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What is Philosophical Counselling

The value of philosophy lies not in furnishing solutions
but in defining difficulties and suggesting methods for dealing with them.
John Dewey (1859 – 1952)

It is commonly held that philosophical counselling began in 1981 when Dr. Gerd Achenbach opened his practice near Cologne, Germany. Today there are philosophical counselors, professional associations, and certification programs in the Netherlands, Canada, Norway, Austria, France, Switzerland, Israel, Great Britain, the United States, and many other countries. But the idea that philosophy can be used to alleviate distress, help individuals come to a better understanding of themselves and their world, and improve a person's life dates back to antiquity.

More than two thousand years ago Epicurus characterized philosophy as "therapy of the soul." He maintained that the arguments made by a philosopher are just empty if they do not relieve any human suffering. The Stoics also made it clear that philosophy is not merely the memorization of abstract theories or the exegesis of texts, but learning the art of living well. Socrates used philosophy not to teach concepts but to encourage his discussion partners to examine their thinking and attitudes about almost every issue imaginable.

Descartes and Spinoza saw philosophy as the "practice of wisdom." Nietzsche complained that philosophy had degenerated into a boring academic pursuit. He was waiting for a "philosopher physician" who would muster the courage "to risk the proposition: That what was at stake in all philosophizing up to this point was not at all 'truth' but something else -- let us say, health, future, growth, power, life."

The twentieth century's most influential philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, asked rhetorically, "What is the use of studying philosophy if all it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions in logic, etc., and if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life?" John Dewey, the highly regarded American philosopher of education, wrote earlier this century that philosophy would show its true value "only when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men." Philosophical counselors have willingly accepted the challenge to take philosophy out of the lecture hall and present it to the real world.

Simply put, philosophical counselling consists of a trained philosopher helping an individual deal with a problem or an issue that is of concern to that individual. Philosophical counselors know that the majority of people are quite capable of resolving most of their problems on a day-to-day basis either by themselves or with the help of significant others. It is when problems become too complex -- as, for example, when values seem to conflict, when facts appear contradictory, when reasoning about a problem becomes trapped within a circle, or when life seems unexpectedly meaningless -- that a trained philosopher can be of greater help than the average friend or family member.

The philosophical counselor often deals with individuals who are dissatisfied with other forms of counselling they have had. She sees individuals whose minds are sound but whose thinking is confused or obstructed. The philosophical counselor understands that most individuals live by many unexamined (rather than unconscious) assumptions and values that can affect thinking and behavior in puzzling or distressing ways. She also sees a person's thinking as being informed by childhood experiences but not determined by them. Through a series of dialogues the philosophical counselor helps the client come to an awareness of hidden biases, unspoken assumptions, and conflicting values that may be preventing an inquiry into alternative perspectives that could help to ease the problem. For example, while a psychotherapist may search a client's subconscious for the causes of a client's distress over a career decision that must be made, the philosophical counselor will help the client conduct a conceptual examination of the many issues surrounding such a decision.

It could be argued that this type of intellectual counselling neglects the emotions and feelings, or what psychologists call the affective domain. But philosophers know that feelings and emotions are not simply irrational events that a person must suffer. John Locke characterized the emotions, which he called the passions, as ideas in our minds that come from both our sensations and reflections. A number of eminent philosophers, such as Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Hobbes, Aquinas, and Sartre, have argued that an emotion does not simply erupt from the dark unconscious but that it is set in motion by a perception, a certain way of apprehending the world. Consequently, a negative feeling or an emotion about oneself, for example, can be changed by means of a critical examination of one's perception of oneself, and one's apprehension of the world and one's place in it.

But the philosophical counselor's aim is not simply to resolve a client's immediate problem and then send him on his way. The philosophical counselor also offers to educate the client in more effective ways of thinking so that if a problem arises again the client will be better able to deal with it on his own. The philosophical counselor is concerned with both the mitigation of problems and their prevention. She is therefore both a counselor and a teacher, helping the client to think clearly about the issue at hand while at the same time giving the client the tools that will improve his thinking in future. In this way the philosophical counselor ensures that individuals who have come to her for counselling will not become dependent on her to solve all similar problems in future.

Granted, cognitive approaches in psychotherapy such as R.E.B.T, logotherapy, and existential psychotherapy seem to already be doing some of what philosophical counselling claims to do. These psychotherapies are admittedly based on a philosophical type of inquiry into the client's reasoning. But these approaches were developed in the 1950's when psychologists were the only ones interested in the practice of counselling. Today there are a growing number of philosophers willing to work with individuals outside of the traditional academic setting -- philosophers very skilled at actively listening, at separating large masses of information into manageable pieces and putting them all back together again, and at spotting inconsistencies, contradictions, and other problems in a person's reasoning style.

A philosopher, in order to become a philosophical counselor, must have achieved at least a Master's degree in philosophy. The aspiring philosophical counselor will often focus his studies on practical or applied philosophy. Because of this he will be far better qualified to deal with specifically philosophical issues such as the meaning of life or questions of right and wrong than the therapist whose education has been predominantly in psychology. In other words, he will be experienced in discussing existential and ethical issues for which most psychotherapists have no training whatsoever.

Many philosophical counselors are hesitant to call philosophical counselling "therapy." This is because the philosophical counselor, unlike his psychotherapeutic counterpart, does not diagnose his clients according to some ready-made normative ideals about normalcy, mental health, self-understanding, or psychic well-being. Neither does he offer the sort of therapy that expects the client to passively receive treatment. But this does not mean that philosophical counselling is not therapeutic in its effect. Wittgenstein saw philosophy as having a practical use in "untying the knots in our thinking," or what he considered the treatment of "intellectual disease." The philosophical methods required for untying these troublesome knots he called "therapies." Therapy in the philosophical sense comes from the client's increased understanding, self-awareness, and feeling of well-being -- all products of a careful exploration, in tandem with a skilled philosopher, of herself and the world around her.

To undertake such an exploration some philosophical counselors prefer to use the reasoning of a single philosopher or philosophical system. But most take a more eclectic approach, knowing that specialization in one area of philosophy restricts a counselor's effectiveness when his client's problems or concerns shift over time. The key to philosophical counselling generally is its client-centered and open-ended nature, one which does not manipulate the client's thinking so as to bring him to accept some particular philosophy as the "Truth." The philosophical counselor's intention is to help his client reach any reasonable and morally permissible goal the client has set for herself.

Apart from being of great help to the average person, philosophical counselling can also be of immense value to professional psychotherapists. After all, philosophy is the foundation upon which all other fields of thought are based. Philosophy is not simply the transmission of a body of knowledge; it is the act of constantly improving one's understanding by means of thinking and discussion. Philosophers have an extraordinarily rich repertoire of theoretical perspectives at their disposals and therefore are especially adept at seeing the implications and assumptions behind the theories guiding all of the various approaches to psychological therapy. The philosophical counselor is well prepared to facilitate an inquiry into both the content and the process of reasoning that may have resulted in either professional or personal difficulties for the psychotherapist.

While the adage that the unexamined life is not worth living is somewhat of an exaggeration, it is certainly true that the examination of a life by means ofphilosophical counselling can lead to the living of a better life.

by PETER B. RAABE, Ph.D.

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Peter Raabe is the first Canadian and one of very few people internationally to be awarded a doctorate for his work in philosophical counselling.
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