On “Meaning in Life and Why It Matters”
There are certain books so tedious and difficult to fully comprehend
that I surprise even myself when I actually read
them in their entirety. One such book I recently
completed fits that billing: “Meaning in Life and
Why It Matters,” by Susan R. Wolf, a well-
established philosophy professor at the
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who
formerly taught at Harvard University, the
University of Maryland, and Johns Hopkins
University. The book features a two-part Tanner
Foundation lecture Wolf gave under the same title over two days at
Princeton University in 2007. The lectures are followed by comments
from four other eminent philosophers and psychologists, along with
Wolfe’s responses to their comments.
Seeking Meaning in Old Age
Wolf’s title fits nicely within my current early-old-age mindset, where
philosophical questions have gained more prominence and
relevance. I’m exploring the parameters of what constitutes meaning
in life – and it’s both exciting and disturbing. I’m already teetering
towards moving to another topic because trying to discover an
overarching, empirically profound, one-size-fits-all definition of
meaning in life could very well be an impossible task. In some
regards it’s a tortuous undertaking, and one has to be careful to not
drive one’s self crazy by over analyzing.
I struggled to fully comprehend Wolf’s book with its multitude of
theories and concepts professed by all the writers. At the end, I felt
empty and confused. I had no bigger idea of what meaning in life
entails, only a bunch of conceptual propositions on what it might be,
depending on how you might think about it.
Nonetheless I insert my proposition:
In my mind, to have a meaningful life, three primary characteristics
must be met:
You’re doing what you love to do.
Your efforts have a at least a basic and fundamental benefit for
yourself and, at minimum, one other human being or more.
Nobody is harmed by what you’re doing.
Simple enough? Not so fast.
The Life of a Puzzle Maker
What about the essence of what you love to do? Let’s say, for
instance, that you love making puzzles. You spend hours upon hours
making complex puzzles comprised of thousands of tiny pieces. Day
after day, you love being in a kind of mindless, escapist flow of
completing an entire puzzle. You then take that puzzle and glue matt
it within a picture frame and hang it on a wall, like a piece of art. You
do this time after time, and your entire house is now covered with
colorful puzzle-art. People come into your house and are amazed and
entertained by your accomplishment. Nobody is harmed in any way.
If this were your daily, passionate grind in old age, would it constitute
a meaningful life?
This is the kind of question, among many other similarly related
questions, Wolf tackles in her two lectures, both loaded with
repetitive obscure insights that for me were very difficult to get
through. Numerous times I wanted to toss her book into the
garbage, but then she’d include something extraordinarily perceptive
and I’d continue. I got the same feeling when reading the comments
from the other writers. Basically, in hindsight, it’s strongly advised to
read this book slowly to grasp its meaning, which I did not do. I read
it closely but perhaps to quickly with a hopeful eye toward being
enlightened, and I came away flummoxed.
Who’s to Say Who or What is Meaningful?
My reference to the puzzle-maker is meant as an example of what I
would personally consider to be a meaningless pursuit, which can
easily be perceived as a conceited, elitist (chose any dastardly word)
point of view. Who am I or anyone else to say that the puzzle maker’s
efforts have no substantive meaning? Whatever floats your boat, as
they say – right? Well, again, not so fast.
According to Wolf – who does not directly address notions of nihilism
and existential anxiety in any depth in her book (two aspects related
to the study of meaning that in my opinion are vitally important) –
human motivation falls under two categories: egoistic or self-interest
and dualistic or moved by something outside of the self. Essentially,
we have one or both of these categories generating our actions.
She goes on to say that the aim of her two lectures was to explain
“meaningfulness in life and present it in a way as to make it seem
worth wanting, both for ourselves and for those about whom we
care.” She adds, however, that her in-depth explanation “will be of
little or no practical use” and that she can only offer “none but the
most abstract sorts of advice about how to go about living such a
life.” How that matches up with the book’s title is incomprehensible.
I probably should have stopped there, only a few pages in, but
instead subjected myself to more philosophical punishment.
Certainly, nobody has a monopoly on the appropriate or
inappropriate characterizations of meaningfulness. Wolf, however, in
her bizarre way (in my opinion), proposes a conception of
meaningfulness in life as arising from “loving objects worthy of love
and engaging with them in a positive way,” adding that “a life is
meaningful insofar as it is actively and lovingly engaged in projects of
worth.” This kind of thinking, she adds, involves “subjective and
objective elements, inextricably linked.” Her final statement, which
she repeats verbatim or paraphrases throughout both lectures,
almost ad nauseam, is “meaning arises when subjective attraction
meets objective attractiveness, and one is able to do something good
or positive about it.”
What is Objectively Valuable?
For starters, I could not find a satisfying definition of what she meant
by objective attractiveness or what kind of projects could be called
worthy. Subjective attraction, on the other hand, was quite easy to
understand as simply something that one loves doing, or the
egoist/self-interest perspective. It wasn’t until I searched around for
resources outside of her book that I found two succinct, easy-to-
comprehend articles that helped me obtain a much better
understanding of what Wolf meant by objective attractiveness. Both
were written by John G. Messerly, philosophy professor at UT Austin;
writer of a great philosophy-oriented website called Reason and
Meaning: Philosophical perspectives on life, death, and the meaning
of life; and author of several of his own books about life’s meaning.
In the first article, Messerly noted that Wolf’s conception of
meaningfulness is basically a combination or linking of the best
features aligned with fulfilling yourself (subjective fulfillment), as
well as dedicating your actions to something larger than yourself
(objective fulfillment). This is explained as kind of a middle way
between following your passions and performing a duty – what Wolf
identified as the fulfillment view. In this view, Wolfe argues “that
subjective fulfillment depends on being engaged in the objectively
worthwhile – counting cracks on the sidewalk will not do but
pursuing medical research could.”
He then linked to another article in which he explained a point of
view presented by Steven Cahn, philosophy professor at CUNY
Graduate Center. Cahn pretty much called Wolf’s concepts
meaningless, arguing that “it does not make sense to judge a life
meaningful or meaningless . . . even if some activity is mindless and
futile does that mean it is meaningless?” He concluded that “lives
that don’t harm others should be appreciated as relatively
In essence, “the concept of meaning is ultimately unintelligible
without some notion of objective value,” according to Wolf, “despite
the fact that we cannot specify this value with much precision.”
Where does this leave my puzzle maker, who, in my opinion, is not
pursuing anything that is worthy of love. Yet, in his own personal
way, puzzle-art making provides him with plenty enough love and
meaning in life. And who am I to judge his love of puzzle making as
worthless? Does it meet Wolf’s definition of a project of worth? I don’t
know if Wolf adequately answered these questions in my mind,
although she certainly seemed to try mightily.
In all fairness to Wolf, she composed two incredibly insightful
lectures that addressed wide parameters of what constitutes a
meaningful life. After reading both lectures twice, I became mentally
fatigued, which catalyzed no further desire – perhaps lazily – to sum
up Wolf’s many other intelligent and worthy insights.
I do believe, however, that the puzzle maker meets the three primary
characteristics of a meaningful life I mentioned earlier, although I
personally find his puzzle-making pursuits to be utterly meaningless.
Yet, he’s doing something he loves; it has a benefit to himself and a
few other folks who enjoy looking at his framed puzzles when they
visit his home; and (most importantly) nobody is in the least bit
harmed by his puzzle making. It just took me a long time trying to
figure out Wolf’s overly philosophical rambling and a little more than
1,500 words here to come to that conclusion, which, in the end,
perhaps was not a meaningful conclusion nor an enterprise worth
pursuing in the first place.
- Steven Cahn