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One of the key claims that Susan Wolf makes in her paper “The Meanings of Lives” is that it is not the same to live a life that feels or seems to be meaningful, and to live a life that is actually meaningful. This means that whether a particular person’s life is meaningful or not does not depend on that person’s point of view about whether his life is or not meaningful; instead, it depends on whether it satisfies the criterion for life’s meaningfulness that Wolf’s paper is concerned with proposing.
In this essay, I will present the argument that Wolf’s gives to support this view, examine exactly how is it that the argument works, and whether or not it is successful in achieving its goal. I will conclude that it is partially successful, but is not enough for immunizing Wolf’s account from attacks based on any subjective view of the meaning of life. After analyzing a few examples of hypothetical lives which she deems to be obviously meaningful or obviously meaningless, Wolf uses inductive reasoning to arrive at a criterion that would in principle be able to distinguish between a meaningful life and a meaningless life.
According to Wolf, to live a meaningful life is “a matter of at least partly successful engagement in projects of positive value”. In other words, Wolf believes that for one’s life to be meaningful, it is necessary that one engages, with at least some success, in a project or projects that have a positive value.
What is important here is that Wolf thinks that we can talk about positive value in an objective sense. She recognizes that her account of what constitutes a meaningful life would not be very useful if the meaning of “positive value” were entirely subjective. It would imply that whether one’s life is meaningful or not would depend just on one’s own judgment about the value of the projects one engages in; if one judges these projects to have a positive value, then one’s life would be meaningful; on the other hand, if one believes that these projects do not have a positive value, then one’s life would be meaningless. This would render Wolf’s criterion useless, as the difference between a meaningful life and a meaningless life would consist just in a difference in opinion. Faced with this issue, Wolf gives an argument against this kind of subjectivism.
Imagine, she says, someone who wakes up in the morning with the sudden realization that his life has been utterly meaningless; and feels the sudden urge to do something about this, to change his life into a meaningful one. Such an experience, which is by all accounts plausible, demonstrates that it makes no sense to say that a person’s life is meaningful if and only if it seems or feels to be meaningful for that person, because this would result in a contradiction. If I believe at a certain point in time tị that my life is meaningful, according to the subjective view, then my life is, in fact, meaningful, because on this view there is no difference between thinking that one’s life is meaningful and it being actually meaningful. But then I cannot come to believe that another point in time tz that my life actually was not meaningful at tı, because at tų I thought that my life was meaningful, and according to th he subjectivist view this means that at tỉ my life actually was meaningful. In order to avoid this contradiction, one could deny that the situation that Wolf’s describes is really possible, that is, it makes no sense to talk about someone who realizes that his life has been meaningless, because under the subjectivist view this simply cannot happen. However, this kind of response seems to be totally at odds with what most people have in mind when talking about these matters, so it seems that the subjective view would require a substantial redefinition of what we normally mean when we talk about life’s meaning in order to make sense. The other choice left to us is to concede Wolf’s point and accept that this kind of subjective view is contradictory, and therefore should not be adopted.
I think that the latter alternative is the correct one. However, I do not think that that accepting this necessarily implies that one accepts Wolf’s objective account. I believe that Wolf’s argument rests on an unwarranted assumption about the subjective view. According to her, the subjective view is that a person’s life is absolutely meaningful at time tı if and only if that person feels its life is meaningful at tı. This version of the subjective view is vulnerable to her argument, as it involves a contradiction, as we saw earlier. However, this is not necessarily what the subjective view is. One can modify the previous definition of the view in order to go around Wolf’s argument. Instead of defining it as we did above, we can say that the subjective view is that a person’s life is meaningful at time ti depends on the moment the person decides to make a judgment about whether his life is meaningful or not. On this view, one can only talk about whether one’s life is meaningful or not relative to a specific moment. Thus, my opinion on whether my life has meaning can change from time to time, and the fact that I think that my life is meaningful now at tı gives my life now the property of being relatively meaningful, that is, my life at tį is meaningful relative to tı. But if at some future time tą I change my mind on what constitutes positive value, and I decide that my life was actually not meaningful at tı, then that only means that my life at ti is not meaningful relative to tz.
The important thing to have in mind here is that life can never be said to be meaningful in an absolute sense. The fact that I think now that my life is meaningful does not mean that my life is actually meaningful, because there is no such thing as life being meaningful in an absolute sense; the only conclusion that can be drawn in this case is that relative to the present time, my life is meaningful. With this distinction in mind, it is clear that Wolf’s argument is not entirely successful, and that a subjective attack against her criterion of meaningfulness can still be made simply by denying that the notion of “positive value” has an objective meaning at all. If my account of subjectivity in this case is valid, then, it is necessary that Wolf gives us some other reason to think that her objective view about the meaning of life is preferable to my subjective account.
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