Wednesday, January 30, 2013


Mark Rowlands:

Aristotle first identified the problem. Suppose your life is made up of things you do for the sake of something else — you do A in order to get B, and you do B only to get C, and so on. Therefore A has no value in itself; its value lies in the B. But B has no value in itself: that value lies in the C. Perhaps we eventually encounter something — call it Z — that’s valuable for what it is in itself, and not for anything else. The grim alternative is that we encounter no such thing and satisfaction is always deferred, always just around the corner (indeed many would argue that this is the treadmill of consumerism). If our lives are to mean anything, there must be something that’s valuable for what it is in itself and not for anything else it might get you. This, in the parlance of philosophers, is called intrinsic value. Most obviously, we should be able to find intrinsic value in the other people in our lives. If we focus just on our activities — on what we do — then it is clear that it will not be found in work (in my sense above, of things we do for something else) but only in play. It is play, and not work, that gives value to our lives.

Alan Watts talked about this sort of thing a lot:

When we make music we don't do it in order to reach a certain point, such as the end of the composition. If that were the purpose of music then obviously the fastest players would be the best. Also, when we are dancing we are not aiming to arrive at a particular place on the floor as in a journey. When we dance, the journey itself is the point, as when we play music, the playing itself is the point.

I wasn't exaggerating when I said that woods-moseying was my "purpose" in life. Of course, I could just as easily have named reading, blogging, watching soccer games or listening to music, too. Am I suggesting that everyone should be similarly lacking in worldly ambition? No, I'm saying that there is no "should" to begin with, no categorical imperative, no final destination toward which all our efforts are aimed. I'm saying that my conception of the good life involves activities which exist simply for their own sake, as reflecting pools, pools in which such progressivist, teleological delusions of ultimate purpose can drown.


  1. Brian M1:19 PM

    Sounds like an ethos to me! Life just is. Do we really need to live for the ego of some celestial dictator?

    I am a fanatical recreational road cyclist. But I don't do races, I don't track my progress on Strava, and I am even somewhat impatient with group rides in which there is a rigid route and testosterone poisoning-led speed runs. Although that, too can be fun as well. I like to meander around and explore things on my bicycle. Dead end roads. City neighborhoods. Delta islands!

    Although I also do it for "C" because I (still) eat too much and I want to stay reasonably fit and thin, so there is definitely purpose as well.

  2. "Never be idle." - Martha Stewart
    She crazy. But Rowlands is oversimplifying: How do we know the A and B activities have no intrinsic value? Life is usually more ambiguous than that. Even unpleasant chores and difficult work situations might have value; motivating us to learn and grow and get stronger. "Satisfaction is always deferred..." - but that's just life.

  3. Brian M5:50 PM

    noel also has a point. Meandering does not mean laying on your couch eating cheese doodles and watching Baywatch reruns.

  4. Yeah, I used to say that I enjoyed "hiking", but that made most people assume I meant "spending a thousand dollars on unnecessary gear to march like a pack mule from one mountaintop to another." There was no spirit of accomplishment or conquest in it for me, so now I just say "moseying".

    It's true that sometimes the situations we don't choose to experience end up being just as valuable as those we do. But I don't think Rowlands is flatly arguing against the benefits of delayed gratification; I think he's just warning of the danger of death by a thousand cuts, i.e. compromising too much for the sake of an abstract future which may well never arrive according to plans.

  5. The assumption that we can be certain of what has "intrinsic value" and what does not, I find absurd. But I'll agree that one is better off being interested in life as it happens, rather than relying entirely on a future reward. I think we have more of a choice in that than most people realize. Chop wood, carry water, MO FO's. Be a monk on the assembly line.

  6. Brian M11:02 AM

    Well...OK. Definitely do it for the sense of accomplishment and challenge. But also for moseying! But a big part of it is fear of getting old...and fat again.

  7. Yeah, there's no reason not to have multiple motives and costs for any particular activity. Does walking the dog have "intrinsic value?" What about gambling? sex? It would be a sad thing indeed for one to see everything that has a payoff as having no value in the activity. I get the point of the dichotomy, but it just doesn't have to be the case.

  8. The assumption that we can be certain of what has "intrinsic value" and what does not, I find absurd.

    I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all standard, of course, but I don't find the idea absurd. Writing, for me, is definitely something of intrinsic value. I love doing it. I feel out of sorts when I'm too busy to write, like an out-of-tune guitar. And I have absolutely no desire to build a large readership or monetize the blog, so it's much closer to "play" than "work".

    But also, to Brian's point, it still has an element of accomplishment and challenge to it. I try to push myself to think better thoughts and express them more artfully. I keep looking for new sources of inspiration, new people to "think with". Yet, it still feels like a hobby, for lack of a better word. It's not something I do out of obligation, or as a step toward something bigger and better. It's perfect just as it is, and yet it still involves a type of striving.

    I think that's all Rowlands is arguing for: the need to have something in one's life that's as spontaneous and rewarding as play is for children.

  9. Brian M8:20 PM

    Makes sense. I might also throw in that I have simplified other aspects of my life (dogs have all passed on...rental instead of "home ownership", etc. and since I have utterly failed at adult "middle class" life, I have more time for "playing"...cycling, hiking, other hobbies.

  10. It's the parts of life judged to be without intrinsic value I was talking about. Seems like a self fulfilling prophecy to me.