Against a growing body of self-help literature on happiness, gratitude, and mindfulness, offered as a quick fix to the troubles of our modern world, Tami Yaguri has written a book about meaning in life that looks deeply at the answers philosophers and psychoanalysts have given to the question of meaning and at the same time cares deeply about the people who search for meaning in their lives. In the words of Tzachi Zamir, one of this symposium’s participants, “This is not a book where Plato is offered as substitute to Prozac.” As another participant, Emma Brodeur, comments, it is a book of philosophy, offered as a “gift” to those who seek meaning.
About ten years ago, I audited a class at Tel Aviv University whose title—Meaning in Life—intrigued me. I remember telling anyone who would listen about it, occasionally bringing guests with me to one (or more) of the sessions. One such guest was inspired to start her own spiritual journey and attended a vipassana workshop; another decided to pursue a graduate degree in philosophy and write a thesis on love. I wanted to know the professor. She was unlike any other professor I had known, and, because we shared a scholarly interest in (and, let’s face it, absolute adoration of) the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, I had an excuse to approach her, and we became frequent interlocutors and eventually good friends. I owe Tami Yaguri a lot, including my move to the United States a few years after I met her. It is with great pleasure that I introduce this symposium dedicated to the book that came from the course I described above.
This symposium gathers scholars of philosophy, religion, literature, and psychology to discuss a book that participates in all those disciplines. Unraveling Life’s Riddle brings together interviews the author conducted with “ordinary” people who search for meaning in their lives and her reading of philosophers and psychoanalysts such as Socrates, Kierkegaard, Freud, and James. In what follows, Yaguri is in conversation with the diverse group of commentators gathered here. Overwhelmingly, their concerns are with the ethical and political implications of the new method presented in the book, a method the author calls the “art of meaning.” The “art of meaning” is an interview format, which includes four questions focused on a story segment provided by the interviewee: (1) What is the meaning of your life? Upon a reply, the interviewer asks for a concrete example that expresses this central meaning. (2) What is important in the story? (3) Why is this important? And (4) What value is expressed by that worldview? The ethical and political concerns raised by the commentators focus on Yaguri’s seemingly absolute trust of her interviewees: What if they are bad people? What if their values are unacceptable? What if they are wrong about the meaning of their lives? Yaguri responds that because the art of meaning brings together (subjective) self-identity with (objective) worldview, an answer to the question of meaning that is unethical is ruled out.
But another problem remains. Kierkegaard writes in his Journal: “Philosophy is perfectly right in saying that life must be understood backwards. But then one forgets the other clause—that it must be lived forwards.” Does this mean that we cannot find meaning in life? Unraveling Life’s Riddle suggests that it is exactly this paradox that enables life to be meaningful. It embraces the tension between uncovering life’s meaning and creating it. “The challenge in creating meaning,” writes Yaguri toward the end of her book, “is not to prosecute but to defend. In practicing the art of meaning, we become better advocates for ourselves and for others” (224). The way she writes about her interviewees and about the thinkers she reads in the book, as well as her responses to her commentators in this symposium, demonstrate that (to use Ronald Dworkin’s terminology adopted in her book), Yaguri herself has become an excellent defense attorney.
The commentators brought together here describe Unraveling Life’s Riddle as “astute, lyrical, and inspiring,” “rich and wise,” “personal and thoughtful,” and as reaching “beyond the goals of traditional or academic philosophy.” As I mentioned, they also raise worries about self-deception (Tzachi Zamir, Hebrew University of Jerusalem), or illusions (Emma Brodeur, Syracuse University), about blurring disciplinary boundaries (Ed Mooney, Syracuse University), about neglecting feminist agendas (Nirit Gordon, NYU) or Marxist critique (Jamie Aroosi, St. Olaf College). These thoughtful readings, along with Yaguri’s careful responses, result in the beautiful symposium that you are invited to read here in the coming weeks.
Zamir’s essay looks into Yaguri’s method as a whole, while others look into specific chapters of Unraveling Life’s Meaning. These will be posted here once a week in the order of the book chapters to which they respond.