African Theories of Meaning in Life: A Critical Assessment

South African Journal of Philosophy 39 (2):113-126 (2020)
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In this article, I expound and assess two theories of meaning in life informed by the indigenous sub-Saharan African philosophical tradition. According to one principle, a life is more meaningful, the more it promotes community with other human persons. According to the other principle, a life is more meaningful, the more it promotes vitality in oneself and others. I argue that, at least upon some refinement, both of these African conceptions of meaning merit global consideration from philosophers, but that the vitality approach is more promising than the community one for capturing a wider array of intuitions about what confers meaning on a life. I further argue, however, that there are objections that apply with comparable force to both theories; neither one does a good job of entailing that and explaining why certain types of reason and progress can make a life more meaningful. Although these objections are characteristic of a ‘modern’ western outlook, I maintain that they are difficult for contemporary African philosophers to ignore and consider some ways they might respond to the objections.

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Thaddeus Metz
Cornell University (PhD)


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