Chipping away at the Philosopher’s Stone

Okay, so I must admit that I almost always really get ticked the fuck off when I read the most recent attempt at the New York Times to include the field of philosophy into modern discourse in the form of their columns called The Stone.

Seriously, the shit that has been on there has been so poorly argued and almost blindly presented without any attention to context or audience or even basic understandings of science, technology, or pluralistic viewpoints, that it drives me to madness at times.

One recent column there was about The Meaningfulness of Lives by Todd May.

I found it atrocious.

I found it so bad that I was incited–nay, compelled–to write a commentary to it.

That commentary is below. ( Original in italics.)
Who among us has not asked whether his or her life is a meaningful one?  Who has not wondered — on a sleepless night, during a long stretch of dull or taxing work, or when a troubled child seems a greater burden than one can bear — whether in the end it all adds up to anything?

I haven’t.  It never crossed my mind to ask myself whether my life was meaningful.  What crossed my mind was, “How can a person lead a meaningful life.?”  Then I figured out the answer to that question for myself, and I did it.

 On this day, too, when many are steeped in painful reminders of personal loss, it is natural to wonder about the answers. (It was 9/11/11.)

Seriously?  But how could such loss not be an integral part about what makes a life meaningful? For example–without pain, we could never understand beauty?  Shouldn’t a day of paiinful reminders be exactly the kind of thing that puts the meaning of life right into perspective more easily?

There is something here that I’m missing.

The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre thought that, without God, our lives are bereft of meaning. 

Jean-Paul Sartre thought and wrote a lot of stupid things.  This can easily be filed under that category.

He tells us in his essay “Existentialism,” “if God does not exist, we find no values or commands to turn to which legitimize our conduct.

Well–that’s just one of the stupidest–no.. let me reframe that–that’s just one of the LAZIEST and stupidest things I’ve heard.  I can find tons of values and commands to legitimize my conduct with.  What does a cheap knock off of the Flying Spaghetti Monster have to do with the legitimization of my conduct????  This is worse than the rhetorical fallacy of “Tertium non datur” and is basically a kind of “Secundum non datur,” which is just bullshit.

  So, in the bright realm of values, we have no excuse behind us, nor justification before us.”  On this view, God gives our lives the values upon which meaning rests. And if  God does not exist, as Sartre claims, our lives can have only the meaning we confer upon them.

WELL DUH.  That is the only way that we can have meaning in our lives.  WE FUCKING ASSIGN THEM MEANING.  This meaning is obviously subjective in essence, and that is one of the only things that we can be sure of–that this subjective meaning exists–and it exists because we say it exists.  And, of course, it only exists within our own minds.

Now… there are ways to build up greater structures of meaning that take on a resemblance of an “objectively-grounded/based notion of meaning”–but that is all predicated on the fact that we are unusually social water monkeys–and that we choose/agree to abide by–more or less–certain category structures that have relatively similar overlappings of meanings.  Anyone who studies linguistics and how words and meaning are related can tell you about this… A good book that I would recommend is George Lakoff’s “Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things.”

This seems wrong on two counts. First, why would the existence of God guarantee the meaningfulness of each of our lives? 

Um.. it doesn’t guarantee meaningfulness at all, obviously.

 Is a life of unremitting drudgery or unrequited struggle really redeemed if there’s a larger plan, one to which we have no access, into which it fits? 

Um.. I see where you think this might be persuasive–because you think that a life of unrequited struggle wouldn’t be meaningful–but THAT’S NOT A GIVEN.  Some people may find a life of constant struggle to be quite meaningful.  Just because YOU do not find it meaningful–or even that a majority may not find it meaningful–does not automatically strip it of meaning.

Obviously, something that is becoming clear already is that this philosopher hasn’t even begun to parse out the importance and differences between internal/subjective foundations of meaning and external/objective categories of meaning.  Without doing this, there’s going to be a lot of stupid shit written that is confusing and spottily justified because it elides over important distinctions in perception and perspective.

That would be small compensation for a life that would otherwise feel like a waste — a point not lost on thinkers like Karl Marx, who called religion the “opium of the people.” 

Um.. yeah–I disagree about the “waste” part because of the aforementioned reasons–but the point of Karl Marx seems more likely to be that religion is selling people FALSE structures of meaning that lead to lives that are more filled with suffering and pain than they need to be.

That’s a different thing than saying the lives are without meaning.  A childbirth is painful as fuck–but it is also one of the most meaningful things that humans can experience.

Moreover, does God actually ground the values by which we live?  Do we not, as Plato recognized 2500 years ago, already have to think of those values as good in order to ascribe them to God?

Yes.   As an atheist–this is totally obvious–and it doesn’t require calling upon Plato.  Name Dropper.

Second, and more pointedly, must the meaningfulness of our lives depend on the existence of God?  Must meaning rely upon articles of faith? Basing life’s meaningfulness on the existence of a deity not only leaves all atheists out of the picture; it leaves different believers out of one another’s picture.   What seems called for is an approach to thinking about meaning that can draw us together, one that exists alongside or instead of religious views.

Um–you almost had me there until the end.  An approach to meaning doesn’t have to “draw us together”–it just has to provide a way for each of us to find meaning.  This sense of “we must be drawn together” sounds SUPER extraverted–i.e.–it sounds like it comes from a perspective that requires there to be a communal standard that many people abide by and agree to for it to have validity.  While it may be the case that some people think such a standard is important for how they see the world–I know a lot of people (who tend to be extraverts) who think this way–I also know tons of people (most introverts that I know) who this would seem totally foreign to.

Meaning doesn’t have to be religious–but it doesn’t have to be communally organized either.  It can be–but it needn’t be.

A promising and more inclusive approach  is offered by Susan Wolf in her recent and compelling book, “Meaning in Life and Why It Matters.”   A meaningful life, she claims, is distinct from a happy life or a morally good one.

Please tell me what you define “happiness” as here.  My defintion of happiness tends to coincide with that of described by Aristotle (HA! There–I can name drop also!) in the Nichomachean Ethics as eudaimonia–the attempt to strive towards and work for your goals.  This work towards accomplishing your goals is where you find happiness–and for me, that is also exactly where most people are going to find meaning–in the process of deciding what one’s goals are–and then working towards them–you engage in meaningful activity–and also therefore create a meaningful life–with the evidence being all around you in the form of the time and effort and effects of this work.

Thus.. I’m skeptical that it is distinct from a “happy life” in this way..

In her view, “meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness.” A meaningful life must, in some sense then, feel worthwhile. 

Woah.  How does this meeting of subjective and objective attractiveness/attraction shit make something worthwhile…

Cart before the horse..

The person living the life must be engaged by it.  A life of commitment to causes that are generally defined as worthy — like feeding and clothing the poor or ministering to the ill — but that do not move the person participating in them will lack meaningfulness in this sense. However, for a life to be meaningful, it must also be worthwhile. Engagement in a life of tiddlywinks does not rise to the level of a meaningful life, no matter how gripped one might be by the game.


Here’s where the extraverted/introverted distinction comes crashing in again.  I see no reason why or how a life engaged in “tiddlywinks” is not meaningful.  It may not appear meaningful TO EVERYONE–but then again, I sincerely doubt that you will find an activity that humans can do that EVERYONE also agrees is meaningful.  Thus, unless you are going to arbitrarily set some societal limit/threshold whereby all things are now ordained “meaningful” because 65% of the populatce agrees that it is meaningful–this kind of extraverted criterion seems rather forced.

In addition, as a historian could note–and since I am one, I WILL–such thresholds for societal “meaningfulness” are going to change over time and from culture to culture.  Thus, you are really not doing anything here that is more than just trying to highlight the equivalent to the importance of the latest taste in pop music and that will obviously soon change.

It is arbitrary.

Much better is to leave it at the first part–that people each decide what is subjectively meaningful to them and that is the root core of where meaning comes from–because that always has to be true for their to be meaning–and that larger social understandings of meaning are going to be temporary constructs that are contextual and continuously changing.

Often one defends an idea by giving reasons for it.  However, sometimes the best defense is not to give reasons at the outset but instead to pursue the idea in order to see where it leads.  Does it capture something important if we utilize it to understand ourselves? It’s this latter tack that I would like to try here.  The pursuit of this core idea — that a meaningful life is both valued and valuable — allows us to understand several important aspects of our attitudes toward ourselves and others.

Um.. this seems a bit weird.  Basically–“I cannot actually explain this now analytically–so I’ll just try to wing it through a selection of cherry-picked examples and try to make you believe that this is valid as a general rule.”

Let it be noted that I call BULLSHIT for a second time. Unless you provide a solid inductive proof or give good reasoning why these particular examples are a good basis to generalize from–this kind of rhetorical and argumentative strategy is quite fraught with weaknesses..

In this pursuit, the first step we might take beyond what Wolf tells us is to recognize that lives unfold over time.  A life is not an unrelated series of actions or projects or states of being.  A life has, we might say, a trajectory. It is lived in a temporal thickness.  Even if my life’s trajectory seems disjointed or to lack continuity, it is my life that is disconnected in its unfolding, not elements of several different lives.

Yes.. okay.. that is all true.

If a life has a trajectory, then it can be conceived narratively.  A human life can be seen as a story, or as a series of stories that are more or less related.  This does not mean that the person whose life it is must conceive it or live it narratively.  I needn’t say to myself, “Here’s the story I want construct,” or, “This is the story so far.” What it means rather is that, if one reflected on one’s life, one could reasonably see it in terms of various story lines, whether parallel or intersecting or distinct.  This idea can be traced back to Aristotle’s “Ethics,” but has made a reappearance with some recent narrative conceptions of what a self is.

Yes. We all live stories.  This is obviously true and I’ve noted it other places.  It is a function of how our brains work and our sense of time and the glommy coherence that comes out of having a relatively congealed identity.  So far–this doesn’t have anything to say about Wolf’s particular notion of subjective attraction and objective attractiveness..

What makes a trajectory a meaningful one?  If Wolf is right, it has to feel worthwhile and, beyond that, has to be engaged in projects that are objectively worthwhile. 

Yes–if she is right–you have to prove this statement. You haven’t done anything yet to do so.

There is not much difficulty in knowing what feels worthwhile.  Most of us are good at sensing when we’re onto something and when we’re not.  Objective worthiness is more elusive.  We don’t want to reduce it simply to a morally good life, as though a meaningful life were simply an unalienated moral life. Meaningful lives are not so limited and, as we shall see, are sometimes more vexed.  So we must ask what lends objective worthiness to a life outside the moral realm.  Here is where the narrative character of a life comes into play.

Um.. you haven’t proven why this is necessary yet.  You have said that Wolf says this is true–and now you are trying to explain how to do it–but you haven’t given any reason yet as to why we should believe that this is necessary or true.

You had better put up or shut up soon.. I have a lot of patience.. but this is getting thin..

There are values we associate with a good narrative and its characters that are distinct from those we associate with good morals.  A fictional character can be intense, adventurous, steadfast or subtle.  Think here of the adventurousness of Ishmael in “Moby-Dick,” the quiet intensity of Kip in “The English Patient,” the steadfastness of Dilsey in “The Sound and the Fury” or the subtlety of Marco Polo in “Invisible Cities.”  As with these fictional characters, so with our lives.   When a life embodies one or more of these values (or others), and feels engaging to the one who lives it, it is to that extent meaningful. 

Um.. you are saying that if we lead lives that we think are similar to the lives in stories that we like–then we have some objective standards of value?


You have a chicken/egg problem here–and as biology has shown–the chicken actually comes first–and I’m willing to bet that our lived experience–granted that it takes place around other social water monkeys–is what gives us our sense of values before we decide to read books about people doing stuff that we then have to judge..

 There are narrative values expressed by human lives that are not reducible to moral values.  Nor are they reducible to happiness; they are not simply matters of subjective feeling.  Narrative values are not felt, they are lived.  And they constitute their own arena of value, one that has not been generally recognized by philosophers who reflect on life’s meaningfulness.



2. Who cares whether these “narrative values” are reducible to “moral values.”  Only really trite people think that this should be or is true.

An intense life, for instance, can be lived with abandon.  One might move from engagement to engagement, or stick with a single engagement, but always (well, often) by diving into it, holding nothing back.  One throws oneself into swimming or poetry or community organizing or fundraising, or perhaps all of them at one time or another.  Such a life is likely a meaningful one.  And this is true even where it might not be an entirely moral one.

We know of people like this, people whose intensity leads them to behavior that we might call morally compromised.  Intense lovers can leave bodies in their wake when the embers of love begin to cool. Intense athletes may not be the best of teammates.  Our attitudes toward people like this are conflicted.  There is a sense in which we might admire them and another sense in which we don’t.  This is because meaningful lives don’t always coincide with good ones.  Meaningful lives can be morally compromised, just as morally good lives can feel meaningless to those who live them.

Um.. who ever thought that a meaningful life only meant a good one.  Wasn’t it you who said a life of constant struggle wouldn’t be meaningful–but now you are saying AN INTENSE LIFE OF STRUGGLE is???

Still–where is the objective attractiveness in all this.  That point is still entirely unsupported.  So far, you may be trying to convey that one of the criterion that seems to coincide with these communal ideas of “objectively meaningful” is a life where SHIT ACTUALLY HAPPENS–but that seems to be a bit obvious. But–the question of WHAT KIND OF HAPPENING SHIT IS FOUND MEANINGFUL–that is still totally undefined–or rather–any kind of objective standards in this sense are unfounded and unproven in your argument.

Also, it’s not clear that “admiration” really has anything to do with “meaningful”–Why do we have to “like” something in order to find meaning in it?  I clean the house and find that meaningful in a larger sense–but I don’t like it.  Now perhaps this is the point that you are trying to get across–but that still doesn’t have anything to do with external objective standards–only with my own personal choice to see my actions as in accordance with trying to lead a “good life” as I define it.

We should not take this to imply that there is no relationship between meaningfulness and morality.  They meet at certain moral limits.  An evil life, no matter how intense or steadfast, is not one we would want to call meaningful.  But within the parameters of those moral limits, the relationship between a meaningful life and a moral one is complicated.  They do not map directly onto each other.

Um–the person leading that evil life might find it meaningful.  Lots of lives are called “evil” by a lot of society–say like a prostitute’s life–but the prostitute may or may not find it meaningful.

I call BULLSHIT a third time here.

Why might all this matter?  What is the point of understanding what makes lives meaningful?  Why not just live them?  On one level, the answer is obvious.  If we want to live meaningful lives, we might want to know something about what makes a life so.  Otherwise, we’re just taking stabs in the dark.  And in any event, for most of us it’s just part of who we are.  It’s one of the causes of our lying awake at night.

I totally agree with you here that it is good to try and understand what makes a life meaningful. And I also totally think that you have not made any kind of solid argument as to how to do this or provided any real guidance on how to accomplish this.


There is another reason as well.  This one is more bound to the time in which we live.  In an earlier column for The Stone, I wrote that we are currently encouraged to think of ourselves either as consumers or as entrepreneurs.  We are told to be shoppers for goods or investors for return.  Neither of these types of lives, if they are the dominant character of those lives, strike me as particularly meaningful. 

They don’t STRIKE YOU as meaningful–but they might strike others.  What makes you the sole judge–or a better judge.

Also–I think I remember reading that and being ROYALLY pissed off at your glib assumptions then too.

This is because their narrative themes — buying, investing — are rarely the stuff of which a compelling life narrative is made.  (I say “rarely” because there may be, for example, cases of intensely lived but morally compromised lives of investment that do not cross any moral limit to meaningfulness.) They usually lack what Wolf calls “objective attractiveness.”  To be sure, we must buy things, and may even enjoy shopping.  And we should not be entirely unconcerned with where we place our limited energies or monies.  But are these the themes of a meaningful life? 

To some people they might be…

I think we’ve really touched upon a clear bias here of yours.  You subscribe to an elitist view of the “good life” that is much like that espoused by the German Bildungsbuergertum int he late 19th century and early 20th century that discounted anything practical, money, or production oriented as being worthwhile.

Thus, I CALL BULLSHIT for a fourth time.  Your standards for “objective attractiveness” are founded not upon any particular objective truth, but merely on a relatively small group’s community standards for what they think is true.

This is a very particularist truth.  To get all Deutschy–it is a truth of the Gemeinschaft, but not of the Gesellschaft.

So FUCK OFF with that shit.

Are we likely to say of someone that he or she was a great networker or shopper, and so really knew how to live?

Great networkers–HELL FUCKING YES–have you seen the shit that they get done in this world?  While it may not be my cup of tea, they are some of the most objectively important people on the planet–and let me note this here–TONS OF PEOPLE THINK THEY ARE LEADING MEANINGFUL LIVES!  Just go look at the hero worship of such business people in American society.

If we take a vote on “objective attractiveness” with the whole populace–they will win–and your ideals will come in third or fourth.. is that how you want meaning to be defined???  Will that then make you feel compelled to change your ideas of what is meaningful?

I doubt it.

In what I have called an age of economics, it is even more urgent to ask the question of a meaningful life:  what it consists in, how we might live one.  Philosophy cannot prescribe the particular character of meaning that each of us should embrace.  It cannot tell each of us individually how we might trace the trajectory that is allotted to us.  But it can, and ought to, reflect upon the framework within which we consider these questions, and in doing so perhaps offer a lucidity we might otherwise lack.  This is as it should be.  Philosophy can assist us in understanding how we might think about our lives, while remaining modest enough to leave the living of them to us.

If this was about offering a “lucidity” to how to approach this goal, I would give this column an F-. It made things less clear and was full of assumptions and unstated biases that were just terrible.

And this is why this column on “modern philosophy” has regularly pissed me the fuck off.

The author will be speaking on the meaningfulness of lives at the New School for Social Research in New York City on Thursday, Sept. 15 at 6 p.m.

OMG. He gets to speak about this shit.


About Prof. Woland

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1 Response to Chipping away at the Philosopher’s Stone

  1. signature103 says:

    I see you were really ticked off about this meaningful guy.

    It takes all walk of life to make up us – our culture and society. I say good for him, to all expressions of individuality. But I don’t mean he is right or even has a meaningful viewpoint. I mean he has a right to it and the people who ask him to talk have a right to as well.

    Wouldn’t the world be a dull place if we were all of the same thinking with no variation. And if we all thought our own thoughts were the best, that everyone should think like myself, and one day everyone miraculously did became just like oneself how awful a place would that be. It would leave that person with no originality, no difference.

    He may be the thorn in your side but, ironically, he is also what makes your thoughts and point valid and meaningful.

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