Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World, by Iddo Landau (Oxford University Press), £18.99/$24.95
Many of us will eventually contemplate making a radical change in our lives – a shift sometimes motivated by a concern that our lives are insufficiently meaningful. For example, one might wonder whether it’s time to quit a twenty-year career as an accountant in Cedar Rapids and move to San Francisco to become an apprentice at a Zen centre. Or, one may worry that one’s personal relationships are stifling creative energies and contemplate breaking ties with loved ones to move to London to pursue poetry full-time.
In his new book, Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World, Iddo Landau advises against radical and abrupt life changes. These types of changes are often irreversible. Landau also believes that such changes are often motivated by the acceptance of faulty presuppositions concerning the meaningfulness of human lives.
For example, Landau pushes back against an absolutist approach to meaningfulness which presupposes that lives are either “absolutely meaningful or absolutely meaningless”. Instead, he believes that meaningfulness comes in degrees and most (if not all) human lives contain at least some meaning. The upshot is that many people whose lives are insufficiently meaningful may only need to make minor changes to their lives instead of radical transformations.
Additionally, Landau argues against perfectionism. He writes that, on this view, meaningful lives must contain “rare and difficult” achievements (e.g., winning a Nobel Prize) and therefore meaningful lives are ones that “transcend the common and the mundane”. Perfectionism implies that most of us fail to live meaningful lives. In contrast, Landau believes the following “common and mundane” achievements and activities are meaningful: being a good parent or a trustworthy friend, listening to music, appreciating a beautiful day, and enjoying simple pleasures. By challenging perfectionism, he hopes to reveal the many sources of meaning already existing in our lives.
I believe Landau’s Finding Meaning will be of value to three distinct audiences. First, Landau hopes the book will serve as a philosophical “self-help” book for those concerned with the value of their own lives. He provides abundant practical advice to readers, frequently by alerting us to mistakes we are prone to make in evaluating our own lives. For example, Landau believes we tend to evaluate our own achievements as less significant or valuable than the same achievements of others. And our propensity to be self-critical can hinder our recognition of the meaningfulness of our lives.
In Chapters 5 through 14, Landau also undermines well-known philosophical arguments that, if sound, could indicate that human lives are (in general) meaningless. Readers are thereby introduced to many important topics in philosophy, including death and immortality, free will and determinism, and ethical relativism. Given the survey of philosophical topics covered, Finding Meaning could serve as an excellent supplementary text to an introductory philosophy course or a course on meaningfulness in life.
Finally, Finding Meaning should be of interest to academic philosophers researching meaningfulness in life. The most important contribution Landau makes is his attempt to undermine the presuppositions about meaningfulness that are accepted by many philosophers (e.g., perfectionism). But Landau also provides a conceptual analysis of meaningfulness in life whereby meaningfulness is associated with worth or value. On his view, a person’s life is meaningful if a “sufficient number of aspects of their lives are of sufficient value”.
I found Landau’s analysis of meaningfulness to be the least developed section of his book and my guess is many philosophers will share my skepticism that many different types of value can add meaning to a person’s life. For example, Landau believes the pleasure arising from eating an ice cream cone can add meaning to your life. Yet, simple pleasures can add value to your life (i.e. happiness) while not adding meaning, if happiness and meaningfulness are distinct values of a life.
It is unclear if Landau intends for there to be any limit to the number of goods that can add meaning to a person’s life. In addition to simple pleasures, Landau includes the following: the relief of suffering, eating healthy foods, having friends, and simply being alive. In Chapter 17 (“Recognition”), Landau argues that the recognition of value can also add meaning to a person’s life. As such, not only can achievements and the state of being alive add meaning to our lives but recognising these values can add further meaning to our lives.
Perfectionism appears counterintuitive in that it entails that far too few of us will successfully live meaningful lives. But Landau may be setting the bar too low; it is unclear how any of us fail to live a meaningful life. For Landau, there is athreshold of meaningfulness that lives can fall below and therefore be judged insufficiently meaningful. But he does not provide guidance on how to determine where the threshold should be set.
Regardless, Landau makes it clear that periodic reflection on the value or worth of our lives is important for securing a meaningful life. I strongly recommend reading Landau’s Finding Meaning as a catalyst for this reflection and to help direct and refine the reflection down the road.