Philosophical counselling

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Philosophical Consultancy is a relatively new movement in philosophy which applies philosophical thinking and debating to the resolution of a person’s problem. Gerd B. Achenbach and Ad Hoogendijk are two, German and Dutch philosophers who established themselves as consultant philosophers in the 1980s (Achenbach 1984, 2002; Hoogendijk 1988) and led the way to a number of other developments all over the world. They proposed an alternative to psychotherapeutic culture by working exclusively within the field of existential investigation with clients or patients, whom they called ‘visitors.’

Achenbach argues that it is life that calls to thinking, rather than thinking that informs life. The act of philosophising can, therefore, give direction in its own right, as living precedes thinking and practice precedes theory.

The movement is sometimes referred to as philosophical counselling and it is also connected with and related to Existential Therapy, which has thrived in the United Kingdom since the establishment of the Society for Existential Analysis (SEA) in London in 1988. This was based on the work of Emmy van Deurzen, also a philosopher who has applied philosophical thinking to the practice of psychotherapy. Philosophical consultancy is often applied to business consultancy as well as to individuals, as it frequently involves a rethinking of values and beliefs and is also a method for rational conflict resolution.

Philosophical practice has continued to expand and is attractive as an alternative to counselling and psychotherapy for those who prefer to avoid a medicalization of life-problems. Numerous philosophical consultants have emerged and there is a strong international interest and a bi-annual international conference. There are a number of important publications in the field (Lahav and Tillmans 1995, Curnow 2001, Herrestad et al. 2002, Marinoff 1999, Rochelle 2008, 2011).

The movement has often been said to be rooted in the Socratic tradition, which viewed philosophy as a search for the Good and the good life. A life without ethics was not worthwhile living for Socrates.

On Philosophical counselling

by Haris Dimitriadis

The majority of people are quite capable of resolving most of their problems on a day-to-day basis by themselves. However, when problems become too complex and life seems unexpectedly meaningless, a philosophy can be of a greater help than the average friend or family member.

The philosophical counselor deals with individuals whose minds are biologically sound but whose thinking and feelings are confused or obstructed and distorted. The philosophical counselor understands that most individuals live by many unexamined (rather than unconscious) assumptions and values that can affect thinking, behavior and feelings in puzzling or distressing ways. 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 problems.

Philosophical counselling is intertwined with the emotions and feelings. These do not simply erupt from the dark unconscious but are 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 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 an effective way 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. He 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 behavior in future.

Cognitive approaches in psychotherapy 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.

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.

To undertake such an exploration some philosophical counselors prefer to use the reasoning of a single philosopher or philosophical system while others take a more eclectic approach. The key to philosophical counselling generally is to not manipulate the client so as to bring him to accept some particular philosophy as the “Truth.” The philosophical counselor’s intention is to help his client choose the best suited to his temperament philosophy.

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 of philosophical counselling can lead to the living of a better life.

The Healing Power of Practical Philosophy

By Haris Dimitriadis

The great philosophers of ancient Greece formulated the ideas that have guided Western civilization. For the ancient Greeks, philosophy was a practical tool that could be used to guide one’s course through life. By discerning truth from error and illusion, philosophy was the tool  in finding the path to the good life. Socrates used philosophy and common sense to expose the errors in people’s thinking to face effectively life’s problems. Pythagoras used philosophy and metaphysics to remake society and base it on a solid, philosophical foundation. Plato saw in philosophy a healing power by attributing to knowledge the capacity to discover the ideals of life. Epicurus declared that worthless is the philosophy that does not alleviate human suffering. The philosophy he founded, was devoted to the alleviation of human pain and suffering through the pursuit of pleasure. The philosophy of Aristotle used reason as the means to living a fulfilling life. The Stoics through Zeno and Marcus Aurelius, praised the value of reason and Nature in living a meaningful life.

What Is Philosophical counselling?

The revival of humanist values in the Renaissance wouldn’t have been possible without a rediscovery of classical Greek philosophy. Most of the stuff that the ancient teachings reveal is still relevant today. In a sense we have come full circle, never having gone. Human nature is the same notwithstanding our increase in knowledge. We have not necessarily become wiser beings. So philosophers are there again to help.

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 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 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.”

Nowadays, philosophy has become an increasingly theoretical, intellectual pursuit, far removed from the practical affairs of life. Philosophy has been locked up in the ivory towers of academia. But, in the early 1980’s, the German philosopher Gerd Achenbach revived the old practice and offered his services as a philosophical counselor Philosophical counselling uses philosophical insights and methods to help people go through significant issues in their life. It can be very helpful for finding our vocation, making a difficult decision, facing career dilemmas, relationship issues, emotional distress, and in general being clear about what we want from life.

In recent years, philosophy professor and counselor Lou Marinoff, came out with the book “Plato, Not Prozac!” by which he greatly popularized philosophical counselling with the masses. As the title implies, Marinoff takes the issue with the over-medicalization and over-medication prevalent in conventional psychotherapy. The stigma of sickness is placed on those going through personal problems, many of which are actually rooted in philosophical dilemmas underlying one’s basic approach to life and its problems. Medications just suppress the symptoms, without getting to the core issues, which are often philosophical. Marinoff offers philosophical counselling as a natural, drugless alternative to conventional psychotherapy. But, those who are having severe problems with mood distortions may actually need medication and psychotherapy.

Guidelines and Methodology

Philosophical counselling is based on a sincere, open communication, or dialogue, between counselor and client. It is designed to uncover the core philosophical issues that lay behind the problems the client is facing. The philosophical counselor drives the client define his core ethics, beliefs, principles and values.

Lou Marinoff outlines a five step PEACE process for working through problems philosophically:

P: Problem identification. Isolating and defining the core problem clearly.

E: Expressing emotions and feelings that are aroused or aggravated by the problem.

A: Analyzing one’s various possibilities and options for solving the problem. The counselor can bring to light hidden options that the client may have been blind to or unaware of, or introduce a certain philosophical perspective to get the client to see his/her problem in a whole new light.

C: Contemplation of the problem and all its ramifications from a detached, philosophical perspective. From the total array of possible options for solving the problem, the client chooses the option that best fits his innate philosophical disposition.

E: Equilibrium, or returning to a state of inner balance and harmony, which can only come from a true, honest and sincere philosophical resolution of the problem.

The counselor presents to the client various philosophical perspectives that may be useful or indicated for solving a particular problem. And if the client benefits from a particular philosophy the counselor will recommend bibliotherapy; the reading of books and articles extolling that philosophy.

Which philosophies are useful in philosophical counselling? Basically, all of them, where indicated and appropriate. Any religion, worldview, science or system of inquiry that offers a valid perspective for evaluating life’s choices and options, ethics and values. Philosophical counselling has remained free, open, and unrestrained by any rigid dogma or orthodoxy.

The Need for Philosophical counselling

Some may wonder why the philosophical counselling movement has re emerged. The answer is quite obvious; The modern world is in the midst of a philosophical crisis. It is suffering from an emptiness of reliable, fundamental ethics, values and guiding principles. This has led to spiritual disorientation and malaise. Its underlying causes are many and diverse, but the principal ones are: Modern science and technology which have explained the material universe in minute detail, but have left the world of mind and spirit in a very uncertain state of affairs. Also, Capitalism, the market economy, is coming under increasing scrutiny. Modern man has yet to find a satisfactory balance or working relationship between profit and remuneration on the one hand and personal development and well being on the other. In parallel, terrorism, associated with the fundamentalism of traditional religions, is on the rise, not just in Islam, but in Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and other world religions as well. This trend is a desperate reaction against the moral, ethical and philosophical void and chaos generated by the prevailing socio economic trends.

One’s nature and temperament profoundly affects one’s basic approach to life and relationship with the world. These are the building blocks for one’s personal philosophy of life. Each type of person has his own inherent disposition on life’s central issues and concerns and this creates the personal philosophical perspectives on life. This is what makes life so fascinating and complex, and a continuous journey of self discovery. In the philosophical questions and problems we encounter in life, we find reflections of our own inner nature. Every philosophy, as a therapeutic agent, has its own inherent nature and temperament, which gives it a certain affinity with one or more of types of personalities.


Epicurean Philosophical Counselling

By Aleksandar Fatic, The University of Belgrade

The Epicurean philosophy provides the most suitable and capable framework on which to base an effective and pragmatist approach to philosophical counselling. Epicurus first declared that empty is that philosopher’s discourse which offers therapy for no human passion. Just as there is no use in medical expertise if it does not expel the sickness of body, so there is no use in philosophy if it does not expel the passions of the soul.


Since antiquity the task of the practical Epicurean philosophy has been seen to “expel passions of the soul” by providing precepts for a balanced, happy life. Such life has been thought to include simple natural pleasures wisely chosen.

We all practice philosophy. The only question is whether we do it so self-consciously and well, or unconsciously and poorly. Our beliefs shape the course of our actions and a culture’s philosophy determines the character of its civilization. As long as these remain unconscious and unexamined, they control us. By becoming aware of them, their origins, nature, conflicts and consequences, we gain control of them and thereby our lives.

The quest of a “life one finds significant” goes back to Socrates’ idea that a life not properly understood, not philosophically interpreted and directed, “the unexamined life,” is not worth living. Such a life is victim to chance, source of constant disappointments, and is a continuous struggle linking one day of fear and toil to another. Only a life endowed with meaning, realistic goals and perspectives is potentially enjoyable in the long term. This is the point of Epicurus’ idea that one ought to follow pleasure subject to what modern philosophy would call a utilitarian calculus of potential effects, within the limits of the externalities imposed by circumstances one cannot control. According to Epicureans, within such a perspective, regardless of how much actual pleasure one might be able to obtain, one’s life could be considered a “good life”; one based on a strategy or life plan that is sound, natural and guided on seemingly indubitable inclinations of human nature: to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

The Epicurean views of pleasure are a sound foundation on which to build an essentially pragmatist approach to a modern complex environment. The argument rests on the idea that many of the cognitive, emotional and volitional problems for which people seek counselling today are caused, or at least exacerbated, by the dominant duty and “success” bound culture, by a corresponding duty driven morality and material well being. The Epicurean philosophy is practically useful for helping clients find a balance between external pressures and “hedonistic” duties to themselves.

Epicurean ethics treats hedonistic duties to oneself as superior to any external duties or influences. The absence of this innate need of indulgence may account for the claim that a person can be highly moral, highly valued by her community, and successful by the standards of the society and yet utterly unhappy. The idea that one can be a morally perfect and successful and yet commit suicide out of misery is consistent with the duty bound morality and material well being. In practice, and especially in philosophical practice, this is unacceptable and needs serious “philosophical intervention.”

One may note that as early as in Hellenism the external ethics of virtue (arising from the fulfillment of moral expectations of the community), or arête, preceded the Epicurean ethics of the good life. Epicurus in fact argued in favor of seeking a good life filled with moderate pleasures in opposition to the already dominant external ethics that placed pressures on the individual arising from moral expectations.

The wheel seems to have turned once again since then, and the dominant modern ethics is again an external ethics of demands on the individual. Casting the external moral demands in a pragmatist light, in the sense of interpreting their fulfillment as a means to address guilt is an essential strategy in philosophical counselling. This strategy is fully compatible with the introduction of an Epicurean view of happiness as a quest of moderate pleasure. A combination of these two strategies is a particularly effective approach to addressing the modern neurosis of guilt through philosophical counselling.

The prevalent source of mass neurosis of today is partly caused by the rampant fabrication of needs that are increasingly difficult to satisfy; as Epicurus stressed, that insatiable is not the stomach, as the many say, but false opinion about the stomach’s boundless need to be filled. In any situation where feelings of deprivation are caused by the unavailability of something that we perceive as necessary, “false opinion” is likely at work. Epicureans believed that philosophy’s therapeutic task was primarily to dispel false opinions and liberate the “student” (client) from the feeling of deprivation, usually not by procuring what is missing, but by removing the conviction that what is missing is necessary.

It is easy to see how these Epicurean views negate the currently prevalent, idea of “richness of needs” and its industrial perversion through the marketing of happiness through consumption. Social expectations dictate one’s perceptions of one’s own needs, thus relative deprivation affects all people from different social strata. For someone, relative deprivation is a lack of food and shelter compared to one’s peers who don’t suffer such predicament. For others, however, relative deprivation will arise from not owning designer clothes, a luxury car or house, where other members of the same social stratum possess all these things. Epicurus suggests that the cure for the ills arising from inauthentic needs, induced by the society, which cause anxiety and feelings of deprivation because they are difficult to satisfy, is to take control of our consciousness and become autonomous, not only in relation to external influences but to our desires, which are not necessary to living happily.

Much of our distress, both individually and collectively, is not amenable to medical intervention, and time does not appear actually to heal all wounds or solve all problems. When we do not know our own minds and proclivities, we may be unable to discover why sleep does not come easily, or why a career no longer seems fulfilling, or why the general sense of dissatisfaction will not lift, or anxiety will not pass into peace and calm.

Epicurean counsel combines the affective and the rational side in “talk therapy”. It suggests following pleasures that are affordable and easy to reach. The pursue of simple pleasures is to the Epicureans the safest way to avoid disturbance. Disturbance is a form of pain, which by definition is an evil. Epicureans in contrast to the Stoics who do it out of rationality in order to be in “ accordance with nature” go a step further and suggest that virtue, such as rationality, rather than being “an end in itself ”, a moral standard, is merely a means to attain the greatest safe level of pleasure. Living wisely means maximizing pleasure while minimizing pain, including that pain which is caused by certain pleasures, in which case one must abstain from such pleasures. Consequently, the most innocent pleasures, those that involve peace and quiet, such as conversations with friends, intellectual work and moderate care for one’s body, are among the preferred ones for Epicureans. Unlike the Stoics, Epicureans insist on practice aimed to develop a sensibility to enjoy such pleasures, to turn them into positive, affirmative affect of satisfaction and joy, even if the pleasures themselves are everyday little things. This is where Epicureans provide a potent tool for philosophical counselling for anxiety, guilt and the pervasive issues with self-fulfillment that dominate many clients’ problems.

Acting altruistically and selflessly fundamentally neglects the need to honor one’s own desires to the extent necessary for a happy life. A person with exceptional sexual desires may be unable to satisfy such desires with one person, and may embark on sexual experimentation with multiple partners. In a conservative community such behavior might be very difficult to justify. One’s sexual extreme sexual behavior could hurt, socially or morally confuse others. It is unclear how values such as “necessary pleasure” or “optimum quality of life” would be convincingly expressed in such a situation. Here again the prevalent attitude is the restrictive morality model, rather than the philosophy of life model of ethics characteristic of the ancient philosophical schools. This appears the greatest problem of the modern ethics in a practical context, because it is socially focused and leaves the individual and her needs “out in the cold” as long as external expectations are satisfied. Epicurean ethics on principle does not shy away from the option of pursuing “extreme” pleasures, because contingently any pleasure is good, and any pain is bad. Experientially though Epicureans believed that extreme pursuits of desires tend to cause more pain than pleasure in the long term, hence they argued that moderation is the most conducive to pleasure not visited by subsequent pain. However, if it was possible to pursue pleasure recklessly without having to endure painful consequences in the future, such extremism of desire would be in principle entirely compatible with Epicurus.

The types of pleasures recommended by Epicureans arise from moderation; they do not jeopardize the needs and pursuits of others, and are thus compatible with most visions of a good society, founded on general interest and the mutual respect of rights and interests. Epicureans advised those pursuing a happy life to withdraw from public affairs, live in a community of friends who share the same values (brought to life in the Epicurean “Society of the Garden”), not be involved in politics, and generally, live a “life unknown”. Such a lifestyle does not militate against the rights and interests of others. However, even hedonism so conceived is not likely acceptable for an absolutist view of the good society such as that characteristic of Kant’s rationalist ethics.

From the point of view of applied philosophy there appears something fundamentally defective with moral doctrines that allow the unhappiness of most to constitute a morally desirable social environment as long as external duties and largely formally defined expectations are fulfilled. The assumption that this is part of a “rational human nature” appears little more convincing here than the equally plausible Epicurean claim that ‘humans naturally desire pleasure and avoid pain’.


Epicureanism as a Foundation for Philosophical counselling 

Aleksandar Fatic, The University of Belgrade

Leave a Reply