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Meaning in Life and Why It Matters: (The University Center for Human Values Series) 13340th Edition

4.3 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0691145242
ISBN-10: 0691145245
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Editorial Reviews

Review

"Given the unfortunate (but arguably necessary) divorce of psychology from philosophy more than a century ago, books like Meaning in Life and Why It Matters, which allow for dialogue between these disciplines, are a much-needed and much-welcomed development. . . . Wolf's essay is a psychologically sophisticated philosophical argument on the structure, reality, and importance of meaningfulness in life. Its psychological sophistication lies not in her mastery of any particular empirical literature but rather in her attentiveness to normal, everyday intuitions and feelings."--Russell D. Kosits, PsycCRITIQUES

From the Back Cover


"Susan Wolf's picture of what makes life meaningful is at once powerful and down to earth, deeply argued but unpretentious. Part of Wolf's persuasive force comes from her stylish prose and cool treatment of profound concerns. This book is absorbing and a pleasure to read."--Kieran Setiya, University of Pittsburgh


"Susan Wolf is one of the clearest, most thoughtful, and most incisively elegant writers in contemporary ethics. She has an uncanny knack for putting her finger on important points and expressing them in ways that capture the imagination. In this book, she develops her ideas about meaningfulness in life with considerable subtlety, creating a work of genuine depth and importance."--John Martin Fischer, University of California, Riverside


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Product Details

  • Series: The University Center for Human Values Series
  • Hardcover: 168 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; 13340th edition (March 21, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691145245
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691145242
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.8 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,183,305 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Wolf's premise is that meaning in life comes from a combination of a passionate involvement in what you love subjectively, and an objective worthiness in what you're loving and chasing. It is an odd book from the standpoint that Wolf is a wonderful, funny, deep writer, yet she lets a few far less talented "contributors" support and criticize her position in about 30 pages of the 130 total in the book. That's philosophy for you, if you can't prove, try to convince. I'd rather have seen 30 more pages of HER wonderful analysis!

The book is an important contribution to the Psych/Philosophy interface, although Wolf is quick to point out that the book isn't intended to have practical value ("As will be seen, however, what I have to say will be of little or no practical use."- p. 3). Like most of this book, that's an overly humble understatement, the book has a LOT of practical value in thinking about why we're happy and fulfilled and why we're not. Perhaps, as an intelligent academic, she doesn't want to lower the objective value or her work to "self help", like the "silly book on sale at the cashier's desk at Barnes and Noble" (her quote) purporting to relate meaning in life to loving your passion, doing what you love and loving what you do. She is on thin ice as a philosopher daring to consider what a lot of common folk value, in her discussion of meaning. Even so, she trash talks smoking dope and Sudoku, so how far behind can chess be? Be worried, be very worried.

If you have a religious or spiritual view, you probably won't like this very much.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
The question of meaning in life has only been tackled by a select few philosophers in history, usually indirectly (such as asking what values are and how they ought to be structured). This is surprising. It is an interesting question and important. If there is no point in living life, no real meaning, why ought we keep living?

Wolf does a good job of explicating this problem and defends her conception with clarity and rigor in this work which happens to be some lectures she gave on the topic plus a critical response section by some colleagues and a section that is a rejoinder by Wolf to these criticisms. I think she is mostly right but there are some problems.

Wolf's thesis is that meaning in life come at the conjunction of "subjective attraction" meeting "objective attractiveness". That is, she thinks that there are two basic components of meaningful life activities. She calls her view the fitting fulfillment view. "Meaning" as used in this context means when one gets fulfillment (and she gives a list of all the specific subjective states this may mean) from doing or loving something that is worthy of love and attention. The worthy part is the objective aspect. Something has to be objectively worthy for the activity or thing to be a contributor of meaning to one's life. Here she is less clear on what indicates worthiness but Wolf offers interesting suggestions. She suggests that what accurately indicates worth is an activity that all of us discover through contributing our own perspectives in an continuous dialogue to see why it is objectively worthy. All sorts of activities may be deemed as such.
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Format: Paperback
This was a really interesting read with many interesting ideas, ultimately I ended up siding with Jonathan Haidt in questioning the possibility of objective value. Haidt prefers to think healthy social participation and vital engagement are the only requisites for meaning. Jonathan Haidt was one of 4 invited replies, and together with Susan Wolf's response I think they added a great deal. One brought up the issue of whether it was necessary to be successful in ones meaningful pursuit, or is it enough that your pursuit be the right "kind" of pursuit?

I do wish Wolf would have spent more time discussing the intersection of morality and meaning. Oddly enough, if I am following Haidt properly, his conception of meaning opens up the possibility of meaningful cannibals or meaningful head hunters. An odd thought at first, but when one stops to think about it, there can be no doubt that the warrior with the most shruken heads must have surely felt like his life was profoundly meaningful. I'm sure his entire tribe felt this way.

I'm even tempted to go further than Haidt and question whether the social/hive participation is necessary. Wolf uses the example of a fullfilled Sisyphus in the book, but what if Sisyphus was doing something more interesting than pushing a rock up hill? Imagine if the worlds most talented pianist only played in his basement and never let anyone else hear him. Would his life have meaning? This might sound absurd, but what if he suffered from autism? Surely almost everyone wants and needs social engagement, but what about the few people who genuinely may not? We might think their lives are meaningless but by definition they don't give a rats ass.
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