Meaning in Life and Why It Matters

Meaning in Life and Why It Matters

Meaning in Life and Why It Matters

Meaning in Life and Why It Matters


Most people, including philosophers, tend to classify human motives as falling into one of two categories: the egoistic or the altruistic, the self-interested or the moral. According to Susan Wolf, however, much of what motivates us does not comfortably fit into this scheme. Often we act neither for our own sake nor out of duty or an impersonal concern for the world. Rather, we act out of love for objects that we rightly perceive as worthy of love--and it is these actions that give meaning to our lives. Wolf makes a compelling case that, along with happiness and morality, this kind of meaningfulness constitutes a distinctive dimension of a good life. Written in a lively and engaging style, and full of provocative examples, Meaning in Life and Why It Matters is a profound and original reflection on a subject of permanent human concern.


Stephen Macedo

SUSAN WOLF'S TOPIC in these essays—formerly lectures delivered at Princeton University in November 2007— is familiar and inescapable, and yet the topic has not received sustained philosophical attention. Her subject is not the question of the ultimate meaning of human life: whether humans are part of a larger narrative or higher purpose or plan of the sort associated with religious traditions. Nor does Wolf make it her project to fend off existential dread or the fear that, absent some larger narrative, human life must ultimately be meaningless, snuffed out by death and the eventual implosion of the universe. Nor, finally, do these lectures propound a particular recipe for constructing a meaningful life, though Wolf does help clarify what it means to do so and why it matters.

We all seek meaning in our lives and recognize meaning's absence in lives characterized by boredom, dullness, alienation, and listless disengagement. But what is meaning in life? Is it distinctive, or reducible to other aims and conceptions? Is it a helpful category for thinking about good lives that are worth living? Is it sensible and coherent to want it in one's life?

Wolf seeks to explicate, defend, and secure the category of meaningfulness as a distinctive dimension of good lives. She distinguishes it from two other categories; namely, happiness, often associated with rational egoism, and morality, often associated with an impartial concern with human wellbeing. Meaningfulness is neither of these, on Wolf's view . . .

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