Welcome to our NDPR review forum on Cheshire Calhoun’s Doing Valuable Time: The Present, the Future, and Meaningful Living (OUP 2018), reviewed by Valerie Tiberius. Please feel free to comment on any aspect of the book, the review, or the discussion below!
From the book blurb:
Doing Valuable Time explores the human concern with expending our life’s time well. We pursue what we take to be valuable, strive to live meaningfully, judge whether our present circumstances are good enough, and have standards for what we are willing to take an interest in. Doing valuable time, however, is not an easy task. Expending time on big, important life-projects often entails lots of little time expenditures on the seemingly meaningless, and our ability to take an interest in our own futures is fragile. our present circumstances often leaves us with endless opportunities for discontent-too much spare time, too much of the same thing all of the time, or too much time stuck in stalled projects. Doing Valuable Time is a book about the difficulties we face in achieving valuable time and the interest–and disinterest–we take in our own present and future. Professor Cheshire Calhoun explores the implications of using time well in order to achieve the unachievable: living a meaningful life. Through seven chapters of rigorous philosophical inquiry and compelling practical insights, Calhoun explains the motivating interest we take in our future, and how hope sustains activities that are likely to fail. Doing Valuable Time shows the value of committing ourselves to having a particular future, and the possibilities for finding contentment with the imperfect present.
Excerpts from the NDPR review, by Valerie Tiberius:
If you’re reading this review because you urgently want to know what the meaning of life is, let me get that out of the way so that you can decide how to spend your freed up time. According to Cheshire Calhoun, living a meaningful life is a matter of “expending your life’s time on ends that, in your best judgment, you take yourself to have reason to value for their own sake and thus to expend your life’s time on” (46). If you’re going to stop reading now, let me also, quickly and strongly, recommend expending some of your time reading Calhoun’s book, because it is full of interesting puzzles, illuminating examples, and deep insights about human experience. This book represents the best of what philosophers have to offer: clear, rigorous, systematic thinking about things that matter to how we live our lives.
The book defends a “subjective” account of the meaningful life, in contrast to accounts that take meaning to be defined in terms of values that are independent of the agents who value them, and to “hybrid” accounts that take meaning to consist in a combination of a subjective response to objective value. It includes fascinating and often surprising discussions about hope, commitment, and boredom. The different chapters, many of which are adapted from previously published papers, do not always hang together tightly, but taken together, they cohere in an overall perspective that is new and refreshingly humane. To live meaningfully, according to Calhoun, you do not have to save the world, you do not have to make yourself miserable in the pursuit of lofty goals, you do not need to have lifelong commitments to worthy projects, and you do not have to ensure that you are never bored. It’s not that living a meaningful life is easy, on Calhoun’s view, but she does make it a reasonable aspiration for us all.
Calhoun’s subjectivism about meaningful living puts our evaluative agency at the center. To live meaningful lives, according to Calhoun, we must judge what we have reason to value for its own sake and choose to spend our time on these things. One of the most helpful ideas in the book, to my mind, has to do with the different ways we can choose to spend time. Calhoun distinguishes four categories of time expenditures: “primary, filler, entailed, and norm required” (14). In primary spending, we spend time on the ends we take to be worth pursuing for their own sakes. So, for a philosophy professor, preparing a lecture, working on a book, or reading an article, would likely count as primary spending. Entailed spending is the time we spend doing things that are merely instrumental to our valued ends, such as commuting or hooking up a computer to a printer. Norm required spending is what we do to follow various norms (moral, legal, and so on), and filler spending “is what we do while waiting, or when we’re too tired or ill or unmotivated to do much of anything else” (15) — think online shopping, Sudoku, or whatever else you waste your time on. The point of these distinctions is that meaningfulness is “a function of one’s primary expenditures” and, further, that it’s not just what you spend your time on that matters but how much of your time you spend on it. The person who does more primary spending on less valuable ends may have a more meaningful life than the person who spends most of her time on things that are merely entailed by more valuable ends.
The agency that is crucial to Calhoun’s account involves judgment about how to spend our time; it also involves motivation: we must continue to be motivated by these reasons we judge ourselves to have. This observation leads to some of Calhoun’s most insightful discussions of barriers to agency such as depression and lack of hope. The example of “normative estrangement”, in particular, caused me to question my own views about values and valuing. To be normatively estranged is to be disconnected or unmoved by your own values. Normative estrangement is
on one hand, to continue to think that if one is going to have a normative outlook at all, one’s present outlook is the one that one wants to have . . . On the other hand, one comes to feel that one is not capable of being the person who values these things, who deliberates on their basis, and who is moved to act in keeping with them. (58)
Calhoun uses the example of the depressed character Laura Brown from Michael Cunningham’s The Hours to illustrate the point. Laura Brown is estranged from the values of motherhood and wifeliness, which are, on Calhoun’s interpretation, her own values.
In my work on valuing I side with Calhoun’s opponents in holding that such cases are cases in which one does not fully value the ends that make up one’s normative outlook; they are cases of incomplete, or less than fully robust, valuing, and, therefore, the person is not entirely estranged from her own values. But Calhoun argues that this way of thinking about it misdescribes these cases because, as she says about Laura Brown,
At the time of her depression, there is virtually no indication that there is something else she wants more than the life she has. The absence of some alternative, truer normative outlook with which she identifies (if only she would admit it) is part of what makes this particular way of losing interest in one’s future so devastating. One is estranged from the only present and future self one wishes to have. (62)
Ultimately, I’m not sure I’m persuaded by Calhoun’s analysis, but I am persuaded that her view is a worthy alternative and that it matters which way you think about it. If we think about what it would take to help someone like Laura Brown, it does seem a worse predicament to lose touch with the only values one has than to be conflicted or unware of one’s true values.
It would be devastating to lose interest in the only values one has. It also doesn’t seem so great to be hopeless, bored, lacking in commitment, or resigned to a “good enough life”. But Calhoun does not think all of these things are very bad, let alone devastating. Hopelessness is a serious barrier to agency, but she argues that the other things on this list are either a normal part of life or, as in the case of commitment, a choice that an agent might make but isn’t required to make in order to have a meaningful life. The chapter on commitment is another example of a rich and thought-provoking discussion of what it is like to be a person. The conclusion of the chapter is that whether one lives a life of substantive, time-extended commitments (on the one hand) or provisional plans (on the other) is a matter of normative style. For many philosophers, commitment is probably our style. But, as Calhoun argues, a person with a different style may benefit by making fewer sacrifices of “local meaning”. Such a life “need not be devoid of contributions to the social good, enriching personal interactions, the development of skills, and the acquisition of knowledge, even if one is not committed to making one’s life about such things” (112).