Wednesday, 18 March 2015 20:00

4. Theories of meaning as networks of ideas

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In my last two reflections on this string, I discussed two philosophical conceptions of the meaningful life: by William James and by Gabriel Marcel. They are very different from each other – the first talks about efforts towards a goal, the second about being a witness to the light.

If we look at Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings, we will find a third, very different conception of meaning. Nietzsche doesn’t use the words “a meaningful life,” but he speaks about something very similar –about a noble life that is worth living.

In his Thus Spoke Zarathustra, we find the ideas of “self-overcoming” and “self-creation.” This means that the individual overcomes his small psychology – his conformist, fearful self. He creates for himself a bigger self, a self which creates its own values, and follows them passionately.

Nietzsche’s conception of meaning is obviously very different from the views of Marcel or of James. There is almost no similarity between his self-creating “overman” and Marcel’s witness to a light, or James’ hard-working worker. These three visions are not even opposites – they cannot be put on the same coordinate.

But this radical difference is the door to an important insight. Each of the three visions creates its own separate world. Each of them revolves around a different center – around the concept of “self-overcoming,” around the concept of “witness,” and of “effort towards a goal.” And around these three centers, each vision builds additional ideas.

Marcel’s main concepts can be sketched like this:


          Light/darkness                                                 Uncommitted

      Faithfulness              WITNESS - OBSERVER              Uninvolved

         Creative receiving                                            Objective facts


James’ important concepts are completely different:



                                   Will          EFFORT - GOAL

                 Focus, Attention

Nietzsche’s basic concepts are a different story:


              Accepted norms                                                  Self-created values

                     Comfort        SMALL SELF   -   SELF-OVERCOMING     Passion

                Conformity                                      SELF-CREATION      Creativity

                      Security                                                               Danger

This is what I call “networks of ideas.” Three different philosophical theories about the same topic, each of them using a completely different network of ideas!

Philosophers construct networks of ideas about basic life-issues. But not only philosophers. Every human being interprets his world, organizes his world – in short, constructs networks of ideas. Every human being has an understanding of “the meaningful life,” although usually not in words. A person LIVES his network of ideas through his choices, emotions, fantasies, hopes.

And this is an important point of contact between philosophy and everyday life. The person in the street LIVES what philosophers PHILOSOPHIZE about. Philosophers are experts in networks of ideas. They can help people understand their worlds and expand them.



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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