James had recently left the fundamentalist religion of his childhood and now felt lost. Growing up, he had been led to believe that outside his religion there was only base materialism. He could not continue in fundamentalism, and yet he still had a strong spiritual and philosophical instinct. Without a greater purpose in life he could not see the point of it all, and he became increasingly despondent. When he no longer found the motivation to complete his university assignments his partner pushed him to see a doctor, who referred him to a psychologist.
The psychologist concluded that James was suffering from mild depression, and gave him cognitive-behavioural exercises to do at home. James tried them for a week but became frustrated. He felt that he had no problem functioning if he wanted to, he just didn't see the point in wanting. He could find a way to make life happen, if he had a deeper reason for living. Something important was missing, and the clinical psychologist didn't seem interested in or capable of exploring it.
James is one example of kind of people who attracted by philosophical counselling, a field which combines philosophy and counselling. Their concerns are often not psychological so much as philosophical. Or their concerns are a genuine combination of both. By philosophical I do not mean speculative theory, but rather that the person's concern regards meaning and value, direction and purpose in life. What James needs is to develop a new perspective on life which is as true and good as possible. He needs a new way of experiencing and relating to life which satisfies his longing for meaning and connection.
Modern philosophical counselling began around forty years ago with people like Gerd Achenbach and later Lou Marinoff. They were academics who took philosophy out of the academy and into counselling, to help people with their problems through the application of philosophical ideas and through its practices such as critical thinking. That was part of a wider shift movement known as applied philosophy or practical philosophy. Philosophical counselling. The story is a little more complicated, however, by the fact that half a century earlier some therapists started taking the ideas of existential philosophy and embedding them deeply into their psychotherapeutic work with people. That became known as Existential Therapy, which I will explore elsewhere.
In many ways what we are witnessing in philosophical counselling is a reversal of history. Ancient philosophy met the needs of people like James. For example Stoic philosophy was a way of living rather than an academic activity. However as Christianity became the dominant way of finding meaning philosophy was pushed out of practical life. Its practical side, such as self-examination, was absorbed into monasticism, while its theoretical side was reduced to a servant of theology. Now, two thousand years later, with the demise of religion in the West, philosophy is returning to its old role as a guide to life.
There are problems with this change, however. Some weeks ago a friend and I went on a bicycle ride. We ended at a café on the grounds of the Abbotsford Convent, which is now a children’s farm and organic market. As we sat there eating the sugar and carbs which we had earned, taking in the beautiful Spring morning, we were pummelled by the cafe's sound system pumping out 90s dance music. I was puzzled but my friend, whose family once owned a restaurant, suggested that the staff had set the music to match their needs and not that of their customers. They had probably been there since 7AM, perhaps after little sleep, and were very busy and probably tired, and so chose the energetic music for their sake, without realising how jarring it was for the patrons. I think the same thing happens in philosophical counselling. Academics, who are not always the best at stepping outside their own heads, have fashioned philosophical counselling around their own intellectual temperament, as though to use philosophy to guide your life means applying Immanuel Kant and formal logic.
These people are used to the reduction of philosophy to an intellectual practice, and so they take an academic approach to philosophical counselling. Ancient philosophers, by contrast, were critical of "mere scholars." Philosophy was a deeply reflective and intelligent way of living, but what counted most was that "way of living" bit. Philosophical claims emerged from the heat of life, from the struggle to overcome adversity, to be a decent and strong person, and to flourish. The best philosophers had fought in citizen armies like Socrates, or lived in slavery such as Epictetus. They knew real life and did philosophy from that place, as a flesh and blood activity of the heart and hands as much as the mind.
That past way of doing philosophy needs to become its future too. The future of philosophical counselling lies in getting further away from academics. But I think it also needs to step away from where counselling is going. Counselling is increasingly a mental health practice, integrated with clinical psychology and psychiatry, because that is where the government dollars are to be found. Many philosophical counsellors also frame the discipline in those terms, as an alternative to mainstream mental health treatments. They secretly have their long-term eye on government money too. It is not unusual for them to do this by making crude and irresponsible criticisms of psychiatry. But philosophical counselling should not take that approach. It is not a mental health service, and it should leave that approach to the psychologists and psychiatrists who will always do a better job. Rather, philosophical counselling is about perspective, meaning, value, about creating good lives and good communities. It deals with a different side to life than mental illness. Both are real.
I think that philosophical counselling should not be limited to a counselling approach, either. When it began, some four decades ago, personal or life coaching didn’t exist. Such coaching has been around for a while now, but it is often a superficial activity. However you can find serious coaching, and it is more like applied science, for example in the context of what is known as positive psychology research. Done properly it is the application of genuine expertise. I think that philosophical counselling needs to shift into a philosophical coaching modality alongside a counselling one. That distances it further from the mental health field and is a much better fit. What James needs may be philosophical counselling or existential therapy, or it may be philosophical coaching - it would depend on his personality.
[Edit 2020: I myself began in the mode of philosophical counselling as something which was fundamentally philosophical, while I studied counselling as a framework for that practice. I quickly came up against many limitations, however, when it came to helping people in the ways they needed. Plus I started to see that much of philosophical counselling was just bad psychotherapy, practiced by academics who were too arrogant to really try to understand the traditions they were dabbling in. So I stepped into Existential Therapy, which is a rich and sophisticated philosophical approach to counselling, which is held in high regard across the broader therapeutic world. I spent years focused on that approach, deepening my knowledge and skills through learning and practice. These days I use the title Philosophical Counselling again, because I now find the title Existential Therapy too limiting in turn: my practice has opened up as I've become more skillful and experienced over the years. For this sake I keep it simple and open: I combine philosophy and counselling, and that means different things with different clients, depending on what they need from me.]