly 50 ebooks on the Meaning of Life.

In general, I find that Wikipedia is a reasonable first place to look. When the topic is of general interest, the open editing of Wikipedia typically results in articles that offer a balanced view of the topic. For philosophical topics, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a special case. It provides signed articles by recognized philosophers on the topics covered. Some of these articles are very good, others seem primarily intended to impress fellow philosophers with the erudition of the author.

The bookos.org website is a special beast. It offers to provide some 2,028,392 books online (as of 2013.07.30). Many of these books are primarily of academic interest, and some are described as “Link deleted by legal owner”. Still, I found it a useful source for academic treatments of Meaning of Life topics. The site did experience recent technical difficulties. It may, or may not, stay on the air.

Academic Areas

What follows is my short list of academic areas that could be used to build a justification for why my version of the meaning of life makes sense. Other list of areas could be constructed, but this list works for me.

  • Philosophy – Clearly, philosophers have been debating and discussing “meaning” for centuries. There is no sign that this interest has abated over the centuries.
  • Psychology – The behavioral psychologists don't generally discuss “meaning”, but the social psychologist have spent considerable time on the subject.
  • Psychotherapy – Psychotherapists need a practical model for what makes us tick, and “meaning” is often seen as an important motivating concern.
  • Brain Science – Some very interesting and suggestive things have been learned about how we think and what might be meaningful.
  • Sociology – The study of cultural sociology often has a fair about to say about “meaning” and its role in understanding individuals and their communities.
  • Anthropology – The focus of social and cultural anthropology has much to say about “meaning” and its role.
  • Geography – I find “place” relates importantly to “meaning” - people find meaning in places important to them. Geographers study places.
  • Architecture – Many of our more thoughtful architects have through about and written on how architectural places can take on meaning.
  • Political Science - “Meaning”, for me, connects to community. And the political scientists are concerned about how communities are organized and directed.

This is not a complete list (and makes no pretense to be). I have not listed either religion or literature, yet both have much to say about “meaning”. But I don't personally find much that is important to my justification for how I explain meaning in either of these two fields. Others could well disagree. That's as it should be.

Overview Texts

I found two overview collections of readings. Both seemed aimed at early undergraduate courses, one in the USA, the other in the UK. They try to be “balanced” in a way that this course does not pretend to be.

  • Life and Meaning, Oswald Hanfling (editor), The Open University, 1987
  • The Meaning of Life, E.D. Klemke (editor), Oxford University Press, 1981

Interesting, both feature “My Confession” by Count Leo Tolstoy. This is a classic story of how one Christian found deep meaning, as told by a great Russian writer. I find it not all that surprising that many of his greatest novels where written before he discovered true meaning in his Christian faith. The angst, tension and troubled soul which preceded this confession were apparently good for his art.

These initial comments on reference material would be seriously incomplete without referencing Viktor Frankl's best-selling:

In addition to this important and very popular book, there have been a number of books published that provide an overview of the field.

  • The Meaning of Modern Life, R. Johnson, C. E. Lipscomb, & C. F. Horne (editors), The National Alumni, 1907. Includes articles by Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, H.G. Wells, Grover Cleveland, and Count Leo Tolstoy. TOC & Preface
  • On The Meaning Of Life, Garrett Thompson, Wadsworth Publishing, 2003 Chapter 1
  • The Meaning of Life – A Very Short Introduction, Terry Eagleton, Oxford University Press, 2007 Chapter 1
  • Tracking the Meaning of Life – a philosophical journey, Yuval Lurie, University of Missouri Press, 2006 Introduction
  • What's It All About? Philosophy and the Meaning of Life, Julian Baggini, Oxford University Press, 2005 Chapter 1

More detailed references will be provided with the notes for each topic to be considered in class.

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May 6 – June 10 (6 sessions) Time: Wednesdays, 10:10 a.m. – 11:55 a.m. Location