About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Monday, June 12, 2006
Philosophical counseling, anyone?
Plato was a pupil of Socrates, and Aristotle in turn studied with Plato. We don't have any book actually written by Socrates, so most of what we know about him comes from the Socratic dialogs that Plato wrote down. One of the major differences between Socrates/Plato on one hand and Aristotle on the other is that the former were uninterested in the natural sciences and focused all their attention on questions of morality, seeing philosophy as a way to improve people's lives. Aristotle, while he did write pivotal books on ethics, began the tradition of inquiry into the natural world (he was both the first physicist and the first biologist), which eventually separated from philosophical inquiry to become science in the 16th century.
What does have all of this to do with philosophical practice? The combative president of the APPA, Lou Marinoff, wrote a popular book a few years ago entitled “Plato, Not Prozac” (perhaps not an exceedingly diplomatic title, in terms of cross-professional relations), which is considered a manifesto of the new movement in the United States (though modern philosophical practice actually started in Europe a few decades ago). The idea is not that people shouldn't go to a psychiatrist or a psychologist if they need to, but that philosophers have something unique and potentially valuable to contribute to the betterment of individuals. If your brain is so chemically imbalanced that you can't think, by all means take Prozac. If you want to know how your obsession with overeating relates to being abandoned by your mother when you were a child, do have a few sessions with a psychologist. But once your brain is back to a normal range of activity, and your curiosity about your childhood history has been properly satisfied, you still need to decide what to do with your life right now, what things are meaningful to you and why, whether you are happy with your current career or want to change it, how to re-energize your relationship with your partner or your children. In other words, as Socrates would have put it, you need to examine your life.
That's where the philosopher comes in. Not the stuffy academic who spends his whole life pondering minutia about what Wittgenstein really meant when he wrote his Philosophical Investigations (which is hard to say, since he wrote them in the form of aphorisms, particularly odd for someone who made a major deal of the idea that philosophers should be clear in their language). No, what you want is someone who can have a dialog with you about meaningful issues that relate to your actual life, from the vantage point of 25 centuries of recorded thought about ethics, metaphysics, and the meanings of it all. As some philosophical practitioners put it, this is “therapy for the sane.”
The idea seems pretty straightforward and uncontroversial to me, but it has – perhaps predictably – run into strong opposition from a variety of parties, including philosophers themselves! Some psychiatrists accuse philosophers of practicing medicine without a license, as if wanting to talk to someone about your thoughts is an as yet undiagnosed but dangerous medical condition that ought to be treated with the latest drug from Pfeizer. Some psychologists are afraid that they'll lose clientèle if people decide that a bit of rational thinking might actually do as much good as getting in touch with one's own emotions. And some academic philosophers think that dispensing philosophy for money is an undignified way of going through life (apparently unaware that they are paid, often with public money, to deliver their lectures and to write their papers about Wittgenstein).
Of course, there is absolutely no reason for all this animosity. People need their brains to function properly (for which psychiatrists are qualified to help), they should get a better understanding of the roots and power of their emotions (psychology), and they ought to refine their critical thinking about the life they are living (with a bit of philosophy). Then again, that would be a very rational perspective, and rationality is apparently a scarce commodity these days, even among (academic) philosophers.