Philosophical counseling and the language of trying things out


There is a beautiful line in the late philosopher Robert Nozick’s book The Examined Life about taking a position. Nozick confesses that when he was younger he believed, like any good analytic philosopher, that he had to take a position on everything. As he got older, he realized that “position-taking”–the presumed need to make up one’s mind and stand behind something of ultimate importance–might have been his adolescent mistake. Nozick had managed to grow up.

The Language of Trying Things Out

What might it mean to try things out?

1. Trying things out is not like taking a position. Its commitment to this way of life is more provisional but, for all that, not nothing.

2. Trying things out is not a dress rehearsal. It is the thing itself, actual and serious like love.

3. Philosophical counseling, the forum in which conversation partners agree to try things out, is a gamble from first to last. For that matter, so is life, and then so is new public thinking.

4. But the gamble is not a drunken or an irrational one. Trying out this line of thought, this way of life follows from living out some previous way of life and determining, ultimately, to rule that one out. There is a logic, albeit not a logic of entailment, to this gamble.

5. In addition, this essay–this attempt, this sally–aims at something of ultimate value and does so with some reasonable hope of success. From the outset, it is not clear whether success, however we understand this, is achievable, yet in order to get things underway we must have reason to believe that success is possible.

6. It follows from 4. and 5. that there is a negative (ruling out) as well as positive (aiming at) dimension to the essay.

7. But how will we persist in the great tension of not-knowing? How will we see this thing through to the end? We will need to cultivate the virtues of persistence (Lacan: “Do not give up on your desire.”), completion (“Let’s see this thing through“), and judgment (“Caute! How far have we gone? How do we know that we are on the right path? Did we, perchance, make a wrong turn?”)

8. Then too there will be an art of letting go. This too must be cultivated. We must learn how to let go of a line of thought that runs itself out. Yet letting go is not the same thing as giving up. It is a loosening of desire, a lessening of valuing for what I have determined, through living out, simply won’t work. And then holding onto may be a sign of being stubborn, fearful, tight-fisted, or worse yet, despairing of alternatives. Holding onto is opposed in spirit to trying out and letting go.


I want to learn how to grow up more. Trying things out and weathering all the letting-go’s: this I want to call wisdom.

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