Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Meaning in Life and Why It Matters / Susan Wolf with commentary by John Koethe, Robert M. Adams, Nomy Arpaly, and Jonathan Haidt -- Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010

"What is the meaning of life" is one of the most cliched philosophical questions, but upon reflection it seems to be rather ill-formed. Picking out a single word and inquiring into its meaning would, of course, be intelligible, as in "what is the meaning of 'life?'" but to suggest that something so broad as living could have a meaning is more troublesome.  At very least, it suggests that one might be able to gain a transcendent perspective on life -- to know "why we are here" or "what God's plan is for us." Despite popular impressions, serious philosophical inquiry tends to reject this sort of speculation; however, Susan Wolf's book, Meaning in Life and Why It Matters, brings meaning to the question by examining what it is to live a life that is worthwhile.  In essence, she asks, "what is it to live a meaningful life?"

The answer she gives is not, in the main, prescriptive.  Instead she sketches the form in which a life might be judged meaningful.  Perhaps the most interesting contribution she makes to the question is identifying a reason for action that is almost always missed by philosophers when we ask about human motivations.  Typically, philosophers have understood people to act either purely out of self-interest (or self-gratification) or out of both self-interest and moral impulses.  This has led  philosophers to conclude that a meaningful life is either one that makes the individual happy or one which fulfills our  moral obligations or perhaps some combination of the two.  Wolf points out that many of our actions do not neatly fit into one or the other of these categories.  Many of our actions are done "out of love."  She presents a perfect example of this by describing the night in which she stayed up late to sew the wings onto her daughter's butterfly costume.  She very much would have preferred to be in bed and she did not feel a moral obligation to make the costume, but because of her love for her daughter she sewed the costume. 

For Wolf, a meaningful life is one that must include acting out of love.  She writes, "meaning arises from loving objects worthy of love and engaging with them in a positive way."  Upon analysing this formula, Wolf observes that it contains a subjective element and an objective element.  The subjective element is relatively unproblematic.  Living a meaningful life will generate a sense of satisfaction.  It is the objective element that presents questions.  Wolf illustrates this by considering the life of a woman who is so attached to her goldfish that she spends all of her time and energy caring for it and interacting with it.  She claims that the fish is the only being that understands her.  While she gains genuine satisfaction from her goldfish, Wolf judges her life not to be meaningful, because a goldfish is not the sort of thing that is worthy of this sort of attention.  Wolf recognizes that she is in danger of advancing an elitist conception of meaning, but believes that we have a sufficient understanding of what is and what is not objectively worthy to recognize the attribute.

Wolf's initial presentation of her views encompasses the first 63 pages of the volume.  It is then followed by brief comments from four writers: John Koethe, Robert M. Adams, Nomy Arpaly, and Jonathan Haidt.  Koethe and Adams largely accept Wolf's account.  Koethe probes details related to the objective portion of Wolf's view.  He asks, however, if it is necessary that a meaningful life objectively succeed in its endeavors.  Is a valiant failure a meaningful life?  Conversely, Adams probes the details related to the subjective aspect, suggesting that feelings of satisfaction may be irrelevant to a meaningful life.  In contrast to these more friendly questions, Arpaly and Haidt find her treatment of objectivity wanting.  They suggest that objectivity may not be necessary.  Arpaly argues that if an individual finds subjective fulfillment in his or her life, that is enough to call it meaningful.  She points out that Wolf's examples of people who find their lives satisfied by trivial pursuits are in fact non-existent and if there are such people, they in all likelihood have cognitive or emotional limitations that preclude them from being bored by trivial pursuits.  Finally, Haidt emphasizes the idea of vital engagement, characterized by the experience of "flow."  According to Haidt, vital engagement is what is essential to living a meaningful life and any requirement that the activity be "objectively worthy" opens the door to elitism much too wide.

Wolf's exposition of her views are interesting.  More importantly, they open up a topic that very much deserves attention.  Furthermore, they are founded on a significant, though often overlooked, insight about human behavior.  The initial exposition, however, does not develop her ideas very far.  Fortunately, the volume concludes with her twenty page response to her critics.  This is philosophical dialog at its best.  Wolf takes her critics seriously.  Most of all, she gives the idea of objective value a thoughtful and sophisticated analysis. While she insists that we can be wrong about what is or is not objectively valuable, Wolf rejects the views of G.E. More and Plato that objective value is simply a natural property.  Instead, it can arise out of human interest.  "The value of an activity or object in an individual life will vary depending on the relationship that the individual has to it and role it plays in her life."  This treatment embeds objective value, in part, in the subject without allowing it to be completely subsumed by the subject.  Wolf hopes this clarification will satisfy Arpaly and Haidt.

Over the course of the work, the discussion of meaningfulness in life becomes increasingly, though slowly, deeper.  By the end one must wrestle with the nature of objectivity, subjectivity, human motivation, and social context to really come to any reasonable perspective on meaningfulness in life.  For my part, I was driven to consider meaningfulness not simply as an attribution of value, but in a semantic sense, while recognizing that this may employ a spurious connotation of the term.  Words have meaning not simply and in and of themselves, but have meaning for the speaker, for the hearer, in a context social context, and as part of an evolving language.  What I  might mean by an utterance may not be what you understand it to mean and neither of us is a final authority of the meaning of the words I use.  Meaning in life is similarly complicated.  I might find meaning in my life which you do not, or conversely you find meaning in my life which I do not; however, that there are a variety of individual judgements that might be made about a life's meaningfulness, does not establish that there is not a broader fact of the matter about the meaningfulness of a life within a social context.  That fact will depend, of course, on the social context and the values that are extant in the society. 

The lesson here, is that asking simply if a life is meaningful is too ill-defined. It is nearly as ill-defined as asking, "what is the meaning of life?" We must make clear what we are asking.  In some instances we might want to know if the person finds his or her own life meaningful.  In other instances we might want to know if their family thinks so or if the person's life is meaningful by our standard.  We may even be asking if the life has contributed to the preservation or advancement of objectively identifiable social values or cultural development.  Wolf is correct in that meaningfulness is essentially dependent upon both subjectivities and objectivity.  What seems unclear from her exposition is that subjectivity and objectivity are also interdependent.  Consequently, dividing them for the purpose of explaining the concept of meaningfulness leads us astray.  Her reply to Arpaly and Haidt opens the way to seeing this, but it threatens the analytical distinction that she makes which might require she assume an entirely different approach to answering the question.


  1. Alan, as I was reading this I found myself becoming annoyed and frustrated by the notion that there is a single way, if only one could capture it in a formula, to decide on the meaningfulness of a life. It is the same frustration I felt when studying philosophy of art, reading theory after theory, all of them different but none of them questioning the basic theoretical assumption, that is, that all art shares a common aim. I like Wolf's idea of acting out love -- I would add that human beings can also act out of curiosity -- but still, in the end, the arguments come down to what amounts to an almost formal definition. So I felt great relief when I reached your last paragraph, and I applaud it! Here is another way of looking at the question that makes sense to me:

  2. Pamela, I really like your observation that we might sometimes act out of curiosity. It pushes me to identify more kinds of motivations that don't fit into the self-interest/moral dichotomy. Something that came up in the course of (I believe) Arpaly's comments is the idea that a meaningful life is in someway dependent upon excercising one's natural capacities. If someone is highly gifted, but does little with those gifts, one might think their life is not so meaningful; but even here, the problem is way more complex than lining up a number of elements that make sense of meaningfulness. You are right that the attempt to do this, to define something of this sort, makes the dubious assumption that all meaningful lives share a common aim. It seems clear to me that seeking a transcendent ground upon which we can fix meaningfulness in life is misguided. Similarly, thinking that we might be able through a conceptual analysis establish what it is to live a meaningful life may be equally misguided.