Symposium Introduction

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.

Tzachi Zamir

Response

On Meaning and Value

Finding meaning in life is a challenge whose interest extends beyond the categories and debates of professional philosophy. 1 We all wonder about it to some degree. Such thoughts take the form of abstract musings. They can also appear as disconnected glimpses when trying to grant meaning to routine actions by subjecting these to overarching values. Either way, it is meaning of/in life that we are after. Philosophy has always aimed to contribute to this attempt by clarifying concepts such as meaning and value, as well as by offering observations that can illuminate or guide life. For the most part, philosophy undertook this by utilizing the abstract tools it uses when discussing any other term. An undesirable consequence of adopting such methods is that they may speak over the heads of non-philosophers. Yet such ivory-tower remoteness appears to be an unavoidable price if its only alternatives are popularizations targeting “educated readers.”

It is rare to find a middle ground: a philosophy that does not abandon rigorous conceptual analysis, while succeeding to respond to life in its ruggedness and contradictions by examining inputs provided by flesh-and-blood people. One of the virtues of Tami Yaguri’s Unraveling Life’s Riddle is her attempt to trailblaze such a method. Her book is neither a survey of available philosophical responses to the meaning of life, nor is it abstract conceptual analysis. Rather, what her book describes is a route via which philosophy does not withdraw from the articulations of non-philosophers. What she then achieves is illumination of their own experiences in a manner that they themselves will perceive as rewarding. Yaguri is not merely proposing a theory that could be defended in an academic journal. She interviews actual interlocutors, trying to tease out for them their life’s meaning as they would accept it. Her approach thus incorporates pragmatism and dialogue: Socrates-like, the philosopher hopes to convey her insights to different people when “insight” does not mean some interchangeable demonstration of one and the same claim. While possessing value for a particular person, each insight remains instructive and refines the theory as a whole. The outcome does not collapse into particularism or subjectivism. What emerges, rather, is grounded in life while maintaining philosophical pertinence, encouraging contemplation without becoming impractical. What emerges is a book that respects the fundamental differences of lived narratives and of distinct configurations of meaning-making, and is, nonetheless, able to understand them by subsuming them under general categories.

Before she introduces the different interviews, one-on-one encounters that furnish the material studied by each chapter, Yaguri describes the requirements that an answer to meaning in life should satisfy. Yaguri perceives meaning in life as the combined outcome of two crisscrossing inquiries. The first is connected with the interlocutor’s self-understanding, the second, with establishing awareness of what world-perspective underlies whatever is being endorsed. Whoever aspires to make her life meaningful must know who she is and what she believes in (“What is the most important thing out there?” is one of Yaguri’s lead questions in her interviews). Yaguri believes that when a consolidated self-identity is coordinated with a well-defined worldview, life is experienced as most meaningful (xiii).

Pursuing the two inquiries open up many options: not everyone experiences their life to be equally meaningful at any given time. Furthermore, it is possible to err with regard to meaning. If you lack self-knowledge, you may get scripted into what is suitable for others in a manner that gravitates away from what you yourself regard as what is “most meaningful out there.” The consistency that Yaguri traces between held values and actual life, thus recognizes how external circumstances may suck meaning out of life. Aristotle, when trying to account for the significance of this uncontrolled feature, referred to luck. Yaguri’s idea is more comprehensive. The degree of success in realizing values determines the meaningful experience of a person, and such success is not wholly controlled. Illnesses, inflexible cultural limitations, destructive formative relationships—may hamper the passage from aspiration to actualization, or even stifle the possibility for articulating general aspirations to begin with.

In a less abstract manner, Yaguri prompts her interviewees to sharpen both their self-understanding and their grasp of what they perceive as important. This constitutes the second stage of the process. She aims to sympathetically present their position—to, in some sense, advocate their position. She is after episodes in which a connection gets established between who they are and what they value. These are revealed as worthy, meaningful episodes, able to regulate and guide what they should try to maximize. The interviews begin by requesting the interviewees to describe meaningful experiences. She then attempts to capture a core conception undergirding such episodes. One interlocutor describes, for example, experiences of giving and of helping others as highly meaningful for her. Yaguri tethers such beneficence to another perception of the interlocutor: that almost nothing in the world should be taken for granted. Yaguri is thereby able to unearth a combined sense of amazement and giving. She calls this person’s meaning in life “graces and miracles”—episodes in which grace fuses into giving to another. It is easy to concede the practical value of this: from the moment that such formulation is elucidated, if it is correct, the interviewee is able to fathom the structure of her desire in depth and to look for and create such moments on her own. The achievement may be both quantitative and qualitative: the interviewee will strive to establish more of those moments, and also to seek to create in them the precise mix she finds meaningful.

Despite a methodology based on interviews, the book is neither anthropological nor psychological. Its chapters are not dedicated primarily to documenting the interviews, but rather to surveying and examining a conceptual area that is connected, sometimes in a complex and surprising manner, to the contents that surface in the interview. The interview mentioned above, for example, appears as part of a chapter that discusses faith and personal religion. At no stage has the interviewee talked about religion or described the moments of meaning that she experiences by drawing on a religious vocabulary. Nevertheless, the sense that existence is not to be taken for granted, that it is a miracle of a kind, when triggering an immediate and potent response of mercy, creates a clear connection between faith and the moments of meaning that the interviewee experiences.

Readers discern in this manner the conceptual basis that frames (at least for Yaguri) the material which emerges from the interview. Yaguri will never merely try to impose this or that philosopher’s ideas on the interviews. This is not a book where Plato is offered as substitute to Prozac. But the more general conceptual analysis of philosophical stances that underlies the interviews exposes the dialogue that Yaguri finds between a given person and what philosophy can contribute. When Yaguri distills a meaning in life for her interviewees, it is offered from an attentive position that is also aware of the philosophical theory able to illuminate the contents raised. Yaguri is not turning philosophy into therapy, but employs it to achieve sympathetic clarification.

* * *

Practical philosophy of this sort brings up different methodological questions. First, Yaguri relies on stories of meaning that the interlocutors deliver. Yet people may tell incompatible stories, not necessarily ones which happen to coincide with the meaning of their lives. The problem here is not concerned with consistency (meaning in life may be routed in several conceptions). The problem is that perhaps the story told is misleading. Perhaps an alternative story, one retrieved patiently from what the interlocutor does rather than from what she says, can illuminate more accurately her endorsed structure of meaning. In other words, Yaguri’s method may grant too much weight to self-descriptions. This is the source of its strength, but it is also risky. When you arrive for an interview with a philosopher, you may be trying to impress her rather than providing an authentic answer. Psychotherapy, by comparison, typically devotes much work to telling apart false from ideal self. In what way can the methodology offered by Yaguri be equally sensible to possible falsification? Perceptions of meaning can be flattering but inaccurate. This difficulty does not escape Yaguri. She argues that “there must be a connection between biography and meaning” (4)—the interviewee’s life story has to actually rely on the values it expresses adherence to. We know, though, that people may create narratives that support the answer they wish to give. They may thus point out actions that supposedly demonstrate the answers that they give—even if these are rare, inconsistent or that compensate for a disavowed mode of operation, one which relies upon less laudatory motives.

There is something humble in a philosophical stance that departs and returns to the non-philosopher as the one who validates the analysis. The cost is relinquishing the pretention to know better, the possibility to make suspect the intuitive and introspective hunches of human beings. Imagine, for example, an encounter between Socrates, who believes that an unexamined life is pointless, and the interviewee above, who experiences meaning in moments of grace and miracles. Socrates may value what the interviewee describes. He will claim, however, that her chosen meaning in life lacks the cardinal feature: a clear, consistent, critical approach to self-knowledge and to understanding the world. In short, Yaguri is exposed to the criticism that her position is descriptive, that it lacks the capacity to criticize alternative meaningful experiences. Consider adopted meanings that demand more than a slight adjustment, meanings that reflect distorted or impaired values. What if an interviewee would have confronted Yaguri with finding meaning in violence or killing? What if a woman senses meaning only when she feels that she serves her husband well, or feels meaning in the moments when her husband purifies the world from infidels by beheading them? Determining that such views are wrong cannot be encoded solely through personal testimony told with conviction. A philosophical theory must be capable of explaining why certain views are less justified than others.

The book includes descriptions of false perceptions of meaning that are later corrected—this happens when Yaguri exposes some of her personal world. But, unlike contemporary theorists, such as Thaddeus Metz,2 Yaguri refrains from attempts to refine meta-principles able to account for preferences and amendments. Perhaps non-hierarchical contemporary life in liberal societies makes a normative theory of a meaning in life improbable. Perhaps, too, in a post-hierarchical world, one cannot argue that particular cultural schemes do better in granting meaning to life. If so, we must strongly check our normative claims with regard to others, addressing only those who are relatively close to us, and doing so while using terms that they themselves would be willing to accept. It is unclear to me that her methodology gives up the possibility of criticizing extreme alternative positions or views. She avoids empty subjectivism (“idleness gives me a sense of joy and meaning”) by asking whether the privately selected values of the interviewee could be adopted by others (19–20). Yet views of meaning that we would wish to disqualify may be endorsed by groups. I suspect that Yaguri’s answer would be that idolizing murder is ruled out because morality rules it out. She would not conduct interviews with evil or crassly immoral persons. The argument against massacre of infidels would, accordingly, not revolve around life’s meaning but around factual and ethical claims. Still, a group could hold on to a false view of meaning, which also happens to be an immoral one. I, for one, would have liked to know how Yaguri would relate to this.

Interested readers may find it worthwhile to compare Yaguri’s position with the closely related view suggested by Susan Wolf.3 Wolf identifies meaningful moments with “loving objects worthy of love and engaging with them in a positive way” (8). “Engagement” could be an act that promotes such purposes, or dedicates time, or emotional and sensual resources to such objects (9). Also with Wolf, as with Yaguri, you start with what is deemed important “out there,” and continue by testing for congruence between aspiration and realization. But there is room for normative discussion here: is the loved object indeed worthy of love? With Yaguri all this normative evaluation is already included in the person’s decisions. Some will see an advantage in Wolf’s position. Some will find it more realistic to try, like Yaguri, to figure out dialogically, with a specific person, if, what is initially perceived as important, retains its import. Deciding which approach is preferable ultimately depends on assumptions regarding the viability of normative claims with such matters.

To what extent does the success of interviews depend upon Yaguri’s hermeneutic abilities? The interview requires work. You listen to a person and extract a succinct formulation of her life’s meaning and attempt to defend that meaning. Yet like psychotherapy, it seems that much depends on the interpreter’s abilities: what you see, what you take to be central, how much you manage to expose through follow-up questions. We also wonder about other possible gaps between the theory’s value and the gifts of its originator. Will the readers of the book be able to reproduce Yaguri’s success if they try to duplicate her method, and listen attentively to other people? For example, how committed and stable is the defense—“the interpreter’s defense”—of alternate values being proposed? At which point should the interpreter suspect that a more important meaning-scheme needs to be unearthed? How is success of this kind of work determined and tested over time?

These reservations are natural when a new methodology is introduced, and it could be assumed that they will be treated by Yaguri in later refinements of these ideas, when informed by further experience in using her new toolbox. Questions related to false meaning or immoral perceptions, or questions concerned with the trustworthiness of the interpretational process itself, will, perhaps, be answered through trial and error, through answers that new interviewees will provide, and through a follow-up on what interviewees will retrospectively report regarding the process they underwent.

* * *

In conclusion, Yaguri has offered us a rich and wise book proposing a fresh method designed to handle a question that for some reason gets marginalized in contemporary philosophy. The combination of actually listening to people and relating what she hears to a philosophical context, creates a theory sufficiently flexible to be used in a pluralistic world, a theory that respects different choices and yet is not subjective in some hollow manner. There is no “philosophical therapy” here, and no general theory of meaning in life. A structured, critical process is being offered. One in which humans understand something about themselves and about their life’s meaning through philosophical reflection, in a manner that we have not seen before. This is no small achievement.


  1. This response was originally published in Hebrew in the journal Iyyun, 2016 (65): 389-394. It has been translated and reproduced with permission.

  2. See Metz, Meaning in Life (Oxford University Press, 2013).

  3. See Wolf, Meaning in Life and Why It Matters (Princeton University Press, 2010).

  • Edward Mooney

    Edward Mooney

    Reply

    Ed Mooney

    There are many worthy points in Tzachi Zamir’s response to Professor Yaguri’s many-faceted presentation. He closes out his response this way: “A structured, critical process is being offered. One in which humans understand something about themselves and about their life’s meaning through philosophical reflection, in a manner that we have not seen before. This is no small achievement.” I’d like to underline this: the book proceeds “in a manner that we have not seen before.” The book is profoundly original. There is no book or article on meaning in life that comes close. We have not seen anything like this before.

    • Tami Yaguri

      Tami Yaguri

      Reply

      Yaguri’s Response to Zamir

      I agree with Tzachi Zamir that philosophy should be relevant to actual lives. Existentialism, and to some extent pragmatism, have this aim. I wish books like mine could be regarded not as “middle ground,” falling between detached “true philosophy” and non-philosophical personal reflection, but as an acceptable attempt to create an existential philosophy that is committed equally to philosophy and to personal existence.

      Zamir suggests that philosophically addressing real-life issues can seem like trying to “turn a circle into a cube,” to transform the ordinarily abstract and general philosophy into a concrete and practical approach. But Socrates addresses “real life issues” without offering a substantive “true philosophy.” A philosopher can hold only that he knows that he does not know. In dialogue with another regarding meaning in life, the presupposition is that the answer is held not in an abstract and general philosophy but only by the interlocutor. The philosopher is merely a Socratic midwife.

      Unraveling Life’s Riddle unfolds nearly a dozen theoretical and conceptual answers, philosophical and psychological, to meaning in and of life. This is the book’s purpose. I have designed a semi-structured interview format to articulate meaning in life. The format is not a scientific protocol but what I call the “art of meaning”—the art of exposing and formulating meaning through dialogue. The dialogical interviews are woven into chapters. These provide context for interviews. The book places real people with real-life issues within that wider frame. Zamir focuses on the “art of meaning” interview format. As he puts it, it’s “a fresh method designed to handle a question that for some reason gets marginalized in contemporary philosophy.” Indeed, this is the central and original purpose of my book.

      The “art of meaning” aims to help people seeking to formulate meaning in their lives. They may have confidence that their life has meaning but wonder how it can be verbalized. The semi-structured interview format 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, a story segment or salient event 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?

      Zamir’s essay raises three methodological questions. I’ll call them subjectivism, descriptivism, and professionalism.

      (1) The problem with subjectivism is that as long as the interviewee is the ultimate source for his or her life’s meaning, the outcome is not dependable. With too much weight on self-descriptions, we risk false meaning. As Zamir puts it, “perhaps the story told is misleading.” He or she is just trying to impress the interviewer. Then the answers are inauthentic. Perhaps a “story, retrieved patiently from what the interlocutor does rather than from what she says, can illuminate more accurately her endorsed structure of meaning.” Zamir continues, “Psychotherapy, by comparison, typically works to pull apart the false from the ideal self. In what way can the methodology offered by Yaguri be equally sensible to possible falsification? Perceptions of meaning can be flattering but inaccurate.”

      The structure of the “art of meaning” interview is intersubjective. It’s not objective in a strict sense, discovering an impersonal truth. But it’s not subjective either, just something personally invented. The third question of the interview—Why is the selected meaning important?—shifts the focus from the interviewee’s subjective perspective. Importance invokes a wider cultural and social point of view. The interviewee ascribes a certain meaning to his/her life, and provides a concrete example that invokes important things, validated by others who vouch for that meaning.

      The process I call the “art of meaning” is inspired by Ronald Dworkin’s Law’s Empire (Cambridge: Belknap of Harvard University Press, 1986). Someone seeking to formulate meaning teams up with a careful listener who becomes a defense attorney for the seeker. From many possible interpretations the “defense attorney” artfully selects one that offers the greatest positive value to the seeker. This “creative interpretation” will be loyal to the facts and will be linking a paradigmatic segment of personal life to wide cultural values.

      This doesn’t rule out error or falsification. This can happen in a court of law. Zamir points out that “if you lack self-knowledge, you may get scripted into what is suitable for others in a manner that gravitates away from what you yourself regard as what is ‘most meaningful out there.’” An inauthentic person will reflect just that—an erroneous script. Yet, given our life circumstances and the influence of others, we have settled on specific preferences and choices. The “art of meaning” reflects an existing sense jointly formulated. It doesn’t aim to educate or give an objective diagnosis. It may be too flattering or miss something. Nevertheless, the formulated meaning is the one that best reflects that person’s meaning at that time. And it’s not purely subjective.

      (2) If subjectivism is set aside as a characterization of the “art of meaning,” so is descriptivism. What if the selected meaning clashes with higher values, ethical imperatives, or moral norms? Pure descriptivism—“this is what this person values”—seems to permit meaning in violence or killing, in gender submissiveness, religious fanaticism, or any distorted or impaired values. Zamir says that “determining that such views are wrong cannot be encoded solely through personal testimony told with conviction. A philosophical theory must be capable of explaining why certain views are less justified than others.”

      Meaning is largely separate from ethics. Adolf Hitler probably had meaning in his life. I wouldn’t be his advocate. Yet, the initial question—What is the meaning of your life?—can be separated from the normative question of life’s value and meaning. A crack for existential freedom between descriptive norms and values that I embrace as my own is crucial. A cannibal, early in life, might consider it meaningful to increase the number of shrunken skulls on his belt. But if asked later, Why is this important? What value is expressed by this worldview? there’s a possibility that he shifts toward norms held by people outside his clan, aspiring to veganism (over cannibalism). This would illustrate a shift from a descriptive to a normative state of mind.

      Zamir goes on: “A group could hold on to a false view of meaning, which also happens to be an immoral one.” The questions I raise engage only individual meaning. They do not examine group views of meaning. If I encounter ugly or distasteful revelations of individual meaning that I cannot defend, I abdicate my role as defense attorney. I walk away from the interview. I can still demonstrate against and condemn immoral action and behavior.

      (3) Zamir asks to what extent the “art of meaning” is a matter for professionals? To what extent does the success of an interview depend upon the interviewer’s professional hermeneutic abilities? Can the readers of my book successfully use the method, listen attentively to other people, and try to distill a meaning in their lives? Like psychotherapy, much depends on the interpreter’s abilities. How is the success tested over time?

      Zamir gives a good answer here. “Questions related to false meaning or immoral perceptions, or questions concerned with the trustworthiness of the interpretational process itself, will, perhaps, be answered through trial and error, through answers that new interviewees will provide, and through a follow-up on what interviewees will retrospectively report regarding the process they underwent.” In fact, I am publishing papers in professional philosophy and psychology journals on the “art of meaning” to share my growing experience and to elicit professional response.

      I’ve learned that some readers of my book ask for my assistance. I consider their attempts to answer their life’s meaning a success in itself. In the last few years I have been instructing therapists how to work with the “art of meaning” method. In most cases, they find the process easier than anticipated and are surprised by positive results that they did not anticipate.

      Zamir observes that “the degree of success in realizing values determines the meaningful experience of a person, and such success is not wholly controlled. Illnesses, inflexible cultural limitations, destructive formative relationships may hamper the passage from aspiration to actualization, or even stifle the possibility for articulating general aspirations to begin with.” I agree, with reservations.

      Success in formulating meaning in life demands consistent formation of self-identity and worldview and the integration of the interface between them. On the face of it, luck has little to do with this. Intentional preferences and deliberate actions seem to be the main force behind meaning. Consistency emerges rather naturally in one’s choices, which reflect a unique individual “finger print.” If luck enters the picture, it’s when we move from formation of meaning to realization of meaning. These are separate matters. We can successfully formulate meaning yet be in circumstances that frustrate its realization.

      The “art of meaning” does not turn “philosophy into therapy,” in Zamir’s words, “but employs it to achieve sympathetic clarification.” My meaning might be to find kindness in others. It may seem hard or impossible to realize this in conditions of natural disaster or political calamity. But even here I might be surprised. I thank Prof. Zamir for his thoughtful and wise comments. They offered me exactly the opportunity I hoped for in discussing Unraveling Life’s Riddle.

Emma Brodeur

Response

From Philosophy to Psychoanalysis

The Search for Meaning in Life and the Destructive Power of Illusions

When I first read Tami Yaguri’s new book, Unraveling Life’s Riddle, I will admit I did not know what to make of it. As a scholar and educator in the fields of religion, philosophy, and psychoanalysis, I was of course familiar with the thinkers whose works she explores in service of a single, abiding question: how to create a meaningful life or how to find meaning in life? However, I was not prepared for the ways in which Yaguri brings together such a diversity of views and techniques in a single book. The book crosses many disciplinary boundaries; indeed, Yaguri bridges the perceived gap between the interests and methods of traditional philosophy and psychology with an emphasis on existential philosophy and psychotherapy. If traditional philosophy searches for an objective and universal answer to the question of the meaning of life, existential philosophy and psychotherapy offer an opening into the question of meaning in life, that is, meaning in my life, or your life, or the many lives Yaguri explores through personal narratives and interviews, including her own.

The book is not just about meaning in life, even as Yaguri offers succinct readings of various thinkers’ approaches to and analyses of the question of meaning, value, or purpose, including Socrates, Kant, Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, Camus, Schopenhauer, Freud, and Nietzsche to name some of them. Viktor Frankl, the founder of logotheraphy, ties together this larger cast of characters with an emphasis on “seeking meaning in life”—the main question that motivates Yaguri’s book. The themes, too, are expansive, including love, money, knowledge, pleasure, religion, suffering, and death. But as a psychotherapist and educator, Yaguri’s book also reaches beyond the goals of traditional or academic philosophy; Unraveling Life’s Riddle offers a constructive approach or therapeutic tools to create meaning in one’s life. The starting point is storytelling and interpretation. I think this is why I did not at first know what to do with the book; Yaguri expects a lot from the reader—not in terms of comprehension. Instead, the book is an offering or gift to those interested in seeking and finding meaning in their own lives. As such, the book calls for compassion, compassion for the author’s many personal vignettes as well as the stories of others, including friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. Perhaps more to the point, the book solicits what Yaguri identifies as her guiding hermeneutic: a good defense attorney.

Yaguri writes that everyone who seeks meaning in life requires a good defense attorney. Whether the defense attorney is oneself or another person, such as a psychotherapist, the search for meaning begins with “personal answers” in the form of stories that petition generous counsel (xii). The claim holds true for how Yaguri approaches philosophy, on the one hand, and what the book expects from the reader, on the other. “What characterizes a good defense lawyer?” asks Yaguri. “He is not supposed to argue with the facts. If the allegations are true, they should not be denied. He can be creative in the interpretation of facts. He must choose among the possible interpretations the one which will shed the best light on things” (17). While Yaguri does not entirely depart from the rigorous analysis expected in academic philosophy, each chapter nonetheless reads as if she has “[photographed] the subject’s best side” (21) in order to shed light on a single, conceptual area in the search for meaning in life, such as happiness.

Indeed, happiness is the focus of Yaguri’s chapter on Freud, who also represents a shift from the perspectives of philosophy to psychology or from a conception of free and rational individuals in an intelligible universe to an emphasis on the unconscious dimensions of human life enmeshed in complicated relationships and guided by desire (110). If philosophy privileges the category of truth on the basis of the law of non-contradiction, psychology shows we are not fully transparent to ourselves and constantly behave and believe in inconsistent ways. Freud famously expressed disdain for philosophy for precisely the reasons Yaguri emphasizes here, namely that philosophy mistakenly overemphasizes the rational, conscious bases of subjectivity and thus “presents a picture of the universe” that is coherent and knowable. Freud’s book, Civilization and Its Discontents (Das Unbehagen in der Kultur), written in 1929 and published in 1930 as a follow-up to his critique of religion in The Future of an Illusion, serves as the basis of Yaguri’s chapter on happiness. Central to Civilization and Its Discontents and Yaguri’s analysis is Freud’s notion that humans show in their behavior that the “purpose and intention of their lives” is “to become happy and to remain so” (Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, SE XXI, 76).

In what follows, I want to first say that I appreciate Yaguri’s concise interpretations of the various thinkers whose ideas and techniques touch on questions of meaning, purpose, and value. She is able to cut through to a major point, such as the problem of happiness, but with a certain generosity of spirit that neither betrays the text’s meaning nor gets mired in complexity or critique. The result is something more akin to a beautifully composed snapshot, or to return to Yaguri’s own metaphor for her hermeneutic, a photograph of the subject’s best side. Her prose is minimalist, even as she expertly weaves together multiple voices, genres, and forms, including interviews, poems, philosophy, and stories, all in service of presenting one among many values that define and shape the search for meaning. The upshot of her chapter on Freud is that the attainment of continual happiness is an illusion but a necessary and unshakable goal. I appreciate how Yaguri is able to mine such a succinct yet complex thesis from Freud’s text the original title of which was “Das Unglück in der Kultur” (“Unhappiness in Civilization”), which suggests her attention to the unshakable yet troubled drive for happiness is spot on.

I do wonder, though, if Yaguri’s interpretative strategy as a good defense attorney means she occasionally trusts the stories people tell about themselves too readily. I also wonder if by viewing in the best possible light people’s stories about meaning or philosophical texts on the subject, Yaguri occasionally risks ignoring the normative, political, or ethical consequences of seeking meaning or, in Freud’s words, living an illusion. Especially given the argument that meaning in life combines what Yaguri calls a personal identity and a worldview (ix), I wonder if her emphasis is more focused on and motivated by uncovering how meaning shapes an individual person’s or text’s approach to meaning and less on the ways in which an intensely held worldview can not only impact but also hurt or alienate others. One story she relates early on in her book is Ted’s, whose father claimed his son had made nothing of himself because he was “just a professor” (6). Through his interview with Yaguri, Ted discovers that the meaning in his life is “the value of a warm welcome,” that is, to be encouraging and supportive of others, unlike his father who undervalues his profession and undermines his self-worth (17). Ted’s meaning in life is commendable, but what about his father’s?

In closing, I want to return to Freud’s discussion of illusions within which he includes the desire for long-lasting happiness, in large part because I think both The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents express profound ethical and political concerns about the values we hold dear. In The Future of an Illusion, Freud specifies that illusions are not necessarily errors. In other words, the desire for eternal happiness is not merely mistaken. Important here is the idea that an error can be rectified. An error falls within the confines of logical reasoning and is therefore open to testing and falsifiability. Illusions, on the other hand, are neither true nor false. Freud’s two examples to illustrate this point are strikingly political or ideological. Columbus’s insistence that he had found a new trade route to South East Asia or the “Indies,” Freud argues, is an illusion not because he was wrong but because his wish shaped his vision (Freud, The Future of an Illusion, SE XXI, 30). The second example of an illusion Freud provides is a thinly veiled reference to anti-Semitism, or as he puts it, “the assertion made by certain nationalists that the Indo-Germanic race is the only one capable of civilization” (Freud, The Future of an Illusion, SE XXI, 30–31).

The risk of illusions is that they make their own reality; this is a wish’s greatest power, to express or fulfill itself. Less a matter of “truth,” Columbus’s claim that he found the “Indies” (South East Asia) is a projection of colonial desire capable of real, disastrous effects, including slavery, murder, and disease. Anti-Semitism’s assertion of Aryan self-superiority is not based on empirical reality but rather a racist fantasy, that is, the perceived difference of racialized and gendered others. Politicized in the form of nationalistic or colonial ideologies or worldviews, such illusions carry murderous consequences. Yaguri’s chapter on Freud does not deny the dangerous power of illusions. Indeed, she astutely follows Freud’s argument that civilization makes hefty demands on the fulfillment of sexual and aggressive desires for the sake of social welfare. Civilization, in this sense, performs a stopgap on unbridled desire. Yaguri writes, “Civilization is a necessary evil that provides a relative good. It oppresses in return for personal security and social order. It becomes the enemy of private happiness stemming from primal desires” (121). This is why the drive for endless happiness is both unavoidable yet unattainable, at least in a civil society.

In a 1931 addendum to Civilization and Its Discontents written during the rise of Hitler and the Nazification of Europe, Freud appears less confident that communal life can withstand the instinct of aggression. “And now it is to be expected that the other of the two ‘Heavenly Powers,’ eternal Eros, will make an effort to assert himself in the struggle with his equally immortal adversary. But who can foresee with what success and with what result?” (Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, SE XXI, 145). Will destructive tendencies outpace the love ties that constitute social life? The strength of Yaguri’s analysis of Freud’s text in her book on the search for meaning in one’s life is the way in which psychoanalysis opens a terrain to viewing the emotional and instinctual dimensions of individual and communal life. Her focus on happiness as a psychological need is also a welcomed addition to a book on meaning in life. I do wonder, though, if Freud’s thought on illusions is more suspicious of the drive for meaning than Yaguri’s account portrays. While it is not her project to accomplish everything in a book that already and elegantly expresses so much, I do wonder if Freud’s concerns about the self-fulfilling power of wishes might help us think more critically about the political or ethical consequences of deeply held convictions, especially as they guide the search for meaning in life.

  • Tami Yaguri

    Tami Yaguri

    Reply

    Yaguri’s Response to Brodeur

     Reading Emma Brodeur’s essay, I was aware of how my tone of voice is shaped in response to hers. When she confessed confusion about how to place the book I became protective, wishing to banish the clouds. Then her warm, appreciative words filled me with gratitude. She refers to “succinct readings of various thinkers,” and notes that this “book also reaches beyond the goals of traditional or academic philosophy,” that it “offers a constructive approach or therapeutic tools to create meaning in one’s life.” She says “the book is an offering or gift to those interested in seeking and finding meaning in their own lives.” At this point, I could ask for nothing more. She goes on:

    The result is something more akin to a beautifully composed snapshot, or to return to Yaguri’s own metaphor for her hermeneutic, a photograph of the subject’s best side. Her prose is minimalist, even as she expertly weaves together multiple voices, genres, and forms, including interviews, poems, philosophy, and stories, all in service of presenting one among many values that define and shape the search for meaning.

    I stop to take a deep breath.

    Brodeur focuses on the chapter on Freud. Meaning in life will be to see that “the attainment of continual happiness is an illusion but a necessary and unshakable goal.” Her outline of my interpretation of Freud’s perception of meaning in life seems to contain three aspects:

    1. Illusions are destructive. Although they are not mistakes, they should be avoided just as much as mistakes.
    2. The illusion of continual happiness is a motivation for an answer to life’s meaning rather than a solid answer to it. “Freud . . . is more suspicious of the drive for meaning than Yaguri’s account portrays.”
    3. A broader account of Freud’s meaning in life will include the “self-fulfilling power of wishes.” “[It] might help us think more critically about the political or ethical consequences of deeply held convictions, especially as they guide the search for meaning in life.”

    Here I’ll respond:

    I agree with Brodeur: illusions are bad. As bad as mistakes. In The Future of an Illusion Freud writes: “Religious doctrines . . . are all illusions, they do not admit of proof, and no one can be compelled to consider them as true or to believe in them.” This would be an example of “the dangerous power of illusions.”

    Another example, contrasting with religion, is the illusion of continual happiness. Here, the illusion is not exposed by pointing out the lack of rational backing for religious conviction. It is exposed by awareness of one’s psych-biological mechanism, “the pleasure principle.” When the illusion of continual happiness is seen as stemming from the pleasure principle, it is changed. An illusion of which one is aware is no longer an illusion. Only when we operate under the spell of illusion-without-awareness, without realizing the state we are subjected to, are we at risk.

    The illusion of continual happiness operates as a motivation to unravel life’s meaning more than as a specific answer to it. Here, Brodeur makes an excellent point. Life’s meaning acts at a different level than any illusion or primary drive. Yet, in order for meaning to come into play, one has to pass through the entrance gate of awareness of the illusion of continual happiness and hold tight to the key. Otherwise, a perception of meaning will risk the danger of perpetuating the illusion of continual happiness. Without alertness to that danger, a false hope will sprout: the illusion that once we attain meaning, everlasting happiness will blossom.

    For this reason, in my book I focus on Freud’s assertion that “the drive for endless happiness is both unavoidable yet unattainable, at least in a civil society.” We find this in the seventh chapter where I make a transition from mostly philosophical accounts of meaning to mostly psychological accounts. In later chapters, substantial life values—love, will to power, personal faith—are discussed. But Freud’s warning about the illusion of continual happiness is carried along.

    Political or ethical consequences of deeply held convictions should indeed be included in a more comprehensive perception of Freud’s meaning in life. This is of course a task for a different book. Of two critical thoughts that Brodeur exhibits in her account one is of Columbus’s wish that shaped his vision. This illusion is “a projection of colonial desire capable of real, disastrous effects, including slavery, murder, and disease.” Brodeur’s main point is that the risk of illusions is when it turns into reality in individual life or in some cases reality of an entire civilization.

    A quote that is popularly attributed to Freud, but not to be found in his works, is: “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanity.” Do we wish for deep love and satisfying work? Are these examples of the “self-fulfilling power of wishes,” as Brodeur puts it? If so, they should be examined critically, politically and ethically. Perhaps Freud’s perception of meaning in life is that we live in a tension. As he writes, “It is impossible to escape the impression that people commonly use false standards of measurement—that they seek power, success and wealth for themselves and admire them in others, and that they [also] underestimate what is of true value in life” (Civilization and Its Discontents, 25).

    Religion shows a cultural system that Freud sees as entirely illusory: “Religion is a system of wishful illusions together with a disavowal of reality, such as we find nowhere else but in a state of blissful hallucinatory confusion. Religion’s eleventh commandment is ‘Thou shalt not question’” (Future of an Illusion, ch. 10). Yet, with all his awareness and analytical skills, Freud admits: “In some place in my soul, in a very hidden corner, I am a fanatical Jew. I am very much astonished to discover myself as such in spite of all efforts to be unprejudiced and impartial. What can I do against it at my age?”1 Perhaps at the end of the day, some illusion in life’s meaning is unavoidable.

    Brodeur raises a few additional concerns that I have largely addressed in my response to Tzachi Zamir. I’ll avoid repetition except to say that the “art of meaning” attempts to stay clear from illusions as well as from “risks ignoring the normative, political, or ethical consequences of seeking meaning.” Brodeur mentions a story by Ted, whose father claimed his son had made nothing of himself: he was “just a professor.” Ted upholds values of encouraging and supporting others. She says: “Ted’s meaning in life is commendable, but what about his father’s?” With this question I’ll take a wild guess. Applying the “art of meaning,” the father’s meaning will not include having kids, even though he actually had them.


    1. Letter to Dr. David Feuchtwang (1931), in Emmanuel Rice, Freud and Moses: The Long Journey Home (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 25.

Edward Mooney

Response

A Tang of Life

Tami Yaguri is a philosophy professor. She also trains psychotherapists and has a novelist’s gift for vivid storytelling. Her new book, Unraveling Life’s Riddle, is on meaning in life. Personal, generative meanings are at the heart of individuation—attaining a sense of who I am. They are also centered in worldviews—the bigger cultural-political-religious landscapes I live in. “Helping others” might be central to my identity and also derive from my global sense of things.

As a philosopher, Yaguri shares the outlines of life’s meaning emerging in the work of classical philosophers and psychologists. She also shares vivid material from adults who seek her counsel. Finally, her chapters open with poems and personal accounts of her own meaning-dilemmas, grippingly recounted. Classical thinkers, psychologists and philosophers, provide chapter heads: Erich Fromm, Socrates, Victor Frankl, Søren Kierkegaard, William James, and others. I’ll share questions that spring to mind as I read the pages on James.

I wonder if Yaguri finds friction between psychology and philosophy, the two academic disciplines James couples. For Plato, psychology and philosophy are often indistinguishable. Disciplinary specialization begins in the eighteenth century and becomes embedded by the late nineteenth. James’s Varieties of Religious Experience joins psychology and philosophy. Does his work suffer through blurring disciplines? Yaguri isn’t bothered by this mutual assimilation. Talking of meaning in life is one part psychological, one part philosophical. No decisive separation is needed.

Another question percolates. Consider the élan, the existential grip, of her autobiographical revelations. Intimate personal narratives move us empathetically to unravel meaning in life—or find its absence. But what about genre? Is this detached, and academic—or confessional, like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, or Kierkegaard? English-speaking philosophers have been slow to accept existentialists (Sartre, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and others) as true philosophers. They lack academic impersonality. Their virtue seems purely literary or religious. Like Yaguri, I endorse the inclusion of personal voice in philosophical-psychological explorations. She makes seamless transitions between detached academic analysis and the existential bite of first-person revelations.

To focus personal meaning, it helps to let the search shine. Being enticed by Yaguri’s search is like viewing an inspiring skating routine while also hearing an analysis of it by a professional commentator. Exposure to both the immediacy of the search and the detachment of analysis adds to overall understanding. Academic philosophy and psychology are impersonal. That’s professionalism. Einstein gives a professional account of Relativity. It’s no defect that his account lacks the tang of life. But displaying meaning in life straddles the impersonal and personal. Existential bite, a tang of life, seem appropriate and necessary.

* * *

Personal interviews present dialogues with guests who have sought out our author for clarification of their life’s meaning. Typically, sessions are an hour in length and resemble therapy sessions. These are not damaged people but persons wishing to get personal meaning in better focus. Yaguri shows a psychotherapist’s flair for listening, asking leading questions, and bringing out latent meanings in her guest’s narrations. She calls on her experience in training psychotherapists. Her transcriptions remind us that meaning has both an immediate grip, like watching a skater’s performance, and is open to analysis from a detached, professional standpoint. I’m fully “on board” with this varied approach to meaning—scholarly, personally revelatory, eavesdropping on mature guests. There’s an enticing fugal interweaving here.

* * *

The chapter on William James is subtitled “James’ Lived Experience.” Section heads mark an itinerary: “Religious Experience,” “Spiritual Health,” “Spiritual Happiness,” “Meaning in Life as a Personal Religion,” and others. James is a hybrid: scientist, philosopher, public moralist, public intellectual. He gives “secular sermons” fully grounded in psychological and philosophical research. He’s a greater thinker for addressing non-specialists and academics.

All chapters of Unraveling Life’s Riddle open with poetry, the epitome of non-specialized, engaged, experiential writing (and speech). Poetry unravels hidden depths of thought and perception and ravels ordinary language to bring us there. It delivers deep complexities of personal experience. The James chapter opens with lines from Wallace Stevens’s “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm.” Yaguri confesses to ways her world is not quiet, not calm.

Noisy discomfort is present everywhere—in the city, on the street, at home, inside out. Demands of all sorts stream in, pop up, knock on our door and barge in. An incessant source of disquiet, noise has sundry ways of irritating, of making life miserable, of thwarting the possibility of reaching tranquility and peace. (175)

Noise is raveled with the clutter and distraction of meaningless change:

If change is all there is—we’re sentenced to unbearable existence, to reality without solace or hope, without respite from the shrillness of noise, and without hope for the blessing of peace. Life fraught with noise narrows the range of possible meanings. But the noise of change is not the last word. The answer to noise lies in the creation of meaning despite change. (176)

An unraveled poem can burst in a tang of life, giving us a direct experiential feel. Transcending meaningless noise and change might be like falling in love or opening a new book, or like finding something to draw, or to do for others; like finding beauty in a daily walk or pleasure at a concert.

Later in the chapter we eavesdrop on an interview with Ruth—an elderly acquaintance. She volunteers that she finds meaning in assisting others. Yaguri asks, “Do you know someone who tries to aid and assist others?” Ruth answers:

It’s not a particular person. It’s an experience. My reaction is expressed in tears, not in thinking of a role model. When I hear that a person is assisted, I cry. . . . For me, every good thing that happens is a sort of miracle. I perceive my life as wrapped in a string of benevolence. (190–92)

James might speak of meaning descending in moments of personal religion—of tears and joy. But if meanings can arrive from so many quarters, why speak of unraveling the riddle of life? Our author could respond:

We need to make a life—this puts me at the center of a project—and also seek and find meaning in a way that displaces me from the center. I can be in the picture, but not as its subject. . . . There is meaning in being part of something larger than myself—connecting with people I love, with the environment I live in, with humanity, nature and, perhaps, God. (178)

Life’s meaning, we remember, is rooted both in individuation and worldview, and surely there are multiple paths to focusing these. Which rings true? We test experiential rapport with each. Here is James on the variety of religious experience:

There are moments of sentimental and mystical experience . . . that carry an enormous sense of inner authority and illumination with them when they come. But they come seldom, and they do not come to everyone; and the rest of life makes either no connection with them or tends to contradict them more than it confirms them. Some persons follow more the voice of the moment in these cases, some prefer to be guided by the average results. Hence the sad discordancy of so many of the spiritual judgments of human beings. (182)

“Spiritual judgments” are moments Yaguri would endorse as moments when meaning in life descends.

Unraveling Life’s Riddle is astute, lyrical and inspiring. It speaks to specialists and to the wide humanity James, Kierkegaard, and Fromm engage. Recently, Harry Frankfort, Thomas Nagel, and Susan Wolf, among others, have offered books addressed to professors and to the proverbial woman on the street. This is good news. Yaguri’s Unraveling Life’s Riddle belongs on a shelf with them. The counterpoint of classical thinkers, autobiographical revelations, and one-on-one dialogues shapes its seductive tang of life.

  • Tami Yaguri

    Tami Yaguri

    Reply

    Yaguri’s Response to Mooney

    When Emmy van Deurzen sent her blurb for the back cover of Unraveling Life’s Riddle, my heart jumped! When Irvin Yalom wrote some wonderful words on the book, I caught my breath. Yet the encouragement from Edward Mooney is like nothing else. I had interviewed him on the meaning in his life, an interview that made its way into the Hebrew version of the book. He prompted me to translate the book into English. The art of translation is not simple. After the work of a professional translator and editor, Mooney went over the manuscript to smooth the text. For the blurb he wrote: “Rich in theme and variation, this is essential reading for anyone who has wondered about meaning in their life or in the lives of friends and family. It breaks new ground on every page.” In his essay here, he emphasizes the combination of elements that give this book “its seductive tang of life.” I express my heartfelt gratitude.

    Mooney raises questions that spring to mind as he reads the pages on James. Do I find friction between psychology and philosophy, the two academic disciplines James couples in his Varieties of Religious Experience? Do I, like Plato and James, blur disciplines? In chapter 7, “A Psychological Need: Freud Trapped in a Circle,” I discuss the transition “From Philosophy to Psychology” (109–10). In that transition the sense of meaning and identity are changed significantly, and we see this only by keeping psychology and philosophy distinct. Chapter 10, “I Believe: James’ Lived Experience,” is primarily psychological rather than philosophical.

    For James happiness is an integral part of faith as meaning in life. Happiness as meaning in life was rejected—in chapter 7 on Freud. It is reintroduced by James. Meaning appears via God, through a momentary taste of a divine reality, an experience of unity with God or the world. Suspending logic—philosophy—and embracing a spiritual experience is key for being exposed to and enjoying religious-spiritual happiness.

    Further on, Mooney again raises the question of genre: “Like Yaguri, I endorse the inclusion of personal voice in philosophical-psychological explorations.” As far as existential philosophy is concerned, professional analysis must also include confessional-autobiographical revelations. These will override an exclusively detached, impersonal style. “Exposure to both the immediacy of the search and the detachment of analysis adds to overall understanding.”

    The final question in Mooney’s piece is this: Why speak of unraveling the riddle of life? Meaning, according to James, descends in moments of personal religion. It can arrive from many quarters. If meaning reveals itself, there is no need to unravel it. We just accept it as is. Mooney offers an answer that exposes the structural backbone of the book. Meaning is formed and found in the overlap between self-identity and worldview. A meaning in life, an experience of unity, according to James, “finds” the person of faith just as much as that person “finds” it. This overwhelmingly significant event is not sought after. Instead, one is open and receptive and lets the experience introduce itself. Such an experience becomes fundamental in one’s worldview. Yet we can place James’s answer within the framework of this book. To form a balanced meaning in life, an identity and a worldview have to be formed as well as received. Ultimately, what we unravel is the congruence between self-identity and worldview.

Nirit Gordon

Response

Unraveling Love’s Meaning

Yaguri on Fromm

My response to Tami Yaguri’s book Unraveling Life’s Riddle focuses on the chapter on love as an answer to the meaning of life, from a perspective rooted in Erich Fromm’s writings. I follow Yaguri’s discussion of both self-love and romantic love. And I follow her analysis using Fromm’s framework of what constitutes mature, true love. My reaction is rooted in my own relational experiences as a partner, mother, and psychologist, as well as in thinking critically and contextually about the underlying theory of self which the author uses to understand and explain love.

Yaguri has written a personal and thoughtful book, which invites the reader to join her on a journey in the search for meaning in life and in love. She introduces the perspective of different thinkers while weaving in her own experiences, insights and struggles. Throughout the book, I enjoyed the honesty and passion in her journey—the movement between the philosophical, the psychological, and the existential in her own personal quest.

In the chapter on Fromm, Yaguri contends with the existential stance that “love is an answer to the meaning of life” (130) (a statement Yaguri will challenge later in the book, as she offers other ideas of things worth living for, such as God, religion, and money). Framed differently, according the chapter on Fromm, life is not worth living if it is devoid of love. Yaguri takes us to the heart of the existential dilemma—opening the chapter with the question: “Still in bed. To get up or not to get up? . . . I do not want to. . . . I just don’t want to. . . . Then what do you want? I want to love” (127). The question of getting out of bed in the morning is, in fact, the existential question. Is my life worth living?

Yaguri’s words echo Albert Camus’s (who is also discussed in the book) assertion in The Myth of Sisyphus: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards” (3). In the case of Fromm—and by extension, Yaguri—the philosophical question becomes: Can I love and be loved, and if not, do I want to live?

Yaguri writes: “I want to love myself, why would anyone love me anyway, if I do not love myself?” (127). Yaguri recounts her own struggles with love. She focuses on the idea of self-love and analyzes it through the categories of love that Fromm discusses in his work. I was struck by the way Yaguri via Fromm frames love as dependent on successfully achieving self-love. She casts this as the outcome of successful individuation, namely, becoming a separated individual who is self-contained: “A psychologically mature person perceives himself as an individual. . . . He becomes the landlord of his inwardness. Individuation does not mean being different. It means becoming master of one’s inner life” (137). This individual’s love toward herself is sufficient to maintain her psychologically: “I have to learn the art of living with myself before living with someone else. I dwell in the idea that there is a wholeness in individuation. I can be happy without being part of a couple. I must wean myself from acute dependence on others. I must bear my life on my own. I will learn to cry alone, laugh alone. Then I can laugh and cry together in love” (141). Without this self-love, a true loving relationship with another cannot be obtained.

Yaguri (and Fromm) uses traditional psychological theory of development (e.g., Kohlberg and Erikson),1 which was exclusively created by, and tested on, men. These are theories that elevate the ideas of autonomy, self-reliance, independence, and self-actualization. On the basis of these theories, Yaguri posits that self-love is a prerequisite to mature love, especially romantic love. She discusses the movements between aloneness and unity as two poles of human existential experiences. Yaguri describes love as unity, an experience that counters aloneness, yet she advocates that mature unity leaves the self unchanged, while immature love creates a merging and a loss of sense of self.

I would like to suggest a perspective in which the self is touched and transformed in the experience of love; it is lost and found and always changing. I frame my perspective in the context of psychological theories of development stemming from feminist literature, such as relational cultural theory2 and developmental research on both boys and girls (see, e.g., Way, Tolman, and Gilligan).3 Feminist theorists, such as Crenshaw, Kristeva, and Chodorow, have conceptualized the self as multilayered, interconnected, and relational. This conceptualization describes the self as one that grows through interactions with others; relationships change and transform it. This stands in contrast to the unmoved and unaffected self that Yaguri depicts.

Yaguri acknowledges her yearning for love, which she frames as “childlike,” “innocent.” She invokes the picture of a baby alone in its crib, mumbling happily to itself. While self-love is described as a “spontaneous dimension of the self” (129), it is beyond her reach. While I agree that self-love is spontaneous, I wonder how Yaguri would respond to Donald Winnicott’s famous assertion that “there is no such thing as an infant.”4 According to Winnicott, although we have the capacity to be, our being is never devoid of the other. A baby cannot survive without a caregiver. Therefore, even our independent existence is always in the context of a dyad.

Yaguri discusses the movement between unity and aloneness. The ultimate unity is the one between a mother and her baby in the womb; the experiences of separateness and aloneness comes with individuation. Yaguri’s and Fromm’s ideas of love create a framework where we strive for separateness, and see emotional independence as the only way to become worthy of love by another. Yet decades of research of infant development challenge the assumptions that relationships are fundamentally the movement between unity and aloneness.

We have a more complex way of interacting, one that is not characterized by a linear movement from unity to separateness, but is more nuanced. People experience a rhythm rather than a linear movement. Researchers followed the interactions between mothers and their babies second-by-second with video cameras. Their analysis showed that mothers and their babies move in and out of sync. Even infants as young as two months old were able to identify the difference between the appearance of relationship (smiling faces) and being in sync (the mother responding to them).5 This brings to mind the position of relational theory—a school of thought that grew out of second-wave feminism—that one of the pivotal paths to having loving relationships is through allowing oneself to open up to another, to be influenced and transformed. I would like to use this symposium as an invitation for Yaguri to engage with this idea of relationality in the context of the role love plays in her quest for meaning in life.

As I read through Yaguri’s thoughtful analysis, I found it does not resonate with my own experience of love or of relational dynamics as a partner, a parent, or a psychologist. I know love as a movement toward the other—not necessarily toward unity, but toward a meaningful togetherness. Togetherness is most satisfying when I find myself as attuned to others as they are to me. It is when we lose that attunement that psychological work must be done to address the rupture. Being attuned is transformative. When I move out of attunement, I am different than I was before. Unlike Yaguri’s ideal of an unchanged, stable self that attains self-love independent of the relationship, I find myself changed and transformed by the relationship.

Yaguri suggests, “I remain who I am even as I unite with another” (138). Instead, I would say I am always changing because of my experience of love. The self that I knew before love morphs into a new self. The self is changed, but not lost. Love is not a merging that brings upon me a loss of myself, but rather the exhilarating experience of falling in and out of sync and finding each other again. Without this deep mutuality that produces change, I would not feel loved.

Yaguri writes that “love is a learning practice. It takes place along two paths: individuation and unity. In order to be in love, I must learn to be I-myself—be individuated. And I also must teach myself to achieve unity with the world and with human beings. This unity comes through giving—giving care, responsibility, respect and knowledge” (146). I agree with her that love is a practice, yet I want to invite her to think of love as all of the different shades of experience within the self and with others: not only the care and responsibility, but the emotional need, the ambivalence, the sadness, the closeness and the distance, are all the action of loving and being loved.

With the experience of feeling loved and loving others, life feels full and meaningful. In other words, the experience of love makes my life worth living, and fills it with the energy that allows me to search and create ever-changing meaning in life.


  1. See Kohlberg, The Philosophy of Moral Development: Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981); and Erikson, Identity: Youth and Crisis (New York: Norton, 1968).

  2. See Judith V. Jordan, ed., The Power of Connection: Recent Developments in Relational-Cultural Theory (New York: Routledge, 2010).

  3. See Niobe Way, Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011); Deborah L. Tolman, Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk about Sexuality (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002); and Carol Gilligan, The Birth of Pleasure (New York: Knopf, 2002).

  4. Donald W. Winnicott, “The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship,” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 41 (1960) 587.

  5. Beatrice Beebe, “Brief Mother-Infant Treatment: Psychoanalytically Informed Video Feedback,” Infant Mental Health Journal 24 (2003) 24–52.

  • Tami Yaguri

    Tami Yaguri

    Reply

    Yaguri’s Response to Gordon

    Gordon concludes her essay on the book’s chapter on love as meaning in life with these fine words: “The experience of love makes my life worth living, and fills it with the energy that allows me to search and create ever-changing meaning in life.” Happily, this accomplishes the book’s mission. I thank Gordon for her insight and for her review.

    Love is accepted (among alternative values) as a full answer to life’s meaning. Within the “Art of Meaning”—the art of formulating meaning presented in the book—love marks an interface between self-identity and worldview. Whatever comes next—which theory of love is superior or more accurate as an account of one’s own experience with love—is of secondary importance with regard to my book’s purpose.

    A caregiver’s love of a baby is irrelevant for my purposes because the role of love in settling meaning in life only occurs for a mature love between mature adults. Parental love is immature because it is not reciprocal. We might imagine the child saying, in Fromm’s distinction between immature and mature love, “I love you because I need you.” Mature love between adults says: “I need you because I love you.” Fromm’s The Art of Loving shows a path to becoming a loving person. It is not about how “to become worthy of love by another.” Let me now address the two main concerns that are raised by Gordon: self and feminism.

    Self

    A connection between oneself and another is essential for love, and self-love is essential for the love of another. Fromm writes in a biblical spirit: “you must love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19:18; Matt 19:19; 22:39; Mark 12:31). Self-love is introduced in the beginning of the chapter. But self-love is by no means a sufficient definition of love. Gordon misses the development of Fromm’s view on love, and the contrast between universal love and romantic love.

    Universal love occurs in bringing together love of oneself and love of another. This love is also the fundamental basis of monotheistic morality. Fromm writes, “If a person loves only one other person and is indifferent to all others, his love is not love but a symbiotic attachment, or an enlarged egotism.” Yet for Fromm the power of love stretches beyond moral norms and values. It creates a faculty of gnostic unity of self and world, a universal unity. He writes: “If I truly love one person, I love all persons, I love the world, I love life. If I can say to somebody else, ‘I love you,’ I must be able to say, ‘I love in you everybody, I love through you the world, I love in you also myself.’”

    Fromm writes, “There is no meaning to life except the meaning man gives his life by the unfolding of his powers.” In The Art of Loving Fromm maintains that “the mature response to the problem of existence is love.” In Unraveling Life’s Riddle I do not offer an all-purpose “theory of the self,” as Gordon assumes. Instead I focus on love as an answer to life’s meaning. Insofar as I take up aspects of self-development, it is only to lay out the background for mature love. Gordon seems to confuse self and ego. In my exposition, “self” is something ontological, something we identify from a third-person point of view. The “I,” the ego, is psychological, something I construct from my first-person point of view. The self will change (physically) over time. Aspects of the ego can be relatively unchanged, stable or stuck over decades or a lifetime. Yet there are new aspects that can emerge in relationship and love. I can “remain who I am even as I unite with another.” Yet my self is changing because of my experience of love. Gordon continues, “The self that I knew before love morphs into a new self. The self is changed, but not lost.” Yet from what perspective can I compare this change from one self to a new self? I must view this change from the perspective of an unchanging “I.”

    Feminism

    “Yaguri (and Fromm) use traditional psychological theory of development (e.g., Kohlberg and Erikson), which was exclusively created by, and tested on, men,” says Gordon. Indeed, all of the book’s twelve chapters present theories and answers given by men. In that sense my book is not aimed to serve a feminist agenda. Yet the interviews included in the book’s chapters take up more women than men. I consider myself extremely privileged to live in a time and place where I enjoy the liberty to study, teach, write, and make a living, as a woman involved with both women and men. I owe much to courageous women who struggled for these liberties. I am committed to further and promote equality and freedom for current and future generations of women.

    Gordon suggests including “the position of relational theory—a school of thought that grew out of second-wave feminism” and she “would like to use this symposium as an invitation for Yaguri to engage with this idea of relationality in the context of the role love plays in her book.” I’m sure it is relevant to consider feminist theories of love in the context of meaning in life. Erich Fromm’s theory of love is more relevant than more recent theories, due to its historical precedence and its professional acclaim. As a matter of fact, many if not all feminist theories of love owe something to his insights.

    Fromm’s theory of love is complex. Its main task is to give birth to oneself, and that is certainly a feminist goal. Fromm may well present love in a way attractive to feminists. We could trace the overlap between his view and a feminist view. Even if Fromm’s theory is by a man, about men, it is equally relevant to women seeking love as meaning in life. Each needs to know how love works for the other. It’s relevant to any person who aspires to a psychologically mature self (addressing both anima and animas within).

    Love is a paradox, Fromm says. “In love the paradox occurs that two beings become one and yet remain two.” This can be translated into a view of meaning in life. To acquire meaning is to give birth to oneself. I put it this way:

    To arrive at “both of us together” means initially going through “each one apart.” If I choose love as the meaning of my life, I will walk on two paths, develop psychologically on two levels. One path leads me to become an individual with authentic meaning in my life. It will be the fruit of my free will. As long as I am overwhelmingly dependent on another, the meaning of my life will not be mine. The other path leads me away from self-sufficiency to sense a unity with others and the world. I experience myself as part of something bigger. Each path, whether the path of apartness or the path of togetherness prepares love to be mine and my meaning. Keeping steadfastly to these paths, I hope, will bring me to the land of love. (157)

Jamie Aroosi

Response

Unraveling the Riddle of Money

Political Economy and the Limits of Self-Knowledge

The word “philosophy” is derived from the Greek words “philos” meaning love and “sophia” meaning wisdom, and this reflects the ancient Greek belief that philosophy entailed the cultivation of a “love of wisdom.” Less a discrete discipline of study, philosophy was once considered a way of life. Unfortunately, this original meaning is not always easy to find within contemporary academic philosophy, but it is in this spirit that Tami Yaguri’s Unraveling Life’s Riddle should be understood. And for reminding us that philosophy’s primary concern should lie in helping us live a meaningful and truthful life, this work deserves to be commended. There are not many works that recognize the importance of this task.

It is therefore little surprise that Yaguri should spend so much time engaging the traditions of existentialism and psychoanalysis, because they are those that have best kept the original meaning of philosophy alive. Consequently, after a first chapter on Socrates, the preeminent example of this form of philosophy, and then a transition chapter by way of Kant and Wittgenstein, we find ourselves at the ostensible founder of existentialism, with a chapter on Søren Kierkegaard. With some minor exceptions, the rest of this work is preoccupied with the contributions that thinkers following in his loose wake have offered when it comes to our own task of living a meaningful life.

However, given this work’s broad project, what most caught my attention was the penultimate chapter. Entitled “Money Buys Almost Everything: Needleman Worships Wealth,” this chapter is really the final chapter short of the conclusion, and it therefore brings together many of the book’s themes by offering a comprehensive approach to living a meaningful life. And, at first, nothing seems amiss. As Yaguri concludes, life entails a struggle “between drives and values, between needs and ideals, [and] between the earthly and the heavenly” (219). The task of living is thereby imagined as a struggle for self-mastery in which we learn to balance life’s many competing dimensions, ultimately finding an “equilibrium” between “the sublime and the earthly” (218). However, what struck me about this chapter was not its portrayal of the quest for self-mastery as a struggle to reconcile competing tensions, because this is a common—and insightful—trope within existential and psychoanalytic thought. What was striking was Yaguri’s claim that a life that is successful in this task is one that can then devote itself to the acquisition of money.

Yaguri is able to make this claim because she argues that money is little more than an instrumental tool. As such, in the hands of the self-mastered individual money is synonymous with self-empowerment, because it allows such an individual to more fully actualize their lives. Consequently, Yaguri goes so far as to claim that when “a person’s struggle . . . is successful . . . it’s possible for money to be part if not all of the meaning of life” (219). With the task of self-mastery behind us, her point seems to be that the task in front of us is that of best actualizing ourselves in the world. And the acquisition of money, for Yaguri, is the activity by which we acquire the tool to do so. However, as a scholar who works not only in the tradition of psychoanalytic and existential thought but also in the tradition of Western Marxism, this conclusion struck me as problematic.

In trying to articulate my reservations, it helped to examine the methodology behind her claims. For Yaguri, the possible meanings of money seem to range from the meaning ascribed to it by those who demonize money to the meaning given it by those who fetishize money (210–13). What seems to define this range of possible meanings is not an objective study of what money is, such as we might find within the world of political economy, but instead, she seems to be describing a range of possible subjective attitudes toward money. And this also seems true of her own account, because its merit rests on the claim that the individual offering her account is someone who has purportedly overcome their subjective “prejudices” in order to see money for what it is (211). In other words, the merit of Yaguri’s understanding of money does not reside in the objective truth of her definition, but in the fact that the individual offering that definition has overcome their “prejudices” in order to see money clearly. And, for Yaguri, this individual sees money as little more than an instrumental tool.

However, insofar as Yaguri’s claims about money operate on the terrain of our subjective attitudes toward money rather than in the objective world of political economy, it seems to me that she is not actually providing an analysis of money so much as an analysis of our attitudes toward it. And this is where my problem lies, because without an understanding of the objective nature of money, it is impossible to determine if our attitude toward money is “correct.” Granted, I would agree that overcoming our subjective prejudices is a prerequisite for understanding the objective world, and I might even go so far as to agree that an individual so freed might come to see money as an instrumental tool—at least at first. However, while this type of subjective emancipation is a necessary condition for understanding the objective world, it is not a sufficient one, because we then need to complement our subjective transformation with the social-scientific analysis of that world. Yet, Yaguri treats the overcoming of our prejudices as both the necessary and the sufficient cause for understanding money, so that our first lucid impression of money comes to serve as its ultimate definition. However, I would like to suggest that with a more systematic analysis of money, Yaguri’s praise of money becomes much more contentious than it seems.

For instance, such an analysis of money could begin in many places, but one such place would be with the work of John Locke. Hardly someone who criticized the acquisition of money, Locke had a sophisticated and objective account of it. Yet, even in Locke’s laudatory account of money, we find a more critical take, because Locke moves past the instrumental use of money in order to understand its role in our system of political economy. And, for Locke, the real purpose of money is to allow for resource hoarding. As he understands it, nature is a public good shared by all human beings, and it places natural limits on what any one individual can take from it. After all, if any of us takes too much, the excess spoils before we have a chance to enjoy it. And, for Locke, this not only defeats the purpose of hoarding, but it also constitutes a moral crime against those who might otherwise have enjoyed what we have now wasted. However, the invention of money changes this formula, because it allows us to exchange the spoilable goods of nature for the durable value of money, overcoming the limits of both nature and morality by allowing for the unlimited hoarding of wealth.

If we extend Locke’s insight to the present day, we can begin to see how Yaguri’s claims about money become problematic. Today, one American family possesses more wealth than the poorest 40 percent of American families combined, and this fortune is more money than any one person could spend over many lifetimes while the poorest 40 percent are struggling to pay for food, shelter, and clothing. But as anyone who has struggled to pay the bills likely knows—and this includes at least this 40 percent of Americans—money is precisely an instrumental tool of which they could use a little more. That is, these people are not laboring under any “prejudices” about money, but are merely suffering from its deprivation. However, what Locke understood, or what he can at least help us understand, is that the reason these families do not have more money is because so much is being hoarded by so few. And the reason the few can hoard wealth, at least according to Locke, is because the real purpose of money is to allow for it. That is, while money clearly serves as an instrumental tool, its real purpose is to facilitate radical inequality. Locke praised this while others decry it, but there is something to be said for his analysis.

Locke’s thoughts on money are not the be-all and end-all on the question of money, but only one place out of many where it is possible to begin. But what they help reveal is the methodological insight that the truth of money is not found in our subjective attitude toward it but in the objective analysis that political economy has to offer. After all, Locke’s account is not derived by examining our subjective disposition toward money, but by engaging objective questions of politics and economics, because he realizes that money derives its meaning from how it functions in those realms. Unfortunately, the tools of existentialism and psychoanalysis tend to focus on our internal world, and sometimes misrepresent subjective insights as insights about the objective world. However, no amount of subjective self-reflection can replace the type of objective analysis that helps us understand the nature of the social, political, and economic world, and it is from this world that money derives its meaning. And this means that if we truly want to understand money, we not only have to overcome our prejudices toward it, but we also have to understand the contemporary form of the system in which it operates—that is, we need to understand capitalism.

If we were interested in the question of capitalism, a good place to start would be with the work of Adam Smith. For Smith, the very nature of capitalist production was essentially and inextricably tied to the degradation of workers. Specifically, the genius of capitalism lay in the division of labor, which allowed for an exponential increase in productive capacity, but it did so by reducing labor to its lowest common denominator—rote repetition. The activity of work therefore became increasingly dehumanizing in inverse proportion to the increase in productivity. Worse yet, as work became increasingly simplified, workers became increasingly replaceable, and this had the effect of driving wages ever downward until they reached the bare minimum needed for sheer survival. Therefore, as productivity went up wages and working conditions necessarily went down, so that all of the excess productivity could be funneled to those at the top—who, not coincidentally, could hoard this wealth because of the invention of money, just as Locke had argued. Through this lens, while money might be an instrumental tool that we use to buy things, it is also a feature of an economic system whose own natural tendency is to push workers’ remuneration ever downward while allowing those at the top to hoard ever greater wealth.

But beyond Smith, and given Yaguri’s interest in psychoanalytic and existential questions coupled with her conclusion about the role of money, I was struck by something else in her work. Or really, I was struck by something that was not in her work—the thought of Karl Marx. An existentialist in his own right, Marx was deeply concerned with the way that capitalism shaped our internal lives. And so, building on Smith’s political economy, Marx argued that capitalism not only creates material deprivation for workers but spiritual deprivation too, because it transforms our deepest human capacity for free and creative activity into a mere means to an end. That is, work is transformed from a creative expression of self into a commodity that we sell to employers. And we do so, as even Smith recognized, because such self-alienation is the only means of survival within a capitalist economy. That is, we have no choice but to sell our labor in order to live. In this light, money is not Yaguri’s tool of empowerment, but the very symptom of our utter disempowerment.

The point of these detours is not to suggest a definitive account of money, and we need not be convinced by Locke, Smith, or Marx, especially after such an abbreviated analysis of their work. The point is instead to indicate the methodological difference between an objective analysis of money and an analysis that focuses solely on our subjective disposition toward it, because I think that the latter is incapable of yielding its truth. In fact, even in Marx’s account of the spiritual effects of capitalism, he recognizes the methodological necessity of first understanding capitalism (for which he remains indebted to Adam Smith), before then examining the effects it has on our spiritual well-being. Problematically, while Yaguri suggests that the pursuit of money can “be a worthy meaning in life” (212), she never engages in the type of objective analysis that would yield money’s true meaning. So, it’s unclear if the object toward which our life should be oriented is as Yaguri describes. And if Marx happens to be right, and money is a symptom of our alienation, then Yaguri’s praise of money is not simply an error about the meaning of money. Instead, it might also serve to further entrench us in a system of political economy from which many of our existential and psychoanalytic problems—the very problems with which Yaguri is concerned—might actually be derived.

In fact, my reservations about Yaguri’s claims about money made me reconsider two earlier chapters in her work, her two chapters on Erich Fromm, and which constitute the longest engagement with any thinker in her work. For Fromm, love is the medium through which we develop into the fully actualized individuals that we are each capable of becoming, just as love is the medium through which such self-actualized individuals then relate to one another, and these insights find a natural home in Yaguri’s work. However, aside from Fromm’s work in psychoanalysis, he was also a noted Marxist, and was one of the individuals responsible for introducing Marx’s early, more overtly existential, work to an English-speaking audience. And for Fromm, systematic analysis and critique of capitalism was not incidentally related to questions of psychoanalysis but necessarily so, because he believed that capitalism was the single greatest cause of our psychological and spiritual malaise. Love might be the cure, but capitalism was the disease. And so, given that the largest chapter in Yaguri’s book is dedicated to this notable psychoanalytic Marxist, it was all the more striking that she didn’t examine Fromm’s thoughts on capitalism, especially given that psychoanalytic and Marxist critique were so intertwined in his work. Which is not to mention that Yaguri’s conclusions about money so clearly conflict with what Fromm would say.

I began by arguing that the traditions of existentialism and psychoanalysis are in dire need in our modern world, as they can help reintroduce a concern for living that academic philosophy often forgets, and I continue to believe that this is true. In this light, Yaguri’s work is a welcome one. However, I am a little worried that her final chapter might reveal the limits of these traditions, and how they need to be wedded to objective political analysis. As someone whose own research attempts to wed existential and psychoanalytic self-reflection with the objective tools of political economy (and I am perhaps revealing my own prejudices here), I am concerned by the kind of category errors that occur when we adopt a methodology that is appropriate for one sphere of analysis but inappropriate for another, because insights into subjectivity easily masquerade as insights about the objective world.

But even more problematically, the objective world provides the context in which our individual lives unfold, and it thereby gives to them a meaning that we might otherwise fail to apprehend. That is, just as money might appear one way from our individual point of view and another from within the context of capitalism, the same is true of our lives more broadly, as our lives often appear to us one way from our own point of view, but another if we contextualize them against the backdrop of the objective world. Consequently, it has always seemed to me that even the existential and psychoanalytic task of self-knowledge cannot be complete without the complementary analysis of the objective world. After all, how can we determine what a spiritually and psychologically healthy attitude toward things like money might be, before we know what those things in their essence are.

Which is all to say that if thinkers like Marx and Fromm are right, what from our own point of view seems like justifiable praise for the utility of money, might in actuality be ideological support for an economic system predicated on alienation and exploitation. However, in order to see this, it is my contention that we need to learn the limits of existential and psychoanalytic self-analysis, so that we might adopt the proper tools for examining our objective reality. Therefore, while Yaguri’s work does important work with the former set of questions, I am concerned that in the penultimate chapter it takes one step too far, doing so without adopting the requisite tools. And if this is the case, I wonder if Yaguri’s insights into subjectivity are not better expressed by challenging capitalism than by participating in it.

  • Tami Yaguri

    Tami Yaguri

    Reply

    Yaguri’s Response to Aroosi

    I thank Jamie Aroosi for his learned review. I’ll aim to clarify here the rationale of Unraveling Life’s Riddle, which is to attain an accurate sense of meaning in life. Aroosi commends philosophy books that embody a “love of wisdom,” that will help “us live a meaningful and truthful life.” In that sense, for him, my book “is a welcome one.” In quite a few other aspects, for him it isn’t.

    Initially Aroosi’s reservation seems to be with my definition of money in the chapter he reviews. His more fundamental reservation revolves around subjectivism and objectivism. On this we should see eye to eye. He says that “self-knowledge cannot be complete without the complementary analysis of the objective world.” Meaning in life, as I show, is found in the overlap or interface between (subjective) self-identity and (intersubjective or objective) worldview. Aroosi’s position tilts towards objectivism, insofar as “the objective world provides the context in which our individual lives unfold.”

    In my second chapter, I search for objective meaning in life in Kant and Wittgenstein. Strict objectivity fails. “If we looked for an entirely objective answer to the meaning of life, based on facts alone, it will not be found in Kant” (41). With Wittgenstein, “it is impossible to give an answer to the question” (42). “The attempt to provide a general, objective and rational answer, once again, eludes us” (43). If a strict objective lens is a prerequisite for a philosophical discussion on meaning of/in life, then it would be wise to follow Wittgenstein’s agnosticism on the topic. But there is a “soft” sense of objectivity and a sense of intersubjectivity that avoids making a discussion merely subjective. Aroosi fears that “insights into subjectivity easily masquerade as insights about the objective world.” But I don’t present meaning in life as an “insight into the objective world.” The “art of meaning” method is intersubjective. It doesn’t pursue a strictly objective impersonal truth. But it’s not strictly subjective either, it’s not just something personally invented.

    Chapter 12 of Unraveling Life’s Riddle explores money as the answer to meaning in life. As in all the chapters, I present the views of a thinker, in this case, the philosopher Jacob Needleman. Needleman is an American philosopher of impeccable background. Educated at Harvard, Yale, and the University of Freiburg, Germany, he is professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University. Money and the Meaning of Life (1991) is one of his many publications. Aroosi ascribes the views in chapter 12 to me, while in fact I am presenting Needleman’s views. In any case, Aroosi misses the point of my chapter and the contribution Needleman makes.

    I include Needleman’s answer to meaning in life for two reasons. First, because of its importance: “Money is the solution to many problems in life” (220). Second, Needleman’s approach to money reinforces my central theme: meaning in life is present at the interface of self-identity and worldview. This too is stated clearly:

    Once money is conceived as an amalgamation of matter and spirit, it can be a worthy meaning in life. Whoever chooses it has to merge it into his private existence, to understand how to manage it, and when to beware being managed by it. Love requires a two-lane learning, about myself and about those outside me. Similarly, money requires learning about myself and learning about the world. If money is to be a meaning in life, it must consolidate self-identity as well as provide a purpose. Money will be central in a crystalized worldview, showing an appreciation of financial, economic, psychological, cultural, and political dimensions of life. (212)

    Meaning is a dynamic process of learning, of becoming. Whether the value we hold is wisdom, kindness, peace, struggle, happiness, love, power, faith, or money, meaning is found in the overlap of self-identity and worldview. Unraveling Life’s Riddle explores how this is so.

    A philosophical discussion of meaning in life can’t be strictly objective for it combines objective and subjective perspectives. It aims for intersubjective grounds. Among the values that can provide meaning in life, money is a splendid option. In Needleman’s account, King Solomon was blessed by wisdom and a discerning heart, by honor and wealth. He balances metaphysical vision and worldly realism. His metaphysical vision distinguishes right and wrong, while his worldly realism is expressed in vast wealth and longevity. For someone who is inspired by the king’s life,

    meaning is expressed in the task of inhabiting both worlds. One learns to negotiate between drives and values, between needs and ideals, between the earthly and the heavenly. When a person’s struggle with these is successful, neither undermining the other, then it’s possible for money to be part if not all of the meaning in life. (219)

    Horrible things have been done in the name of love. Yet no one would suggest excluding it as a valuable meaning in life. Money is no different. Horrible acts are done in the name of Mammon, the god of wealth. Yet, properly attuned, a wealthy person can be generous in a way denied to a good-hearted poor person.

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