Critiquing Philosophical Counselling

As part of ongoing research I am presently involved in regarding the methodological underpinnings of philosophical counseling, I stumbled upon Johann Beukes’s article Applied Philosophy and Psychotherapy: Heraclitus as a Case Study. I soon realized that the author was sympathetic to the commonplace critique of philosophy as overlaid with jargon and engaged in discourses quite abstract and obscured, if not by its subject matter, at least by its impenetrable language. He praises the practical impetus of ancient Greek philosophical discourse and clearly opts for the normative view that philosophy should both be asking questions that “matter to all of us” in determining how to live enriching, meaningful human lives and be made accessible to the concrete everyday individuals of this world. As I have pointed out on numerous occasions on this blog philosophical discourse has unfortunately come to be perceived as an irrelevant, theoretical, and fruitless preoccupation with ideas which are best left to those lofty and disengaged academics. So far Beukes and I are in agreement. How precisely we understand this normative preamble is another story altogether.

Beukes worries about how philosophy has been made relevant to the legitimate concerns of everyday human life in what he refers to as “practical philosophy”. “Practical philosophy”, he says, “is a contemporary quasi-intellectualism encountered amongst all kinds of professionals, from lawyers to medical practitioners to engineers, which strive to completely de-contextualize philosophical texts and put arbitrary, rudimentary interpretations of philosophical texts forward as the basis of, for example, health management, human resources management or economic policy”. “Unlike an authentic philosophical text, which engages in dialogue with the history of ideas”, those written by ““philosopher practitioners” attempt to demonstrate how their knowledge of the problems, methods, and theories of philosophy provide powerful tools for addressing the dilemmas that arise in diverse work settings”. “The lack of subtlety and the superficial nature of exegesis in these textbooks for “practical philosophy” leave me breathless”, he adds.

How does he propose to bridge the gap between the obscure and disengaged philosophical discourse of academic philosophers with concrete everyday human life then? Beukes proposes “applied philosophy” as something altogether distinct from “practical philosophy”. This is where things become hazy. Applied philosophy is unlike practical philosophy in that it too is a kind of philosophy which, beholden to the Greeks, is both a critique and an activity. It does not endorse the view, as practical philosophers seemingly contend, that “philosophy has the inherent ability to inform, guide and constrain all practice”.

Psychotherapy is that paradigmatic discipline which successfully applies practical philosophy in counter-distinction to philosophical counseling (!!!) which he argues “purports to help people with life’s problems by purely engaging them in philosophical discussions” and contests the general position that such endeavours are in any way therapeutic. He mentions few perspectives on this complex issue. Achenbach’s “beyond method method” of therapy is simply characterized as erudite, Marinoff’s Plato not Prozac! (1999), he says, “is not only directed at potential clients but to a critical and philosophically educated public as well”. Is that a criticism? I’m not sure. Schuster is at least mentioned as addressing a well-known issue with a long and complicated history, as the brief consideration of Peter Raabe’s disagreement with her stance suggests, regarding the relationship between philosophical counseling and psychotherapy. The former sees them completely separate activities and the latter as separate but interdisciplinary activities. If you have read my description of this practice then you’re already familiar with the clear delineation: philosophical counselors are not psychologists or psychotherapists, we are philosophers and our engagement with clients is in the broadest sense an educational activity.

In any event he basically gives Schuster credit for at least conducting herself as a “proper” philosopher but ultimately is left feeling unconvinced that what she does is anything more than mere dialogue with no therapeutic merit.

For the record can I just come out and clearly say it? Some people suffering from “mental health” issues require medical attention where the expertise and care goes beyond that of the philosopher. At the same time, it is also true that some mental health practitioners use a very wide brush when applying the term “mental health issues” so that any personal, moral, existential struggle would fall under their exclusive domain of expertise. This is certainly untrue and if we are to continue to appeal to the ancient Greek philosophical traditions, as does Beukes, we’d better be prepared to accept that Socratic maieutic dialectics can cultivate a constructive and  “educational” experience.

There is an extremely long philosophical tradition engaged in precisely this issue, and yet Beukes simply takes it for granted that the Socratic method (given that we can make the claim that there is even a method) is an example of this critical activity which he describes as “quite beautiful”. There are many scholars that dispute the pedagogical merit and structure of the so-called Socratic method. For someone intent upon protecting the integrity of philosophical discourse from wannabe philosophers by insisting upon a careful exegesis of texts (a task further complicated in the case of Socrates everything we know of him and his philosophy is through others) calling for attention to the contoured historical context of ideas, he offers a rather surface treatment of Socrates. I have written extensively on this theme (see The Pedagogic Mission, Chapter Three) and would advocate for a quasi-Socratic maieutic narrative, but in the context that Beukes envisages clarity must be sought after regarding the proper rendering of the terms “therapy” and “philosophy”.

Beukes doesn’t explain his meaning of therapy; he only says that he doubts the therapeutic impact of philosophical counseling. He seems to suggest that the case study he presents demonstrates how applied philosophy informs systems or paradigms of psychotherapy which are themselves therapeutic. He does offer some clues, however. He refers to Schuster’s model as offering “insight, perspective, self-understanding and intellectual balance” whilst rejecting it as a therapeutic model and insisting that some patients need Prozac not philosophy. But I’ve already conceded to the latter point as most philosophical counselors would, at least the ones I know. But what is the relationship between drawing insights, acquiring new and nuances perspectives, cultivating self-understanding and therapy? Perhaps an answer in Beukes’s mind is cushioned in his insistence that philosophy is an exclusively critical exercise. The suggestion seems to be that the job of philosophy is to employ critical tools of reason to uncover hidden and sometimes faulty assumptions, work out implications, identify ambiguities, detect fallacious forms of argument, address underlying epistemological and methodological underpinnings, and develop grand metaphysical systems. It would seem that through philosophical discourse of the aforementioned kind, insights are found, self-understanding cultivated and the like. But, and he is clear, nothing of a therapeutic value comes of all of this. Philosophy and philosophical discourse, careful to respect the subtleties of an entire historical tradition, can be used to critique and nuance a psychotherapist’s appreciation of their subject matter and methods, but philosophy itself is a critical exercise whose mainstay is to establish or at least labor over issues regarding the establishment of “secure” epistemological and metaphysical foundations. In turn, he says, ““practical philosophy”…pretends to draw on those foundations, but in fact negates them or is ignorant of them”.

Going back to Socrates for a moment, it would seem that Beukes aligns himself with the view that the Socratic method is elenctic, where all pride and value is given over to the role of reason in the exercise of philosophical discourse. Socrates is well known for engaging his interlocutors in dialogue where they are “invited” to critique the proper rendition of terms of a moral variety. For instance, Socrates would typically ask what his interlocutor believes courage is. From this a series of secondary questions are asked and ensuing answers are shown to be inconsistent with the interlocutor’s original response to the initial question. Intuitively aware that contradictory statements cannot both be true at the same time and in the same respect, interlocutors are “thrown” into a state of aporia or perplexity. An important issue for Beukes is whether this aporia is purely intellectual aiming to (and in fact leads to) incite further intellectual critique or whether there is something of an existential state of anxiety or angst that befalls these men, or perhaps a change more practically conceivable in terms of one’s mindset, orientation, disposition, attitudes, and practices? This is hugely debated amongst scholars of Socrates and I won’t belabor the point here, but if Socrates is to be admired, as Beukes clearly does, as a true philosopher taken up in the practical concerns of everyday human life, then there must be something beyond the “merely” intellectualized realization that one’s beliefs are internally inconsistent that is involved in this practice. Presumably at the very least there “should” be a transformative effect which hinges upon experiencing an understanding of one’s own existing mindset, a kind of self-understanding often encapsulated in that well-known Greek proverbial saying “know thyself”, and a critical self-evaluation of the beliefs and values one brings to one’s moral practices and the pursuit of the good life. Is this therapeutic? Well, that all depends on how one defines therapeutic. There is a change that comes over the interlocutor, and that change is considered to be an improvement; one that specifically fosters a life of “happiness”. Or does therapy imply healing from an identified and acknowledged ailment or disease? This too depends. When Socrates is put to death he says to his close friend Crito that he must make a sacrifice of a cock to Asclepius who is the god of health or healing. It was tradition to make a sacrifice of a cock when one had been restored to good health. Though this too is a point of contention amongst scholars, one argument is that the Platonic Socrates believed that life is diseased and that his death was a form of restored health. I doubt Beukes would agree.

Finally Beukes offers an illustration of applied philosophy. He finds Alex Howard’s Philosophy for Counseling and Psychotherapy: Pythagoras to Postmodernism is an example of how applied philosophy can teach psychotherapists how to listen by offering a broader and richer vision of therapeutic talk by becoming aware of its problems and possibilities. “Just listening” is what the practical philosopher does (!!!!) whereas what applied philosophy accomplishes is learning that “listening is a creative act that cannot take place without utilizing the ideas, experiences and values that matter to us. Philosophy teaches us to be critical of those ideas, nuanced about those experiences and cautious of those values. It teaches therapists to listen very carefully – to be critical, in short.” He opts for a summary of Howard’s discussion of Heraclitus as a case study.

Again I’ll have to begin by saying that the treatment of Heraclitus or Heraclitean philosophy references only a couple of fragments associated with this ancient scholar, so there is none of the philosophical rigor Beukes himself would expect to see displayed amongst those worthy of the title philosopher. He claims to know Heraclitus’s metaphysical programmatic but this is not argued for. He seems to adopt the view, which happens to also be my own, that Heraclitus is a process ontologist (i.e. that there are no actual objects that persist over time but only processes or events) and draws from that pivotal perspective implications for the understanding of self, change and more. The lesson learned is that, at least according to Heraclitus, “change does not imply chaos” and that “by embracing, rather than resisting, change we may best survive and find inspiration. The movement and interconnection of existence may inspire awe, humility and reverence.”

It seems to me that Heraclitus might be injected into a sessional exchange amongst individuals struggling with impermanence, perhaps even death, just like one might consider the views of Kant in counter-distinction with Aristotle where one would be wrestling with her sense of guilt or shame when acting contrary to strong emotional tugs into the opposite direction – Kant argues that when one’s rational judgment does not align with her emotional impulses and she nonetheless heeds the voice of reason, she is truly virtuous, but Aristotle argues that this misalignment suggests that one’s not fully virtuous. Does that not imply that a counselor would be pulling from that bag of philosophical ideas to facilitate or even accommodate what is already there? I fail to see how practical philosophy, philosophical counseling more specifically, differs from applied philosophy as it is here presented.

In my practice I do not “simply” listen, nor do I “simply” endorse and encourage the views of my clients, and I am especially careful not to impose my own philosophical and personal views on my clients either. Does Beukes suggest that all sessional exchanges are true to the principles of philosophy iff they address the epistemological and metaphysical underpinnings of said philosophers? Does he want to argue that emphasis should be placed on critical self-reflection? Perhaps not since he clearly argues that critical discourse is the job of philosophers but that this does not have any therapeutic merit. Does he want to argue instead that philosophical discourse is something that therapists should engage in in order to enrich their therapeutic approaches to their practice? I am admittedly confused.

In closing I would like to say that my personal development in this field called philosophical practice and philosophical counseling more particularly does not mimic the psychotherapist’s model in form, method or objective. Presently, I see the specifically philosophical take on counseling to rest in a) developing logical skills of reasoning for the development of self-reflective understanding and the critical assessment thereby of one’s belief-systems and values, and b) nuancing one’s existing, often narrow mental sphere or horizon, by implicating philosophical ideas taken from the long tradition of philosophical discourse sometimes in the manner illustrated by Beukes (my point has been that this example does not demonstrate what practical philosophy does not do, but what it does in common with applied philosophy. This does kind of leave me scratching my head over what the real distinction of these two “practices” is) where this is warranted and possible.


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