Tuesday, 24 February 2015 19:00

3. Listening to the voice of Gabriel Marcel about meaning

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In his article “Testimony and Existentialism,” the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) discusses the meaningful life. His ideas do not develop systematically. They flow like music through a landscape of ideas.

Marcel distinguishes between two attitudes to life: the attitude of an observer, and of a witness.

Do I agree with this distinction? When you read a deep thinker, you don’t “agree” or “disagree.” Marcel is deep because his words awaken in us new understandings.

An observer is somebody who looks at life impersonally, as objective data to record and use. But a witness takes upon himself to testify, in court for example, perhaps in danger to his life. A witness accepts a commitment – a commitment to testify, to be faithful to truth.

Marcel has not invented these ideas. He is not writing his “own” thoughts. He is giving words to a “voice” that speaks in the life of many people. This is why we sometimes feel: “That’s exactly what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t find the words!” A deep thinker gives words to a voice of human existence.

But commitment to who? In front of whom do I testify? In front of the corrupt judge? In front of society which may not care?

I follow with Marcel the flow of ideas. I discover new voices, I am touched, I wonder, I stop to reflect.

To live like a witness is to be faithful to a light in the darkness, which is what makes life meaningful.

A light? Does such a light really exist? But that’s not the point here. I am not looking for theories about light.

Receiving a light doesn’t mean passivity. When you receive guests at home, receiving is very active – it involves giving, and giving from yourself.

I listen to Marcel’s words, and new understandings start speaking in me – about myself, about my life. This is the power of deep voices, that they arouse in us deep understandings. Philosophy can make a difference because it helps us hear voices that can touch us, inspire us, open us to new horizons of life.

Of course, says Marcel, I can refuse to acknowledge the light. I can refuse to receive it. But doing so would be despair – a meaningless life.

This is the power of philosophy – a power which we must learn to cultivate in philosophical practice: the power of understanding which can change us.

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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 PhiloLife.net