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« Pat Churchland on Eliminative Materialism | Main | Stephen Neale on Meaning and Interpretation »

July 04, 2010



Hi, PB-

I enjoyed your interview with Susan Wolf, but have to say that it did not come up to your usual high standard. "Objective value"? What on earth is that? You asked several good questions, about the value of sports and the like, to lead the conversation in a more productive direction, but ultimately, Dr. Wolf seemed utterly blind to where you were going.

She seemed to regard objective value as something like taking care of her children, or doing philosophy. She even ventured that, since low-paid workers do nothing of value, doing meaningful work may be a luxury reserved for the better-to-do. Does anyone smell a subjective standard lurking beneath her "objective value"?

I think we have all heard about coal miners who take great pride in their work and station, and countless other ways that people find meaning in their lives and work. Dr.Wolf seemed to be groping toward a conventional standard of some kind, whereby things that society chooses to value (winning battles, doing philosophy, curing disease, etc.) are labeled as "objectively valuable". Yet that remains an ultimately subjective standard again, only spread over the collective, for whatever propagandistic or Darwinian reason it might have to train its members in one way versus another.

Only Darwinian reasons can really be said to be objective, such as caring for children and killing off enemies. But what kind of a standard is that? Not one we would want to live by, unembroidered with others of our own devising and of a more esoteric and human nature. Nor is that objective standard uniformly meaningful to all people. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a half-built ship in a bottle that I need to get back to!

With appreciation- Burk

Nic Daniau

I must agree with Burk, I enjoyed this postcast a lot less that past episodes - and I've been an avid listener for years.

With other interviewee I could always understand the logic of their thinking thanks to your questions and the clever format of the interviews, even if I don't necessarily agree with them all of course. Whereas in Susan Wolf's case, her wishy-washy concepts lacked basic argumentation. What's so objectively valuable in running 100 meters that cannot be said of solving a Sudoku or building ships in a bottle? Every time she was pressed (not strongly enough) to explain how "meaning in life" could be measured it systematically boiled down to some kind of moral good. This contradicts her initial claim that meaning in life is an aspect of life distinct from morality.

Looking forward to the next bite! Thank you so much for the podcasts.

joshua p. smith

I also must agree that this was not the best of the 'bites'. Nigel Warburton is an excellent interviewer, and does a fine job of presenting the best case for Wolf's point of view. However, her logic was certainly handled, shall we say, delicately. To say that there are individuals whose life has NO meaning is absurd. I listen to these podcasts when on long runs, and I laughed out loud when I heard that sentiment expressed. All things considered, Wolf's point of view, as presented in the podcast, was both absurd and unsupported by even her own arguments. My thoughts as I listened were, "No, no, no, no, no...".


There seems to be a problem with terminology here. Susan Wolf uses the term “meaning” in several ways, none of which hit the nail on the head, probably because there’s no head to hit. Meaning in life is such a vague concept as to be almost meaningless, as it means something different to each person. Wolf starts by saying it is something that is subjectively attractive/pleasurable (which could be absolutely anything) and objectively valuable (a questionable notion indeed). Apparently, she determines the value of something on the basis of “communal intuitions” – not the most philosophical of approaches. She then uses the term meaningful in the sense of being successful or acclaimed for doing something. But surely an individual activity is either meaningful or meaningless in itself, irrespective of subsequent glory. Wolf’s unfortunate conclusion is that there are people who have no meaning at all, as they don’t enjoy the good life. True, some people don’t have it easy, but this doesn’t mean they have no meaning or value. But let’s get this straight: making an elaborate Halloween costume for one’s daughter gives meaning to your life but working hard to feed yourself and your family does not. A somewhat skewed view of meaning, I would say.

Stephen Schlow

The interview was not the problem. Dr. Wolf's thinking - at least on that day - was nice but sloppy. By not even attempting to define or at least delineate meaning she was able to slip around the questions in a sophomoric way. The researcher who is upstaged may not be famous but that cannot mean his or her life is therefor without meaning. What of the countless composers who were denied opportunity for performance during the Soviet regime? Or the artists or scientists whose works were destroyed or degraded by Hitler? Are these lives without meaning? I'm not prepared to define meaning when I am in the company of hard thinking philosophers (nor can I play Suduko) but I would say it is an intrinsic as well as an extrinsic attribute of life and living, not so easily found at the junction of pleasure and the social result of one's efforts. Dr. Wolf's examples and judgments were at best shallow and in fact self serving. Her answers seem to reflect the worst of that circular sort of solipsism that increasingly fogs academia and makes real questions (i.e. what is meaning in life?) seem ridiculous or petty.

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