Purpose of Living – Part 6: The Philosophical Viewpoint

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We explored the notion of purpose from the viewpoint from Abrahamic Religions, Eastern Philosophies, early sciences and modern sciences in the last few blog posts in this series. Let’s now have a look at this notion from some of the Philosophical viewpoints.

An early proponent of the concept of purpose was Aristotle. His thinking of purpose tends to summarise the viewpoints of this diverse group of people. He suggests that the most basic meaning of quality of life refers to the ability of humans to formulate and implement purpose. Adoption of a good lifestyle that includes good health, social wellbeing and environmental safety or their promotion is purposeful activity (Jonsen,1976). While concepts of health, social wellbeing and environment is alluded by Aristotle, he does not talk about skills, knowledge and vocation, as echoed in some of the conversations I have had, and from my first-person knowing.

These conversations also highlight various characteristics related to purpose. I list them here only as what is heard during the conversations and not by any means to claim that a purposeful person needs to have these characteristics. These characteristics are; loyalty to a higher power, conscientious, dutiful, mutuality, environmental consciousness, exemplary behaviour, being of service to the planet, seeking emancipation, reflective, being yourself, motivated to act, willing to take risks, drive to develop self, service to others, clarity of mind, commitment, a deep desire to achieve. A concept that helps make sense of the relationship between personal characteristics and purposefulness is the ‘fourth super factor’ that has been developed to explain the space of individual differences in personality. The earlier three factors were extroversion, neuroticism and psychoticism (Eysenck,1978). ‘Purposefulness’ was a label given to describe a collection of characteristics; conscientiousness, competence, order, dutifulness, achievement striving, self- discipline (persistence) and deliberateness during the inquiry that led to the discovery of this fourth super factor (Cartwright & Peckar, 1993). It is interesting to note that some of these characteristics are included in the list created from my conversations. However, I find it difficult to accept this as a comprehensive list, as the characteristic can differ from person to person. This list is more relevant to someone who looks at purpose as getting and becoming, an achievement orientation. A person with an orientation of giving and being would have characteristic such as emancipation, mutuality, service to others etc.

Gabriele Gava in her paper, ‘The Purposefulness in our Thought: A Kantian Aid to Understanding Some Essential Features of Peirce’ (Gava, 2008), makes an interesting distinction between purposefulness and purposiveness. Purposefulness (Zielbewusstsein) is an orientation towards an end, and involved in thought process according to Charles Sanders Peirce, who has been influenced by the notion of purpose by Aristotle’s natural classes, Kant’s critical project, and Darwinian evolutionism – end oriented processes in nature. Purposiveness (Zweckmäßigkeit) promulgated by Immanuel Kant on the other hand is a conformity to an end. Gava compares the work of Peirce with Kant’s, to understand those respects in which purposefulness is an essential principle for the process of reasoning.

Peirce also shows how purposefulness has an impact on the notions of pragmatism and practicalism. Pragmatism (Pragmatisch) according to Peirce is a connection between rational cognition and the rational purposes that it recommends. A dimension of thought in relation to some definite purpose, where the purpose is not bound to selfish ends, but consist of an intersubjective and general process that makes signs grow in a social undertaking. Practicalism (Praktisch) is a dimension of thought in relation to no definite purpose according to concepts by Kant which are more utilitarian. I believe that people may start at a more Kantian level when they are driven by pre-conventional action logics and utilitarian goals which they consider as purpose. Then the process of purposeful living may help them evolve to Peirce’s concept of purposefulness as they reach post-conventional logics. This belief is based on my own experience and what I see in many South Asians who have gone through ‘purpose’ work with me.


Cartwright, D., & Peckar, H. (1993). Purposefulness: A fourth superfactor? Personality and Individual Differences, 14(4), 547-555.
Eysenck, H.J. (1978). Superfactors P, E and N in a comprehensive factor space. Multivariate Behavioral Research, 13(4), pp. 475-481.
Gava, G. (2008). “The Purposefulness in our Thought: A Kantian Aid to Understanding Some Essential Features of Peirce”. Transactions of the Charles S.Peirce Society: A Quarterly Journal in American Philosophy, 44(4), 699-727.
Jonsen, A. R. (1976). Purposefulness in human life. The Western Journal of Medicine, 125(1), 5- 7.

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