Meaning in Life, and Why It Matters, by Susan Wolf. With Commentary by John Koethe, Robert M. Adams, Nomy Arpaly, and Jonathan Haidt. Princeton University Press, 2010. 143 pages. ISBN 978-0-691-14524-2. Sacred Heart University Library BD431.W77 2010
A colleague who noticed Meaning in Life on my desk asked, “Really? Is there any?” Influenced by this book, I responded, “Yes there can be, but you have to think carefully.” Susan Wolf carefully formulates an enlightening and at least partially persuasive case that yes, there can be meaning in life, and if you feel your life has none, you should reflect on that. This long review takes a careful look at her thinking, because her questions cut to the core of a liberal arts education (see the closing remarks, below).
The book is a kind of symposium. Wolf’s two essays (“Meaning in Life,” and “Why It Matters”) are followed by responses from four distinguished scholars: John Koethe, Robert M. Adams, Nomy Arpaly (philosophy), and Jonathan Haidt (psychology), to whom Wolf then replies. This give the entire work a texture, range, and collective impact beyond any one or two essays.
Wolf starts by righty questioning the two predominant models that we often have in the background when we evaluate our actions (or the actions of others): the egoistic perspective (it’s in my self-interest) or impersonal perspective, “from the point of view of the universe.” But there are situations where either model or both are unconvincing, and as models of motivation and practical reason they seem to leave out a lot of the many motives and reasons that shape our lives. These could be “reasons of love” or “reasons of pleasure” that will be distorted if pressed into an iron grid of self-interest or universal disinterestedness. A proper reason of love will be directed towards a worthy object of love, and when the idea of meaningfulness is introduced, can give reasons for finding meaning beyond duty or love.
“Love” as “being gripped by” or actively engaging with a valuable object, to promote and protect it, is an apt example of Aristotle’s endoxic method, agreed-upon “things which are accepted by everyone, or by most people or by the wise.” But what are those things?
One prominent “fulfillment” view (popularized by Steve Jobs, whom Wolf does not mention) is that it does not matter what you do with your life as long as it is something you love: “Follow your passion,” figure out what turns you on, and go for it. (p. 10)
A second view says that a truly satisfying life involves something that is “larger than oneself,” a two-fold view of something independent of oneself and has its source outside of oneself. Wolf uses excellent examples: Sisyphus has a meaningless existence objectively even if he magically believes that he is fulfilled by eternally rolling a rock uphill. Spending a life smoking pot, conceivably an independent good with its source outside of oneself, does not contribute any benefits to anyone else.
Wolf proposes and defends a “fitting fulfillment” view, that what can truly give meaning to one's life is an activity that one feels answers a deep internal need for engagement and has a certain kind of objective worth to others. The feeling of being occupied with something of independent value, that takes one out of oneself, is vital to our social natures and a certain human tendency to try to see oneself of an external point of view. (Nagel’s “view from nowhere” or Gods-eye point of view). This subjective desire is balanced with a sense of objective value: meaningfulness is a matter of active and loving engagement in projects of worth.
Why does it matter? –because meaning can give shape and direction to one’s life that transcends simple self-interest or universal, objective good. Wolf proposes that such a life can have objective value, but also recognizes a need for modesty (“Who’s to say? The elites?”) and she acknowledges that great care and reserve must be taken when assessing aesthetic, idealistic, and essentially private projects. Weeding a garden might be very meaningful to a dedicated gardener but meaningless to someone who finds it a chore.
Wolf returns to her insight that “much of what we do is not obviously justified by either morality or self-interest.” She names various activities that by those criteria only would appear irrational or mistaken. She then rejoins, “Yet to regard them as morally valuable, much less as morally better than alternatives, is to puff them up in a way that seems both pompous and hard to sustain.” (p. 50) By comparing and contrasting meaning with self-interest and morality, Wolf sustains “reasons of love,” but with great modesty, and recognizes that her argument needs an idea of objective value. “One can find the question, What has objective value? intelligible and important while remaining properly humble about one’s limited ability to discover the answer and properly cautious about the uses to which one’s partial and tentative answer may be put.” (p. 63)
The subsequent four comments focus upon particular questions, applications, and examples. Koethe asks whether artists can have meaningful lives even when they are almost unknown, possibly delusional, or troubled by disturbing psychological compulsions. “It is difficult to distinguish (from the viewpoint of an artist) between successful achievement of serious aesthetic aims and the delusion that one has them, and they’ve been achieved.” (p. 71) Is that life meaningful or wasted? If it is art, is it significant? “Even if (delusion or self-deception) jeopardizes my ability to derive satisfaction and comfort from a life based on aesthetic commitments . . . it is simply a predicament I have to live with.” (p. 73)
Adams raises the complex and morally important example of Claus von Stauffenberg’s project of rescuing Germany from Nazism, culminating in his attempt to assassinate Hitler and lead a coup d’état in July, 1944. He failed, but “did Stauffenberg himself, in the end, find his life meaningful because of his project, despite its failure?” It was certainly an objective value independent of himself, recognized by others,
but it did lead to feelings of fulfillment? He was described on that evening as looking “indescribably sad.” Stauffenberg recognized the moral ambiguity of patriotic love, which has inspired both admirable achievements and enormous wrongs and follies. (p. 82) He could see a path that held at least a slight hope of leading to a better future. Those who shared his insights (and, in some measure, the plot) also recognized meaningfulness even in defeat, most famously Dietrich Bonhoeffer, peripherally involved but nonetheless convicted and executed (my example, not Adams’). On the day of his death, Bonhoeffer was reported to have said, “This is the end –for me the beginning of life,” not simply a proclamation of Christian faith, but an assessment of his own life at the moment he faced torture and death. It is important to recognize “a very important kind of positive meaningfulness in life that responds to objective goods with motives of love that are not impartially moral motives.”
Nomy Arpaly questions the necessary role Wolf claims objective worth has in providing meaning in life. What appears as worthless (a “goldfish nut” wholly devoted to her goldfish) may be more circumstantial: a mentally disabled person may find great meaning in such activity. A plethora of values complicates the case, there is no “top” moral value among values. Is there a truth about which love to value when loves conflict?
Jonathan Haidt asks whether the ideas of vital engagement and hive psychology can help solve the problem of objective meaning. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written about vital engagement as “a relationship to the world that is characterized both by experiences of flow (enjoyed absorption) and by meaning (subjective significance.” The quality of the connection is vital; but does Wolf really need a theory of objective value? Hive psychology suggests that social sciences (and philosophy) have been plagued by methodological individualism, but if the fundamental unit of psychology is not the individual but the group, then perhaps the modern, independent sense of self is an anomaly. As Enlightenment bees we busted out of the hive and burned it down, and the great challenge of modernity is to find hives for ourselves. “We can co-create or join into, something larger than ourselves.” The challenge we face is to choose the right kind of hive, and why it matters that we choose rightly. (pp. 100-101)
Wolf’s response is nuanced. She maintains an interest in objective meaning, but recognizes its difficulties, and that no one is thereby authorized to assess it decisively on behalf either of oneself or others. Haidt’s response suggests that there may be a reconciliation of objective value and subjective interest in the larger structures and sets of activities that a meaningful life can create (examples: sports, games, the arts). Value emerges from from the interests and commitments of people who share such activities, and this recognizes a continuum of value upon which a sense of a meaningful life may lie. Through concepts of objective value and subjective fulfillment we can come to understand some of our longings and sources of satisfaction, and properly assess some of our moral and evaluative intuitions, ask questions, and form hypotheses. These concepts allow us to move closer to examining what kinds of projects and what kinds of lives are (or can be) meaningful.
Christopher Eisgruber, the President of Princeton University, asked each incoming first year student (class of 2018) to read Wolf’s book in the summer of 2014. He then discussed this “pre-read” with students in Princeton’s residential colleges through the subsequent year. He chose it for two reasons, because “it is a superb example of engaged, ethical writing, and I hope that it will introduce the freshmen to the kinds of scholarship they will encounter at Princeton,” and because “a key point in Wolf's argument pertains to the objectivity of value and why it matters; that question is important, and it inspires lively argument among undergraduates.”
The question of meaning in life, and why it matters, is at the heart of a liberal arts education, whether at Princeton or elsewhere. It would be interesting to converse with Wolf in the context of the “Catholic Intellectual Tradition” examined and queried at Sacred Heart University, because there are important points of convergence and divergence. Certainly, that tradition is concerned with assessing the whole of life, and might also be in need of Wolf’s salutary reminder to reflect modestly when assessing what might make another’s life meaningful (or wasted), and prudent caution about the uses to which one’s partial or tentative answer might be put. Theories of objective value can be linked superficially with theological claims of revealed value, a confusion that does neither intellectual tradition any good. Wolf’s question is important from any Christian point of view, whether Catholic or other, and this book is a remarkable conversation both in its scope and its lack of pretension. Her book engages questions that many undergraduates seem inclined to avoid, but could nevertheless frame the engaged insight that is the point of the liberal arts.