Diversity of Meaning and the Value of a Concept: Comments on Anna Alexandrova's A Philosophy for the Science of Well-Being

Res Philosophica 96 (4):529-535 (2019)
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In her impressive book, looking at the philosophy and science of well-being, Anna Alexandrova argues for the strong claim that we possess no stable, unified concept of well-being. Instead, she thinks the word “well-being” only comes to have a specific meaning in particular contexts, and has a quite different meaning in different contexts. I take issue with (1) her claim that we do not possess a unified, all-things-considered concept of well-being as well as with (2) her failure to consider why we might want a unified concept. I grant that Alexandrova is probably correct that the word “well-being” is used differently in different contexts. But this only shows that one word can come to be used to express different concepts. Moreover, noting that several concepts exist that are picked out by “well-being” doesn’t establish that we lack altogether a notion of all-things-considered well-being. I believe we have such a concept, even though it is not always the concept in play. Moreover, I think we need such a concept. The conceptual muddles Alexandrova highlights—muddles that result from a single word being used to express multiple ideas—remind us how important it is to be able to distinguish different concepts from one another, as well as how important it is to periodically remind ourselves of how various forms of specialist dialogue relate back to the broader, more general notion of “well-being.”

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Jennifer Hawkins
Duke University


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