AN INTERVIEW WITH RAN LAHAV

By Carlo Basili

 

The following interview with Ran Lahav was conducted in January of 2013 by Carlo Basili, a prominent philosophical practitioner from Phronesis, the Italian Association for Philosophical Counseling. The interview was published in Italian on the webpage of Phronesis (http://lnx.phronesis.info/)

 

The following is a translation from the original Italian text:

 

Ran Lahav has been one of the pioneers of Philosophical Practice, and is still among the itsmost visible and active exponents on the international scene. Together with Lou Marinoff he organized the first conference of Philosophical Practice (The 1st ICPP, in Vancouver, 1994), and throughout the years has contributed to the development of the field, while engaging in intense organizational and theoretical activity. He is well known in Italy, where he collaborated with Phronesis and with Sicof and where he frequently gives seminars. In Italian he has published two books about philosophical practice: Comprendere la vita [Understanding life] (2004) and Oltre la filosofia [Beyond Philosophy] (2010). Other texts of Ran are available at the website www.trans-sophia.net which also contains a section in Italian with texts and videos. On his site PhiloLife.net one can find a broad collection of videos on philosophical practice.

 

Carlo: Dear Ran, I want to use this opportunity to take stock of the situation of the philosophical practice movement. A lot of water has passed under the bridge from the first ICPP which you organized with Lou Marinoff in Vancouver (1994) to the last one that took place in Korea this year. What is your opinion about the road we have traveled so far?

Ran: Well, Carlo, I believe that several notable things have happened since the early 1990s. One positive development is that we now have a very pluralistic field. We have many different groups and many individual practitioners, and they think and work and write in different ways. I believe that this is good – pluralism can be a fertile ground for new ideas and new experiments. It seems to me that this pluralism is a result of the fact that we never had a “Freud” – in other words, one single intellectual authority who became the starting point of every discussion. Even Gerd Achenbach, who inspired many, has never been such a central authority. This is partly because most philosophers around the world do not speak German, and probably also because Achenbach has not provided a clear and workable model for philosophical practice. As a result, many practitioners and groups around the world had to start almost from zero. They had to re-invent what philosophical practice meant, and they did this in a variety of ways. This pluralism, I think, is one good thing about the way philosophical practice movement has been developing over the past 30 years.

Carlo: Great. But something tells me there will be a problematic side too…

Ran: The problematic side, I think, is that after those 30 years we still don’t have a clear understanding of what we are doing. I am not familiar with any deep, comprehensive conception of philosophical practice, or of philosophical counseling (and I regard philosophical counseling as a sub-field within the larger field of philosophical practice). When I go to an international conference on philosophical practice, or read papers and books in the field, I don’t find comprehensive visions of how philosophical reflection can help people live a better, deeper, more meaningful life. I find fragments of ideas that are interesting and promising, I find clever methods and techniques, but not deep, overarching visions. For example, many philosophical practitioners use critical thinking in order to help counselees analyze their lives or their personal problems – but this in itself is just an isolated technique, not a real vision about philosophy and life. Philosophy is much more than the technique of logical analysis, and in any case, logical analysis is not the highest contribution which 2600 years of philosophy can make to human life. Where are the wonderful treasures of philosophy—the rich philosophies of love, of meaning, of life—which many thinkers have developed for centuries? If you look at life through logic alone, you will inevitably over-simplify and trivialize life. Human life is complex, and philosophical life-issues are deep, but I am not sure that current approaches to philosophical practice can deal with this complexity and this depth. In fact, this may be why philosophical practice, including philosophical counseling, has so far failed to attract the attention of the general public.

Carlo: I wonder if your reflection on the problematic side of philosophical practice doesn’t put the good side, too, in a bad light. It sounds as if the pluralism of new ideas and experiments leads only to the consequence that we don’t know what we are doing. Am I wrong?

Ran: Well, I wouldn’t say that this pluralism is bad. I find in our field many good ideas, but they are only fragments, they are only beginnings. They have not yet matured into a full overall conception of philosophical practice. A mature approach to philosophical practice must be much more than a method or technique. It must include a vision of how philosophy can change life in a significant way, and this means a vision of human existence. It cannot be silent on the fundamental issues of human existence, or take them for granted. Of course, this is a huge task, and in order to develop such a vision (or several alternative visions, I hope!) we must start somewhere. The pluralistic fragments which we now have may serve as seeds for future developments.

The interesting thing is that we have excellent people in the philosophical practice world. Many philosophical practitioners are thoughtful, intelligent, and caring people. They are familiar with the history of philosophy, and they make interesting philosophical reflections about life. If you ask them to write an abstract article or to give an abstract lecture, they would say fascinating things about important life-issues. The problem is that these abstract ideas remain abstract ideas. The difficult question is how to translate these ideas into the context of counseling, or philosophical practice in general. The task is, in other words, to connect our beautiful philosophical reflections to everyday life. This situation is a little absurd: We have many intelligent philosophical practitioners who can reflect on life in a deep way, and yet we don’t know how to turn our deep ideas into deep philosophical practice, in other words into real life.

Carlo: Alright, let’s go now from the general to the particular, from the scene to the actors. You are one of the main characters in the philosophical practice movement and one of its best-known researchers. Do you encounter the same difficulties that you find in the field of philosophical practice in general? In other words, what is your answer to the central problem you formulated, the connection between philosophy and the good life?

Ran: If you are asking me whether my own approach is deep and mature, then as a traditional saying goes: “the baker cannot testify to the quality of his own dough.” My approach to philosophical practice is certainly not as deep as I would like it to be. But I can say this: I am TRYING to make it deep. And I regard those philosophical practitioners who are TRYING to develop deep approaches as my companions. They are my companions no matter how successful they are, even if their opinions are very different from mine.

You ask me about the connection between philosophy and the good life, and I would like to complicate your question a little bit: What is the connection between philosophy, the good life, and everyday life? I added “everyday life”—especially those routine, repetitive, tedious moments in which one is lost in errands, or is on an “automatic pilot”—because this is a huge part of the day. If we don’t include it in the picture, I don’t think we can understand how philosophy can be relevant to life. In my own approach, the connecting point is the human yearning to go from ordinary life to the good life. This is an idea that I received from many important philosophers throughout the history of philosophy: Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Spinoza, Rousseau, Emerson, Nietzsche, Marcel, Buber, and many others. I call these philosophers “transformational thinkers” because they think that although our everyday life is normally limited and superficial, nevertheless it is possible to transform it into a fuller, deeper, richer life. This is the heart of my approach to philosophical practice.

You might say that this approach reflects my own personal preferences, and this is true. Personally I am a seeker. I have always felt the yearning in my heart, so I regard philosophy as a journey, an ongoing search. But I don’t expect all philosophical practitioners to be like me. Other practitioners may come to the field with different life-experiences, and they may develop different visions of life and philosophy that are just as deep and rich. Of course, I hope that we would have a plurality of different visions, not just one authoritarian doctrine—an authoritarian doctrine would go against the very spirit of philosophy.

Carlo: I would like to stay with this point if you don’t mind. “I am a seeker,” you said, and anyone who knows you would confirm that this is one of your distinguishing traits. Like all real seekers, you live at the boundary. In philosophical practice this means going to the boundaries of philosophy itself, and sometimes, to quote your own words, “beyond philosophy.”Someone once said that by searching this “beyond” you ended up with a practice that seems more mystical or spiritual than philosophical. On the basis of what I read and saw from your work, it seems to me that your practice is fully philosophical. I think that the movement between the philosophical and the extra-philosophical is probably the characteristic of philosophical practice. What do you think about it?

Ran: This is a very interesting point, Carlo, that philosophical practice—and probably philosophical reflection in general—oscillates between the philosophical and the extra-philosophical. You are right that people sometimes complain that my approach is too spiritual, and even that it is not philosophical enough. Perhaps they believe that the “philosophical” is limited to logical arguments. But if this was true, then Bergson, Nietzsche, Jaspers, Camus and many others would not be philosophers. And obviously they are.

Is my work within the boundaries of philosophy or is it outside them? I don’t know, and I don’t care very much. The important thing is that I try to develop, in myself and in others, an understanding of basic life-issues that is as deep as possible. Understandings, or ideas, have a tremendous power to make a difference to our lives – this is a central theme in my approach. Ideas can inspire us or block us, they can open our minds or close our minds, make us feel hopeful or desperate, loving or arrogant, they can focus and re-orient our behavior, elevate us, reveal to us new horizons of life. Think, for example, how a social vision, or a religious idea, or an existential realization, can inspire us and change our lives completely.

The problem is that since ideas are so powerful, they can also influence us in negative ways, for example in dogmatic thinking that closes our minds, not to mention racist ideas. So the challenge for philosophical practice is how to use ideas to open us and make life deeper and fuller, as opposed to dogmas or simplistic formulas that limit our life and make it superficial or even brutal. For me, in order to be philosophical you must deal with ideas in an open-minded, non-dogmatic, critical way. But this doesn’t mean that we must rely only on logic. Open-mindedness to ideas has many dimensions, some of them poetic or spiritual. On the contrary, if you accept only hard logic, then you close your mind to many aspects of human existence.

This is why I feel very comfortable going beyond logical thinking. Logical thinking is important, but it is not our only tool for understanding. This is an important insight that is central to my approach: We have a variety of inner resources to understand, aside from logical thinking. Some of them are not easily accessible—they require work, self-development, and sometimes special inner attitudes. So my work includes meditative techniques, contemplative reading, poetic writing, drawing and acting, even something similar to prayer. As a result, people sometimes say that my work is too spiritual. Is my work spiritual? Well, if “spiritual” means trying to connect to our inner depths, to our deeper capacities to feel and understand, then yes, my work is definitely spiritual.

Carlo: You’re right, Ran, these are very interesting questions, potentially endless, because we are asking what philosophy is. For me the philosophical field is very broad and it includes what you call, in your booklet from 2005, “Contemplative Philosophy.” But talking about your practical way of work, I believe that you don’t always use the tools of contemplative philosophy. In individual philosophical counseling, as far as I can see in the videos with Carmen and Autumn, you do a more standard kind of philosophical practice: conceptual analysis, critical thinking etc. In contrast, in philosophical practice groups you seem to use more contemplative techniques: meditation, imagination, breathing exercises, etc.

Ran: It is true, Carlo, that I use contemplative methods mainly in group activities, and much less in individual counseling. I find it awkward to do a contemplative exercise with a single counselee sitting in front of me. I tried it in the past, and the counselees felt very uncomfortable—it is not easy to do an exercise under your counselor’s full attention. Doing exercises in a group is much more natural and effective. Also, contemplative methods are less important in individual counseling. When I speak with an individual counselee, we can spend a long time looking at one or two personal experiences, often with the help of philosophical texts, and we can do it deeply even without contemplative activity.

I should say, though, that even in individual counseling I don’t focus on logical analysis or critical thinking. Although I also analyze, especially in the first couple of sessions when we try to note behavioral and emotional patterns, the focus of the counseling is always on the counselee’s experiences. We look very carefully at concrete experiences, ones that seem so ordinary that the counselee takes them for granted, or ones that are so brief and unique that the counselee doesn’t pay much attention to them. Going deeply into an experience is an art. I love exploring small experiences. In my own personal life I am a collector of experiences, my own and those of people I love. It is like finding treasures, or to use a Kabbalistic metaphor, like finding sparks of light in the mud.

The main tools I use in order to go deeper into such experiences is self-reflection, and also reflection on philosophical ideas. I often present to the counselee relevant philosophical ideas of great philosophers, or even brief philosophical passages that we read together. Working with the ideas of great thinkers—reflecting on ourselves through such ideas, modifying them in order to make them more relevant to us, rejecting them in favor of an alternative—is an excellent way to deepen our self-understanding. This way, the focus of the counseling is on ideas, insights, sources of inspiration, not mere logical analysis.

Nevertheless, I prefer philosophical practice in groups. In a group we can do contemplative exercises, we can utilize the power of companionship, of group energy and group understanding. That’s why in my work I focus primarily on philosophical practice in groups, and I try to avoid doing philosophical counseling.

Carlo: So are you saying that there are different ways of doing philosophical practice, depending on the context? Would you agree that it is one thing to do philosophical practice that starts from counselee’s concrete everyday problems, and another thing to do philosophical practice that starts from the desire for understanding and inner growth?

Ran: I agree with you, Carlo, that group activity is very different from individual counseling. In fact, I believe that counseling is not a very good format for philosophical practice. The framework of counseling comes from modern psychology: A client comes to your office, you talk together for one hour about some personal problem, and then he or she pays you and leaves—this is the basic format of the “talking cure,” of psychotherapy. Who decided that this framework, which works for psychology, is also good for philosophy? I don’t remember any serious discussion about this issue among philosophical practitioners.

I believe that this counseling framework is a little foreign to the spirit of philosophy. Philosophy is not primarily about your problem with your spouse or your difficulties at work. Philosophy is about deepening your understanding of life, it is about self-development, depth and wisdom. In my own practice I try to aim at these goals, even when individuals want to do counseling with me—I certainly don’t focus on their personal problems—but I don’t think that counseling is the best format for this purpose.

So why did the philosophical practice movement choose the path of counseling? Why is it trying to squeeze philosophy where it does not exactly belong—into the framework of psychotherapy? Perhaps because of the example of Gerd Achenbach who, unfortunately, started his practice in this way. And perhaps also because philosophers want to turn their practice into a job, like psychotherapists. Doing SOME philosophical counseling from time to time, as a secondary activity, may be fine in special cases, but I believe that the great focus on counseling has been a big mistake in the philosophical practice movement.

If you read articles and discussions from the first fifteen years of the movement, you will see that the main topic was: How are we different from psychologists, what can we do better than them? At the beginning, I too was involved in this issue, but very quickly I realized that this whole debate was misguided. If we are philosophers, then we are not in competition with psychologists, just as we are not in competition with medical doctors, or with lawyers, or with car mechanics. Because philosophy is not for people who might go to a psychologist to deal with their family difficulties or with their problems with their boss. Philosophy is for people who want to deepen and enrich their lives, who yearn to grow in wisdom and understanding. A truly philosophical kind of practice is more similar to popular self-development workshops, or to evening classes for adults, or to Buddhist retreats, or even to New Age groups—in short, it is more similar to all those activities which people do to enrich their lives—than to psychological therapy and counseling.

Carlo: Ok, Ran, your message is loud and clear. You don’t like philosophical counseling very much, both in terms of its framework (the talking cure format) or its contents (problem with the wife, at work, etc.). I think and feel in a different way about philosophical counseling. What has always fascinated me in philosophical practice is the possibility to do philosophy starting from ordinary questions and problems, those common questions and problems that we all encounter in our daily experience. It seems to me that the space in which we can better deal with these problems is the philosophical counselor’s room or office. I understand your criticism about philosophical counseling, but don’t you think that if we deal only with high philosophical questions, like the search for wisdom, we might lose one of the distinguishing characteristics of philosophical practice—its close connection with everyday life?

Ran: I share your fascination, Carlo, with the connection between everyday life and philosophy. But I don’t think that a philosophy that searches for wisdom or meaning loses touch with everyday life. On the contrary, I think that somebody who doesn’t search for meaning and wisdom has lost touch with life. Somebody who spends his free time playing on the computer, watching TV, and buying clothes and electronics without asking basic questions is living very superficially. For me, philosophical practice should try to deepen life, not to help people live a shallow life.

I agree that the challenge of philosophical practice is to connect between life and philosophy—but it must do so without trivializing life and without trivializing philosophy. If I take the great treasures of philosophy and use them in order to make people satisfied with their superficial life, then I am trivializing life and trivializing philosophy. I am trivializing life because I am assuming that to live means to be preoccupied with small satisfactions without asking basic questions, without searching for meaning, without wanting to develop. And I am trivializing philosophy, because I am reducing the great treasures of philosophy to logical calculations about small satisfactions. So definitely, we should try to connect philosophy and everyday life, but by elevating life, not by lowering philosophy.

I am not belittling practical issues. Comfort, money, job security, health, satisfaction—these are legitimate concerns, as long as we are not obsessed with them. But I don’t think that they are the business of philosophy. The practical and the philosophical are two very different things. If you are practical then you want something that works, but if you are philosophical then you want something deep. If you are looking for a car that will take you to work, then depth is not an issue, you just want a safe and comfortable car. But a philosophy that doesn’t try to be deep does not deserve the name “philosophy.”

By the way, the notion of “deep” or “depth” is very important to me, but it is not easy to explain what it is. What exactly is a deep idea, or a deep understanding, or a deep book, or a deep thinker, or a deep life? Very few thinkers have discussed this in the history of philosophy. In fact, I am familiar only with one: Gabriel Marcel. This is very strange, isn’t it? I would expect philosophers, more than anybody else, to want to understand what “deep” means.

Carlo: Your reflections are very interesting, Ran, as usual. Nevertheless, I keep hoping that practical matters could be a philosophical affair and that we could deal with them in philosophical counseling. But this is my own approach, and it is not the issue now.

Now, let me ask you a different question: Given your point of view, of philosophical practice as a search for wisdom and depth and meaning, what do you think about the professional dimension of our discipline? You know that Phronesis—the Italian Association for Philosophical Counseling—is very much interested in this dimension. Do you agree with this approach?

Ran: I have a very ambivalent attitude to the professionalization of our field. On the one hand, if—and this is a big “if”—if we want philosophical practice to be a profession, then it is important to have serious professional standards, with clear rules and regulations. This means that you cannot practice without an official certification from an accredited organization; it means that in order to receive certification you must receive professional training at an accredited school, like the schools of Phronesis or Sicof; it means that the legal system in the country acknowledges this certification and enforces it; and it means that an organization of philosophical practice must maintain appropriate standards—a minimal number of active practitioners, an ongoing dialogue, democratic elections, a committee that examines the quality of work, etc.

I have a lot of respect for the professionalism of the Italian associations of Phronesis and Sicof. They both work hard to maintain high professional standards. Unfortunately, this is not the situation in the world in general. Many individuals around the world declare themselves philosophical practitioners without having any serious training. Many people who pretend to be “philosophical counselors” have never counseled any counselee, or maybe counseled only for two or three hours. And quite a few “associations” or “organizations” of philosophical practice—even “national” associations—are in fact a one-person show that represents nobody. I believe that professional standards, like those of Phronesis or Sicof, can help improve the situation in our field.

A good example of the need for professionalism in our field is how the upcoming international conference in Athens is being organized. If you followed the process, you know that it was neither professional nor democratic. This so-called 12th international conference of PP in Athens is a one-person or two-person show, not regulated by any committee. I think that this unfortunate situation is a result of the fact that we do not have a professional committee, with clear professional guidelines, to organize international events. This enables one single individual to take control of the process.

All this assumes that we want to be professionals. But do we want philosophical practice to be a profession? As I said, I am very ambivalent about it. Being a professional means being part of the system, being part of the economic game of supply and demand, of competition and advertisement, of consumerism. A philosopher who is a professional is part of the social order—he is a supplier of services, a provider of satisfaction, alongside with psychologists and car dealers and hairdressers. For me a real philosophical practitioner is something very different—he or she is somebody who critiques the social order, not somebody who tries to find a well-paying job within the social order. He (or she) is somebody who, like Socrates, examines the games people play, not someone who plays these games. He is somebody who questions “normality” rather than trying to live normally. Therefore, he cannot be part of the game, he cannot be a provider of services and satisfaction, he cannot be a professional.

Some practitioners tell me: But I need money! How will I live if I don’t earn a living? My response is: Then don’t be a philosophical practitioner. You can be a philosophy teacher, or a writer, or something else, but philosophical practice is not ajob, it is not a source of income. Just because you need money does not mean that we should change the meaning of “philosophical practice” and make it a profession.

I have a vision, which may never be realized: A network of philosophical provocateurs and mentors, like Socrates. They don’t have an office, they don’t hold sessions with counselees, they don’t make money from their practice. They simply talk with people around them—on the bus, in the street, in a café or a bar, at their home, in a gathering with a group of people. They converse with people to awaken in them the hidden doubt in “normal” life, the hidden yearning to search for better answers, for a deeper way of living. They provoke people to ask questions, they inspire them to look more deeply at their life-experiences, they undermine people’s sense of comfort and security. They are agitators, provocateurs, and they initiate an inner revolution in people’s life. You might say that they are a network of revolutionaries—but revolutionaries without a dogmatic ideology.

I think that this kind of philosopher would be much more philosophical than “respectable” professional philosophers who sit in an office and charge money for their services. But I know that this is a very unpopular idea. And since I must be practical, my suggestion is to distinguish between two very different practices: First, free philosophical practice—or what I sometimes call “Philo-Sophia”; and second, domesticated or normalized philosophical practice. Sometimes I call these two kinds “grand philosophical practice” versus “small philosophical practice.”

So if somebody asked me: Should I become a professional philosophical counselor? I would reply: Sure, go ahead, there is nothing wrong in doing this—as long as you remember that your philosophy is domesticated and normalized. It is like the story, by an important Jewish Rabbi, about a king and his advisor who decide to eat a kind of bread that makes you crazy. They have no choice, because the entire world is going to eat this bread so the entire world is going to be crazy, and the king and his advisor cannot be different. But they put a sign on their forehead to remind themselves that they are crazy. What I want to say is: It is perfectly legitimate to be professional philosophical practitioners, but we must remember what this means.

Carlo: Thank you, Ran, your answer is very deep and clear, and very philosophical too. This seems to me the best point to end this interview. Let me thank you again for making yourself available. I hope we see each other soon so we can continue with this conversation.

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