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?

I spent part of the weekend at the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Practitioners Association in New York City. Philosophical practice? What's that? It's the, apparently highly controversial, idea that philosophy ought to go back to one of its fundamental roots and actually try to make a difference in people's lives. To understand where this comes from we need to recall for a moment the all-time “dream team” of philosophy: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

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 Рperhaps predictably Рrun 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 client̬le 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.


  1. That's an interesting post. I remember reading about this "philosophical counselin" before somewhere, but it wasn't as clear as this.

    Anyway, in a way it sounds like philosophy would be taking the role of religion then, even if with quite different methodology?


  2. It's 'ironic' that Wittgenstein regarded philosophy as the disease rather than the cure. Personally I think philosophy can be an intense manifestation of 'the disease' but can also be part of the cure.

  3. If you read a Socrates biography you will see that he did not dispense philosophical knowledge for money. He argued freely, in very sense, in the forum. Also Aristotle's Lyceum was open to the public without them having to pay.

    Rather than pay $100 an hour for a philosophical counsellor wouldn't it be more "in spirit" to read online free versions of the works of your facvourite philosophers, perhaps starting with free material about them? And then wouldn't it better to discuss their observations in one of many free forums and blogs?

  4. >> in a way it sounds like philosophy would be taking the role of religion then, even if with quite different methodology? <<

    Right, in fact philosophical counseling is closely parallel to pastoral counseling. Except, of course, that I regard the latter as a fraud based on fairy tales...

    As for the "Socrates vs. the sophists" issue, I did address it in the post, but here is a bit more. Why on earth should philosophers be the only exception to the universal rule that professionals get paid when they provide their services? As I pointed out in the original article, this isn't true of academic philosophers, who do get paid. Somehow it is seen as debasing to get paid to dispense professional counsel unless you are a psychologist, a psychotherapist, or a lawyer. I simply don't see the logic.

  5. Massimo,

    By any chance, have you seen the movie "I 'heart' Huckabees". It's very much in the vein of this discussion and I think you would appreciate it.

    That goes for everyone else too.


  6. Yes, I've seen the movie, though philosophical counseling there really gets represented as a cuckoo activity... Fun movie nonetheless!

  7. It might be important to remember that the AMA is currently mounting forces to fight a battle for the title of "Doctor." And that anyone else who might have a PhD and is working in a medical or care setting had better not represent themselves as a "Doctor" without serious legal ramifications.

    The AMA has recently sent out warning letters to other medically related professions that culminate in a PhD speciality, so I am not surprised that psychiatrists might not like to feel that their authority be diminished in any way by a mere "academic doctor."

  8. Massimo,

    Are you very familiar with Albert Ellis's Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy?

  9. Not particularly. But I've skimmed a couple of Ellis's books and he describes his therapy as kind of a bridge between psychology and (humanistic) philosophy.

    Considering this post I thought you might find that interesting, and if you were very familiar with it, I would have picked your brain about it.

  10. In the interests of full disclosure, I am a psychotherapist (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) and I've also taught philosophy on a college level. For the past ten years I've been active with a local philosophy and higher theory study group, tackling everyone from Hegel to Freud to Nietzche to Darwin to Dewey. That said, I would like to observe that there is no difference in what you are identifying as the area of philosophical practice and what psychotherapists ordinarily do. Psychotherapists do tackle what to do with your life right now, what things are meaningful to you and why, career counseling, couples therapy, and family interventions. This is the workaday stuff of psychotherapists regardless of school or particular training. Unfortunately, your contrast of philosophical counseling is with psychopharmacology and a caricature of psychoanalysis, not with psychotherapy as it is ordinarily practiced. This does not mean that philosophical training is not useful to the psychotherapeutic process, however. On the contrary, untangling muddled, confused, or simply uneducated thinking is, in the last instance, what psychotherapists are very much concerned with--not everything is hidden away in the unconscious, an awful lot is simply not well organized in consciousness and simply drifts along by habit. Most therapists could use the discipline of a good philosophical education to be more effective in what they are already doing in practice. Philosophical counseling might do well to accept that they are a profession that is making a distiction where there is no real difference and do what they can to get the relevant governmental approvals to be (yet) another profession that performs (essentially the same)psychotherapy, along with psychiatry, psychology, social work, vocational counseling, pastoral counseling, nursing, etc.

  11. Amaglin,

    but the point is that psychotherapists and psychologists are simply not trained in philosophy. They may take on similar problems with their clients, but they have no training in philosophy. Isn't that a distinction with a difference?

  12. My point is not that philosophical counseling as a profession does not have anything to offer. I think it probably does. My point is that what philosophical counselors are doing is, in fact, psychotherapy in terms of the life areas they attempt to help people sort out. And that's fine. But wouldn't it be better to just admit it? This, for one thing, would increase the virtually non-existent dialogue with other professions doing psychotherapy. Philosophy parented psychology and, hence, psychotherapy. Many schools of therapy overtly acknowledge philosophical influences, including the current leading contender in the psychotherapy world, cognitive behavioral therapy. There are some real opportunities for mutual learning being missed here between philosophical counseling and the rest of the psychotherapeutic field.

  13. As I have been seeing a clinical psychologist for a while, I found that psychology has spent much time to deal with will power. While some people or I have known that there are some changes have to be made in order to sort things out in life, philosophical counseling seems to be more practical when way power is in need.

  14. Sounds very like the major Hellenistic philosophies, if you ask me!

  15. I would be very happy to see more options available professionally for those who have a degree in philosophy.

    There is a certification by APPA going on in New York for philosophical counseling: http://philosorapters.blogspot.com/2011/04/certification-philosophical-counceling.html

    Linked this post on my blog: http://philosorapters.blogspot.com/2011/04/about-philosophical-counseling.html