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A Significant Life: Human Meaning in a Silent Universe

3.64  ·  Rating details ·  167 ratings  ·  33 reviews
What makes for a good life, or a beautiful one, or, perhaps most important, a meaningful one? Throughout history most of us have looked to our faith, our relationships, or our deeds for the answer. But in A Significant Life, philosopher Todd May offers an exhilarating new way of thinking about these questions, one deeply attuned to life as it actually is: a work in progres ...more
Hardcover, 240 pages
Published April 2nd 2015 by University of Chicago Press
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Mar 20, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
This is philosophy through-and-through (not self-help). But I daresay this did more to lift the fog of existential nihilism for me than any other collection of ideas in a long time. While much of the book is given to following somewhat familiar lines of reasoning for and against sources of meaning, the real value here is in Todd May's solution to the problem of objective vs. subjective sources of meaning.

I have always fallen into the trap of reasoning that, since I cannot fathom a source of obj
Michael: Searching for meaning is philosophical suicide. How does anyone do anything when you understand the fleeting nature of existence?

We might as well give this book a go and try to avoid the Jenga tower of nihilism.
Later on, May's biggest hit, Death. (Update: Well... I'm not sure now. March 16, 19)

Jan 26, 19
Dec 18, 2019 rated it it was ok
May sets out to provide an answer (not the answer) to the question of the meaning of life, a topic he notes is surprisingly little written about in philosophy.

I found this pretty unsatisfying, with May engaging in many of what I've come to think of "typical philosopher pitfalls". He spends a ton of time pointlessly telling us what old, dead philosophers thought. (They were wrong. Who cares? When teaching someone calculus we don't go over all the dead mathematicians who were wrong before Leibniz
Slade Hogan
Jan 03, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
When May first introduced the idea of narrative values, I was not intrigued. It seemed too vague and incapable of assigning meaningfulness to life. However, I kept reading, and I was convinced.

My favorite quote comes from the conclusion: “The key here is that meaningfulness lies not in what is achieved or recognized, but in how a life is lived. Narrative values show us that the way we go about crafting our lives, whether consciously so or not, can determine their meaningfulness. This has nothin
Mar 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: existentialism
I liked this book because it articulated a lot of things I had some intuitions about before. It left me with some big questions like: who get's to say what is evil? In a culture that practices human sacrifice, is the priest's life meaningful? May sidesteps questions about moral relativism. Overall a good read! Spoiler alert, the answer is 42. ...more
Victoria Hawco
Mar 17, 2020 rated it really liked it
Todd doesn’t quite make the silent universe speak, but it’s a near thing.

“It turns out life isn’t a puzzle that can be solved one time and it’s done. You wake up every day, and you solve it again” Chidi Anagonye, from the Todd May informed show The Good Place.
Erik Larsson
Dec 31, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: philosophy
"Rather than meaning being a something, it can be a someway". May encourages us to reflect on the narrative values connecting our past to our present and future. We ought to ask, do these narrative values lend meaningfulness to my life? (Both subjectively (my experience), but also somehow objectively (universal appeal). Thinking in this way shifts us from the sometimes otherwise passive pursuit of meaning (we don't just receive meaning, we create it, and often we should strive to give it as well ...more
Jay Booth
Jun 12, 2020 rated it really liked it
Main Takeaways:
Ultimately this book supports virtues, or as the author calls it: narrative values (in an attempt to make it sound original/like it's his idea)
Does an alright job of discussing other approaches, like why the pursuit of happiness isn't the highest goal
Interesting thought experiments: Would you accept being hooked into a machine that continually stimulated your pleasure center for your whole life but you didn't do anything?
Goes on in a confusing way to remove the foundation from any
Nripesh Pradhan
Jun 04, 2017 rated it it was ok
Todd May undertakes a rather difficult task of explaining "what makes a life meaningful." He encourages to find "meaning" in an arbitrary facticity that we are all thrown at but writes of the arbitrariness of the facticity itself as the "end of the web", where any more justification is impossible.
He does manage to grab the attention of the reader by deflecting the deeper problem until the last chapter, by showing just enough to lure the readers to wait for an impending answer. But there is only
Dec 12, 2019 rated it really liked it
Interesting book with a lot to say about meaning and a meaningful life. He gives memorable examples and discusses the topic well in light language without hiding behind jargon. That being said, I give it 4 stars because I can't agree with his interpretation of Values as 'Objective' . It's a word game he's playing and he knows it. He even admits that there is no foundation outside the web of human practice to give foundation to what we do (Which I can agree with) BUT still wants to call it 'Objec ...more
May 09, 2020 rated it liked it
It’s a tall order for a 200-page book to fulfill: propose a post-theistic framework for human significance that doesn’t fall into well-known tropes of moral relativism.

It does as much as it can, primarily via two tools. One is a novel (if perhaps too nebulous) concept of “narrative values.” The other is the proposition that our web of beliefs and assumptions can each be examined and interrogated, without undermining the network as a whole.

It’s a bit harsh on Camus, and perhaps overly optimistic
Tom Howard
Mar 29, 2020 rated it really liked it
The idea are worth exploring and there's a lot here to like. The writing to probably a little too academic, in the sense that it reads a bit like a dissertation, overly repetitive and without ever making any interesting leaps that push the reader forward. It feels like a hybrid, not quite academic and not quite "popular moral philosophy" (if there is such a thing, and if there's not, maybe there should be). But again, the ideas are well constructed and worth thinking about. (Plus there's the who ...more
This is certainly not the type of book I would pick up on my own. I had to read it for my Introduction to Philosophy class this semester. It is definitely somewhat interesting but repetitive and mostly slow-paced. I feel it could have done better with more anecdotes--the ones it does have really make the arguments more compelling. It is easy to comprehend, but also easy to disagree with. Not the worst thing my professor could have chosen for us to read, I'm sure. ...more
Tom Pepper
Superficial answers to big questions.

It is hard to begin to list the errors in this book. The arguments are mostly in the form of rhetorical questions, and the basic assumptions about the naturalness of capitalism and naive acceptance of silly Romantic ideology as a source of meaning are obvious enough. A very disappointing book. I feel sorry for any philosophy student subjected to May as a professor—I had two like him in college, and abandoned philosophy in despair.
Nov 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 5-stars, nonfiction
This book is a true delight for those who are weary of searching for meaning without ever finding what feels like an adequate answer. May’s concept of narrative values provide, as his conclusion states, “not everything; but something.”

His prose is also a delight to read as he amicably meanders through complex topics and hairy philosophical questions such as the possibility of objectivity.
Jessica Johnson
Oct 11, 2019 rated it really liked it
Since this was my first philosophy book, there were moments - especially at the beginning - when I struggled to wrap my head around the logical arguments May was making. That said, once it clicked, this book was a joy to read. It is so refreshing to read about creating a life worth living. By the end you feel like you’ve been given a real, valuable answer.

John RS
Jan 30, 2021 rated it liked it
The first half of this book is engaging, well-written and a perfect refresher on basic philosophical ideas. The last half loses its way narratively. It becomes unfocused, unconvincing and ultimately unsatisfying. Its oftentimes too dreary and lacks anecdotes to keep the ideas grounded. Would make a decent background reading to a Philosophy course, but it is far from essential.
Juliana Provvidenza
Apr 17, 2019 rated it liked it
Didn't hate this book, but didn't like it either. Scattered and all over the board. I don't like the idea of needing subjective attractiveness and also not a fan of his argument against God and finding meaningfulness in faith- VERY under developed. It was OK. ...more
Aug 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Engaging, accessible, thoughtful, fair, and quite possibly correct. A terrific read, and particularly useful for non-specialists to engage the complex questions regarding significance without being trite or impenetrable.
Patricia Baker
Jan 22, 2021 rated it really liked it
I found this book interesting and his theory of how to define a meaningful life worth considering. He does a good job of laying out his ideas and building step by step to make the philosophy easy to follow.
Laura De
Well, turns out I can’t have a significant life because I have ill health and trauma in mine already. Who knew?
Aug 27, 2019 rated it did not like it
Shelves: life
A Significant Life, in the end, offers no real significant answers to it's main question-what makes life meaningful. Read if you like books that are mind-bendingly existential and metaphysical. ...more
Jun 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
For anyone lost in life, this book really sets the course for understanding existentialism in a way where nihilism isn't an immeadiate choice. ...more
Mark Croft
Nov 28, 2020 rated it really liked it
An essay more than a book. Proposes how to assess life as meaningful thru narrative values. Compelling and well argued. On it’s path, it shows the deception of modern success measures.
Dec 16, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: philosophy, athiesm
Can life be meaningful? After ruling out (a bit too quickly) the possibilities that the nature of the universe itself provides a criterion of meaningfulness (Aristotle) and that God provides meaning, May rejects existential nihilism (Camus). Drawing on a variety of disciplines, May sketches what an objective(ish) account of a meaningful life looks like. The subjective component includes a person being attracted to, engaged in, and to some extent fulfilled by his or her projects. The objective pa ...more
Apr 15, 2018 rated it really liked it
Although I felt this work suffered from some of the same problems as May's *Death* - in that it can read a bit belabored at parts - I did enjoy this book more for the topic/s covered. I have to say that I'm not completely convinced May argued away Camus' main point as much as he set out to do, because he never convinces that the world is not ultimately and inherently meaningless and absurd, he does show how meaning can be created from more than just arbitrary values by basing it on values seemin ...more
Anna Maria Ballester Bohn
Again, this should probably be a four stars, because it *is* a great book with great insights, but somehow I wasn't as enthusiastic about it all the time as I felt it should be. Maybe it was because of the (surely necessary) bouts of theory, this very slow approximation to the core of things which is, of course, the very nature of philosophy. Maybe that's why I don't read so much philosophy. This patient deconstruction of every argument and counter-argument, when the original proposition already ...more
Sep 04, 2015 rated it really liked it
It took me awhile to read this book. I'd pick it up in the morning and read a few pages and then get distracted by a concept or idea or turn of phrase or reference to another piece of writing. What resonates with me from this book is the question/validity of using the concept of narrative values to ascribe meaning to life. This is why I write, why as a child I was so drawn to writing as a means to explore my own inner landscape and thus learn to navigate life now equipped with these "instruction ...more
Michael Baranowski
Jun 01, 2015 rated it really liked it
This is not light reading, that's for sure, but it's not impenetrable academic gobbledygook either. May takes on a super-tough question - Is there meaning in a universe without a god? - and comes up with a plausible argument that there is, and it's to be found in what he terms 'narrative values'. I wasn't totally convinced and I wish he'd spent some time discussing how we might use this to develop more meaningful lives. That said, it was a deeply intelligent and humane book that made me think ab ...more
Mills College Library
128 M4674 2015
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Todd has been teaching at Clemson for nearly thirty years. For many of those years his area of specialization in philosophy was recent French thought, especially that of Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze. More recently he has turned his attention to broader life concerns: meaning in life, coping with suffering, acting with moral decency, and so on. He is the author of sixteen books of philosophy. ...more

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