Friday, 06 March 2015 19:00

7. First ingredient: Fundamental issues of human existence

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Perhaps we disagree on the definition of “philosophy,” but one thing is clear: Philosophy is the kind of discussions written by Plato and Aristotle, Spinoza, Rousseau, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Bergson, and others like them. These writings are central examples of what philosophy is.

Therefore, if we want to know which counseling is “philosophical,” we must look at these historical writings. And when we look at them, we notice:

All philosophers, East and West, discussed fundamental issues of existence. They didn’t just talk about my anxiety, or about your happiness, or his relationship. They investigated happiness in general, the essence of anxiety, the human meaning of relationships.

The conclusion is clear: In order to be “philosophical,” a counseling must discuss fundamental, general issues of existence. It may also do additional things, but this is the minimal condition.

So what happens if my counseling discusses only somebody’s personal situation – never general issues of existence, only specific personal problems?

Well, in that case my counseling is not part of the historical discourse that is called “philosophy.” It doesn’t matter if I use logical thinking, it doesn’t matter if I open my heart to my counselee’s experiences – if I don’t explore basic, general issues of human existence, then my counseling is not philosophical.

For example, what happens if I discuss with my counselee only her personal love story, and not what love means in general? Or, only her specific anxiety, but not the place of anxiety in the human condition?

Well, my counseling may be wonderful, but it is not “philosophical.” And if I insist on calling it “philosophy” then I am misleading people. A zebra will not become an elephant just because I decide to call it “an elephant.” A conversation will not become “philosophical” just because I decide to call it “philosophy.”

Of course, philosophical counseling can also discuss personal issues – but always in relation to the big questions of life, always in connection with fundamental issues of existence. This is not because the big questions are better, but simply because this is what “philosophy” means.

But here we must be careful: Every philosophical conversation discusses fundamental issues, but not every discussion of fundamental issues is philosophy. Fundamental issues are also discussed in religion, literature, psychology. Fundamental issues are a necessary ingredient, but not sufficient – additional ingredients are needed to make a counseling “philosophical.”

In my next reflections I will explore these additional ingredients.

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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