RS #48: Philosophical Counseling

Can philosophy be a form of therapy? On the latest episode of Rationally Speaking, we interview Lou Marinoff, a philosopher who founded the field of “philosophical counseling,” in which people pay philosophers to help them deal with their own personal problems using philosophy. For example, one of Lou’s clients wanted advice on whether to quit her finance job to pursue a personal goal; another sought help deciding how to balance his son’s desire to go to Disneyland with his own fear of spoiling his children.

As you can hear in the interview, I’m interested but I’ve got major reservations. I certainly think that philosophy can improve how you live your life — I’ve got some great examples of that from personal experience. But I’m skeptical of Lou’s project for two related reasons: first, because I think most problems in people’s lives are best addressed by a combination of psychological science and common sense. They require a sophisticated understanding how our decision-making algorithms go wrong — for example, why we make decisions that we know are bad for us, how we end up with distorted views of our situations and of our own strengths and weaknesses, and so on. Those are empirical questions, and philosophy’s not an empirical field, so relying on philosophy to solve people’s problems is going to miss a large part of the picture.

The other problem is that it wasn’t at all clear to me how philosophical counselors choose which philosophy to cite. For any viewpoint in the literature, you can pretty reliably find an opposing one. In the case of the father afraid of spoiling his kid, Lou cited Aristotle to argue for an “all things in moderation” policy. But, I pointed out, he could just as easily have cited Stoic philosophers arguing that happiness lies in relinquishing desires.  So if you can pick and choose any philosophical advice you want, then aren’t you really just giving your client your own opinion about his problem, and just couching your advice in the words of a prestigious philosopher?

Hear more at Rationally Speaking Episode 48, “Philosophical Counseling.”

8 Responses to RS #48: Philosophical Counseling

  1. davidad says:

    It sounds like these philosophers aren’t catering to the mentally ill, but just ordinary people with ordinary problems that don’t really matter that much (“should I take my son to Disneyland” is beneath even an advice column). As such, the benefit they derive isn’t having their problems solved, but rather the security that you get from being convinced of something by someone who sounds like they know what they’re talking about. Psychologists are quite skilled at this, but philosophers are even better (and the psychologists’ time is better used diagnosing and treating more serious problems).

  2. redjim99 says:

    I think philosophy lends itself more to moral thinking, rather than ideas of mental stability. It set questions that challenge our ideas certainly. But that may not be enough for someone to free themselves of deep seated problems. I found Alain de Botton’s book the art of travel enlightening, when couched against my own needs but it was not useful for sorting out the why of those needs on a personal level. And indeed what to do about them.

  3. Sam Ogden says:

    ” . . . . aren’t you really just giving your client your own opinion about his problem, and just couching your advice in the words of a prestigious philosopher?”

    It would seem so.

    There is also the idea that the “philosophical answers” to the client’s problem dwells somewhere within the client, and the philosophical counselor simply teases that out, often to the exclusion of many other facets of the client’s psychological makeup.

    But if the counselor is inclined to, or enamored of, a particular philosophical viewpoint, he/she may be discarding a lot of relevant psychological data to find that one nugget in the client that jibes with his/her philosophical tenets. In which case, he/she is probably doing the client a great disservice.

  4. As a logotherapist (Viktor Frankl’s “healing through meaning”) I’m reading the article and the comments and seeing all the pitfalls that can happen, which Frankl addresses. Sometimes people have a need to make philosophical sense of the dilemma they are in and yes, as redjum99 says it often relates to moral issues. But in light of what Julia said and the comment by Sam Ogden, this is why the logotherapist is careful to find out what the values are of the person he’s helping and not impose his own. If a philosophical text can help someone clarify his thoughts or question his assumptions or get in touch with his authentic self then it becomes a tool for healing. Also Julia, thinking about great ideas doesn’t negate using common sense; it stimulates our capacity to USE common sense.

  5. Dave says:

    I completely agree with Julia. I’ve decided I’ll follow Aristotle Monday-Thursday, Bentham on Fridays and Saturdays, then Kant on Sunday……unless a murderer politely asks me where my best friend is so that he can kill him….at which point I’ll revert to Aristotle…….lie, but in moderation.

  6. Gordon says:

    To me this sounds dangerously like moving philosophy away from being a tool to sieve and evaluate ideas and towards being a series of unquerstionable authorities. “Well Plato said it, so it must be true.” Even with a detailed knowledge of Plato that’s just not philosophy. There’s no thinking involved, just passive acceptance.

  7. Rob says:

    I also wonder about actual psychoses being helped by philosophy. How would one combat even anxiety? Post Traumatic Shock Syndrome? Bipolar? Addiction, without it becoming the next addiction.

    And, how does one reach out to those who are struggling these days to just pay the bills? Many of them have given up the therapy they were getting, and even forgoing the medication they were on. How will philosophical counseling help these people? How would it differ from a philosophy class? The skeptic in me says this “new” regime was put together by unemployed philosophy majors to justify their scholarly commitment.

    The real issue in helping people is giving them the tools to learn to know themselves. Another man or woman’s thoughts, especially dead ones, is mere guess and speculation. Given some schooling, not book work, but trained in counseling methods by DOING them, might be able to use this sort of approach. But ultimately, a person is helped most by learning about themselves, by themselves.

    And the tools for that have existed for thousands of years.

  8. Paul says:

    I personally think Lou’s idea on “philosophical counseling” is very interesting but unsatisfying, mainly because throughout the interview there were some serious objections Julia had against Lou’s “philosophical counseling” that he didn’t successfully respond to.

    For example, Julia Galef asked on what grounds can one cite Aritostotle’s golden mean as opposed to citing Stoic’s austerity on pleasure, since one cannot agree with both because they contradict each other? I thought this was a thoughtful objection, but Lou simply replied by citing Theaetatus to convey the philosophical idea that everyone has in themselves false ideas and good ideas, and the philosopher is to help people to bring about good ideas. The problem with this reply is in two fold:

    First, citing Theaetatus is merely begging the question because Lou is doing the very thing that Julia is questioning: Citing philosophical ideas from different philosophers (such as Plato’s Socrates in Theaetatus), without asking which one is more well justified. Of course, Lou is trying to argue that philosopher’s responsibility in philosophical counseling is to bring about good ideas and get rid of the bad ones, but this only begs the question because by merely citing any philosophical ideas of any philosopher, it is assuming that those ideas are good ideas.

    Second, there is another possible objection to Lou’s “Theaetatus Project” of philosophy: How do you know which ideas that the client carries are good ideas as opposed to bad ideas? As I argued above, merely citing a philosophical school or philosopher in regards to the client’s “good ideas” merely begs the question since it is assuming that it is a good idea, but how does one know that it is a good idea? This is an epistemological problem in Lou’s “philosophical counseling” because it is not entirely clear how one ought to decide which philosophical ideas is more justified. I can imagine in a comical situation in which the session can potentially lead to infinite regress in which the philosopher or client tries to provide as many justification as possible for that particular belief, it would certainly be an endless session…

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