Sunday, August 06, 2017

Worthwhile Things

Meaning in Life 
and Why It Matters 

Meaning in Life and Why It Matters



“Meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness…meaning arises when a subject discovers or develops an affinity for one or typically several of the more worthwhile things…”  -  Susan Wolf




This book presents an argument for the importance of meaning in our lives. That is meaning in the sense that we act out of love for objects that we value. In valuing these objects we identify them as worthy of our love and therefore our attention and concern. This is posed as an alternative to theories that advocate the primacy of egoism or altruism as the motivating force in such choices.  I encountered this book while reading Jonathan Haidt's discussion of the moral principles of different people in his interesting book The Righteous Mind.  Susan Wolf has succeeded in reflecting on the nature of meaning in life in a way that I found much more satisfying.

Susan Wolf discusses a variety of views about the source of meaning in life. One popular one is the argument that fulfillment from the pursuit of one's passion provides meaning for your life. The author comments that "the view is inadequate . . . If , as the Fulfillment View suggests, the only thing that matters is the subjective quality of one's life, then it shouldn't matter, in our assessments of possible lives, which activities give rise to that quality." (pp 15-16)
This view is rejected as too subjective in that it allows for a multiplicity of questionable paths through life and in doing so does not ensure that one's desires for his life are met in spite of the pursuit of a particular passion.

After discussing other views and returning to the argument for fulfillment through attention to that which one loves or values the author concludes with an extended defense of the need for meaningfulness. Most importantly this requires the identification of "objective values". The book concludes with four commentaries on Wolf's thesis and a response to these commentaries from the author. The result is a thought-provoking and engaging presentation of the nature of and importance for meaningfulness in one's life.

10 comments:

Brian Joseph said...

I think about these issues a lot. I need to read both this book as well as other books, such as The Righteous Mind, on this subject.

My general view is that both acting out of love towards what we cherish, and acting altruistically towards the people and the world in general, is the recipe towards a meaningful life. I also think that any combination of two can be meaningful.

CyberKitten said...

I don't think I've seen that many objective values in my time. Value is, I think, something we assign to things - either as individuals, groups or cultures. When you look at most values over time they change, transform into other things or vanish altogether. Does the author offer any possible objective values or does she stop at saying that we need to discover them?

Mudpuddle said...

dunno... the majority of people grow up, get married, have a job and kids, and do the same things day after day, year after year... what they think about in their moments of leisure varies, it seems to me in approximately direct ratio to their education, which is the same as saying "different for every person"... i don't think most think much about love or relationships in these ways; they just get on with doing what's needed... of course there are exceptions, to whom the concepts in this book are directed, presumably; and in such cases, the variation is probably infinite: most people who think have individualized opinions about almost everything, i imagine...

James said...

CyberKitten,
You have raised a good question. In the author's attempt to argue against the subjective view that one may follow one's passion no matter what however trivial or worse, she argues for a more objective approach. She describes this saying: "the project or activity must possess a value whose source comes from outside of oneself--whose value, in other words, is in part independent of one's own attitude to it."(p 37)
She does not exclude the person's subjective experience or feelings while arguing that there should be some objective value in the activity or activities that one engages in pursuit of a meaningful life. This also does not exclude the possibility that the decisions made by each individual will be different and may even change over time.

James said...

Mudpuddle,
Thanks for your observation. I agree about your description of some people. Whether they are a majority or not remains to be seem. However, there are many people who actively search for meaning in their life. It is these whom the author describes and to whom she addresses her argument that in spite of the large number of possibilities there are limits to the activities that may genuinely be pursued in one's search for a meaningful life.
Jonathan Haidt, one of her interlocutors has written extensively that happiness is state of coherence in one's life that results, in part, from just such a search.

James said...

Brian,
Thanks for sharing your observation. The author is arguing that in one's search for a meaningful life there are objects of that pursuit that are more likely to prove fruitful in attaining some level of meaning. This would not exclude your general view toward interacting with the world in a loving and altruistic manner.

Mudpuddle said...

on reading your post again, i was a little surprised by my own comment... i definitely do feel that a satisfying life cannot be attained without some idea of morality, which, imo, includes considering the needs of others... as to the definition of morality, i think it's instinctive in most people, although inculcated in different forms through the formal educational process; religion, philosophy, etc....

James said...

Mudpuddle,
Your comment is insightful. However this book was an attempt to define the nature of meaning in life. For a discussion that is focused on morality (and other things) I would recommend The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.

exploringclassics said...

This work sounds interesting. Does the author engage with any particular philosophers? There have been many works written on the way our loves give meaning to life. Was there anything in particular that stood out to you?

James said...

exploringclassics,
The author refers to several philosophers including Kant, Aristotle, Plato, and others. However, in spite of being a Professor of Philosophy herself, she aims at the more practical aspects of identifying objects worthy of pursuing passionately (lovingly) in the search for meaning in life. Her search is for the emergence of objective value in those activities one pursues in the search for meaning in life.