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Meaning in Life (And Why It Matters)

A philosopher offers her unique opinion on meaning...

I've been doing a bit of reading on meaning lately, not so much to help find the meaning in my life, but rather to see what the big deal is—why is it important and why does it matter?

To be honest, I'd never thought about meaning before several months ago when one of my best friends mentioned it in an email conversation. A self-professed "meaning junkie," he was amazed that I had never thought about it, much less perceived meaning in my own life. He said that he could not live without meaning, which had helped him get through some difficult times in his past as well as the day-to-day struggles of the present.

He recommended some books, such as Viktor Frankl's amazing Man's Search for Meaning, and I found some of my own, such as (fellow PT blogger) Roy Baumeister's Meanings of Life, both of which helped me understand what meaning was, but not why it was so important. Through them, I came to understand that it is better to feel your life has meaning than not to, but a lot of things make life better without being essential, and I still didn't get why meaning was regarded by so many as essential.

So when Susan Wolf, a prominent contemporary philosopher whom I had long admired, recently published a book titled Meaning in Life and Why It Matters, I rushed to get it and read it as soon as it arrived. The slim book contains two lectures Wolf delivered on the topic in 2007, followed by comments from four equally eminent cholars, including psychologist Jonathan Haidt. (I haven't read the comments yet, so I will only comment on Wolf's part of the book.)

Wolf presents a unique and provocative account of meaning (or, to use her preferred term, meaningfulness), which combines two common accounts of meaning, which she calls the Fulfillment View and the Larger-Than-Oneself View. The first says that meaning is found in whatever fulfills you, while the second says that meaning is found in dedicating yourself to something larger than or apart from yourself.

She explains why she finds each lacking. In a nutshell, the Fulfillment View is subjective but lacks any objective value (one could feel fulfilled by counting cracks in the sidewalk, but could anyone else find that meaningful?), while the Larger-Than-Oneself view suffers from the opposite flaw, being objective with no subjectivity (one could dedicate herself to a worthy cause without feeling fulfilled by it).

From the ways she criticizes those two views—each one lacking what the other has—it makes sense that Wolf proposes a combination that combines them both: "meaningfulness in life [comes] from loving something (or a number of things) worthy of love, and being able to engage with it (or them) in some positive way" (p. 26). The subejctive part enters through the loving, and the objectvie through thr worth of what you love, and she adds the element of active participation to complete the picture.

I'm not arguing for or against Wolf's view (especially not before I read the comments in the book). She aniticipates one criticism, that requiring an objective endorsement of what a person finds fulfilling is elitist—who are we, or anybody, to judge what a particular person finds fulfilling? But that is not her point; rather, she is arguing that the subjective feeling of fulfillment in some way depends on the object of your devotion being objectively worthy—that it is what makes it truly fulfilling. In other words, she doubts that one could ever be fulfilled by counting cracks in the sidewalk, while you can be fulfilled by caring for a sick relative, creating art, or pursuing medical research—the objective worth contributes to fulfillment. And at the same time, none of these candidates for objectively worthy pursuits can be meaningful if it is not also subjectively fulfilling at the same time. The subjective and objective go hand-in-hand in Wolf's account.

While her account of meaning(fulness) was fascinating, and eloquently conveyed in a clear and concise manner, I didn't get what I wanted from the "why it matters" section. There, Wolf explains that most philosophers assume that acts are either motivated by self-interest or morality (or both), but she argues that meaning can account for many actions that don't fit into either slot.

She suggests, as an example, doing philosophy: for a philosopher like her, doing philosophy may not bring her the most pleasure, happiness, wealth, or well-being understood in a relatively narrow way, but nonetheless she does because it makes her life meaningful. People often make significant sacrifices to their own interests (narrowly understood) to pursue dreams and goals; to describe these actions as self-interested is either disgustingly cynical or stretching the concept of self-interest beyond all recognition.

But these goals and dreams—such as doing philosophy, or training for a heavyweight title, or designing a great building—need not be motivated by morality either. There is nothing wrong per se with these activities, of course, but they are not activities we would likely praise as ethical. They may involve some sacrifice of personal well-being, not in the service of morality (as we may normally think of sacrifices), but rather to find fulfillment on a higher level.

So, if I'm reading her correctly, the concept of meaningfulness has explanatory value—it allows us to better describe and more subtly understand a range of human action which had previously been misunderstood. And this is no small feat. But I'm afraid it doesn't answer the questions I have, and so I will continue to read...