Helen Steward: What is the Meaning of Life?


Excellence Reporter: Prof. Steward, what is the meaning of life?

Helen Steward: I believe the meaning of life is work. But before you object to my miserable, stunted vision of life, let me first explain what I mean by ‘work’.

I don’t mean in speaking of work merely to talk about the activities we engage in in return for payment – though those are of course part of work – too large a part, of course, for many of us. I mean to speak of work in a much more generous sense than this. Work in this larger sense is what makes life and all the creativity that depends on life possible; it is the means by which living organisms fight against the remorseless pressure towards disintegration and chaos that the Second Law of Thermodynamics makes inevitable. Most of the order and structure that there is in the world – for example, in the intricate forms of plants and animals, and in the creations of those animals – buildings, artefacts, information systems, art-works, and so on – and the order and structure that exists in the minds of animals sophisticated enough to have mental states — is the product of work.

The Second Law tells us that the entropy, or degree of disorderedness, of the Universe must constantly increase. We know this from experience; if we want a house or a garment or a vehicle, we will not find it in nature – it will have to be created from what nature has provided – and if we want to keep it, we will have maintain it, against the world’s natural tendency towards disintegration, rot and decay. The activities we engage in to create and maintain the orderedness of things, including, of course, and most importantly, the orderedness of ourselves, as individuals, as families, as communities and as societies, are what I mean by work.

In so far as we have significant choices, those choices are about what kinds of work to do in what proportions. We must of course work to maintain ourselves (and those who depend upon us) in existence; and for most of humanity, for most of its history, this work aimed at not much more than mere survival has claimed the bulk of its time and energy. But there has always also been emotional work (to keep ourselves and others alive, thriving, resilient, functioning); political work; caring work; educative work; artistic work; domestic work; intellectual work; the work involved in the provision and organisation of community and social life. Many of these latter, highly varied sorts of work are done unpaid by those who want to do them, or who see that they need doing, and so step forward to sustain, support, engage and create.

Life goes wrong and feels meaningless when one loses (say, through illness, poverty, alcoholism or drug dependence) the capacity and desire to do much more than the minimum amount of work involved in getting through to the next day. And I believe it is the work itself, and not its products (when there are products) that is the truly intrinsically valuable thing.

The things we make, the products, are generally nothing if they cannot be used to facilitate, extend or enrich the active lives of ourselves or others. For animals – and we are animals – purposive activity is the stuff of life, and we cannot thrive outside a context that allows us to engage in that activity and to have some choices about which of those purposive activities we may be allowed to undertake


~Helen Steward is Professor of Philosophy of Mind and Action and currently Head of Philosophy at the University of Leeds. She received her D.Phil from the University of Oxford in 1992. Before moving to Leeds in 2007, she was Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford for 14 years. Her research interests lie mainly in the philosophy of action and free will, the philosophy of mind, and the metaphysical and ontological issues which bear on these areas (e.g. causation, supervenience, levels of explanation, the event/state distinction, the concepts of process and power). She has also worked on the category of animality and on understandings of the human being which take seriously our membership of the animal kingdom, and related biological and evolutionary perspectives on ourselves. She is the author of The Ontology of Mind (Oxford: OUP, 1997) and A Metaphysics for Freedom (Oxford: OUP, 2012), as well as many papers on free will, agency, mental causation and ontology of mind.

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Categories: Philosophy

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