Thursday, 12 February 2015 19:00

2. Listening to the voice of William James about meaning

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I sit down and read the article "What makes life significant" by the American thinker William James (1842–1910). What am I looking for? A final answer to question of the meaning of life?

No, I know that James cannot give me THE answer. I am listening to a “voice” that speaks in this text about meaning – a voice that spoke in James’ mind, a voice that sometimes speaks in me, too, and in human life.

James rejects the idea that your life is meaningful when all your needs are satisfied. When we have everything we need, life is empty. But James also rejects Tolstoy’s idea that EVERY struggle is meaningful. A hardship that has no goal is pointless. It is meaningful only if it has a purpose.

James’ is not the only voice that speaks in human life. Many other voices speak to us about meaning – some speak more strongly and some less, some speak only in certain moments. James gave words to one voice in the rich symphony of human reality.

Therefore, says James, a meaningful life contains two elements: First, a struggle. Second, a goal – a small goal or big goal, mundane or glorious.

Is James’ idea “true”? No, a philosophical idea is not true or false. It is deep or superficial, rich or trivial. It can deepen my understanding, and it can enrich me.

In another lecture, James explain that a struggle requires a mental effort. I keep a goal in my mind, with the effort of attention. This makes my struggle meaningful.

Some voices are deeper than others, more or less enlightening, inspiring, clear. But I listen to all of them – to all the voices that speak in my life, and in human life. James’ idea is perhaps not the deepest, a little too “American,” but it is one of the voices that speak in life. I listen to it because I am a philosophical practitioner.

A philosophical practitioner listens to the many voices of human reality, and helps others listen to them. He (or she) is familiar with many voices, because he knows many thinkers who gave them words.

A meaningful action, says James, involves a mental struggle – an effort to fix our attention on an ideal, despite temptations, fears, weaknesses, distractions.

As a philosophical practitioner, I prefer “voices” to “theories.” Theories are too rigid, too final. Voices speak in me, and speak with each other. They inspire me, tempt me, confuse me, frighten me, reveal to me their secrets – and my own secrets.

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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