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MEANING CRISIS: PHILOSOPHICAL COUNSELLING AND PSYCHOTHERAPY BY STEVEN SEGAL


The aim of this paper is to set out some distinctive features of philosophical counselling, in terms of the nature of the problems with which it deals and the process through which it does so. I shall do this by comparing psychotherapeutic and philosophical approaches to a "case history."


The example that I have chosen for this aim is Leo Tolstoy's description of an existential crisis, or crisis in meaning, that he suffered.1 Although he did not receive philosophical counselling, the nature of his crisis and the way in which he resolved it indicate the process through which existential problems arise, and the way in which a philosophical counsellor may help a person in dealing with them.


The paper will be divided as follows: a description of Tolstoy's crisis, Tolstoy's crisis in the context of psychotherapy, a Heideggerian interpretation of Tolstoy's crisis, and the conclusion.

1. All quotes from Tolstoy are taken from L. Tolstoy, "My confession," in 0. Hanflig, ed., Life and Meaning: A Reader, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987, pp. 9-19. Tolstoy's Crisis Under what conditions does the need for counselling arise? There are forms of unhappiness which do not in themselves require counselling: When a person knows why he or she is unhappy and can do something (or feels he or she can do something) to alleviate this unhappiness.


However, when a person is unhappy without an appropriate cause or object of unhappiness, without any apparent rhyme or reason, and when there is nothing that the person can do to shake off the unhappiness -it is here that counselling, both philosophical and psychotherapeutic, can be of service.

Tolstoy's existential crisis is an example of such a form of unhappiness. Until the onset of the crisis, his life had been running smoothly. He described himself as a happy and content person who had realised many of his life ambitions. Suddenly and without warning he was overcome by what can be described as intense feelings of anxiety and depression in which he lost all sense of himself and purpose to his existence. Describing this crisis he says: "... five years ago something very strange began to happen with me: I was overcome by minutes at first of perplexity and then an arrest of life, as though I did not know how to live or what to do, and I lost myself and was dejected."

His unhappiness was so intense that he feared that he would commit suicide. His crisis was characterised by a sense of the complete meaninglessness of all of his activities and previous achievements. He could not find meaning or purpose in writing, farming, education, or family life: "I felt that what I was standing on had given way, that I had no foundation to stand on, that that which I lived by no longer existed, and that I had nothing to live by."

His unhappiness appeared to have no object or cause. He had not suffered any loss or injury to himself, his family or his property, and there was no objective event that could explain the unhappiness. On the contrary, prior to the onset of this mysterious and intense unhappiness, everything had been going extremely well for him: He was, as is well known, a world-famous writer, a successful businessman and family man. He had achieved what most people only dream of achieving.

Furthermore, there was nothing that he could do to prevent or ignore these feelings of unhappiness. Whether he liked it or not, they deprived his life of meaning. He was powerless to resist the pull of meaninglessness. He could not simply continue with his everyday activities: "Before attending to my Samara estate, to my son's education

or to writing of a book, I ought to know why I should do that. So long as I did not know why, I could not do anything, I could not live"1

Prior to the onset of his crisis, Tolstoy had immersed himself fully in the pursuit of happiness, wealth, and recognition. He had pursued these goals without reflecting on their meaning and significance. He had simply assumed that the achievement of these goals was the central pursuit of human existence and that to achieve these aims was, therefore, to achieve everything that human existence was about. At this pre-reflective stage he saw questions concerning the meaning of his own and human existence as pointless, superfluous questions, as interferences with what he assumed were the real meaning of existence: his farming, writing, and family. In the context of his concrete need to earn a living, the question of the meaning of existence was a distraction.

However, that emptiness and meaninglessness which overcame him would not allow him to continue in such complacency. By depriving his everyday pursuits of meaning, he could no longer simply absorb or lose himself in these pursuits in a spontaneous, unreflective manner. Instead of just working, he could not help but question the work that he was doing, and could not find its significance: "Amidst my thoughts of farming, which interested me very much during that time, there would suddenly pass through my head a question like this: 'Alright, you are going to have six hundred desyatinas of land in the Government of Samara, and three hundred horses-and then?' And I completely lost my senses and did not know what to think further.1

But meaninglessness did not propel Tolstoy into a state of ultimate despair from which there was no recovery. Rather, it served as the catalyst through which he began to ask questions about the meaning of his everyday involvements in the world. He began to reflect on the point and significance of his goals: "But, perhaps I overlooked something, or did not understand something right? And I tried to find an explanation for these questions in all those branches of knowledge which men had acquired"1


1. All quotes from Tolstoy are taken from L. Tolstoy, "My confession," in 0. Hanflig, ed., Life and Meaning: A Reader, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987,

pp. 9-19.

Thus it was by being deprived of happiness that he began to question the meaning of happiness. Similarly, by being deprived of meaning in the pursuit of wealth, recognition, and education, he was called to reflect upon the meaning of the pursuit of these goals. Through the experience of the meaninglessness of all these activities he came face to face with the question of the point of all of these activities. The experience would not allow Tolstoy to take the meaning of his pursuits for granted. It transformed an unreflective involvement in his pursuits into a reflective relationship. It made him think about why he was doing what he was doing.


The nature of his thinking was passionate and involved, rather than detached: "I searched painfully and for a long time, and I searched not from idle curiosity, not in a limp manner, but painfully and stubbornly, day and night-I searched as a perishing man searches for his salvation... "

There were several stages in the development of Tolstoy's quest for the meaning of existence. In the first stage, the questions which presented themselves for reflection were vague and unformulated: "Why, well and then?" was the first way in which the question presented itself. Not only could he not answer the question, he could not even make sense of the question. It seemed strange and absurd to him.

In the second stage, the question became more focused. It attached itself to particular facets of his life. He began to question the point of specific everyday activities: of success in his work and writing, of educating his child, and even of tending to his estate. But he did not know how to respond to these questions. They left him feeling blank. They created in him more tension and uncertainty than what they resolved. In both the first and second stages of the questioning process

Tolstoy was a passive receiver of these questions. He did not decide to ask these questions but rather found himself asking them. They popped into his head independently of whether or not he wished them to be there. As much as he tried he could not resist asking them.

In the third stage of his questioning, he began to take control of the process of questioning. The questioning became more focused, but he still did not fully understand the nature of the question that he was asking. In this stage, instead of resisting the question of meaning, he decided to actively pursue it. He believed that the most appropriate domain to pursue it was the sciences: "I searched everywhere... I learned everything which science replies to the question of life." But he found that science could not answer his question. Indeed, he found that science took for granted the very question that he was asking, and did not even attempt to grapple with it. Tolstoy was quite shocked at this discovery: "For a long time I could not believe that science had no answer to give the questions of life... "

So shocking was this discovery to Tolstoy that he first reacted not by affirming the limits of science but by questioning his own understanding of science and scientific methods. However, repeated attempts to answer the question of meaning from the scientific perspective yielded the same results: This question was too fundamental for the sciences to answer.

The discovery of the limitations of science propelled Tolstoy into thinking about his own presuppositions about science in particular and knowledge in general. This was the fourth stage in his search for an answer to the question of meaning. It may be called the "philosophical stage." Instead of thinking about the objective world, the world outside of himself, the world of science, Tolstoy now began to think about the assumptions in terms in which he had previously thought about the objective world. Instead of simply performing scientific analyses of the world he began to think about the principles in terms of which science itself constructs the world. He saw that he had taken for granted the value of the scientific ways of thinking.

Until this point he had been a confirmed rationalist. It had never occurred to him to question the value of rational thought-so convinced was he about its claims to be the source of all knowledge. Now he began to question this assumption: "I saw that it was not right for me to look for an answer to my question in rational knowledge" At this point he came face to face with the question of the irrational nature of life. This was not a comfortable issue for him, coming as he did from a rationalist background. Nevertheless, he pursued his understanding of the irrational nature of life and found that only in faith could he find an answer to his question of meaning: "I also understood that, no matter how irrational and monstrous the answers might be that faith gave, they had this advantage that they introduced into each answer the relation of the finite to the infinite, without which there could be no answer."

The discovery of faith gave Tolstoy a new perspective on life, one in which he was not simply absorbed in his everyday activities, but which was about the nature of his everyday activities: "No matter how I may put the question, 'How must I live?', the answer is 'According to God's law." Not only did the world appear in a new way to him, he found a new way of being-in-the-world, one in which he was not simply lost in his everyday involvements in the world; a way in which he had gained perspective on these involvements.

It is clear that once he began to question his own assumptions, he opened up new ways of seeing the world. Initially, these ways of seeing the world appeared strange, unfamiliar, and even somewhat absurd, but the more he accepted them, the more exciting they became to him. In fact, he believed that he was now on the road to wisdom and insight, having overcome the deceptions and prejudices of his prior assumptions.


Questioning his own assumptions allowed him to see himself and the world in new ways. This, in turn, allowed him to reconstruct his relationship to the world by no longer emphasising finite concerns but by placing the finite in the context of the infinite. It was thus in the process of examining his assumptions that the problem of meaninglessness was most effectively dealt with by Tolstoy.

Tolstoy's Crisis in the Context of Psychotherapy In this section I shall examine Tolstoy's crisis from the point of view of several major psychotherapies, and show that they do not seem to allow for a fruitful understanding of the depth and intensity of Tolstoy's anxiety. Although these approaches might be capable of interpreting Tolstoy's predicament into their framework and analysing it in their own terms, such analyses would miss much of the point of his crisis. They would change the issue, so I will argue, rather than address it.

The first view to be examined is the neo-psychoanalytic view of Karen Horney. From Hamey's perspective, anxiety is seen as a threat to a value that a person holds vital to his or her existence as a person. It arises when there is an obstacle or block to fulfilling this value. Rollo May, who holds a somewhat similar view, says: "Anxiety is the apprehension cued off by a threat to some value that the individual holds essential to this existence as a personality.2


He offers the following example: The identification of a value with one's existence as a personality is dramatised in the remark of Tom in his anxiety over whether he would be retained in his job or be forced to resort again to government relief: 'If I couldn't support my family, I'd as soon jump off the end of the dock.' He thus tells us that if he could not preserve the self-respecting position of being the responsible wage-earner, his whole life would have no meaning and he might as well not exist. This he would confirm by snuffing out his own life-committing suicide. The occasions of anxiety will vary with different people as widely as the values on which they depend vary. But what will always be true in anxiety is that the threat is to a value held by that particular individual to be essential to his existence and, consequently, to his security as a personality.3 Tom's anxiety must be distinguished from Tolstoy's. Tom could at least affirm values which gave him direction and purpose. He knew what he wanted. His problem was that he could not fulfil it. In contrast, Tolstoy's crisis was a loss of all sense of value. He did not have anything to believe in. All his convictions about what he had previously assumed to be of value lost meaning. The very value that Tom affirmed and took for granted was something that perplexed Tolstoy: "My family... Why should I love them, why guard, raise and watch them?" 2. R May, The Meaning of Anxiety, New Yorlc W. W. Norton, 1CJ77,p. 205. 3. Ibid., p. 206. It was not out of an anger, resentment, or disinterest in his family that Tolstoy asked these questions. He acknowledged his love for his family. It was the assumptions which he had taken for granted, and through which he had oriented himself towards his family, that were the focus of his anguish. He had no grounds upon which to believe them any more, or upon which to determine what was and what was not worth believing.

Thus, precisely where Tom was secure, Tolstoy was insecure. It was never part of Tom's anxiety to question the values that he held central to his existence. At least he had some ground upon which to stand. For Tolstoy there was nothing that could be taken as self-evident, certain, or natural. All his beliefs kept being undermined in an uncertainty which consumed his whole being. He had lost all intuitive and instinctive sense of what was and was not valuable. As he himself says: "And I completely lost my senses and did not know what to think further." It is this anxiety that the approach of Karen Homey and May Rollo fails to address. Their conception of anxiety assumes that a person has values that are already affirmed. It does not address itself to a loss of a sense of value in the first place. To search for obstacles which hinder Tolstoy from fulfilling his •values would be to misunderstand his predicament.


Even if this search for obstacles were to somehow eliminate his anxiety, this would be to do away with his question rather than address it. The question of the meaning of one's life is legitimate question which deserves to be addressed on its own terms.

Another possible way of understanding Tolstoy's crisis is in terms of the more orthodox approach of classical Freudian psychoanalysis.Here it is likely that Tolstoy's questioning of the meaning of existence will be seen in terms of sickness or neurosis. As Freud said: ''The moment a man questions the meaning and value of life he is sick.4 Sickness or neuroses manifest themselves through symptoms, which are signs of deeper underlying conflicts. Since these conflicts are too painful, they are blocked from conscious awareness. Being blocked they do not disappear but are only repressed. They are active in the unconsciousness of the person, and their place is taken in consciousness by various kinds of symptoms.

4. Quoted in V. Frankl, Psychotherapy and Existentialism: Selected Papers on Logotherapy, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978, p. 30 from E.L. Freud, ed, Letters of Sigmund Freud, New York: Basic Books, 1960.


Thus it seems that from this psychoanalytic perspective, Tolstoy's meaning crisis would be analysed in terms of a symptom or sign of a deeper underlying conflict However, it cannot reasonably be assumed that every issue raised by a person should be reinterpreted in terms of its {alleged) unconscious causes. To do so would be to brush away the philosophical content of the question, which may be of significance regardless of the forces that brought it about.


The questions of the value of wealth, the point of pleasure and success, the significance of education-all of which are posed by Tolstoy in his anguish-are legitimate questions in their own right. Seeing them only as symptoms that need to be interpreted psychologically, rather than as questions to be responded to, would change the topic of the discourse. It would replace the question of meaning by a question of the person's unconsciousness. Instead of investigating the nature of meaning, the psychoanalyst would be concerned with the way in which the question expresses Tolstoy's "psychic history," with discovering conflicts that were repressed in early childhood, and analysing his early relationships to his parents. And if Tolstoy were to insist that his problem is that of meaning, he would likely be viewed as "resisting." On this psychoanalytic view, we would be concerned with Tolstoy's emotions and feelings and not with the answer to his question of meaning as such. We would never examine the point and significance of wealth, fame, and fortune.


This raises the issue: Under what conditions is it legitimate to psychologically interpret questions of meaning, and under what conditions are they questions to be answered in their own terms? A criterion is needed to determine when a predicament is to be viewed as a symptom of an unconscious conflict. Kovel suggests that: A person in the grip of neurotic experience is embroiled in an emotional conflict he seems set against understanding, because at least one of its sides would lead to anxiety if it were allowed expression. Thus he won't remember, though he wants to, because to remember that one thing might bring other horrid things to mind; so he forgets... [f]hese things that are so horrid and forbidding, are also quite desirable. This stands to reason, since if the ideas were simply unpleasant we would drop them. The only thing that could hold them in place and keep them hammering away, making their forbidden claim, is the promise of some far, far more intense pleasure than we are granted by everyday, waking life.5 5. J. Kovel, A CompleteGuide to Therapy, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1991, p. 36.


Kovel's point is, then, that in a neurotic conflict a person is tom between resisting and seeking the satisfaction of some desire or pleasure. The ambiguity of attraction and repulsion manifests itself in the form of hiding. The very attempt to hide the desire is an indication of the attraction to the desire; for had he not been attracted to it, he would not have attempted to hide it. Hiding can take several forms in psychoanalysis. Denial, for example, is a form of hiding an impulse which indicates a simultaneous repulsion and attraction. Similarly, a person may repress what he or she is attracted to, because the expression of the desire is felt to be too threatening.

In order to apply this psychoanalytic perspective to Tolstoy's case, we need to interpret his anxiety and questions of meaning as expressions of simultaneous repulsion and attraction by a desire causing denial, repression, or other forms of hiding or defence. Is this a legitimate interpretation?

Tolstoy's own description of the nature of his unhappiness contradicts the interpretation of ambivalence towards a desire-for pleasure, fortune, recognition or honour, all of which he had achieved. His words do not indicate that some inner apprehension or repulsion prevented him from satisfying his desires, but rather that their satisfaction left him feeling empty: "If I wished for anything, I knew in advance that, whether I gratified my desire or not, nothing would come of it. If a fairy had come and biid offered to carry out my wish,I should not have known what to say." His words suggest not an ambivalence towards desires but a disinterest in them, which is not in itself a sign of unconscious conflict.

To be sure, a psychoanalyst might claim that Tolstoy's conflict was well hidden in the unconscious, and he, therefore, was not aware of it.6 One may question whether there exists any evidence that supports this interpretation. But regardless of whether this direction can yield a coherent picture, it fails to address Tolstoy's philosophical concerns, because it ignores them and replaces them with psychoanalytic formulations. For there is a fundamental difference between the futility of striving which he describes and the ambiguity of desire posited by psychoanalysis.


While the latter assumes that a desire is significant but that one cannot gratify it, in the former case there is in principle no problem with the gratification of desire. It is just that its gratification does not hold any meaning or vitality.


6. See S. Freud's "Some character-types met with in psychoanalytic work," in: The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (second edition), translated by J. Strachey, London: Hogarth Press, 1963, volume 14, pp. 311-333, especially section 2: "Those wrecked by success," pp. 316-331.

Thus, if Tolstoy's quest for meaning is to be respected, then it is inappropriate to see it as material to be interpreted psychoanalytically in terms of ambivalence towards a desire, instead of regarding it as raising questions to be addressed. Indeed, he would have probably been frustrated to hear his question being interpreted as a symptom of unconscious forces with no significance of its own, and his insistence on finding an answer as a sign of resistance. It would not be unreasonable to think that at this point he would not only "resist," but give up psychoanalysis altogether.

A third perspective on Tolstoy's crisis is Carl Rogers' self­ actualisation approach. For Rogers, self-actualisation "is the inherent tendency of the organism to develop all its capacities in ways which serve to maintain or enhance the organism.7 Self-actualisation crises are characterised by the fact that a person is not actualising all of his or her capacities, and thus has capacities which are not being fulfilled.

However, Tolstoy's formulation of his crisis is at odds with the idea that he was not actualising one or more of his capacities. On the contrary, his words suggest that his crisis revolved around the meaning and significance of actualising capacities in the first place. Tolstoy had actualised himself to a degree that not many people have done; and yet he felt empty. He could find no meaning in all of his achievements, as well as in his striving for realising his abilities. What he wanted to know was: What is the significance of striving towards self­ actualisation? What is point of being actualised? These are not questions which can be answered within a perspective that assumes self-actualisation to be the most basic motivation of human existence. Rogers could respond that Tolstoy was simply unaware of the fact that his crisis was one of self-actualisation. But again, this interpretation would fail to address his legitimate questions and to respect this search for an answer.

The same argument can be directed against the perspective of Rational-Emotive Therapy (REI). From this perspective, emotional conflict occurs when "individuals demand, insist, and dictate that they must have their wishes satisfied. Thus, they demand that they succeed and be approved; they insist that others treat them fairly; and they dictate that the universe be more pleasant.8


7. C. Rogers and D. Betty, "Person-centered therapy," in R Corsini, ed., Psychotherapies, Illinois: F.E. Peacock Publishers, 1984, p. 142. 8. A. Ellis, "Rational-Emotive Therapy," in R Corsini, op cit., p. 211.

Tolstoy was making no demands on reality. He had no wishes which were calling for fulfilment. And yet he was overwhelmed by anguish. His anguish was about losing all sense of what he could and could not expect from life. It is not that he demanded anything from life; he did not know what was worth demanding. Summarising the above four psychotherapeutic interpretations of Tolstoy's anxiety, it can be said that it is unreasonable to interpret Tolstoy's anxiety in terms of a threat to values that he held vital, a frustration of a desire or a wish, or an inability to achieve self­ actualisation. What the four approaches have in common is that the very assumptions which they make-concerning the needs and desires which must be satisfied in order to overcome anxiety-were questioned by Tolstoy. Tolstoy was in anxiety precisely about these assumptions. They have been deprived of meaning for him. He could no longer see the point of pleasure, of self-actualisation, of fulfilling values and expectations about reality.None of these made sense to him any more.

Thus the very grounds upon which these therapies wish to make sense of anxiety are ungrounded for Tolstoy. Where they feel certain and secure, he feels uncertain and insecure. What they offer as insight are nothing but questions for him.It seems unreasonable to use a theory which is in question for Tolstoy as a basis upon which to respond to him. It would miss the whole point of his anxiety. Is there any form of counselling which addresses directly the question of meaning without turning it into something else?

A Heideggerian Interpretation of Tolstoy's Anxiety In this section I shall show how Tolstoy's crisis, as well as his response to it, can be understood in terms of a Heideggerian analysis. I shall show that:

1) Tolstoy's anxiety arose not out of the frustration of a desire or need but out of a failure to question his own assumptions regarding the meaning of existence. It arose out of a taking for granted-or what Heidegger calls a "forgetfulness"- of the question of the meaning of Being.

2) The function of the anxiety of meaninglessness was to turn Tolstoy towards asking the question of the meaning of existence.

3) Asking and answering the question of the meaning of existence led to a transformation in his way of being-in-the-world.

4) The process of asking the question of the meaning of existence is the one through which Tolstoy questioned his own assumptions and beliefs regarding the question of the meaning of existence.

5) This questioning enabled him to broaden his vision, thus allowing him to see himself and the world in new ways, and thereby to transform his relationship to the world.

6) This process of questioning his own assumptions I shall call, following Heidegger, destruction. Here it is interesting to note that while Tolstoy rejects philosophy and metaphysics as ways of resolving his crisis in meaning, the process that he went through to resolve his problems was in fact, as I will argue, philosophical.

Most existential philosophers were concerned with the senselessness and meaninglessness experienced by Tolstoy, but they had different conceptions of the significance of this experience, and have used different notions to describe it. Sartre, for example, called it "nausea," Camus named it "the absurd" and Heidegger called it "anxiety." All these terms refer to an experience in which a person suddenly and without warning is overcome by feelings of strangeness. It is an experience in which nothing seems familiar any more.


Nothing in the objective world has changed and yet nothing remains the same. The change is a change in perception. Something like a gestalt switch has occurred, and the world now appears without form and meaning. Camus describes it in the following way: A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting is properly the feeling of absurdity. 9

The absurdity of being deprived of a perspective on existence fills Sartre with nausea: I can't speak any more, I bow my head. The Autodidact's face is right up against mine. He smiles foolishly, right up against my face, just as people do in nightmares. I laboriously chew a piece of bread which I cannot make up my mind to swallow. People. You must love people. People are admirable. I feel like vomiting-and all of a sudden, there it is: the Nausea. 10


9. A. Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975, p. 13. 10. J.P. Sartre, Nausea, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976, pp. 175-176.

Nausea is a reaction to the inability to make sense of experiences: Things have broken free from their names. They are there, grotesque, stubborn, gigantic, and it seems ridiculous to call them seats or say anything at all about them: I am in the midst of Things, which cannot be given names. Alone, wordless, defenceless, they surround me, under me, behind me, above me,...Words had disappeared, and with them the meaning of things, the methods of using them, the feeble landmarks which men have traced on their surface.11 Nausea is a result of a continued total loss of orientation in the world. This loss of orientation is captured most vividly by Nietzsche in his assertion of the death of God: What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? ls there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breadth of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night and more night coming on all the while?12

Heidegger calls the nausea and absurdity of existence "anxiety.11 Anxiety manifests itself as a feeling of not being comfortable or at home in the world. It is a feeling of uneasiness without a particular identifiable reason or cause. Heidegger describes anxiety as an experience of the uncanniness of being.13

All of these descriptions express a sense of being detached from the world. Anxiety renders it impossible to continue one's everyday activities with the same passion and vigour. All activities which had once seemed so meaningful are deprived of all meaning; there just seems to be no reason, no point in doing anything.

Victor Frankl has summed up the anguish of meaninglessness in terms of his concept of existential vacuum: The existential vacuum seems to issue from man's twofold loss: the loss of that instinctual security which surrounds an animal's life, and the further, more recent loss of those traditions which governed man's life in former times. At present instincts do not tell man what he ought to do; soon he will not even know what he really wants to do 14


11. Ibid., pp. 180, 182. 12. F. Nietzsche, TheGay Science, section 125, in W. Kaufmann, ed., The Portable Nietzsche, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984, p. 95. 13. M. Heidegger, Being and Time, New Yorlc: Basil Blackwell, p. 233. 14. V. Frankl, op cit., p. 29.

It seems that Tolstoy experienced the overwhelming power of such anxiety. The perplexity and arrest of life, the feeling of being without a foundation and deprived of all means of making sense of the world, all indicate an existential anxiety. But most of all it was a feeling of detachment from the world, of not being involved or committed to his activities, of confronting his own world as an alien and stranger.

There is a difference betweenHeidegger on the one hand and Camus and Sartre on the other hand in their interpretations of the· significance of meaninglessness. For Sartre and Camus there is no going beyond the absurdity and senselessness of human existence. They are the essential conditions of humanity. Man is condemned, as Sartre claims, to being a "useless passion." 15


Thus, for Sartre, Tolstoy's realisation of the meaninglessness of his existence, while freeing him from the deceptions of his mode of existence which he had been taking for granted, was an end point beyond which he could not go further. It was a destiny to which he was condemned. And for a while, it seems as if Tolstoy would have agreed with Sartre: "Is it possible Schopenhauer and I alone are so wise as to have comprehended the meaninglessness and evil of life?"

Heidegger sees the significance of meaninglessness in a different way: Senselessness is not the pronouncement of a final destiny but the realisation of the emptiness of a certain mode of existence, one in which the human-or Dasein 16, as Heidegger calls him-is absorbed in and preoccupied with the concerns of the everyday world. In this mode of existence Dasein is not concerned with the meaning of its activities but with getting the "job done." Dasein is here concerned only with satisfying its needs and realising its goals. Its concerns are "practical" and its thinking is instrumental.


15. J.P. Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology, London: Methuen, p. 615. 16. M. Heidegger, op cit., p. 'l:T.


In Heideggerian terms,Tolstoy, prior to the onset of his crisis, was absorbed and involved in the everyday world: He was concerned with providing for the material well-being of his family. His estate preoccupied him. He was basking in the glow of his success, recognition, and fame as a writer. He was content and happy. There was no need for questioning the meaning of his involvements or values.

The experience of perplexity-or, in Heidegger's terms, the anxiety of being-would not allow him to continue in this way. It transformed his relationship to his preoccupations. Instead of being involved in activities in which he could lose himself, they themselves became themes of reflective awareness. Instead of being involved in his preoccupations, he came to reflect upon the involvement and preoccupations themselves. Thus, instead of being a writer, he came to think about himself as a writer. Instead of running his estate, he came to reflect upon the meaning of running his estate. Instead of simply pursuing wealth, he came to question the point of pursing wealth.

Heidegger's conception of the relationship between involvement in and reflection upon the everyday world may be stated in the form of a paradox: It is the very senselessness of the everyday world which allowed Tolstoy to come face to face with the issue of the sense of the everyday world. It was by depriving the everyday world of its meaning that Tolstoy was forced to consider the issue of its meaning. Meaninglessness made the issue of meaning an existential concern for Tolstoy. It made it into something upon which his whole existence depended and something that he pursued with his whole being. Instead of being absorbed and involved in the everyday world he was now involved in thinking about the ways in which he had been involved in the world.

What must be noted is the way in which Tolstoy dealt with questions raised by his experience of senselessness: He did not, and could not, answer any of the questions directly. Instead of answering the questions he looked at the assumptions which had given rise to them. Thus, although he was unable to answer the questions in scientific terms, he did not surrender them, but rather looked at the foundations and assumptions that shaped science.This allow him an understanding of the limits of science. It also gave greater focus and clarity to his question.

He did the same with rationality. When he found that he was unable to answer the question in rational terms, he came to question what he had taken for granted about rationality, namely, that it was the only respectable way in which to seek knowledge.


Thus he began to question not the objective world but his own way of thinking about the world. This process freed him from presuppositions about how to think about meaning and hence prepared the way for him to reformulate the question of the meaning of existence: "What meaning has my finite existence in this infinite world?"

It should be remembered that the criterion by which Tolstoy asked and responded to questions was not a rule of logic but a sense of perplexity: It was perplexity that called him to raise questions, and a question counted as being answered not when a rule of reason was satisfied but when Tolstoy was no longer perplexed. As it happened, this occurred only when he had a vision of the relation between finitude and the infinite. Thus, he rejected science and rationality not on rational or scientific grounds, but because they did not address his feelings of perplexity. The questioning of the meaning of existence in the context of perplexity gave to Tolstoy a panoramic view of existence. It will be recalled that prior to the crisis he was preoccupied with the affairs of his everyday living. As the crisis progressed his vision expanded: First he asked particular questions concerning the point of his everyday activities. He then moved onto widely accepted forms of knowledge in order to answer these questions, that is, science and rationality. He then realised that these did not appreciate the question of the relation between the finite and the infinite.

The panorama was not pursued as an end in itself but because it gave meaning to the particular activities in which he was involved.It restored meaning to his needs and wants, and enabled him to understand why he did what he did.

Heidegger labels "destruction" the process leading from anxiety, through a questioning of presuppositions, to the traditions which orient us.17 It is a destruction because it is an imploding of presuppositions. Such destruction is needed where Dasein feels lost and unable to make sense of itself in the world. The point of destruction is not itself destructive but rather to allow Dasein to relive its heritage in a way that is existentially authentic.


17. Op cit., p. 41.

This can be clearly seen in the case of Tolstoy, because he rediscovered it for himself. Christianity made intuitive sense to him and was therefore able to provide him with a framework with which to make sense of his everyday involvement in the world: "No matter how I may put the question, 'How must I live?' the answer is 'According to God's law,' 'What real result will there be from my life?'-'Eternal torment or eternal bliss.' What is the meaning which is now destroyed by death?'-'The union with infinite God, paradise."'

Tolstoy did not rediscover Christianity as a set of principles through rational considerations. He believed that to subject Christianity to rational debate was an indication of an inappropriate attunement to Christianity, which addresses itself to the perplexity of being. It becomes alive only when Dasein cannot make sense of existence-not when it is using a rational criterion to evaluate the sense of existence. This is not an anti-rationalist stance. In perplexity he overcame or transcended reason. For him rationality was still an appropriate tool­ but appropriate only in the world of finitude; not in the relation between the finite and the infinite.

The assumptions that need to be destructed are not conjured in a vacuum. They arise out of what Heidegger calls the "everyday world" into which a person has been thrown. The everyday world includes the social, historical, and cultural context in which a person is born and in which he develops. This context nurtures and molds the person. It shapes his aspirations, expectations, beliefs, attitudes, likes, and dislikes. However, for the most part people do not think about the way in which they are shaped by their context. They blindly accept their context. In this way people acquire beliefs, values, and expectations without knowing their value, and accept them as natural. Destruction is the endeavour to attune-or, in everyday language, "get in touch with"- the values and beliefs which shape our lives.It is a way of returning to our roots by reliving our traditions in a way that challenges us not to take them for granted.

Existential anxiety.for Heidegger, is not an indication of pathology. Although painful and overwhelming, it is not a sign that something is wrong with the person, and thus not a symptom to be interpreted. On the contrary, it is a source of education and edification. It is a mood in which Dasein comes to take seriously its relation to the world. It is precisely by being disturbed and overwhelmed that such an education becomes possible.

What can be expected of such an education is a horizon or context in which to make sense of everyday involvements in the world. This is what Tolstoy found. He rediscovered meaning in a tradition -which he had taken for granted, namely, Christianity.What is important from the Heideggerian perspective is not whether or not Christianity is objectively true, but that Tolstoy rediscovered this tradition in anxiety. This means that he rediscovered it by questioning his own assumptions and intuitions. In conclusion, it is interesting to compare Heidegger's and Frankl's way of dealing with the problem of meaninglessness. For Heidegger, paradoxically, the crisis of meaninglessness is itself a meaningful crisis. It is something in which Dasein is most passionately involved. It is not a means to an end. For Frankl Logotherapy as the search for meaning seems to be a means to an end: a means for finding meaning. For Heidegger meaning does not exist"at the end of the rainbow." It is the crisis of meaninglessness itself which is most meaningful. It is the process of education about being-in-the-world. Logotherapy is a search for a personal meaning.


Frankl does not focus on the horizon or the traditions in which Dasein finds itself. In contrast, from a Heideggerian perspective, anxiety is directed at the traditions in which Dasein finds itself. To question in anxiety is not to question the self but the traditions of thought from which Dasein is alienated.


Conclusion In this paper I have not contested Tolstoy's views of science, rationality, and faith. In fact, I have hardly presented Tolstoy's reasons for accepting or rejecting his way of thinking and living. This was not an oversight. The aim of this paper was to followthe path on which his perplexity and anguish took him, and to identify the issues that raised themselves in his perplexity.

Tolstoy's affirmation of the limits of science and reason was not the result of reasoning. As Wittgenstein has said: "Have I reasons? 'The answer is: my reasons will soon give out. And then I shall act, without reasons." Further on he says: "If I have exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: 'This is simply what I do'.18


Sartre has made a similar point in the following way: ''When I deliberate the die is already cast. The decision has been taken by the time the will intervenes'.19 Like the insights of Wittgenstein and Sartre, Tolstoy's recognition of the limits of science was a result of the fact that science did not address itself to his perplexity. Whatever his reasoning, science did not overcome his sense of meaninglessness but, on the contrary, seemed to deepen it. To have proved him right or wrong in his views of science and reason would not have overcome his meaninglessness.


18. L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell, 1974, pp. 211, 217. 19. J.P. Sartre, From an interview with The Listener (unfortunately, further details for this reference were lost).


In fact, experience suggests that when one is already uncertain of oneself and one's beliefs, challenging one's views tends to lead to a defensive reaction rather than to a questioning of underlying assumptions.


As I have argued throughout this paper, the path which Tolstoy followed was to question his own assumptions rather than to defend them. It was this ability to question his own assumptions which led him to a panoramic vision of human existence, that is, allowed him to grapple existentially with the traditions of Christianity, science, and reason.

In moments of perplexity there is nothing to prove, nothing that is definite, nothing that makes sense. There are only hunches and vague intuitions. There is everything to explore, to see, and to think. The world opens up in a way that appears new and fresh-even when, as in the case of Tolstoy, this newness is the existential rediscovery of an ancient tradition.

I believe that the function of the philosopher as a counsellor is to develop an understanding of the assumptions, hunches, and intuitions that are aroused in moments such as senselessness and meaningfulness. Counselling is not limited, however, only to such extreme problems. All of our everyday preoccupations are guided by beliefs, values, and presuppositions.


Experience is always interpreted through a particular lens. Our actions and interactions, likes and dislikes, our conception of marriage and divorce, are guided by assumptions and beliefs. Many people today are unaware of how their experiences are shaped by their own presuppositions. It is the task of the philosopher as counsellor to relate the assumptions that people take for granted to their everyday experience, thus allowing for a greater understanding of themselves and of the situations in which they find themselves.


Finally, it can be said that from the perspective of philosophical counselling, it is not always reasonable to take the questions and issues with which a person is grappling as symptoms that need to be interpreted. Rather, questions often need to be addressed directly. This requires a person who knows how to identify the question which is being asked and to elaborate on it, and who can help the other person develop a way of dealing with it.


Dr Steven Segal

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