The Meanings of Lives by Susan Wolf Paper


The Meanings of Lives by Susan Wolf (2007)

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The question, What is the meaning of life? was once taken to be a paradigm of philosophical inquiry. Perhaps, outside of the academy, it still is. In philosophy classrooms and academic journals, however, the question has nearly disappeared, and when the question is brought up, by a nave student, for example, or a prospective donor to the cause of a liberal arts education, it is apt to be greeted with uncomfortable embarrassment. What is so wrong with the question? One answer is that it is extremely obscure, if not downright unintelligible. It is unclear what exactly the question is supposed to be asking. Talk of meaning in other contexts does not offer ready analogies for understanding the phrase the meaning of life. When we ask the meaning of a word, for example, we want to know what the word stands for, what it represents. But life is not part of a language, or of any other sort of symbolic system. It is not clear how it could stand for anything, nor to whom. We sometimes use meaning in nonlinguistic contexts: Those dots mean measles. Those footprints mean that someone was here since it rained. In these cases, talk of meaning seems to be equivalent to talk of evidence, but the contexts in which such claims are made tend to specify what hypotheses are in question within relatively fixed bounds. To ask what life means without a similarly specified context, leaves us at sea. Still, when people do ask about the meaning of life, they are evidently expressing some concern or other, and it would be disingenuous to insist that the rest of us havent the faintest idea what that is. The question at least gestures toward a certain set of concerns with which most of us are at least somewhat familiar. Rather than dismiss a question with which many people have been passionately occupied as pure and simple nonsense, it seems more appropriate to try to interpret it and reformulate it in a way that can be more clearly and unambiguously understood. Though there may well be many things going on when people ask, What is the meaning of life?, the most central among them seems to be a search to find a purpose or a point to human existence. It is a request to find out why we are here (that is, why we exist at all), with the hope that an answer to this question will also tell us something about what we should be doing with our lives. If understanding the question in this way, however, makes the question intelligible, it might not give reason to reopen it as a live philosophical problem. Indeed, if some of professional philosophys discomfort with discussion of the meaning of life comes from a desire to banish ambiguity and obscurity from the field, as much comes, I think, from the thought that the question, when made clearer, has already been answered, and that the answer is depressing. Specifically, if the question of the Meaning of Life is to be identified with the question of the purpose of life, then the standard view, at least among professional philosophers, would seem to be that it all depends on the existence of God. In other words, the going opinion seems to be that if there is a God, then there is at least a chance that there is a purpose, and so


a meaning to life. God may have created us for a reason, with a plan in mind. But to go any further along this branch of thinking is not in the purview of secular philosophers.1 If, on the other hand, there is no God, then there can be no meaning, in the sense of a point or a purpose to our existence. We are simply a product of physical processes there are no reasons for our existence, just causes. At the same time that talk of Life having a Meaning is banished from philosophy, however, the talk of lives being more or less meaningful seems to be on the rise. Newspapers, magazines, self-help manuals are filled with essays on how to find meaning in your life; sermons and therapies are built on the truism that happiness is not just a matter of material comfort, or sensual pleasure, but also of a deeper kind of fulfillment. Though philosophers to date have had relatively little to say about what gives meaning to individual lives, passing references can be found throughout the literature; it is generally acknowledged as an intelligible and appropriate thing to want in ones life. Indeed, it would be crass to think otherwise. But how can individual lives have meaning if life as a whole has none? Are those of us who suspect there is no meaning to life deluding ourselves in continuing to talk about the possibility of finding meaning in life? (Are we being short-sighted, failing to see the implications of one part of our thought on another?) Alternatively, are these expressions mere homonyms, with no conceptual or logical connections between them? Are there simply two wholly unconnected topics here? Many of you will be relieved to hear that I do not wish to revive the question of whether there is a meaning to life. I am inclined to accept the standard view that there is no plausible interpretation of that question that offers a positive answer in the absence of a fairly specific religious metaphysics. An understanding of meaningfulness in life, however, does seem to me to merit more philosophical attention than it has so far received, and I will have some things to say about it here. Here, too, I am inclined to accept the standard view or a part of the standard view viz., that meaningfulness is an intelligible feature to be sought in a life, and that it is, at least sometimes attainable but not everywhere assured. But what that feature is what we are looking for is controversial and unclear, and so the task of analyzing or interpreting that feature will take up a large portion of my remarks today. With an analysis proposed, I shall return to the question of how a positive view about the possibility of meaning in lives can fit with a negative or agnostic view about the meaning of life. The topics are not, I think, as unconnected as might at first seem necessary for their respectively optimistic and pessimistic answers to coexist. Though my discussion will offer nothing new in the way of an answer to the question of the meaning of life, therefore, it may offer a somewhat different perspective on that questions significance.

1 Thomas Nagel has what might be thought to be an even more pessimistic view viz, that even if

there is a God, there is no reason Gods purpose should be our purpose, no reason, therefore, to think that Gods existence could give meaning, in the right sense, to our lives.


Let us begin, however, with the other question, that of understanding what it is to seek meaning in life. What do we want when we want a meaningful life? What is it that makes some lives meaningful, others less so? If we focus on the agents, or the subjects, perspective on a person wanting meaning in her life, her feeling the need for more meaning – we might incline toward a subjective interpretation of the feature being sought. When a person self- consciously looks for something to give her life meaning, it signals a kind of unhappiness. One imagines, for example, the alienated housewife, whose life seems to her to be a series of endless chores. What she wants, it might appear, is something that she can find more subjectively rewarding. This impression is reinforced if we consider references to meaningful experiences. (The phrase might be applied, for example, to a certain kind of wedding or funeral.) The most salient feature of an event that is described is meaningful seems to be its meaning a lot to the participants. To say that a ceremony, or, for that matter, a job, is meaningful seems at the very least to include the idea that it is emotionally satisfying. An absence of meaning is usually marked by a feeling of emptiness and dissatisfaction; in contrast, a meaningful life, or meaningful part of life, is necessarily at least somewhat rewarding or fulfilling. It is noteworthy, however, that meaningful experiences are not necessarily particularly happy. A trip to ones birthplace may well be meaningful; a visit to an amusement park is unlikely to be so. If we step back, however, and ask ourselves, as observers, what lives strike us as especially meaningful, if we ask what sorts of lives exemplify meaningfulness, subjective criteria do not seem to be in the forefront. Who comes to mind? Perhaps, Ghandi, or Albert Schweitzer, or Mother Theresa; perhaps Einstein or Jonas Salk. Cezanne, or Manet, Beethoven, Charlie Parker. Tolstoy is an interesting case to which I shall return. Alternatively, we can look to our neighbors, our colleagues, our relatives – some of whom, it seems to me, live more meaningful lives than others. Some, indeed, of my acquaintance seem to me to live lives that are paradigms of meaning right up there with the famous names on the earlier lists; while others (perhaps despite their modicum of fame) would score quite low on the meaningfulness scale. If those in the latter category feel a lack of meaning in their lives well, they are right to feel it, and it is a step in the right direction that they notice that there is something about their lives that they should try to change. What is it to live a meaningful life, then? What does meaningfulness in life amount to? It may be easier to make progress by focusing on what we want to avoid. In that spirit, let me offer some paradigms, not of meaningful, but of meaningless lives. For me, the idea of a meaningless life is most clearly and effectively embodied in the image of a person who spends day after day, or night after night, in front of a television set, drinking beer and watching situation comedies. Not that I have anything against television or beer. Still the image, understood as an image of a


person whose life is lived in hazy passivity, a life lived at a not unpleasant level of consciousness, but unconnected to anyone or anything, going nowhere, achieving nothing – is, I submit, as strong an image of a meaningless life as there can be. Call this case The Blob. If any life, any human life, is meaningless, the Blob’s life is. But this doesn’t mean that any meaningless life must be, in all important respects, like the Blob’s. There are other paradigms that highlight by their absences other elements of meaningfulness. In contrast to the Blob’s passivity, for example, we may imagine a life full of activity, but silly or decadent or useless activity. (And again, I have nothing against silly activity, but only against a life that is wholly occupied with it.) We may imagine, for example, one of the idle rich who flits about, fighting off boredom, moving from one amusement to another. She shops, she travels, she eats at expensive restaurants, she works out with her personal trainer. Curiously, one might also take a very un-idle rich person to epitomize a meaningless life in a slightly different way. Consider, for example, the corporate executive who works twelve-hour, seven-day weeks, suffering great stress, for the sole purpose of the accumulation of personal wealth. Related to this perhaps is David Wiggins’ example of the pig farmer who buys more land to grow more corn to feed more pigs to buy more land to grow more corn to feed more pigs.2 These last three cases of the idle rich, the corporate executive and the pig farmer are in some ways very different, but they all share at least this feature: they can all be characterized as lives whose dominant activities seem pointless, useless, or empty. Classify these cases under the heading Useless. A somewhat different and I think more controversial sort of case to consider involves someone who is engaged, even dedicated, to a project that is ultimately revealed as bankrupt, not because the person’s values are shallow or misguided, but because the project fails. The person may go literally bankrupt: for example, a man may devote his life to creating and building up a company to hand over to his children, but the item his company manufactures is rendered obsolete by technology shortly before his planned retirement. Or consider a scientist whose life’s work is rendered useless by the announcement of a medical breakthrough just weeks before his own research would have yielded the same results. Perhaps more poignantly, imagine a woman whose life is centered around a relationship that turns out to be a fraud. Cases that fit this mold we may categorize under the heading Bankrupt. The classification of this third sort of case as an exemplification of meaninglessness may meet more resistance than the classification of the earlier two. Perhaps these

2 David Wiggins, Truth, Invention, and the Meaning of Life, in Proceedings of the British

Academy, LXII, 1976.


lives should not be considered meaningless after all. Nonetheless, these are cases in which it is not surprising that an argument of some sort is needed – it is not unnatural or silly that the subjects of these lives should entertain the thought that their lives have been meaningless. Even if they are wrong, the fact that their thoughts are not, so to speak, out of order, is a useful datum. So, of course, would be the sort of thing one would say to convince them, or ourselves, that these thoughts are ultimately mistaken. If the cases I have sketched capture our images of meaninglessness more or less accurately, they provide clues to what a positive case of a meaningful life must contain. In contrast to the Blob’s passivity, a person who lives a meaningful life must be actively engaged. But, as the Useless cases teach us, it will not do to be engaged in just anything, for any reason or with any goal – one must be engaged in a project or projects that have some positive value, and in some way that is nonaccidentally related to what gives them value. Finally, in order to avoid Bankruptcy, it seems necessary that one’s activities be at least to some degree successful (though it may not be easy to determine what counts as the right kind or degree of success). Putting these criteria together, we get a proposal for what it is to live a meaningful life: viz., a meaningful life is one that is actively and at least somewhat successfully engaged in a project (or projects) of positive value. Several remarks are needed to qualify and refine this proposal. First, the use of the word “project” is not ideal: it is too suggestive of a finite, determinate task, something one takes on, and, if all goes well, completes. Among the things that come to mind as projects are certain kinds of hobbies or careers, or rather, specific tasks that fall within the sphere of such hobbies or careers: things that can be seen as Accomplishments, like the producing of a proof or a poem or a pudding, the organizing of a union or a high school band. Although such activities are among the things that seem intuitively to contribute to the meaningfulness of people’s lives, there are other forms of meaningfulness that are less directed, and less oriented to demonstrable achievement, and we should not let the use of the word “project” distort or deny the potential of these things to give meaningfulness to life. Relationships, in particular, seem at best awkwardly described as projects. Rarely does one deliberately take them on and, in some cases, one doesn’t even have to work at them – one may just have them and live, as it were, within them. Moreover, many of the activities that are naturally described as projects – coaching a school soccer team, planning a surprise party, reviewing an article for a journal – have the meaning they do for us only because of their place in the nonprojectlike relationships in which we are enmeshed and with which we identify. In proposing that a meaningful life is a life actively engaged in projects, then, I mean to use “projects” in an unusually broad sense, to encompass not only goal-directed tasks but other sorts of ongoing activities and involvements as well. Second, the suggestion that a meaningful life should be actively engaged in projects should be understood in a way that recognizes and embraces the connotations of engagement. Although the idea that a meaningful life requires


activity was introduced by contrast to the life of the ultra-passive Blob, we should note that meaning involves more than mere, literal activity. The alienated housewife, presumably, is active all the time she buys groceries and fixes meals, cleans the house, does the laundry, chauffeurs the children from school to soccer to ballet, arranges doctors appointment and babysitters. What makes her life insufficiently meaningful is that her heart, so to speak, isnt in these activities. She does not identify with what she is doing she does not embrace her roles as wife, mother, and homemaker as expressive of who she is and wants to be. We may capture her alienated condition by saying that though she is active, she is not actively engaged. (She is, one might say, just going through the motions.) In characterizing a meaningful life, then, it is worth stressing that living such a life is not just a matter of having projects (broadly construed) and actively and somewhat successfully getting through them. The projects must engage the person whose life it is. Ideally, she would proudly and happily embrace them, as constituting at least part of what her life is about.3 Finally, we must say more about the proposals most blatantly problematic condition viz, that the projects engagement with which can contribute to a meaningful life must be projects of positive value. The claim is that meaningful lives must be engaged in projects of positive value – but who is to decide which projects have positive value, or even to guarantee that there is such a thing? I would urge that we leave the phrase as unspecific as possible in all but one respect. We do not want to build a theory of positive value into our conception of meaningfulness. As a proposal that aims to capture what most people mean by a meaningful life, what we want is a concept that “tracks” whatever we think of as having positive value. This allows us to explain at least some divergent intuitions about meaningfulness in terms of divergent intuitions or beliefs about what has positive value, with the implication that if one is wrong about what has positive value, one will also be wrong about what contributes to a meaningful life. (Thus, a person who finds little to admire in sports – who finds ridiculous, for example, the sight of grown men trying to knock a little ball into a hole with a club, will find relatively little potential for meaning in the life of an avid golfer; a person who places little stock in esoteric intellectual pursuits will be puzzled by someone who strains to write, much less read, a lot of books on supervenience.) The exception I would make to this otherwise maximally tolerant interpretation of the idea of positive value is that we exclude merely subjective value as a suitable interpretation of the phrase.

3 It seems to me there is a further condition or qualification on what constitutes a meaningful life, though it

does not fit gracefully into the definition I have proposed, and is somewhat peripheral to the focus of this

essay: namely, that the projects that contribute to a meaningful life must be of significant duration, and

contribute to the unity of the life or of a significant stage of it. A person who is always engaged in some

valuable project or other, but whose projects dont express any underlying core of interest and value is not, at

least, a paradigm of someone whose life is meaningful. Here perhaps there is something illuminating in making

analogies to other uses of meaning, for what is at issue here has to do with there being a basis for making

sense of the life, of being able to see it as a narrative.


It will not do to allow that a meaningful life is a life involved in projects that seem to have positive value from the perspective of the one who lives it. Allowing this would have the effect of erasing the distinctiveness of our interest in meaningfulness; it would blur or remove the difference between an interest in living a meaningful life and an interest in living a life that feels or seems meaningful. That these interests are distinct, and that the former is not merely instrumental to the latter can be seen by reflecting on a certain way the wish or the need for meaning in ones life may make itself felt. What I have in mind is the possibility of a kind of epiphany, in which one wakes up literally or figuratively to the recognition that ones life to date has been meaningless. Such an experience would be nearly unintelligible if a lack of meaning were to be understood as a lack of a certain kind of subjective impression. One can hardly understand the idea of waking up to the thought that one’s life to date has seemed meaningless. To the contrary, it may be precisely because one did not realize the emptiness of one’s projects or the shallowness of one’s values until that moment that the experience I am imagining has the poignancy it does. It is the sort of experience that one might describe in terms of scales falling from one’s eyes. And the yearning for meaningfulness, the impulse to do something about it will not be satisfied (though it may be eliminated) by putting the scales back on, so to speak. If one suspects that the life one has been living is meaningless, one will not bring meaning to it by getting therapy or taking a pill that, without changing one’s life in any other way, makes one believe that one’s life has meaning. To care that one’s life is meaningful, then, is, according to my proposal, to care that one’s life is actively and at least somewhat successfully engaged in projects (understanding this term broadly) that not just seem to have positive value, but that really do have it. To care that ones life be meaningful, in other words, is in part to care that what one does with ones life is, to pardon the expression, at least somewhat objectively good. We should be careful, however, not to equate objective goodness with moral goodness, at least not if we understand moral value as essentially involving benefiting or honoring humanity. The concern for meaning in ones life does not seem to be the same as the concern for moral worth, nor do our judgments about what sorts of lives are meaningful seem to track judgments of moral character or accomplishment. To be sure, some of the paradigms of meaningful lives are lives of great moral virtue or accomplishment I mentioned Ghandi and Mother Theresa, for example. Others, however, are not. Consider Gauguin, Wittgenstein, Tchaikovsky morally unsavory figures all, whose lives nonetheless seem chock full of meaning. If one thinks that even they deserve moral credit, for their achievements made the world a better place, consider instead Olympic athletes and world chess champions, whose accomplishments leave nothing behind but their world records. Even more important, consider the artists, scholars, musicians, athletes of our more ordinary sort. For us too, the activities of artistic creation and research, the development of our skills and our understanding of the world give meaning to our lives but they do not give moral value to them.


It seems then that meaning in life may not be especially moral, and that indeed lives can be richly meaningful even if they are, on the whole, judged to be immoral. Conversely, that ones life is at least moderately moral, that it is lived, as it were, above reproach, is no assurance of its being moderately meaningful. The alienated housewife, for example, may be in no way subject to moral criticism. (and it is debatable whether even the Blob deserves specifically moral censure.) That people do want meaning in their lives, I take it, is an observable, empirical fact. We have already noted the evidence of self-help manuals, and therapy groups. What I have offered so far is an analysis of what that desire or concern amounts to. I want now to turn to the question of whether the desire is one that it is good that people have, whether, that is, there is some positive reason why they should want this. At a minimum, we may acknowledge that it is at least not bad to want meaning in ones life. There is, after all, no harm in it. Since people do want this, and sin

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