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Meaning in Life and Why it Matters – Susan Wolf

Sun, Apr 7, 2013

Essentials, Reviews

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Rating: A Essential Reading

Life is meaningful, Susan Wolf postulates in her book Meaning in Life, when “subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness.”1  Subjective attraction is “care(ing) deeply about some thing or things”2 and objective attractiveness is the measure of the worth of the thing or things for which an individual cares deeply.

Susan Wolf arrives at this conclusion by combining two popular wisdoms.3 The first wisdom can be summarized as “find your passion,”4 or “Follow your Bliss,”5 which, generally consists of developing the sensitivity and experience to detect and know when something arouses passion in yourself and then having the conviction and courage to follow it. This wisdom can be then be labelled as the fulfillment view.

The second wisdom is “be(ing) part of something larger than oneself,”6 which, should be interpreted metaphorically as something beyond the limitations of your own immediate needs, wants and interests–in other words, finding something that derives its value from a source outside yourself.

Yet, Susan Wolf argues, neither of the two wisdoms is by itself sufficient for leading a meaningful life, for a life of passion could degenerate into hedonism if you dedicate your life to how you feel, while working towards something larger than yourself can become drudgery if you cannot feel any passion or connection to it. Thus the two wisdoms work only in combination.

Meaningfulness the is a third category of motivation standing apart from the traditional perspectives of human behavior ruled by self interest or morality, for many of the things people do, which often are motivated by love, cannot be satisfactorily explained as either self interest or moral action.

So how do Wolf’s theories fit in with the theories of meaning I have laid out in my previous articles? Do the two theories combined help us reach a fuller understanding of personal meaning? Do the theories fill gaps in one another?

Susan Wolf’s focus on defining what meaningfulness is to living your life shows that my theories can be split into two parts: one part matches Wolf’s concept of meaningfulness, while the other goes into how a navigational map is built from a structure of meanings. In the first part I define meaningfulness as something that enhances consciousness or mediates physical existence and we will examine below how these two parts relate to Wolf’s theories. The second part of my theories relate to towers of meaning, which are subconscious and conscious associations we make between things, associations that build on top of one another in tower like structures that culminate at their pinnacle in values that act as beacons by which we navigate our life.  This second part relates to more practical aspects of how we can find meaning and meaningfulness in our life.

My theory that meaningfulness is that which leads to higher consciousness serves to explain several points in Wolf’s theories. The subjective attraction that Wolf talks about and which is summed up in popular wisdom as “follow your bliss,” or “find your passion,” can be seen as a deeply ingrained human instinct to strive for higher consciousness. In other words, the source of this instinct is actually the human trait for seeking to individuate or fulfill our lives, which in turn is the result of higher consciousness.

A note on higher consciousness is warranted here. By higher consciousness I mean a deeper level of understanding both yourself and the world around you, being able to see several layers into what motivates others, and consequently the ability to shape and influence things. A mind with higher consciousness is possessed of more complex and organized knowledge both tacit, as in practical not expressible, and explicit. This instinct towards higher organization and complexity is in line with the general trend of evolution towards higher and higher organization and complexity which can be observed in all apects of the universe.

Higher consciousness also explains the second wisdom which Wolf labels “objective attractiveness,” and which popular wisdom encapsulates as “being part of something larger than yourself.” We can see striving for being part of something larger is synonymous with higher consciousness, as it is higher consciousness that makes us part of something larger and it is higher consciousness that requires we expand our minds beyond the finite boundaries of self-interest. By defining objective worthiness as any pursuit that leads to higher consciousness, we lay a foundation for objectively judging and measuring such worthiness, and perhaps in the future, as higher consciousness is better understood psychological tests can be devised to measure it independent of any subjective judgements.

Mediating physical existence then can be classed as a by product of higher consciousness, for by developing more sophisticated understanding and ability to relate to the world, life becomes more worth living and this concept explains the “feelings of boredom and alienation,”7 that Susan Wolf refers to when we fail to find meaningfulness. Note again that higher consciousness is not just a piece of explicit knowledge that can be written down and studied in a book. It is being able to identify with, emphasize and understand fully. It has an element of wisdom or practical knowledge and requires direct experience.

The sections of my theories that deal with meaning itself and their towerlike construction falls outside of Wolf’s paper. These theories are in effect at a lower level trying to postulate how higher consciousness is built and are relevant because they point the way to the practical aspects of developing higher consciousness and meaningfulness. I will not say anymore about these theories in this paper.

In summary, Susan Wolf’s theories of meaningfulness are compatible with my theories and the two theories reinforce one another. Wolf’s theories create more structure by clearly defining the place of meaningfulness in relation to other sources of human motivation, and provide a primary rationale for arriving at such a theory by identifying the popular wisdoms that can form the basis of the theory (refer to note on Aristotles Endoxic method). My theories of higher consciousness and mediation of physical existence explain more fully what meaningfulness is and why these popular wisdoms make sense. Thus my theories provide the grounding for a scientific approach to meaningfulness and its measurement.

Why does this matter? In a world beset by conflict, struggle for survival, and increasing marginalisation of large segments of the working population through increasing automation, we need a more reliable method for individuals to rise to higher levels of capacity and achievement, to truly fulfil their potential and to contribute to solving the problems of life and happiness. Understanding how meaningfulness is truly the prime motivating force once we are past satisfying our basic needs, and understanding how meaningfulness can be achieved, provides the basis for a scientific approach for reaching our full potential.

Buy Meaning in Life and Why it Matters on Amazon.

1. Meaning in Life & Why it Matters, p. 29
2. Meaning in Life…, p. 29
3. This method of deriving philosophy traces back to Aristotle’s Endoxic method. Refer to Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for an article on the subject.
4. Meaning in Life…, p. 30
5. Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, pp. 120, 149
6. Meaning in Life…, p. 31
7. Meaning in Life…, p.34


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One Response to “Meaning in Life and Why it Matters – Susan Wolf”

  1. Drew Plant Says:

    Interesting, Please add me to your email list.


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