Thursday, February 2, 2012

Love and meaning

This review of Hugo Strandberg's Love of a God of Love made me want to read the book, despite not being the most glowing review an author might hope to receive. I think that's a sign that the reviewer (Edward Vacek, SJ) has done a good job. Vacek's first criticism is that Strandberg does not examine the nature of love in depth, which surprised me given that he (Strandberg) is a colleague of Camilla Kronqvist, author of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Perhaps he refers to this work or feels it unnecessary to repeat work that has already been done by others. What appeals to me about Strandberg's work is this:
Strandberg's central thesis is quite worthy of reflection. Where people commonly speak of belief in God, he holds that what they really mean, if they mean anything that is existential, is that they love a God of love.
And this:
He additionally holds that those who claim that God does not exist will normally nevertheless be believers. For him, anyone who resists exploiting another in fact loves the soul of that other, even when that other is, say, a mountain. Since all objects are not isolated, anyone who respects some positive "weight" in some object is already a believer. That is, according to Strandberg, love of a single object is always also directed to something beyond and more all encompassing than the object, and that means it is love for God
Vacek calls this way of thinking slipshod, which I suppose it is, but it also seems generous (Strandberg sees love of God as a good thing, and he sees it everywhere, even in those who claim that God does not exist). I'm not sure that the generous quality of Strandberg's thinking could survive being made less slipshod, i.e. more rigorous.

Love also comes up in Christine Vitrano's essay "Meaningful Lives?" (which I think is only temporarily available free online). Here are some passages that I hope will give a sense of her argument even to those who have not read her (very clear and short) paper:
According to [Susan] Wolf, motives connected with meaning arise most obviously ‘when we act out of love for individuals about whom we deeply and especially care.’
She believes we also ‘act out of love’ in the pursuit of impersonal things, such as when we toil over a work of art, music or philosophy, or tend to our gardens.
Not all reasons of love contribute to a meaningful life, however, because ‘love can be misplaced or misguided; the energy or attention that you give to an object of love may be disproportionate to what that object merits.’10 So being attracted to certain activities and projects will increase the meaning of your life only if they are worthy of your love and attention. Wolf sums up her view succinctly: ‘Meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness.’
Wolf's examples of worthwhile and worthless activities appear to be arbitrary, providing no insight into the concept of objective value. For example, she states with confidence that baking chocolate cakes and tending to our gardens are meaningful ways to spend time, but doing crossword puzzles, playing computer games and attending aerobics classes are not. Yet Wolf provides no justification why baking and gardening have objective value; nor does she explain why she believes the other activities are ‘not the sorts of things that make life worth living.’
Why does pursuing a project or activity as an escape or distraction render it meaningless?
Wolf declares that vocations ‘to which one feels oneself called’ are ‘paradigmatic examples of what gives meaning to people's lives.’30 If so, why is the life of a dedicated corporate lawyer meaningless?
A serious difficulty emerges when, towards the end of her book in a reply to Jonathan Haidt, Wolf changes her view on the worthiness of solving crossword puzzles and racing lawn mowers. Haidt is concerned that a former student, whose life revolved around her love of horses, was in danger of having her life declared meaningless by Wolf. Her reply begins with a reiteration of her belief that no one is an authority on which activities have objective value, which is why we need to ‘pool our information and experience.’34 But she adds: ‘If Haidt's student finds something valuable in her web of horse-riding projects’ then, even if she is unable to convince others of its merits, ‘this does not imply that she must be mistaken’ about its value.35 Wolf explains that ‘value can emerge from brute attraction or interest interacting with drives to excellence,’36 so devoting yourself to horses and pursuing that interest wholeheartedly would count as valuable. Wolf then admits that she was too hasty in her dismissal of solving crossword puzzles and racing lawn mowers, for both activities might play an important role in some people's lives, and, therefore, may be appropriate candidates for value.
Unlike Wolf, however, I believe we ought to resist making judgments about meaning unless we have a viable theory of objective value.
Wolf seems to be onto something here. If I were to develop her ideas, I think I would want to bring in Anscombe's ideas about the kinds of actions and reasons for doing things that we can make sense of. Trying to kill an enemy is intelligible, even when wrong, but putting all your green books on the roof, or collecting saucers of mud, is not intelligible. (Of course we can invent a story to make it intelligible, but I'm talking about the context of normal life, absent any kind of special story.)

If you bake a cake you don't then just throw it away (or leave it out in the rain). (Unless your baking it was something like a Buddhist spiritual exercise, but in that case you were engaging in a spiritual exercise, not (simply) baking a cake.) But when you've done a crossword puzzle you typically do throw it away. It isn't something you love in the way that you might love a garden. Similarly, computer games are typically ways of passing, or even killing, time. Even if you love to play the game, it is only a game. Most game-players recognize this. Those who don't are generally recognized as being rather pathetic. This is ordinary, not arbitrary. A mere distraction cannot be meaningful because if it were then it would not be a mere distraction. It would be an end in itself. And the life of a corporate lawyer is meaningless, if it is meaningless, precisely because it is not a vocation to which anyone feels called. They do it for the money. If I'm wrong then the example is a bad one, but it's clear enough, it seems to me, what Wolf is getting at.

Haidt's horse-riding example seems quite different from the racing lawn-mowers case. A horse is something you can love, and horse-riding is an ancient skill. Racing lawn-mowers is, presumably, meant to be silly. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) Perhaps there could be exceptions, but if one races lawn-mowers in the usual way with the usual attitude, if the activity has the kind of place in your life that it has in the typical racer of lawn-mowers, then it will be something you do merely for amusement, not as a central meaning-giving project. You can't love a lawn-mower, especially one that you ride. (Perhaps it's possible to love a simple tool with which one nobly toils, but rider-mowers are all about convenience. They aren't comrades in effort.) Love of riding lawn-mowers is on a par with love of playing Donkey Kong (you don't want to be Billy Mitchell). If that life seems potentially meaningful to you, watch The King of Kong. We don't need a theory of objective value to recognize wasted time or douchebaggery.


  1. Camilla Kronquist actually did acknowledge Strandberg's contribution to her work in her book, so you may be right that he has intentionally left certain things untouched. Still, that sounds a bit unsatisfactory to me. Never the less, the book looks worth reading. Judging by the revue, it ties in with or contiues some of the investigations from his dissertation, "The Possibility of Discource", which was interesting too.

  2. Thanks, vh, I didn't know that. More to add to my reading list!

  3. So what if Billy Mitchell (as it appears) hadn't been a d-bag and instead just really loved playing Donkey Kong? In one of Wolf's earlier papers on meaning in life (I don't think it appears in print, although it might be in an intro anthology, under the title "The Meanings of Lives"--and it might be on the web somewhere still), she says something to the effect that a meaningful life--at least a paradigmatic one--won't have trivial activities at its center. Does it make a difference if you're the "greatest"? If Ali had a meaningful life as the greatest heavyweight (let's suppose), then why not Billy Mitchell as the "King of Kong"? Perhaps the devil is in the details here, say, in the difference between "grand passion" and neurotic obsession. (And the Wikipedia entry on Mitchell hints at some odd details...)

  4. Yes, that's tricky. I think it's a borderline case, and I don't think the existence of borderline cases is necessarily a problem. It might help if I had more experience with Donkey Kong and so knew what kind of virtues are involved in mastering the game (eye-hand coordination, quick reflexes, luck, patience,...?). But it's also a question of where you draw the line between a trivial and a non-trivial practice. Sometimes the difference is obvious, but not always. And if patience is involved then it would matter, it seems to me, whether the person concerned really was patient and not, say, neurotically obsessed or simply unaware of the distractions that would make patience so necessary for a normal person. That is, if being the king of Kong requires long periods of focus on the game then this might take patience or strength of will for some people, but might come quite naturally if you had certain sorts of mental problem. And things you do because of mental problems don't seem like things that would make your life meaningful, even if they are quite enjoyable.