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Reply To: Understanding Campbell


Drewie writes

Question number two. Meaning.. Again Campbell said ‘we are not looking for meaning we are looking for an experience of being alive.’ I am also having a bit trouble understanding this because in my experience meaning is what gives life purpose. And I kinda get what Campbell is trying to do here, redefining purpose, and trying to get us to be honest about thinking that there is some kind of objective meaning underlying life but was that his intention or I am missing something?”

I do believe you’ve grasped Campbell’s intention. The problem is with the way that question is generally asked – “What is the meaning of life?”   – which implies there is one simple, all-purpose objective answer that applies across the board (Douglas Adams playfully makes the same essential point as Campbell in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when he writes that the “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything,” calculated by an enormous supercomputer named Deep Thought over a period of 7.5 million years, is 42 . . . unfortunately, no one remembers what the ultimate question is.)

What is the meaning’ of a tree? of a butterfly? of the birth of a child? or of the universe? What is the ‘meaning’ of the song of a rushing stream? Such wonders simply are. They are antecedent to meaning, though “meaning” may be read into them.”

Joseph Campbell, The Flight of the Wild Gander, p. xii

“Meaning” is a construct of the human mind – a function of how our brain processes information. Meaning is subjective; we won’t find the answer in the back of the textbook.


“CAMPBELL: I don’t believe life has a purpose. Life is a lot of protoplasm with an urge to reproduce and continue in being.

MOYERS: Not true—not true.

CAMPBELL: Wait a minute. Just sheer life cannot be said to have a purpose, because look at all the different purposes it has all over the place. But each incarnation, you might say, has a potentiality, and the mission of life is to live that potentiality.”

Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, with Bill Moyers

You can’t ask somebody to give The Reason, but you can find one for yourself; you decide what the meaning of your life is to be. People talk about the meaning of life; there is no meaning of life – there are lots of meanings of different lives, and you must decide what you want your own to be.

An Open Life: Joseph Campbell in Conversation with Michael Toms, p. 110

You bring the meaning to your own life, which may well be different than the meaning of another person’s life – and dramatically different from the “meaning” of existence for an amoeba, starfish, turtle, eagle, or a virus.

Joe comes close to answering the question of the “purpose of his life” when he avers that each living being “has a potentiality, and the mission of life is to live that potentiality.” But “what is the meaning of life” is a guru question. Joe hated being asked those – he was no guru with the ultimate answer. That may be why he is so appreciated: rather than “This is the Way – walk ye therefore in it,” his work leaves it up to each of us to find our own answer.

Seems a point worth making.