Philosophical counseling and philosophical consultancy are relatively new fields of practical philosophy. At the same time, they are nothing truly new. One could say that they are rediscovered. It was a practice pretty common in ancient Greece and the Roman empire, where philosophers were often counselors and consultants to royalty and politicians. In the last couple of centuries, philosophers locked themselves in the universities and became more theoretical than practical. This started to change in the 1950s with Pierre Grimes but turned into an actual profession in the 1980s.
The basic premise is rooted in the Socratic tradition and the idea that philosophy is here to help you achieve a good life, a life worth living. German philosopher Gerd B. Achenbach, who founded the first association of philosophical counseling, believed that the act of philosophizing could give direction in its own right. Achenbach began receiving people for private consultations about life problems and questions in 1981. His approach was non-clinical. Philosophical counseling doesn’t work with psychological models. The goal was to create a place where people could use philosophy to develop their thoughts on topics of interest.
National Philosophical Counseling Association provides Standards of Ethical Practice where you can find this definition of what the philosophical practitioner can do for its clients. A practitioner helps clients clarify, articulate, explore, and comprehend philosophical aspects of their belief systems or world views. These include epistemological, metaphysical, axiological, and logical issues. Clients may consult philosophical practitioners for help in exploring philosophical problems related to such matters as mid-life crises, career changes, stress, emotions, assertiveness, physical illness, death and dying, aging, meaning of life, and morality.
This can be done by various means like examining clients’ arguments and justifications, exposure and examination of clients’ assumptions and logical implications, the exposure of inconsistencies and conflicts in reasoning, the exploration of traditional philosophies and their implication for clients’ issues, and similar activities.
According to Shlomit Schuster, a philosophic counselor, this discipline is not therapy, nor is it trying to be. It offers a more holistic approach to the treatment of social and emotional problems. As Schuster says, “The aim of the philosophical counselor is to philosophize together with the client, with the aim of producing a positive effect on his or her life. This isn’t a new idea. Greek philosophers also thought they could improve society and the lives of their fellow citizens. Philosophy was from the beginning, seen as an instrument of healing.”
Schuster suggests that philosophical practitioners and counselors should promote and respect rights and freedoms, such as freedom of thought, conscience, and speech. She is not suggesting that it can be helpful to everyone, but it should be available to everyone. Whether it would be beneficial depends on both the needs and personality of the client as well as the personal qualities of the counselor. Only during the conversation can be found out whether the counseling is useful or not.
There is a significant difference between philosophical counselors and psychological counselors.
Philosophical counselors are trained in philosophical theories and ways of thinking. They are concerned with beliefs. To help their clients, these counselors apply logic and critical thinking to correct any false beliefs. They are analyzing arguments rather than looking at biology or mental processes.
In contrast, psychologists are essentially social scientists. They are interested in cause and effect. They look at mental processes in causal terms and apply empirical science. They use theoretical models and understanding of mental processes to help their clients with their psychological problems.
Each approach uses different tools to achieve the client’s objectives though there is some overlap. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy has its roots in Stoic philosophy.
Each approach also focuses on a slightly different set of problems. Philosophical counseling deals with common day-to-day problems encountered by mentally healthy individuals. Psychological counseling is then focused mostly on various mental disorders.
Not everyone sees it that way, though. Elliot D. Cohen, a Director of the Institute of Critical Thinking and a founder of Logic-Based philosophical counseling, maintains that there is significant synergy between psychological and philosophical practice. The split between these two is, in the end, impractical, artificial, and ultimately self-defeating. It reinforces the perception that psychological practice is focused on insane clients while philosophical is focused on sane ones. This is an unfortunate oversimplification and can lead to the stigmatization of certain groups of clients. A better approach is to see these two fields as naturally complementary or even to combine them.
Philosophical counseling practice areas and boundaries
Philosophical practitioners can be split into two groups. Philosophical counselors and philosophical consultants.
Philosophical counselors often have a mix of education and practice in both mental health areas such as clinical psychology or mental health counseling and training in philosophical practice such as Logic-Based Therapy (LBT).
On the other hand, philosophical consultants have a stronger focus on philosophy itself. They often held master’s degrees in philosophy and combine them with LBT. They don’t necessarily need education in psychology and therefore are suitable to handle a bit different set of problems than a psychologist would. Philosophical consultants shouldn’t address mental disorders. These should be referred to licensed mental health professionals.
National Philosophical Counseling Association provides examples of problems philosophical consultants can help to address and includes things people encounter during their day-to-day lives: Moral issues, Values disagreements, Political issues and disagreements, Writer’s block, Time management issues, Procrastination, Career issues, Job loss, Problems with coworkers, Financial matters, Retirement, Aging, Midlife issues, Problems with family, Breakups, Parenting issues, Loss of a family member, Loss of a pet, Friendship issues, Peer pressure, Academic or school-related issues, Rejection, Discrimination, Religion and race-related issues, Entertainment-related issues, and Technology-related issues.
Life is meant to be lived, not to be solved
Maria da Venza Tillmanns, a lecturer at the University of California, and a past President of the American Society for Philosophy, notes that philosophical counseling can’t be reduced to problems that need to be solved to live a successful life. In her mind, life can’t be problem-free, and it was never meant to be that way. Life is, by its definition, ever-changing and problematic. As she says, life is not meant to be solved, it is meant to be lived. Therefore, philosophical counseling should approach life as a whole and not focus only on a specific problem to be solved.
Philosophical counseling and consultancy are building momentum as more and more people struggle with their place in the world. A counseling philosopher who uses the client’s own specific experiences as the basis for philosophizing with the client about the nature of the client’s particular problem and their life might be the answer to getting a bearing on one’s direction in life.
What are your thoughts on the topic? Do you believe that philosophical counseling is beneficial? Have you ever consulted a philosophical counselor?
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