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NDPR Forum: Cheshire Calhoun’s Doing Valuable Time

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).

11 Responses to NDPR Forum: Cheshire Calhoun’s Doing Valuable Time

  1. I count myself extremely lucky that Valerie Tiberius agreed to write the NDPR review of my book; and I am extremely grateful for her thoughtful and generous reading. I think that Valerie and I are intellectual cousins of a sort–she working on well-being, I working on meaningfulness, but both of us coming to quite similar views. Valerie is quite correct to point out that the book is really a series of essays rather than the elaboration of A View. More significantly, she’s also absolutely right to raise the question of whether my account of meaningfulness in life is distinct from the notion of well-being. I will leave it to those more informed about the well-being literature to decide this. I find myself pulled two directions. On the one hand, I’m inclined to think that how well off I am is a function of how full my life’s time is with things that I value (and thus find meaningful). On the other hand, I find it plausible to think that in pursuing the most meaningful life, I sometimes have to sacrifice my well-being.

    Valerie mentions in her review that I favor a subjectivist account of meaningful living. That’s true, but my view isn’t perhaps what you imagine a subjectivist account looking like. I suggest that we have a variety of reasons for valuing the ends we do—what I call reasons for me, reasons for the initiated, and reasons for anyone. When you think about the reasons for anyone to value the things you do, you take yourself to be latching on to objective, or intersubjective, value. So my subjectivist account of meaningful living is meant in part to capture the ways that we might think the objective value of what we expend our life’s time on matters. The view is subjectivist because reasons for anyone aren’t the only reasons we have for valuing our ends, and because the emphasis is not on there being reasons for anyone but on the person’s judgment that there are such reasons.

    For those of you who haven’t read the book and are wondering whether to invest the time, let me say a couple of things. The topic of the book isn’t meaningful living, although I have a lot to say about meaningful living. The book is an exploration of the relation between, on the one hand, being a temporal being who lives in the present with a sense of the future and imagines alternative possible presents and futures, and on the other hand, the fact that we are evaluators and agents. I’ll say more about that in a moment.

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen an author mention the chapter of his or her book that they think is the best, but let me just say that, to my own mind, the chapter on hope makes the largest contribution to the philosophical literature of any of the chapters. Hope is often thought to be motivationally important, but there’s a real puzzle about how hope plays a motivational role above and beyond the desire that the hopeful have for a particular outcome. To solve that outcome (and also to explain the demotivating nature of depression), I introduce the notion of the phenomenological idea of the future. Living temporally is not just a matter of having beliefs about and desires, intentions, and plans for the future. Living temporally involves living under an idea of the future. That idea is a phenomenological idea. It concerns how, in the present, we experience the future not what we rationally predict the future to be like. Part of that idea of the future under which we live and act in the present, is a sense of our future generally. Basal hopefulness, I suggest, is not hope for this or that future outcome, but a general sense—a phenomenological idea–of the future as one that is open to meaningful living and in which continued activity makes sense. It is this positive sense of the future that is typically lost in depression. We live in the present not only under a general sense of the future, but also under an idea of how our pursuits will turn out. Again, this is a phenomenological idea, not a prediction. To be hopeful about practical pursuits that have very low odds of success is not to deceive oneself about those low odds or to put them out of mind. It is instead to project oneself imaginatively into a successful future and to live in the present under that idea of the future.

    Let me now give a little precis of the book: Doing Value Time is about the connection between two basic features of human persons: their temporal existence and their being agent-evaluators. Although the chapters can be read has free-standing essays, the implicit thesis of the entire book is this: Our temporality and our capacities for evaluation and agency are not two distinct features of persons. On the one hand, how we live through time—and in particular the ways that we connect and disconnect ourselves from our present and future—is shaped by the fact that we are evaluators. And on the other hand, the kinds of evaluative judgments we make and our motivation to act as agents are shaped by our temporality. The book is intended as a correction—and, I might say, critique—of what seems to me a widespread tendency to theorize our nature as evaluators and agents independently of the fact that we are temporal beings, and to bring our temporality in only after the fact and in a way that doesn’t fundamentally alter how we think about agent-evaluators. The result is an almost exclusive emphasis on agents’ evaluative-rating and end-setting activity. I try to show that we get a more adequate—or at least more expansive–account of both our temporality and our nature as agent-evaluators if we resist the temptation to theorize these two basic features independently of each other and instead begin from the question “How are time and evaluation connected?” That is, what is the relation between being an evaluator and an agent on the one hand and living temporally on the other?

    Methodologically, I began by asking myself where, in human experience, is the connection between temporality and evaluation most salient. The topics that naturally came to mind were assessments of the meaningfulness of present and cross-temporal living; both taking and losing a motivating interest in one’s own future; settling the future via commitments, plans, and intentions; hope for the successful realization of our ends; bored loss of interest in one’s present; and discontentment or contentment with the way the temporal unfolding of events has produced a particular present situation. These are certainly not the only interesting or important areas where temporality and evaluation intersect. Neglected in the book is the connection between agency, evaluation, and our reflections on our past.

  2. Sukaina Hirji says:

    Cheshire, thank you so much for participating in this forum — I can’t wait to read your book! I wanted to ask you to say more about two things that come up in Valerie’s review, and in your response: first, how to understand the subjectivism of your view, and second, how to think about the relation between “primary spending” and “entailed spending”.

    You say in your response to Valerie: “So my subjectivist account of meaningful living is meant in part to capture the ways that we might think the objective value of what we expend our life’s time on matters. The view is subjectivist because reasons for anyone aren’t the only reasons we have for valuing our ends, and because the emphasis is not on there being reasons for anyone but on the person’s judgment that there are such reasons.” This sounds more like a hybrid view than a pure subjectivist view: meaning seems to consist in some combination of subjective response to objective value. Specifically, it sounds like the view is that meaning depends, at least in part, on us valuing things that are objectively valuable, or us judging that there are reasons for *us* to do things that are reasons for anyone. I take it you also want to allow that some of our reasons are not reasons for anyone, so maybe this is why you prefer the subjectivist label. In any case, I’d love to hear more about where, if at all, objective value comes into your account. Does meaning ever depend on objective value, and if so, how?

    As Valerie describes it in her review, you distinguish primary spending from entailed spending as follows: “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.” I guess I’m curious how you want to differentiate ends here. Let’s say I value spending time with my (beautiful, perfect) dog as an end, for its own sake; spending time with my dog looks like primary spending. But, of course, spending time with my dog involves me doing a lot of things I don’t value for their own sake: picking up after her, brushing out her endless knots, cleaning her when she rolls in something smelly. Although these activities aren’t things I would choose to do in and of themselves, I do think there is a sense in which I value them as ways of spending time with my dog. That is, they seem partly constitutive of the more general activity of spending time with her, an activity I do value for its own sake. Another way to put this is that it seems wrong to describe these activities as somehow merely instrumental to the activity that I value, namely, spending time with her. The more general question is how to think of activities that we value for their own sake that involve — not as merely instrumental, but as partly constitutive — activities that we don’t value for their own sake, at least not independent of the more general activity of which they are a part.

  3. David Sobel says:

    Val initially focused on this passage of yours where you characterize a meaningful life as one in which you are mostly: “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).

    I’m wondering about cases where one thinks this about what one is spending one’s time on as you are spending the time, but later decides one was mistaken. Imagine this happens repeatedly. (Asking for a friend!) In such a case we might have to choose between a life that at each moment feels to us as if it is being spent in ways we have reason to value and a life that, in retrospect, feels like it was spent in such a way. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about such a choice. For my money, the former sort of life would not feel (my friend assures me), from any temporal perspective of the agent’s, to be an overall very meaningful life.

  4. I’m going to post separately in response to your two questions/comments.
    Excellent question about how my view differs from a hybrid view! Hybrid views put together two quite different things: First, the objective (or as I call it “agent-independent”) value of an activity, where it is simply a fact about the activity that it has that value. Individuals can mistakenly think that an activity has agent-independent value. So on a hybrid view, one way your life may lack meaning is that it is devoted to activities that do not in fact have the agent-independent value you think they do. Second, a subjectivist element consisting in some attitude on the part of the agent (e.g., enjoyment, satisfaction, passion), where the agent may have no reasons at all for that attitude or the reasons may have nothing to do with the agent-independent value of the activity. The hybrid is then effected by requiring that both standards be satisfied. On my view, meaningful living is not a function of the actual agent-independent value of what you do. The view is subjectivist because I think that meaning is a function of the agent’s own reasons for valuing the activities she engages in. Among our reasons for valuing, say, doing philosophy, are our reasons for believing that doing philosophy has agent-independent value. So, while meaning doesn’t depend on actual objective value, it often depends on our having reasons (possibly mistaken ones) for believing that an activity has objective value. “Reasons” here refers to the agent’s own reasons. I value doing philosophy because I think it can bring mental clarity about everyday experiences. That’s my reason, but I also think it is a reason-for-anyone to regard doing philosophy as a valuable activity. My view is also subjectivist because I allow feelings or attitudes to be one kind of reason for valuing an activity. The kinds of reasons that I call “reasons for me” include sheer enjoyment, but also include such things as the historical or symbolic value that an activity has. So unlike pure subjectivists, I don’t want to restrict the purely personal reasons for valuing to feelings. And also unlike pure subjectivists, I think that our attitudes and feelings are typically reasons responsive. In short, my view is not a hybrid view because I am not trying to combine an agent-independent perspective with an agent-dependent perspective. There is one perspective that’s relevant: the agent’s. But I do acknowledge that the agent may have a variety of types of reasons for valuing her ends; some of those reasons enable us to justify our choices to others (reasons for anyone), some enable us to justify our choices to those who are experientially familiar with an activity (reasons for the initiated), and some function to explain the idiosyncracy of our choices (reasons for me).

  5. cheshire calhoun says:

    Very sharp questions about the relation that entailed spending has to primarily spending, Sukaina. In the book, I distinguish between two kinds of entailed spending. One is entailed spending on instrumental means—like hooking up a computer. A second kind of entailed spending is on constitutive tasks within a more general activity, where you value the general activity for its own sake but not the constitutive tasks for their own sake. The latter have an ambiguous status. If you describe picking up after your dog and detangling her hair fairly abstractly as “spending time with my dog,” then indeed this is construable as primary spending—something you value doing for its own sake. But if you describe what you’re doing more specifically as “picking up after my dog” or “detangling her hair” these are just entailed time expenditures. As philosophers I think we tend to focus just on how valuable abstractly described activities are and disattend the value (or lack thereof) of the entailed time expenditures on instrumental means and constitutive tasks. But I think that it’s important for people who are concerned with meaningful living to raise the question of whether a particular activity is really worth spending (so much) time on given the volume of entailed time expenditures that it involves. Sometimes the answer will be yes. But sometimes the answer will be no. This is a matter of agent judgment, and I don’t think there’s some objective formula for deciding when the level of entailed time expenditures warrant giving up the end or demoting its priority.

  6. cheshire calhoun says:

    You’ve asked me a really hard question. I worried about this a lot when I was writing the chapter on meaningful living. I would be very curious to hear how you think I should handle this question of how revisions in one’s value judgments over time do (or do not) affect the meaningfulness of what one was doing in the past. Those revisions can go both ways. I can look back on what I invested time doing in the past and think, “I was mistaken in thinking I had reasons to value doing this.” Or I can look back and think, “I was mistaken in thinking I didn’t have reasons to value doing this and I’ve wasted a past opportunity for spending my life meaningfully.”
    Here would be some initial thoughts. If my view now is that I really made a mistake, particularly about the reasons-for-anyone, I’m inclined to give the later self’s judgment (presumably made from an improved epistemic position) priority. She’s entitled to judge “I only thought this was meaningful, but I can see how I was mistaken and was not expending my time meaningfully.”
    However, I think that what I call our “normative outlook” (our ordering of valued ends) often changes over time, but not because we’ve come to think that our past self erred in her reasons. What reasons I have for expending time on this or that may appropriately vary with my stage of life. I don’t have to think that the activities I devoted time to as a teenager are ones I now as an older adult have reasons to value; but it seems to me right to think that my teenage self was (often) living meaningfully because she really did have reasons at that stage of life for doing what she did. Here’s another way our normative outlook can change without our thinking there was some earlier mistake in our reasoning. In the chapter on boredom, I suggest that the reason why repetition bores is that we reach the point of value satiety. Agents don’t just rate what’s valuable, they spend time with what they value. One risk of spending a lot of time with the same thing is that one runs out of things that engage one’s capacities as an agent-evaluator (appreciating, evaluating, deciding what to do with, closely attending, storing in memory, etc.). The example I use in the book is of visiting a museum. The museum’s exhibits are no less valuable at the end of three hours than when one entered; but one may well have exhausted one’s capacities for doing something with those valuable exhibits and thus reached the point of value satiety. I think I’ve approached the point of value satiety with respect to administrative activities and am ready to reset my ends.
    When there’s no mistake, but simply reordering of ends, I’m inclined to temporally index judgments of meaningfulness: that was a meaningful way to expend time then, it is not now.

  7. David Sobel says:

    I wanna think about this and give a proper reply, but for now what you say about museums forced me to share this fantastic line from Dylan’s Visions of Johanna:

    Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial
    Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while

  8. David Sobel says:

    I think I totally agree with you that a view should make room for 1) change in evaluative perspective that does not suggest the earlier self made a mistake, 2) change in circumstances (without a change in evaluative perspective), such as the museum case, that also does not suggest the earlier self made a mistake, and 3) cases where it does seem the earlier self made a mistake.

    A paradigmatic case of 1 might be a change due to a bonk on the head. Perhaps a clearish case of type 3 might be one where one’s earlier self was not sufficiently informed about the option one thought was valuable (and yet the appearance of value survived during exposure to the option—it took time for the information to seep in.

    Perhaps part of the difference between changes that signal a mistake on one side or the other and changes that do not (within a broadly subjectivist framework where such mistakes cannot be vindicated by facts external to the agent) has to do with whether we can see that the valuation of one side or the other was in some way (descriptively) misinformed about the object. A trickier version, but perhaps still possible, would suggest that the agent might be misinformed about which type of pro-attitude speaks for her. So if a person at a time thinks that they only properly see what is valuable when drunk, perhaps even the subjectivist can say that that is a kind of mistake. Subjectivists have been willing (but perhaps not thoughtful about) imposing a one-size fits all understanding of the vantage point from which an agent’s attitudes determine her good that is not responsive to the agents beliefs or desires concerning this attitude.

    I’m totally with you that in cases where there are changes without either side making a mistake we just have to time-relativize (and perhaps find a way to commensurate for overall judgements).

  9. cheshire calhoun says:

    Your example of change in normative outlook without a mistake is interesting—a bonk on the head. I wanted to include changes of normative outlook that are made for reasons, but not because you think your earlier self made a mistake. One example is the case of value satiety. Suppose you have reasons for thinking that administrative work is valuable. You choose it as an end and invest your time in this kind of work. Over time, however, administrative tasks cease to engage your capacities as an evaluator and agent in the way they’ve once done (you could do a lot of the tasks in your sleep). I don’t think this should be described as a change in circumstances. But you do acquire a reason for changing your normative outlook that you didn’t have before. A second example has to do with time management. Suppose you have reasons for selecting as an end and investing your time in some highly time-consuming activity. It is a meaningful thing to do, but it means foregoing many other activities you value. There may come a point where you ask yourself, “How do I want to manage the temporal pursuit of value in a finite life?” You might think, “Given the finitude of my life, I need to reset my ends, demoting (or eliminating) the importance of this highly time-consuming activity so that I can invest time in other things I value.” Again, I don’t think this is properly describe as a change in circumstance.

  10. David Sobel says:

    One possible reason to think some of these cases are changes in circumstances rather than evaluative outlook is that you would continue to recommend the activity you used to value for yourself to creatures that are relevantly the way you used to be. The evaluation, in a sense, remains the same, it just does not apply to someone such as one has now become.

  11. cheshire calhoun says:

    I agree absolutely that you would continue to recommend the activity. Your reasons-for-anyone remain. Indeed, we all see the value in lots of different activities (different careers, different sports, different types of literature)that we wouldn’t choose for ourselves. Selecting some of those valuable activities as ends (or giving them up) isn’t just a function of how much objective or interpersonal value we believe they have. It’s also a function of our other reasons (which I’ve been calling reasons for the initiated and reasons for me). Among one’s reasons for me might be circumstantial facts–e.g., that one is now retired and is no longer eligible to take an on activity or that one is now suffering a chronic illness and no longer has the energy for it. I think that facts having to do with our temporal experience of value (e.g., value satiety) and temporal finitude (and thus need to manage the temporal pursuit of value) also enter into our thinking about what ends to select and maintain. Its these latter considerations that interest me most because I’m interested in the connections between valuing and temporality. I do see why you might want to describe these two as circumstantial facts.

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