‘Mattering Matters’

We can’t pursue a human life unless we believe that we matter. So argues Rebecca Goldstein on The Edge and in Free Inquiry. Some 30 years ago, she says, she was inspired by a view offered by the protagonist of her novel The Mind-Body Problem.

There seem to be at least three claims she wishes to make. One is that “mattering matters” above all to human beings. We are driven not just by a will to survive but most importantly and most basically by a will to matter. Another is that we implicitly or explicitly having “mattering maps”: we occupy a certain area of the map which, I take it, helps us to articulate to ourselves what matters to us. A third is that we’re able to evaluate our lives in the light of what matters to us. If what matters to us is X, how do we stack up: as somebodies or as nobodies?

A helpful illustration comes from her essay, “Feminism, Religion, and ‘Mattering.'” From the Homeric age and onward, the Greeks adopted what she calls an Ethos of Extraordinariness. What mattered to them, we might say, was leading an extraordinary human life. She cites the example of Achilles in The Iliad who, when given a choice between leading an ordinary yet long life and an extraordinary yet short life, opts for the latter. It is extraordinariness that truly matters to him, and even the most cursory reading of The Iliad confirms Goldstein’s view.

She goes on to argue that Socrates introduces us to a novel turn, making a turn from the heroic to the reasonable. “It’s the pursuit of reason that provides the only kind of extraordinary that matters.”

Though she denigrates the religious, we needn’t follow her lead. Instead, we could say that the religious person is someone who adopts an Ethos of Union: what truly matters to such a person is leading a life in union with what’s truly ultimate. In actuality, it’s possible to combine the two theses in order to say that the life led in union with what’s truly ultimate becomes an extraordinary human life in its ethical manifestations.

What I find especially appealing about Mattering Theory is that it accords with a basic intuition I’ve had for about five years. When I came up with a one liner for my philosophy practice–“I teach individuals and organizations how to inquire into the things that matter most.”–I had the sense, then unarticulated, that mattering matters to us simpliciter. With Goldstein’s help, I can generate a set of fundamental questions:

1.) What matters most to you?

2.) You say that X matters ultimately to you. Are you sure that X is worth mattering?

3.) Suppose X is worth mattering (for it may not be). What sort of basic statement can we make out of X’s mattering? (E.g., the life that truly matters is an extraordinary life. Or: the life that truly matters is one that is in union with what is most ultimate or most real.)

4.) If that is your basic statement, what sorts of self-evaluations do you make? To put the question differently (and this with Charles Taylor): what sorts of qualitative distinctions do you make most fundamentally (noble/ignoble, sacred/profane, just/unjust, etc.)? Do you, say, wish to lead an extraordinary life in Y but believe that you’re not or not so able?

5.) How do you go about leading a life that “fills out” that conception of a well-led life?

The point is to flesh all this out in our lives, and it is philosophy that guides us in the fleshing out.

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