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What Really Matters? An Interview with Rebecca Goldstein

Mattering is a more urgent concept than meaning
rebecca goldstein
He was using his power to get sex. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Raised in a Jewish Orthodox family, philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein gave up on the idea of God in her teenage years, after she read Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian. She then became ‘a quiet atheist’, so that she wouldn’t upset her religious parents. Meanwhile, Goldstein has become a vocal humanist. She found solace in philosophy and philosophical fiction, having a particular soft spot for Plato and Spinoza – her twitter account name is ‘PlatoOnBookTour: Plato reacts to the 21st century.’ She is one of three philosophers who ever got the US National Humanities Medal. A visiting Professor at New York University and New College of the Humanities in London, Goldstein will be giving a talk on Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, and discussing post-truth at HowTheLightGetsIn Festival in London on 22nd September. In this interview, she explains why we should think more about what really matters, the ways in which mattering is a more helpful philosophical concept than meaning, and how thinking that some are better than others because of their talents is dangerous.

You’re currently working on a book on mattering. What do we mean when we say that something, or someone, matters to us?

The notion of mattering is intimately linked with the notion of attention. To say that something matters is to assert that attention is due it, the kind of attention that both recognises and reveals its reality. Something that matters has a nature that demands to be known, and the knowledge may yield other attitudes and behaviour due it. If I say that something doesn’t matter, I’m saying that it’s not worth paying attention to. 

And the notion of mattering is also normative, meaning that it implies an ought, an obligation—namely the obligation to pay appropriate attention to it. I think there are objective truths about which things matter. I believe it is a demonstrable moral truth that all humans matter, which isn’t, of course, to assert that only humans matter.  

I first became preoccupied with the concept of mattering when I was writing my first book, The Mind-Body Problem—which wasn’t a work of philosophy but rather of fiction. I don’t think this was an accident. A novelist must think out the motivations of her characters, and our strivings to matter — to demonstrate that what we are and what we do are worthy of appropriate attention — are key in understanding human motivation. The concept of mattering stretches across the divide between empirical psychology and moral philosophy. 

You’re co-writing with the founder of positive psychology Martin Seligman and social psychologist Roy Baumeister. What empirical studies have you found most interesting in the work with them?

I should first make it clear that the book I’m writing isn’t being co-authored. I’m very grateful that Martin Seligman, when he was reading my last book, Plato at the Googleplex, saw the possibilities for psychological research in the ideas about mattering to which I briefly allude there, and he got in touch with me. The paper we three are co-authoring is strictly theoretical, laying out some of the key concepts in analysing the ways that the striving to matter functions in human motivation and the kind of new research this suggests. 

One of the key concepts is that of “conatus projects.” If the striving to matter is characteristic of humans, the ways in which we try to make good on these strivings are many—expressed in the long-term projects that, to echo Bernard Williams, provide us with the motive force which propel us into the future, and give us, in a certain sense, a reason for living. We evaluate how well our lives are going by how well our conatus projects are going. (Williams had called such projects “ground projects.”) 

So the kind of research in which we’re interested, very generally, is to see how variations in conatus projects are correlated with variations in people’s subjective happiness, their sense of wellbeing, their assessments of how meaningful their lives are. 

Can we prevent ourselves from wanting to matter more than others, and if so, how?

One is always going to be giving one’s own life more attention than any other life, because such attention is a condition for pursuing one’s own life.  And, as Tom Nagel remarks in his article ‘The Absurd,’ whose life is one going to pursue if not one’s own? In this sense, one’s own life can’t help mattering to one in a quite distinctive way. 

But this isn’t to say that conatus projects must be narrowly selfish. They might be devoted, for example, to truth (science, philosophy, etc.) beauty (art), goodness (acts of mercy, social justice). They might even require a person to martyr himself in the pursuit of his mattering. Nor is it to say these projects must be competitive. 

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"Strong emotions often carry us over the gap from is to ought."

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There are, of course, such essentially competitive conatus projects. There’s this saying—often attributed to La Rochefoucauld — that captures the spirit of competitive conatus projects: “It is not enough that I succeed; others must fail.”  

But there are certainly many conatus projects that don’t demand such competitive feelings and some that positively repel them. Will a philosopher feel that she doesn’t matter unless she can establish that she’s a better philosopher than… who? Than Bernard Williams, than Derek Parfit, than bloody Immanuel Kant? That’s simply not the nature of the project. One not only admires but is grateful for superior philosophers who help with the progress of one’s own project.  

Ah, you say, but will our philosopher feel that she matters more than all the non-philosophers?  Well, yes, that can happen, and not only with philosophers. These conatus projects of ours generate what I’d call false universalizing: thinking that the project that personally gives one a reason for living must provide the very reason for all of humanity.  Strong emotions often carry us over the gap from is to ought, and our conatus projects, providing us the motive force to propel us into the future, are chock full of emotions. False universalising goes on all over the mattering map. 

How does the concept of ‘mattering’ differ from ‘meaning’?

I think that when people speak of life’s meaning they generally have some rather universal purpose to human life in mind, some sort of role that we’re asked to play in the cosmos. This seems to be the background assumption behind the question regarding life’s meaning. And a person who concludes that there is indeed such meaning, that humans do have a special role to play, is quite naturally going to have his conatus project shaped by that conclusion. He’ll derive his sense of mattering by striving to fulfil the role he thinks he’s supposed to play. But what if someone rejects that the universe has anything in mind for any of us, including her? She might then say that life is meaningless. But even if she does, her statement isn’t going to undermine her commitment to her own life, to pursuing it with all the attention and energy that it demands, as funnelled, most especially, into her conatus projects. (Perhaps she’ll devote herself to publishing books on life’s meaninglessness.) I think that the concept of mattering is broader than the concept of meaning, so that it’s able to contain it. It’s packed with more psychological content, which, when unpacked, can help to illuminate the broad spectrum of human motivations.

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"It’s not surprising that people would try to derive their sense of mattering by acquiring a great deal of attention, even from perfect strangers. But the pursuit of fame doesn’t yield a sustained sense of mattering."

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Is this book, and the concept of ‘mattering’ an existentialist project – in which we define our own values and purpose?

Only to some extent. There is, as I’ve said, a vast range of conatus projects that suit various people and provide the motive force that propels them into their future. And among a great many of these projects, there is no reason to rank one over the other. 

But some conatus projects are really not so good. They may not be good psychologically, in that they’re conducive to more of a sense that life isn’t worth living than that it is. This is a serious defect for a conatus project! The defect may just stem from a misfit between a particular person’s talents and temperament and the conatus project to which she’s given herself. She may need therapy to see this.  

Or it may be—and here is where experimental expertise is needed—that some conatus projects are generally defective: they tend not to yield a sustained sense of mattering.  So, for example, our culture promotes, as a conatus project, the pursuit of fame.  And given how the concept of mattering is so intimately connected with attention, it’s not surprising that people would try to derive their sense of mattering by acquiring a great deal of attention, even from perfect strangers—which is what fame is. But perhaps the pursuit of fame, as a goal in itself, doesn’t yield a sustained sense of mattering. Maybe such a culturally encouraged conatus project is doing people damage.  

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"And what is this something else that matters more than the truth does? It is that your own political team should win. That’s the conatus project in post-truth politics."

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And then there are conatus projects that go even more seriously amiss, because in pursuing them one has to deny the mattering of things that really do matter. A conatus project that consists in the pursuit of power—and one sees quite a lot of such projects on display in the contemporary political scene—will lead one not only to dismiss truth as mattering but also any people who happen to get in one’s way. 

What are three ideas on what matters that other philosophers came up with and which greatly matter to you?

Baruch Spinoza’s view of the centrality of conatus and his insight into how our entire emotional repertoire unfolds from it. Bernard Williams’ notion of the particular projects that become invested with our conative drive. (I’m also quite sympathetic to Williams’ scepticism regarding utilitarianism, which is connected with his attention to the ways in which we are motivationally anchored into our lives.)  And Martha Nussbaum’s idea, in terms of which she has phrased her human capabilities approach, of the conditions that are required in order to lead a recognisably human life. 

You argue it’s crucial that we think everyone matters to the same extent, regardless of their talents, looks, race, gender etc. – that they all have the same human dignity. Do you then see both an objective and a subjective dimension to ‘mattering’? 

I do. But I see the objective dimension to mattering as being grounded in the conditions that we must presume in order to pursue a recognisably human life. These conditions have implications, and it’s in those implications that the objective facts about mattering are to be found. 

You'll be debating post-truth politics at the HowTheLightGetsIn festival in London on 22nd September. Does the negotiation between subjective and objective mattering come into play in feeding and respectively limiting political tribalism, which you argue is the root of what we now call 'post-truth politics'?  

Post-truth politics commits you not only to denying that the truth matters, which is as nonsensical a proposition as any we can mouth, violating the very conditions for the assertion of propositions, but also asserting that the truth can’t matter because there is something else that matters more and that this thing that matters more is incompatible with the truth’s mattering. And what is this something else that matters more than the truth does? It is that your own political team should win. That’s the conatus project here. Not to win, mind you, on the basis of your political team’s greater share of the truth — no, of course not, because the truth doesn’t matter, so that can’t be the reason – but rather on the basis of the greater power your political team will then have. And the reason that it matters that your own team enjoy greater power is that it is your own team. And the reason that its being your own team matters is that you are you, and being you, you matter more than others, certainly more than those on the other team, since they’re on the other team. Nonsense copulating with nonsense breeds nonsense.   

Thinker of the Month Short Q&A

If there was only one question you could focus on, what would that be?

I can’t imagine ever wanting to focus on one question. Every question that interests me links to other interesting questions. 

What advice would you give your younger self? 

To wait until I had gotten tenure as a philosopher before publishing a novel, which accomplishment had seemed, to my philosophical colleagues at the time, to entail my lack of philosophical seriousness.

What is one practical application of philosophy in your day-to-day life?

I was born into, and educated within, a very religious family and community. I rejected my religion’s tenets on the basis of philosophical reasoning and live as a secular humanist.  

One puzzle you don’t think will ever be solved?

My Ph.D. dissertation offered an argument, based on a structural realist interpretation of physics, that we won’t ever be able to explain why the physical processes of our functioning brains end up feeling like something. This was back in 1976, before David Chalmers dubbed this “the hard problem of consciousness.” I still think we’ll never be able to solve it—not because consciousness is something mysterious, but because matter is mysterious.  Our mathematical exploration of matter, which is all that we have to go on in getting beyond our coarse observations, leaves matter largely unknown.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?

Finding my voice.  

What has been your most ambitious unfinished project?

The project of combining literary and philosophical works—which I consider to be one overarching project.

What is your idea of a good life?

It’s a life in which pursuing one’s own essential projects contributes in some way to the progress of others’ essential projects. 

What is a phrase that keeps you going?

Samuel Beckett’s “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” 

Rebecca Goldstein will be speaking at HowTheLightGetsIn London on 22 September. Book your tickets here.

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