Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Philosophy as therapy?

Earlier this week, the Washington Post published a story on the growing field of philosophical counseling. Here's an excerpt:
Patricia Anne Murphy is a philosopher with a real-world mission.

Murphy may have a PhD and an intimate knowledge of Aristotle and Descartes, but in her snug Takoma Park bungalow, she’s helping a broken-hearted patient struggle through a divorce.

Instead of offering the wounded wife a prescription for Effexor — which she’s not licensed to do anyway — she instructs her to read Epictetus, the original cognitive therapist, who argued that humans often mistake their feelings for facts and suffer as a result.

Murphy is one of an increasing number of philosophical counselors, practitioners who are putting their esoteric learning to practical use helping people with some of life’s persistent afflictions. Though they help clients cope with many of the same issues that conventional therapists do — divorce, job stress, the economic downturn, parenting woes, chronic illness and matters of the heart — their methods are very different.

They’re like intellectual life coaches. Very intellectual. They have in-depth knowledge of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist theories on the nature of life and can recite passages from Martin Heidegger’s phenomenological explorations of the question of being. And they use them to help clients overcome their mother issues.
To read the rest, click here. For some reason, reading this article made me recall Pierre Hadot's book Philosophy as a Way of Life, which sought to retrieve the ancient understanding of philosophy as a practical approach to everyday living. If philosophy can be a way of life, can it also be a form of therapy? Consider this quotation from the WaPo article, taken from a woman who turned to a philosophical counselor to help her deal with relationship difficulties:
"I wasn’t depressed or fighting bipolar disorder. I didn’t need Paxil. I just needed the skills to think clearly about what went wrong . . . I heard online about these shrink-thinker types who used John Milton, Adam Smith and Socrates, and I called right away. I wanted to know how our greatest minds would see my situation."
Leaving aside the question of whether or not John Milton should be regarded as a "philosopher," I do think that this anonymous counselee is on to something. At different times, we all face crises or dilemmas which do not require medical intervention and do not oblige us to 'get in touch with our feelings' or to 'listen to our hearts' or to embrace the perspective of a particular school of psychology in hopes of finding a solution. In many cases, all that we really need are "the skills to think clearly" - skills that can often be honed through philosophical inquiry. Philosophical counseling cannot solve every problem - neither can psychotherapy or psychiatric treatment - but, as the WaPo suggests, it may be just the help that some people need.

What does all of this mean for me as a teacher of philosophy? I am not a licensed counselor, and I certainly don't think of teaching as a form of therapy. Nonetheless, I do seek to persuade my students that philosophy is relevant to their everyday lives. In every course that I've taught, I have sought to transmit knowledge that will be meaningful to students long after the course has ended. I am committed to the idea that knowledge is its own good, worth having regardless of whether it has any visible utility, but I also believe that philosophy can provide a training in practical reasoning that can be usefully applied to real-world problems. If some of what I teach helps students to deal with the dilemmas that they will face in the future, I will have offered them something good.

In a week when I'm intensely focused on preparations for the start of the fall semester - which begins here next Monday - I ask your prayers for me and my colleagues on the faculty as we look forward to a new academic year. Please pray also for our students as they prepare to grapple anew with the wisdom of the ages. AMDG.


At 8/24/2011 11:47 PM, Blogger Robin said...

This is brilliant.

Prayers, of course. I would appreciate them as well.

At 8/25/2011 4:56 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...

Thanks for the prayers, Robin - be assured of mine!

At 8/28/2011 9:59 AM, Blogger David Paternostro, SJ said...

Yes, the benefits of bringing philosophy and psychology together more are also being seen on the "other side of the fence," as it were. Humanistic psychology basically developed because so many psychologists thought that the discipline was not giving enough attention to philosophy in psychology--and even gave birth to existential and phenominological psychology later on.

At 8/28/2011 4:06 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Your comment makes me recall a certain paper by a certain Jesuit scholastic, which referenced a certain Jesuit philosopher who had waited thirty years for Etienne Gilson to die so he could publish something...

In all seriousness, though, I think you raise an important point - this is really a two-way street, so hopefully psychologists and philosophers alike can come to a fuller appreciation of how the two disciplines inform one another.

At 11/08/2012 2:11 AM, Anonymous Michael A. Cavanaugh said...

Strictly off the cuff, but:
Wittgenstein, toward the end, thought of philosophy as ONLY a sort of therapy, for linguistic neuroses: showing the fly the way out of the fly-bottle. (And THAT's a metaphor with which to reckon.) The standard criticism of that view, is that it reduces philosophy.
In what way has the therapeutic replaced the pastoral? (I think of Phillip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic -- the subtitle of which is, The Uses of Faith after Freud.)
Pace Hadot, I am inclined to think Socrates would agree; on the other hand, whereever would have placed a couch in the Agora?


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