Philosophical Counseling And Hellmuth Kaiser On Successful Therapy

In Existential Psychotherapy (Basic Books, New York, 1980), Irvin Yalom writes:

The therapist healed, [Hellmuth] Kaiser believed, simply by being with the patient. Successful therapy requires “that the patient spends sufficient time with a person of certain personality characteristics.” What personality characteristics? Kaiser cited four: (1) an interest in people; (2) theoretical views on psychotherapy that do not interfere with his or her interest in helping the patient to communicate freely; (3) the absence of neurotic patterns that would interfere with the establishment of communication with the patient; (4) the mental disposition of “receptiveness”-being sensitive to duplicity or to the noncommunicative elements in the patient’s behavior. [p. 405; link added]

Note that Kaiser here specifies ‘personality characteristics’; these are not a matter of formal, professional qualification or training. Rather, these speak to the personal dimension of the interaction the therapist brings to her encounters with patient (or client.) They address, most directly, the question of what kind of person, what kind of human being, the therapist is. 

The first, ‘an interest in people,’ is considerably under-specified, but at the least we would expect the therapist to be in the trade because she is genuinely interested in the perplexity of the human condition, and find human beings’ problems to be worthy of sympathy, and generative of empathy. Without this minimal personal qualification (sadly missing in all too many supposed ‘healers’ today) the therapeutic process is doomed. 

Kaiser’s second requirement speaks to letting the therapist’s personal interest in the client trump any preconceived views of therapy; the client’s personality and problems are foremost, and if they do not fit an accepted template of treatment, diagnosis, analysis and prognosis, then so much the worse for the theoretical model.  This requirement means the therapist cannot be rigid and inflexible; the client cannot be shoehorned, brutally, into an existent mold of treatment. Theory is always trumped by the living testimony of the physically realized, concrete client present in the ‘clinic,’ not the abstract, blood-and-flesh-less ‘case’ of therapeutic theory. 

The third is a rather more direct claim on the personality of the therapist. Every therapist, as a human being, suffers from his or her understanding of their life; they often, if not always, require therapy themselves. These by themselves are not an impediment to therapy; however, an established, stubborn neurotic pattern of behavior (excessive, obsessive, selfish, self-interest being an obvious one) that would interfere with listening sympathetically or that results in intolerant, abusive responses to those seeking help, is an obvious disqualification. 

The fourth is an abstract claim but can be made more concrete by considering it an extension and elaboration of the first requirement: the therapist’s interest in people must entail a particular sensitivity–perhaps borne from acute observation, listening, and learning about humans and the human condition–that makes him or her alert to the complexities of a patient’s personality–such as lack of transparency, duplicity, intellectual dishonesty, lack of forthrightness–that can interfere with the therapeutic process.  

These personality characteristics are not designed to be eliminated or created by professional training. You cannot create an interest in people, for instance. In Kaiser’s view then, the therapist is not as much a qualified technician, as much as he is a sympathetic and engaged human being, committed to helping other human beings just like him. Imperfect, but hopeful of learning and reconfiguring themselves. 

Like Camus’ Caligula, The Republican Party And Donald Trump Transform ‘Philosophy Into Corpses’

In ‘Can We Call Trump A Killer?Charles Blow writes:

It seems that in every possible way, Trump has willfully and arrogantly put more Americans at risk of getting sick and dying, and the results have been inevitable: More Americans got sick and died.

There is no way to remove Trump’s culpability in this. If your feeble effort saves two lives when an earnest, robust, science-driven effort would have saved four, are you not responsible for the two deaths?

At this point, how do we not label Trump a killer of American citizens by negligence, ignorance and incompetence?

When does the uncaring, ignorant American mismanagement of this Covid-19 pandemic become an atrocity akin to that of the Great Stalin and Churchill Starvations, the famines in the Ukraine and Bengal in the 1930s and 40s? The level of homicidal intent in these great moral atrocities of the twentieth century might be disputed but there is no gainsaying their final, deadly toll: millions dead, thanks to incoherent political philosophies and callous disregard for the human toll extracted by utopian visions and wartime tactical imperatives. 

The Trump administration’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, as Blow painstakingly and forensically details, an ongoing catastrophe of ‘negligence, ignorance, and incompetence,’ fueled by deadly prejudices (that the disease would only kill liberal, multi-ethnic, minority populations of ‘blue’ states being the most offensive one), bears striking similarities to the catastrophes Stalin and Churchill engineered. The bare facts are striking: while a deadly disease has been stalking the land, the Trump administration has most plausibly ‘withheld treatment,’ that of a coherent national public health policy, from American citizens, . This deadly managerial incompetence, this refusal to act, has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, many of which could plausibly have been prevented by earlier lock-down responses, better testing strategies, and a leadership that spoke clearly of risks and dangers and advocated simply, with all the authority of the president’s office, non-intrusive public health measures like wearing masks. The charge is made simply, and the evidence is overwhelming: the Trump administration, and its enablers, the Republican Party, are culpable for the deaths of thousands of Americans.  

We should, as always when writing or speaking of this administration, never indulge in the easy pleasure of describing Trump as a deranged fool, a criminal, a clown. The real power that stands behind Trump is the Republican Party, a pathetic conglomerate of young, middle-aged, old white men (and the occasional cowardly woman) desperately seeking to hold on to power through institutional capture of the Supreme Court, the Federal Courts, through gerrymandering at the state level, through naked appeals to racial rhetoric, through the shelter that the incoherent US Constitution with its rickety, Rube Goldberg design of American political institutions–depressingly for an electoral democracy, the Senate and electoral college–provides.  

Like Albert Camus‘ psychotic Caligula, Donald Trump and the Republican Party have successfully “transformed [their] philosophy into corpses.” There will be no Roman conspirators this time around, but the political fate that awaits this sordid pair of criminals should be no less final and unforgiving. 

Nietzsche On The Relief Of Mortality

In The Dawn of Day: Thoughts on The Prejudices of Morality, Nietzsche writes:

With regard to knowledge the most useful accomplishment is perhaps: that the belief in the immortality of the soul has been abandoned. Now humanity is allowed to wait; now it no longer needs to rush headlong into things and choke down half-examined ideas as formerly it was forced to do. For in those days the salvation of poor ‘eternal souls’ depended on the extent of their knowledge acquired during a short lifetime; they had to make a decision overnight – ‘knowledge’ took on a dreadful importance. (D 501)

Mortality places a terrible burden upon us: fear of the un-redeemed life, the incomplete, under-achieving, unsuccessful life, the one that did not find its summum bonum during our living years. But we’ve always known that finiteness was our friend too; with the clock running out for all of us we find many sympathetic ears when we announce that we simply cannot be bothered taking on too much for this life, this poor, short, all too easily terminated life, this mere blink of an eye. Can any serious projects, existential or intellectual, really be undertaken in such a brief repose from the eternal waits of the prenatal and the afterlife? Much as we might curse death and the interruption it induces in our life plans, we are secretly grateful; we have been saved by the cosmic bell. No more impatiently looking askance at us as we clumsily toil away at our pitiful life projects; we must down tools when Death comes calling. We are especially comforted when this death, this mortality, is combined with the lack of the Great Examiner or Proctor, the one who might otherwise have been imagined placed in charge of ‘grading’ our lives; our incomplete, unfinished work will not be evaluated or critiqued; it, like us, will pass into mere blissful anonymity. 

Nietzsche is right above to make note of the relief promised in case of mortality, in the case of ‘God’s death’: there will be no assessment of this ridiculously short life, one in which it is all too apparent that the ‘right’ or ‘correct’ knowledge could not be obtained within its pitifully short specifications–the dreadful importance of this brief preparation for the long immortality of the soul was thus mercifully negated. Investing the world and our life with the terrible significance of immortality comes with a burden all its own; the meaninglessness of the tenure of the not-immortal soul promised its own blissful anonymity. The disproportion between the immortality of the soul, that majestic eternity, and the miserable petty shortness of the life meant as testing ground had always seemed radically unfair; deliverance by death rightly seemed a great relief, an escape, from such existential burdens.

Immortality, without adequate instructions for the journey, always seemed like the greatest curse of all; mortality the greatest blessing of all. The mortal life returns to its humble specifications–it is no longer a prized microsecond of respite from the darkness, one artfully constructed to give us the opportunity to settle down for immortality. Instead, it is what it has always seemed: a meaningless interruption with no particular significance in some invisible cosmic schemata, one that awaits investment with meaningfulness by the living of our own, unique, particular life. 

Philosophical Counseling And ‘Mental Illness’

Are philosophical counselors counselors qualified to ‘treat’ the ‘mentally ill’? The short answer to that is ‘no’ (associated with the query, ‘depends on what you mean by mental illness’.) A slightly more considered answer, which I attempt to provide here, makes note of the particular competences and constraints of the philosophical counselor.

First, a note about philosophical counseling practice and its interaction with traditional modalities of counseling and therapy. Its place is, and should be, similar to the relationship current modalities of talk therapy enjoy with psychiatry. That is, a philosophical counselor typically works with a psychiatrist for referrals–a psychiatrist might recommend that someone seek counseling as a supplement to the modalities of medication and psychiatric treatment (for talk therapy is often paired with pharmaceuticals to address both biological and cognitive aspects of ‘mental illness’), and conversely, a philosophical counselor might recommend that a prospective client should seek psychiatric, medical, pharmaceutical help as a supplement or exclusively. (Traditional psychotherapists often recommend some clients consider medication as a way of making their talk therapy sessions more efficacious; this allows moving past distracting behavioral symptoms to concentrate on more fundamental cognitive issues.) This arrangement requires good faith assessments of client requests for help: when should a prospective client be directed to an alternative modality of treatment?

My assessment during the initial free consultation I offer my clients is quite simple: May I engage in directed, interactive, conversation with the person who has come to me seeking help? If not, I will not attempt to counsel the person. If a person is afflicted with a ‘serious mental health disorder’ of some kind then they might not be the ones seeking help; rather, someone might make such a call on their behalf. In those circumstances, the default option is to seek psychiatric help. In one recent instance, I was consulted by a woman seeking assistance for her father, possibly suffering from borderline personality disorder; I referred the family to several psychiatrists practicing in the city, and offered supplementary ‘talk therapy’ if psychiatric treatment had commenced. As a supplement, and not as a primary modality; such ‘talking through’ as noted, is often paired with psychiatric treatment.

To emphasize: if a client comes to me seeking help, my initial consultation offers opportunities: a) for the client to investigate and determine whether I’m suitable for them and b) for me to assess whether this is a case that I can take on. Any doubts about the ‘fit’ of counseling into the ‘mental health space’ rest on this inquiry: Is a philosophical counselor competent enough to decide whether he should be taking on a case? Will the counselor err on the side of over-inclusion and take on cases that he should not be? Will he refer and ‘treat’ the right ones? The most serious risk is that I will ‘treat’ someone who is ‘mentally ill’ and do ‘harm’ of some varietal. This risk is tempered by my professional caution, my prudence over the possibility of committing malpractice, and my professional competence at assessing my capacity to be able to aid someone through the tools at my disposal: my philosophical knowledge and my personal and professional experience.

There are risks present in the world of psychiatry, counseling, and psychotherapy: that clients are over-diagnosed with mental illness on the basis of the conceptually incoherent DSM, that pharmaceutical medications are over-prescribed, that cognitive solutions to ‘mental problems’ are overlooked in favor of biological and neurobiological ones that ignore social context and personal history. (Should people with ‘life problems’ always seek medical help? No. They run the risk of being over-diagnosed and over-medicated. Are all ‘life problems’ evidence of mental illness? No. Are some folks incapacitated sufficiently by their particular ‘mental disorder’ that they require some form of pharmaceutical treatment? Yes.) Philosophical counseling is an intervention in this fraught space; it aims to provide an alternative, constrained by a guiding ethical principle that calls for modesty and prudence and humility. While claiming that many of the problems that take people into a therapist’s office can be resolved without recourse to medication, it acknowledges its limitations (and those of other therapeutic disciplines) and notes that often, when treating those whose minds are ‘disordered’ or ‘disturbed’ or ‘ill,’ we are seeking to minimize harm to them and their loved ones, that we are seeking to make them socially functional and competent, and that in those cases, a medication that provides such basic cover might be the best treatment possible.

The philosophical counselor is a professional bound by a code of ethics similar to the medical one: first, do no harm. My primary duty is to the person presenting to me, and my desire to ‘help’ is tempered by a knowledge of my limitations. Because of the risks involved, my guiding professional principle is to seek advice when required; my personal interests, capacity, and competence, dictate that I only take on some kinds of cases. A variety of issues–such as relationship crises or depression–underwrite the vast majority of cases that bring people into some form of counseling and therapy. It is here, in this domain, I seek to ‘practice.’ My ‘methods’ are inadequate for some cases; my initial consultation is designed to help me make such determinations when required.

The philosophical counselor does what he can, and no more. He is modest, yet not reticent, about philosophy and philosophical counseling’s ability to bring ‘relief’ to the most common of all afflictions: seeking answers on how to live our lives.

Anxiety, Uncertainty, And Death

Kierkegaard offers us a brief, pithy, definition of anxiety: 

What is anxiety? It is the next day.

This pair of sentences is truly remarkable in capturing a central dimension of anxiety: it is our reaction to the ineluctable uncertainty present in our lives. As human beings, with our lack of divine omniscience, we do not know; we cannot know. And yet, despite this lack of knowledge, we must press on, into the domain of choice and action and fearful consequence. We cannot stay in the present; we look into the formless future, which reminds us of our inability to construct and define its contours with any greater precision. 

David Rondel noted in response to my posting this Kierkegaard quote on Twitter:

It’d interesting to think about the relationship between anxiety and death on this view. After all, death is the one thing we CAN be certain about. And yet, for many, especially in the existentialist tradition, awareness and fear of death is at the very root of anxiety.

I responded:

One relationship is that death is certain, but its manner, nature, and time is not. This itself is a great, anxiety provoking uncertainty. Yet, when I conduct informal thought experiments [in my classrooms], students don’t want to know the details; this is one anxiety we are willing to tolerate. In some apocalyptic literature, when people do know how they are going to die, they ‘calm down’ and get down to basics: finding the company of those they love so that they can be together when they die.

(The novel I had in mind when writing the tweet above is Nevil Shute‘s On The Beach though Lars Von Trier‘s Melancholia also came to mind. I had used Shute’s novel as a text for my class on Philosophical Issues in Literature and it sparked some interesting discussions in class; one on this very topic, and another on a matter of normative epistemology.)

The reasons people do not want to be acquainted with the manner, nature, and time of their death can only be a matter of conjecture, so here is mine. First, this knowledge of ours is unlikely to remain private; we will share it with our loved ones and friends, and possibly induce anxiety and fear in them; we might shrink from the kind of knowledge which will distress our loved ones. (Mothers might obsess over the manner and nature of their children’s deaths for instance; and offspring might suffer the dissonance of keeping such a secret from their parents.) Second, while our anxiety about the uncertainty about the manner, time, and nature of our death has been replaced by fear at the manner and nature of our death, there is now a new anxiety, one associated with not not knowing how we will react at the time when we are actually dying. That is, I know I will suffer pain and fear it; what I dread now, remain anxious about, is my reactions to the pain.

Pain has two components: the sensation of pain that we experience, and our emotional affect in response–this affect is very much a function of the pain-causing situation. The trail runner experiences pain going up the hill; his affect differs considerably from the injured soldier suffering pain from a wound. So, our fear is now directed at the particulars of the death while our anxiety finds its roots in the uncertainty regarding our response to death. We don’t just dread pain; we dread the affect associated with it. We know, we sense, that pain is not unmediated, not solitary, that it comes as part of a package, the particulars of which place it into relief and provide it definition. So, one anxiety is dispelled, to be replaced by a new fear and new anxiety–small wonder we shrink from occupying this space. 

As always, this remains speculation, and I’m curious to hear from readers on whether they would seek to dispel the uncertainty regarding the greatest certainty of all. 

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.’ 

What Is Philosophical Counseling? Part III – ‘Dolls That Remove Worries’

In Anxiety: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2012, Daniel Freeman and Jason Freeman write:

Parents in Guatemala employ an unusual technique for helping children to overcome their worries. They give the child a small bag containing six tiny dolls fashioned from cloth and wood. Each night, the child tells one of the dolls a particular worry, and then places the doll under their pillow. The doll’s job is to take on – and take away – the worry, thereby allowing the child to sleep soundly. During the night, the parent may remove the doll. When the child wakes up in the morning, their worry has disappeared along with the doll.

Muñecas quitapenas – literally, ‘dolls that remove worries’ – are generally given to children by their parents, but adults use them too. And there’s a reason why their use has persisted since Mayan times: they really do seem to work. This is because simply expressing your worries is often enough to neutralize them. If you, or your child, are struggling with night-time worries, you might like to make your own muñecas quitapenas.

‘Simply expressing your worries is often enough to neutralize them’ – this observation dovetails with the common intuition that talking with anyone–no matter what their theoretical orientation, and in some cases, even their level of professional education and preparation–about what ails you will make you feel better. I want to suggest that a philosophical counselor is a doll that removes worry, or rather, could be one.

But wait: if talking to anyone could help with anxiety, even an inanimate figure, then why bother with a counselor at all? Because some kinds of ways of talking are likely to be more effective than others–you will ‘improve’ or ‘get better’ no matter who you talk to, but talking to some kinds of folks might work better for you. And the ‘improvement’ in question might be more ‘fundamental’ and ‘far-reaching.’ 

To see this note that almost all of the best evidence based therapies for dealing with anxiety are cognitive ones, like cognitive behavioral therapy – these are not neurobiological or purely behavioral. That’s because the ‘best theories of anxiety’ are metacognitive or cognitive. They treat the various ‘disorders’ associated with anxiety – panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder–as metacognitive or cognitive. We panic, obsess compulsively, or suffer from anxiety chronically because:

  1. We hold ‘incorrect’ beliefs that don’t ‘work for us’ (where ‘don’t work for us’ simply means ‘produces emotions and affect we find unpleasant and debilitating’);
  2. We hold beliefs about these beliefs that don’t work for us;
  3. We interpret events in light of these beliefs and our beliefs about our beliefs; these interpretations ‘don’t work for us’;
  4. We draw ‘incorrect inferences’ from these beliefs.

These cognitive theories of anxiety hold that it is not a event per se that causes us anxiety; it is our beliefs about it and the way we interpret that event that does so.The formation of these beliefs and the inferential patterns based on them can come to constitute a ‘personality,’ an established, enduring pattern of behavior. The success of cognitive behavioral therapy becomes evident; it constitutes an intervention in this pattern, diverting it to new norms of behavior and reasoning. 

Put this way, it becomes ever more important to examine our beliefs, our beliefs about them, and our inferences based on them. Talking about them, exposing the relationships between them, and facing up to the coherence of our interpretations is a therapeutic intervention, one that can be aided by a sympathetic audience, an engaged interlocutor, someone who understands the significance of such revisitation and can guide it when and as needed. In short, a philosophical counselor.  

Why might philosophical counseling work better for some folks? Because philosophers are often better placed to question justifications for beliefs and the interpretations and inferences that issue from them–this is part and parcel of ‘our trade.’ For some personalities, such firm yet sympathetic questioning can work better in eliciting further inquiry. This is where the analogy with the ‘doll that removes worries’ breaks down. For the philosophical counselor is not a passive listener, like a doll, but an active participant, one who does not direct, but listens, reflects, and questions. 

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.

What Is Philosophical Counseling? Part One: The Basics

Philosophical counseling is committed to the claim that philosophy can aid us ‘therapeutically.’ This is not a novel claim: philosophy understood as therapy has a long and honorable tradition in the history of philosophy. As a recent supplement of the Royal Institute of Supplement dedicated to ‘Philosophy as Therapiea,’ edited by Claire Carlisle and Jonardon Ganeri, makes clear, Spinoza, the Buddha, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, all in their own ways, either conceived of philosophical thinking as a species of therapy, or offered philosophical doctrines as forms of therapies. Historically, both Buddhist and Hellenistic schools of philosophy maintained that “philosophical argument could bring about tranquility by changing the beliefs on which emotional turbulence depends”. Some understandings of philosophy as therapy treat some distinctively human problems as illnesses requiring cure; yet others are committed to an understanding, and thus a displacement, of a problem. That is, what appears to be a problem is no longer one because I have modified my beliefs about it and the very identity of my problem has changed as a consequence; and in the process of modifying our beliefs, we have changed who we are by dint of changing our emotional response to the problem at hand. For affect is not impervious to philosophical reflection; as all of us realize, what we believe makes a great deal of difference to what we feel.

The therapeutic potential of philosophy then, can be stated succinctly: first, a specific doctrine’s details may offer us a prescription for how to rid ourselves of the particular affliction that ails us (by ‘affliction’ I do not mean ‘mental illness,’ a dubious notion at the best of times); and philosophical method—self-introspection and reflective thinking—may help us understand ourselves and our ‘problem’ better. Many of us are curious about what the purpose of life is, how should we seek meaning in our lives, work, and relationships, how we should make ourselves understood to others and arrive at acceptance of ourselves. We are often confronted with moral and existential dilemmas that call for exploration and inquiry. The seemingly simple decision to change majors in college can very easily be transformed into a question of how to resolve parental authority, to find meaning in one’s chosen career, and most fundamentally, what one’s sense of identity is; divorce very often forces a fundamental personal and existential reckoning; it may cause us to grapple with anger, regret, jealousy, forgiveness, reconciliation, compromise. The questions that these crises raise play a significant role in how we conduct our personal and professional relationships–our lives. When we find ourselves in crises and turn for therapeutic aid, very often, we are looking for a way to revisit and reexamine such queries and our relationship to them.  Both philosophical doctrines and method can aid in such examination and inquiry. 

Philosophy is dedicated to inquiring into the fundamental questions noted above, to applying their enduring lessons to life’s deepest problems. Philosophy can and should, enable thinking and acting to bring wisdom and acceptance to our relationships with ourselves and others. Counseling employing the philosophical method, that is, directed dialogue with a sympathetic partner to gain new perspectives on our lives and forge a new understanding of ourselves—which is what psychoanalysis and psychotherapy do—can aid in bring such a measure of understanding to our lives. Such philosophical counseling applies the tools of philosophy, doctrinal and methodological, as described above, to the enduring questions and perplexities of everyday life that sends people to the therapist’s couch. The ‘problems’ which may bring someone to philosophical counseling may include: crises in interpersonal relationships; seeking meaning and purpose in our chosen careers; managing anger, conflict, and compromise; finding happiness and ‘balance’ in work and life; aspirations, choices, and regret; change, loss, grieving, mortality; balancing personal and professional values and aspirations; crafting a meaningful life. This is quite a grab bag, and that is as it should be, for the diversity of human perplexities is indeed great. Addressing these provides a framework for thinking about what matters most in our lives and how we would like to live in accordance with our values.

Most fundamentally, philosophical counseling enables us to discover ‘my philosophy’: my beliefs, their justifications, and the relationships between those beliefs, which regulate and determine my intellectual and emotional responses to this world’s offerings. By engaging in this act of discovery, I can come to understand myself better, and orient myself toward the rest of my life.  

Self-knowledge has always been philosophy’s most ambitious therapeutic claim as a guide to understanding our place in this world, and thus our conflicted relationship with it, better. Philosophical counseling can aid in this project by the simplest of tools: a directed, sympathetic, curious conversation, consisting of questions, answers, and their joint examination by the interlocutors in this conversation. This mention of ‘interlocutors’ raises the question: What is the philosophical counselor’s work in all of this? I take up that query in the second part of this series of posts on philosophical counseling. More to follow, anon. 

A Problem With Analytic Philosophy: The Case Of ‘Forgiveness’

‘Forgiveness’ is a ‘big topic’ in contemporary philosophy–part of its current preoccupations in moral psychology. A quick search of journal articles, books, book chapters, edited collections, conference proceedings, and invited talks throws up many titles and topics; clearly, philosophers are working on a topic of great interest in the personal and moral domains. Forgiveness, healing, regret, guilt, anger–this cluster of concerns animates many. Present company included: I bear grudges, I carry around the anger of unresolved personal disputes within me, I regret my many moral errors and omissions, I seek to introduce healing into my many conflicted personal relationships–forgiveness plays a crucial role in addressing these personal zones of conflict and contestation. Philosophy is doing salutary work in addressing these in its current ruminations. So far, so good. 

But how does contemporary philosophy really ‘tackle’ forgiveness? Here is one wholly impressionistic take. 

I once attended a talk on forgiveness by a noted contemporary philosopher; s/he began by talking about ‘two kinds of forgiveness’ and after offering definitions of the pair, then went on to argue that in fact, under some kinds of conditions, the ‘two kinds of forgiveness’ collapsed into one, or entailed the other. Or something like that. Pardon my vagueness here, but that is merely a reflection of the fact that my attention had drifted, away and out of the seminar room. I went into the seminar expecting to find something that would resonate with my personal experiences of moral and political domains where forgiveness, or its lack thereof, played a crucial role. I found instead an exploration of the various logical and conceptual relationships that obtained between various definitions of forgiveness. The descriptions of the conditions under which these definitions of forgiveness were to be shown to be identical or logically related was mildly interesting but nowhere in any of this was to be found any of the emotional dimensions of forgiveness or of any of the human encounters that make forgiveness so interesting to a ‘normal’ human being. 

The problem, as I saw it, was quite simple: analytic philosophy is concerned with all the right topics; it delves into the domains of perplexity that are rightly of great and enduring interest to mankind; in this regard it is fulfilling its ‘social function’ and also its ‘cultural responsibility”; but,  it employs a style of argumentation and reasoning and, er, analysis that ensures its efforts fail to engage the concerns that animate those folks–i.e., most of us–who grapple with forgiveness in their lives. 

Forgiveness is a difficult business; perhaps among the most perplexing of all in human relationships. We cannot build structures of family and friendship without dealing with its challenges. But we will find no guidance in this regard from formal analytic philosophy. If I need guidance in my struggling with forgiveness in a crucial relationship, I will not turn there–and neither, I suspect, will anyone else. (Literature, the movies, perhaps a good play–all of those would be more useful.) In this moral domain, as in many others, analytic philosophy simply makes itself irrelevant.  

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