16 Mar 2015

9. Not critical thinking but networks of ideas

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In a previous reflection I said that in order to be "philosophical," a discourse must discuss basic issues of existence. This is a necessary ingredient in any discourse that is philosophical – but it is not enough. Additional ingredients are needed in order to distinguish philosophy from psychology, theology, etc.

What are these additional ingredients?

Some practitioners believe that what makes a discourse "philosophy" is that it uses logical analysis (or critical thinking). If your counseling analyzes the logic of arguments, or exposes assumptions, or detects logical fallacies – then it is philosophical.

I find this a very strange idea. Is logic the main thing which we learn in a philosophy department? Is critical thinking the main thing we find in books by Plato or Seneca or Kierkegaard or Bergson?

Obviously not. Philosophers do not simply ANALYZE ideas – they CONSTRUCT ideas. Throughout history, philosophers constructed rich and complex theories – theories of knowledge, theories of art, of love, of freedom. These theories help us make sense of life, they inspire us to look in new ways at our world, they help us address basic life-issues.

Of course, sometimes these thinkers use logical analysis, but this is not their main point. Philosophers use critical thinking – but no more than physicists or biologists or psychologists or economists or lawyers. ANYBODY who builds theories or explanations uses critical thinking (logical analysis). There is nothing especially philosophical about it.

This is an important conclusion for philosophical practice. If you do a logical analysis of your counselee's personal problems, then this does not make your counseling "philosophical." If your discussion-group does a logical analysis of a political situation, this is not yet "philosophy." Your counseling, or discussion-group, may be wonderful, but it has no special connection to the historical discourse that is called "philosophy."

Constructing theories about basic life-issues is what all philosophers do. But the words "constructing theories" are too rigid. Some philosophers – think of Bergson, Buber, or Nietzsche – do not build rigid theoretical structures. Rather, they "weave" or "compose" ways of understanding. And what they compose is not exactly "theories," but more generally "networks of ideas."

In summary, let me combine my previous reflection (philosophy deals with basic issues of existence) with the present reflection (philosophy weaves network of ideas): In order to do "philosophy," you must, at the very least, weave networks of ideas which address basic, general issues of existence.

But what exactly is a "network of ideas"? This question deserves a separate 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 PhiloLife.net