Saturday, 11 April 2015 20:00

3. How not to play with ideas

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In his essay "Circles," the 19th century American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson describes inspired conversations:

(I am simplifying here his poetic language)

In usual hours, people sit in society, cold like a statue. We all stand waiting, empty – knowing that we can be full, surrounded by powerful meanings that are not meaningful to us, but are trivial toys of thought. Then comes the "god" [=inspiration] and converts the statues into people-on-fire, and burns up the cover which hides all things, and the many meanings become manifest. The facts which seemed so large in the fog of yesterday, now strangely change their proportions. Everything which we believed was solid, now shakes and rattles, and the foundation dances before our eyes.

This is the power of ideas, which Emerson knew so well. He wrote about it in many of his beautiful essays. He knew that the power of ideas is temporary. Moments of this power are rare, and they disappear quickly. As he said earlier in the same essay:

Tomorrow you shall find those people bending under their usual weight. Yet, let us enjoy the flame while it glows on our walls. When each speaker strikes a new light... we seem to recover our rights to become human beings.

Yes, we may be inspired now, but tomorrow we will be back to our automatic, opinionated thinking which leaves us cold, which doesn't touch our hearts. And then, we may say things that are smart and clever, but they will be just a "trivial toy," a logical game, an abstract calculation, or an opinion that we chant like the party's ideology. Opinions are like a hat on the head: they are easy to put on and easy take off, without changing us at all.

This is an important lesson for philosophical practitioners: By default, human thinking is a game of opinions. The "automatic pilot" in our head follows patterns of thought, and it doesn't involve the depth of our being. If we bring people together in a discussion group, they usually play with ideas like "trivial toys," or (as Nietzsche would say) like "cracking nuts."

Therefore, if, as philosophical practitioners, we want to go beyond patterns of thought, beyond logical games, beyond declarations of opinions, then we should change the settings of the conversation. We must find methods and rules that would orient us towards thinking from the heart. If we want the power of ideas to inspire the participants, then we need to structure the conversation differently, so that it would pull us out of our "default thinking."

Recently, I and my colleagues have experimented with structured conversations in small groups – we call them "companionships." The result is deep and inspiring conversations. I would like to share them with you in my next reflection.


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Ran Lahav

I am a philosophical practitioner, working with individuals and self-reflection groups. I received my PhD in philosophy and MA in psychology from the University of Michigan in 1989. I then started teaching philosophy at a university in Texas, but was not satisfied with academic philosophy. In 1992 I started practicing philosophical counseling, and a year later started giving at Haifa University (Israel) the first university course in the world about this field, and continued teaching it for 15 years. In 1994 I initiated the First International Conference on Philosophical Counseling, and co-organized it with Lou Marinoff. In 2014 I envisioned the Agora webpage, and launched it together with my friend and colleague Carmen Zavala from Peru.

I now live quietly in rural Vermont (northeast USA), where I write, walk in nature, and teach online at two universities. I also give workshops on philosophical practice around the world. My publications include two novels in Hebrew, an anthology on philosophical practice in English, two books on philosophical practice in Italian, and more than 30 professional articles.

My professional website is