What Is Philosophical Counseling? Part Two: The Counselor’s Work

In the first post of this series, I attempted to provide a brief introduction to ‘philosophical counseling,’ and closed on a promissory note to provide a description of the task of the philosophical counselor. Here it is. The philosophical counselor’s job is to be a guide and a partner, helping the counseled explore the issues which brought them to counseling, through philosophical insights, interjections, annotations, that clarify, deepen, resolve or reevaluate the issues ‘presented’ and at play in the counseled person’s life. The philosophical counselor’s ‘job’ is to work sympathetically and empathetically with the counseled, whose questions, insights, and queries dictate the resultant conversations. Through such conversations, counselor and counseled alike can discover what the client’s  beliefs and values are, what the relationship between them is–that is, work on figuring out the ‘philosophy at play’ is , and figure out, how it can best work for the person seeking couneling. The philosophical counselor, to reiterate, is not here to impose a way of thinking on the counseled, a glib ‘philosophical solution’ as it were, but rather to help the counseled inquire into themselves, as a key to a greater self-understanding of their own particular beliefs and values and the constraints and capacities that arise from them.

Is the counselor there to listen, to guide, to advise, to assign reading? The answers are unsurprising: all of the above. The counselor listens, the counselor guides through both questions and suggestive responses, through pointers for inquiry and investigation, the counselor directs by pointing to sources of ‘philosophical wisdom,’ working through which can inform future discussions and aid in a greater self-understanding. What special wisdom or skill does the counselor possess?  The counselor is knowledgeable, of course, but more to the point, the counselor has thought about the relationship philosophy bears to living ‘the good life.’ On a personal front, the counselor has applied philosophy to his or her own life, finding within it the means and methods for bringing understanding and self-knowledge within one’s reach. This is not a task that has been accomplished; indeed, it cannot be. But it remains ongoing, and the counselor seeks to continue it through conversation with others engaged in the same task.

This discussion of the task of the philosophical counselor very naturally raises an interesting question: What is the relationship of such a species of counseling to modern therapeutic traditions like psychotherapy (and its many variants) and psychoanalysis? These traditions, theoretically, find their roots in philosophical models of the mind and in claims about the nature of the self, and its relationship, social and psychological, to others. For instance, Freudian psychoanalysis’ roots lie in models of the mind developed by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche; and existentialist psychotherapy is overtly informed by the insights found in these philosophers and in the existentialist tradition more broadly.

Psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic method, too, borrows a great deal from philosophical method in its reliance on conversation and listening and interjection and questioning, on ‘reflecting’ the client, on directing the therapeutic conversation. Viewing this borrowing, we may consider ourselves justified in assessing philosophy as being the original ‘talk therapy.’ A Socratic dialog, let us recall, is a directed, prompted conversation that brings the interlocutor’s beliefs and their justifications to light; we find out whether we know or not. (And yes, Socrates was the original philosophical counselor.) In philosophical counseling, the knowledge (or its lack thereof) brought to light is that which pertains to the greatest mystery of all: ourselves.

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