What Is Philosophical Counseling? Part IV: Aristotle on Effective And Practical Knowledge

In their Introduction to ‘Philosophy as Therapeia’ (Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement #66) Jonardon Ganeri and Clare Carlisle write:

For Aristotle, technical knowledge deals with the correct means of achieving a given objective, and practical knowledge is knowledge of ends as such. A technical approach to life will view an existence led without pain and suffering as the means to another end, such as the satisfaction of desire. A practical approach to life, meanwhile, will seek to achieve an existence that is an end in itself, the realisation of a way of life in which action and experience need not be directed towards anything other than that life.

Philosophical counseling seeks to provide forms of practical and technical knowledge alike to those who seek counseling. For instance, we may seek relief from anxiety (or from grief, or from the emotional trauma of the end of significant relationship) in two forms: we may seek relief from anxiety to do something else, to preserve a relationship or even a job, to be able to concentrate on work, or we may seek relief just to seek relief from anxiety, to not experience anxiety any more, to find a ‘safe space.’ In this sense, philosophical reflection and insight and self-examination can be genuinely ‘practical’ (in the current sense of the term) precisely because they provide us with knowledge directed toward ends-in-themselves and toward practical relief. 

These forms of knowledge are first, a kind of ‘know-how’: we learn how to live a ‘good life’; we learn how to exercise some distinctly human, moral or ethical ‘skill.’ Remember that for Aristotle, behaving ethically is a skillful activity, one requiring patience at working through the process, through repeated, sometimes flawed, efforts; excellence in this domain, as in all others for Aristotle, is not a state but an enduring process through time. Second, they are a kind of ‘knowing-that’; we learn that some things are more important than others, we learn some inferences are faulty; we learn that some things are not like others and thus should not be conflated; and so on. We learn how to do certain things; and we also learn the truth of some claims. 

Viewed in this light, philosophical counseling can be thought of as imparting a ‘life skill’. The ‘patient’ or ‘client’ has not come to be cured, but instead, has come to learn something. Their ‘life problem’ is, more often than not, not a ‘mental illness,’ but a state of affairs that needs a ‘practical solution,’ one that requires the agent in question to possess a skill, which, they have come to realize, they have found lacking in themselves. So, they go to a ‘teacher,’ someone who can impart to them this skill. It is crucial that this ‘guide’ and ‘teacher’ know what competence in that skill looks like, even if s/he is not so competent themselves. Much like the sports coach can ask an athlete to perform a feat s/he is not capable of, while still being capable of correcting an incorrectly performed action. 

The philosophical counselor is as much teacher as ‘healer.’ 

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