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Susan Wolf And Finding A Meaning In Life

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It is in our blood as humans to have the need for meaning in our life, but did we ever consider the questions; what is that meaning we constantly search in need, will we ever find it, and how? American philosopher Susan Wolf asks lots of questions but many of them concern what we should do with our lives also, and she is introducing us to how to live a moral life, in what way can we find meaning, and how to find our existence meaningful? “What, in a universe without purpose, can make an individual’s life worth living?” (Wolf, 2015, p 3.). To sum up she is making us ask the questions on what we should do, so we don’t waste our lives away. Her study is mainly focused on moral philosophy and philosophy of action, and she has taught at several American universities, lately at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Susan Wolf debate the difference between meaning in life and meaning of life. She discusses how people often came to think about the meaning of “my” (their) life, for example, what is the purpose of life and why are we put on this Earth for, and she states the opinion that this feels more like going in religious way ” But this is out of reach for philosophy since it requires the existence of a creator who created life (mankind) with a purpose in mind, a creator commonly known as God.” (Wolf, 2015, p 2). This is the part where we can see the difference that she is mentioning, it is different from what is the meaning of “my” life from is our life meaningful, is there something in our life that gives us a point, a meaning.

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She believes that theorists, philosophers and even us, sometimes tend to think of life in terms to the other categories, neither which meaning fits the best. Meaning has two kinds of characters in people’s eyes, it can be subjective, it changes from one individual to another, but it can also be objective, independent of people’s feelings and needs. Wolf advances these ideas further, saying that there is a false dichotomy between these subjective and objective views. She argues that “meaningfulness is an element or ingredient of a good or happy life”, and she is devoted to meaning being in somebody’s self-interest in the objective sense for the goodness of a meaningful life. Jean-Paul Sartre, a French existentialist philosopher, in his well-known public lecture “Existentialism Is a Humanism” he is introducing one of his first ideas of his existential philosophy and its relationship to the question of the meaning of life. He is stating that you must create your own meaning in life from your subjective choices, there is no objective value and that is just a human condition, and that contrasts on what Wolf says, that there are no categories of meaningfulness if there is none of the objective values. “Self-fulfilment” according to Wolf is “one most follow one’s passion”, which means that one person can find a meaning from something that gives them enjoyment. Leading us to active engagement, being excited by something, “…meaningful life is life of active engagement in project of worth.” (Wolf, 2010, p 232.)

Active engagement relays to being passionate rather than being alienated about something. “Projects of worth” suggests that objective value are present, and Wolf stands that meaning and objective value are connected. She also claims that “there can be no sense to the idea of meaningfulness without a distinction between more and less worthwhile ways to spend one’s time, where the test of worth is at least partly independent of a subject’s ungrounded preferences or enjoyment.” (Wolf, 2010, p 232.) This point lead Wolf to repeat that meaningful life is when a person is actively engaged in worthwhile projects. If a person is engaged in life, then life has a point. Searching for meaning is looking for worthwhile projects ““I suggest that my view might be seen as a combination… of two other more popular views that one often hears offered, if not as analyses of meaning in life, then at least as ingredients – sometimes the key ingredients - in a life well lived… The first view tells us that it doesn’t matter what you do with your life as long as it is something you love… The second view says that in order to live a truly satisfying life one needs to get involved in something ´larger than oneself” (Wolf, 2010, p 10). This view shows us why some projects are assumed to be meaningful and others are not.

Wolf suggests us that when we find that passions that fulfills us and gives our life meaning, we should stop, and think is there anything worthwhile about spending your life on this activity and devoting our time to it. She asks us many questions on this topic, such as; to reflect on the circumstance of people whose lives are useless because it is lacking activity, to reflect the case where somebody is actively engaged but not on a project with positive value. We can see that she argues that a meaningful life is when our life project brings some positive value, and not just what an individual believes; “Meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness…meaning arises when a subject discovers or develops an affinity for one or typically several of the more worthwhile things…”(Wolf, 2010, page 234-35). She considers even the small acts of love towards someone you deeply love and care about, ““When I visit my brother in the hospital or help a friend move… I act neither out of self-interest nor out of duty… rather, I act out of love.” can make moral and meaningful life, then just doing something that does not give you satisfaction or meaning ““A person who is bored or alienated from most of what she spends her life doing is one whose life can be said to lack meaning. Note that she may in fact be performing functions of worth.” (Wolf, 1997, 14.p). Susan Wolf uses Albert Camus book “Myth of Sisyphus” to describe how people often tend to look at their lives differently, are their lives more like Einstein’s, where something important is happening or are their lives and jobs more like Sisyphus, where we are doing the same thing all over again without any meaning.


  1. Wolf, Susan R, and Koethe, John. Meaning in Life and Why It Matters. Princeton University Press - M.U.A, 2010. Print.
  2. Wolf, Susan. the Variety of Values: Essays on Morality, Meaning, and Love. Meanings of Lives, Oxford, University Press Scholarship online 2015
  3. Wolf, Susan. Happiness and meaning: two aspects of the good life, Social Psychology and Policy, 1997,
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