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What Is Philosophical Counseling? Part One: The Basics

Photo by Lex Sirikiat on Unsplash

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 effect 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 methods 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 bringing 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.

Originally published at http://samirchopra.com on June 3, 2020.



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Samir Chopra

Samir Chopra

Professor of Philosophy, Brooklyn College; blogger at samirchopra.com; @eyeonthepitch