Review : Meaning in Life and Why it Matters by Susan Wolf

Categories 3 Literature

Susan Wolf argues for a relational, objective definition of meaning in human life. Meaning is derived in relationship with others, and validated by others. Meaning arises `when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness, and one is able to do something about it or with it’ (p26). Love in relationships is core to her understanding of meaning (pp 4-7). It’s a pragmatic rather than a quintessential understanding of meaning.

Celebrating and exploring meaning in human life is very welcome, and Susan Wolf has pioneered this theme within philosophy. However, her claim that meaning has to be both relational and objective is limiting. We can and do derive meaning individually. Coming into land from a sea voyage, the sunlit landscape ahead has potential meaning. It might signify beauty, the safety of a haven, pastoral provenance, return, belonging, familiarity, in fact a whole host of meanings.

In their comments, Nomy Arpaly and Jonathan Haidt both challenge Wolf’s insistence on the objectivity of meaning. They are surely right? Wolf herself takes a very subjective approach to meaning when she rates Sudoku and goldfish care low in her subjective view of meaning, whereas as Arpaly points out, others may well find great meaning in these activities. Meaning is essentially personal and therefore subjective. Wolf admits that she has no account of the objective value she insists on (p45), and in responding to Arpaly and Haidt, confusingly says both that `almost anything people find valuable is valuable’ (p128) and then that `a person’s liking something or thinking it to be valuable doesn’t make it so’ (p131). She conflates value and meaning, worthy and meaningful.

Robert Adams helpfully suggests that intent, rationality, and coherence all contribute to an understanding of meaning. He also asks whether failure can be meaningful. Jonathan Haidt adds useful concepts of `vital engagement’ and `hive psychology’.

Meaning arises more simply when we find interpretation, significance, or even interest in anything. Everything is potentially interesting, even perpetually rolling stones uphill. Meaning is a minimalist prevenient metaphysic. It enriches our human experience.

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