Philosophical Practice in a Psychotherapeutic World

Kate Mehuron

Philosophy professor, Kate Mehuron, traces her interest in, and journey to becoming, a philosophical counsellor, illustrating her work with a client vignette.

Fifteen years into my career as a philosophy professor, I looked for ways to use my philosophical expertise to help people acquire the skills to help them deal with their life issues. I have always included some volunteer community service in my life as an academic philosopher. I trained and worked as a crisis counsellor for survivors of domestic assault, organised vigils and educational events that addressed violence in our local communities, and participated in life coach training. I enjoyed these types of community service because of the opportunities they afforded to use my philosophical skills indirectly. I became intrigued by the possibilities for primarily philosophical types of service that came to my attention several years ago.

Philosophy is largely an academic enterprise in the United States. There are some professional niches other than academia for philosophers, such as serving on bioethics boards associated with health care and health sciences research, but overall, philosophers with higher degrees traditionally have not had many opportunities to help people outside of the classroom with their philosophical skills. However, many of us have academic expertise in philosophical areas that are useful to people beyond the classroom eg rational methods to resolve life problems, applied ethics, Socratic dialogue, or philosophies of life that include a gamut of philosophical resources to understand and promote meaningful and fulfilling lives.

From My Armchair Quest to Philosophical Practice

During my armchair quest for ways to apply my philosophical skills, I was impressed by the work of Canadian philosophical counsellor Peter Raabe who was one of the first, internationally, to write a dissertation about philosophical counselling. His books provide rigorous overviews of the history, practical case studies and conceptual underpinnings of philosophical counselling practice (Raabe 2000, 2002); Raabe was also one of the first Board members of the Canadian Society for Philosophy Practice. I was further inspired by Israeli philosopher Shlomit C. Schuster who directs the Sophon Centre and maintains an active website publicising international philosophical practice organisations (Schuster, 1999).

American philosopher Lou Marinoff, co-founder of the American Society for Philosophy, Counselling and Psychotherapy and current President of the American Philosophical Practitioners Association (APPA), wrote the pioneering book Philosophical Practice (Marinoff, 2001). In it, Marinoff advises philosophers on how to start their own practices and prescribes the procedures, standards, and protocols maintained by the APPA. His book Plato not Prozac! popularised the concept of philosophical counselling on an international scale (Marinoff, 2000).

As a result of my quest, I became a member of the APPA and, in 2004, participated in the APPA Certification I Programme for Philosophical Counsellors. After Certification I training, I followed Marinoff’s advice given in Philosophical Practice on how to start a research programme on philosophical counselling by submitting to the University Human Subjects Review Board my research proposal Philosophical Counselling Case Studies: Implications for Philosophical Practice. From 2004 to 2006, I provided pro bono philosophical counselling to people in the community who volunteered as subjects in my research study. In 2009 I participated in the APPA Certification II Programme for Philosophical Counsellors and acquired Full Certification in Philosophical Counselling.

I advertised my research study to the community by explaining that philosophical counselling is an international educational activity by philosophical practitioners that uses philosophical methods to resolve or manage problems associated with everyday life. I told my research subjects that philosophical counselling is intended for clients who are rational, functional in everyday life and can benefit from philosophical assistance in understanding, managing or resolving life problems. Many of my clients struggled to understand that this is an alternative to psychotherapy, although it does not need to be considered in conflict with psychotherapy. All my clients are informed that my practice is regulated by the professional code of ethics and certification standards of the APPA; the scope of my practice of philosophical counselling is defined by the APPA. The most suitable candidates for philosophical counselling are clients whose problems are centered in:

  • Issues of private morality or professional ethics,
  • Issues of meaning, value, or purpose,
  • Issues of personal or professional fulfillment,
  • Issues of underdetermined or inconsistent belief systems,
  • Issues requiring any philosophical interpretation of changing circumstances.

There are several differences between philosophical counselling and psychotherapy. The most obvious difference is that philosophical counselling is rendered by a trained philosopher who uses philosophical methods and approaches to clarify and perhaps resolve the client’s problems, whereas psychotherapy is usually rendered by mental health professionals or by counsellors whose focus is on the mental health of their clients. The goal of psychotherapy is therapeutic in a psychological sense: mental health. The primary goal of philosophical counselling is self-understanding in the sense that the client examines her or his beliefs and problems through the light of reasoning, values, and alternative belief systems. Although “feeling better” may occur, it is not the primary goal in philosophical counselling. Psychotherapy has a diagnostic function: the client is presumed to have a mental or emotional disorder that requires intervention in order to restore the client’s psychological state to normalcy. Philosophical counselling is non-diagnostic: the client presents concerns or problems and the philosophical aspect of the problem is examined; there are no assumptions about the psychological state of the client nor is clinical diagnosis offered. On the contrary, a conscious effort is made, if the client is interested, to question critically assumptions about notions of normality and abnormality in general.

There are also strong similarities between some psychotherapies and philosophical counselling. For example, in both practices there is a recognised need for care, compassion, and empathic listening on the part of the counsellor. Both require client trust and client disclosure of her or his thoughts and feelings. Another similarity is that all types of professional counselling must be guided by a strong set of professional ethical principles, the core of which is to do no harm to clients. Although philosophical counselling focuses on the application of reasoning and interpretation to life issues, this does not mean that philosophical counselling ignores feelings or emotions. There is a large body of philosophical literature about the connection between emotions and rationality and philosophers generally recognise that the two do not operate separately in people’s actual lives (Nussbaum, 2003; Solomon, 1993). Just as in psychotherapy, each philosophical counsellor will have a somewhat unique perspective, informed by philosophical analysis, on how to address the client’s emotions in counselling sessions.

Vignette From My Client

My clients in my research study consented to public distribution and discussion of their case studies under the condition that their real names or persons or organisations would not appear in any of these studies (Mehuron, 2009). This is a summary of my sessions with a client that may illustrate differences or similarities between philosophical counselling and psychotherapy. I share this excerpt while leaving those determinations to the reader.

Varsha sought counselling with me to help him cope with the effects of a non-malignant brain tumor that he was managing with medication and hoped to manage with philosophical reflection. He described his problems in clinical terms, acknowledging his brain tumor as the organic cause of his attention deficit disorder, mood swings, and epilepsy. This disease had permanently disrupted his undergraduate career at a prestigious research institution and he found himself unable to pursue a degree or a career path. He was permanently unable to drive and had difficulty holding down a job. Although his father was on faculty at the research institution, both of his parents reacted to his disease by disowning him and eventually returning to their home in India; Varsha was left behind to survive in the United States. During his teen years, Varsha had converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and had a significant support network in the Church’s local faith community.

As I encountered Varsha’s clinical diagnoses, I wanted to find out what Varsha thought he could gain from me as a philosophical counsellor. He did not want to dispense with his medical diagnoses, for the clinical phenomenology gave Varsha an epistemic anchor for his own self-understanding. Peter Raabe asserts that philosophical counsellors should be able to recognise and validate the organic causes of clients’ mental and emotional distress (Raabe, 2004). These remarks were particularly helpful in this case.

Varsha himself was not sure at the outset what he could gain from talking with me, except that he had a passion for philosophical reflection and hoped to find consolation by having philosophical conversations with me. He continually reflected on his experience of existential helplessness and his deepening frustration with his hindered will to fulfill his long-term goals. He also had self-doubts because others in his cancer survivor support group told him that his way of managing his disease was pathological; Varsha believed that meant they disapproved of his stoic attitude and his rejection of feelings associated with pity and victimisation.

Varsha wanted to discuss whether his stoic attitude towards his disease was pathological, which he defined as an incapacity to feel empathy for himself or others; he was interested in learning more about stoicism in the process. He also struggled with whether his life had worth, given that his efforts to meet his life goals were stymied by his disease. His use of medical diagnosis was cognitively reassuring to him: it descriptively captured his organic dysfunction, giving him a unified etiology to explain his symptoms and co-morbidity. For Varsha, the social stigma of his disease and cognitive symptoms stemmed not from the diagnosis itself, but rather from the social attributions applied to his condition by others. He asked me to understand his disease, requesting that I read some pragmatic approaches by medical practitioners to managing benign brain tumors (Nezu, 1998).

As our weeks of conversation unfolded, it turned out that some philosophical observations and antidotes were useful to him. He had a passionate and assertive personality that aspired to achieve public recognition in the arts. His imagination used military metaphors to capture the high esteem he held for self-assertion in the face of hardship. I encouraged Varsha to explore Stoic and Nietzschean self-affirmation. He read widely and brought these resources to our conversations. Such literature on the will can offer philosophical antidotes that can plumb the depths of frustration with physical limitations and offer remedies through cognitive and artistic self-assertion and self-creation. Varsha benefitted from our discussion of books such as Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy behind the Military Mind (Sherman, 2007); he gained self-acceptance as a result of his study of stoicism. He also identified with Nietzsche’s self-overcoming thematic that wrestled in a similar way with physical infirmity. Varsha seemed to gain acceptance of the worth of his life by embracing the importance of the present moment instead of basing his entire self-worth on long-term goal fulfillment. With the help of his support network, he continued to write and submit stories to a local arts journal and he founded a local philosophy discussion group inspired by his reading of Socrates Café (Phillips, 2002).

I helped Varsha form a Socrates Café group that met over a period of nine months; this seemed to give him a sense of importance in the community and focused his energy and attention on developing philosophical relationships and conversations. Although our formal counselling sessions ended years ago, he occasionally calls me to report a short story contest that he has entered, a blog that he is writing, or a discussion group that he has formed. In Varsha’s case, clinical and philosophical diagnosis and antidotes are both fundamental to his wellbeing.

There have always been philosophers committed to the practical activity of helping others to lead the examined life and to pursue the big question: “How should one live?” The ancients, embodied in Stoic and Aristotelian thought, provide the earliest examples. In the nineteenth century, existential philosophers such as Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard plunged academic philosophy into self-criticism about how the field had led itself to abstraction and away from its primary use as an examination of the self and ordinary life problems. In the twentieth century, phenomenologists such as Heidegger and Husserl insisted that philosophy return to lived experience to examine its roots in consciousness. Existential philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir promoted the use of philosophy, not only to explore consciousness but to advocate the practical use of philosophy to influence the realm of political controversy through existential argument. The philosophy of existentialism has deeply influenced the psychotherapeutic theory and practice of Irvin Yalom and logo therapy as developed by Victor Frankl (Yalom 1980; Frankl, 2006). Albert Ellis utilizes the philosophical use of rational argumentation and cognitive self-examination in his development of rational-emotive behavior therapy (Ellis, 2001). The latter, in turn, has been given an Aristotelian direction by philosophical counsellor Elliot D. Cohen in his book What Would Aristotle Do? Self-Control Through the Power of Reason (Cohen, 2003).

Philosophical counselling often draws on the use of Socratic dialogue between two or more people to achieve understanding and even resolutions of typical life problems. Although Socratic dialogue is not the only philosophical tool available to counsellors, it has a venerable tradition; it was practiced in Athens in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. Socratic dialogue is a method of philosophical inquiry that can be learned by anyone who participates; it is a philosophical activity in which the person leading the discussion can often learn more from the other participants than vice versa, wherein questions are often the answers. Socrates brought to his fellow citizens a type of discussion that often left curious souls with more questions than they had at the beginning, but at times helped them to come up with at least tentative answers. Socratic dialogue has become an art in the intervening centuries, honed by those who see it as a method and an approach that can provide answers to the practical question: “How should I live?” Plato, in his writings about Socrates, explored the ways that Socrates’ manner of questioning can help to “know thyself” and Aristotle developed practical logic in order to help people to solve moral problems. The school of Roman philosophy known as Stoicism carried on the practical tradition of philosophy as way of improving a person’s life, a practice of wisdom, and a way to alleviate suffering. In this sense, philosophy as practice provides a therapy of the soul.

Socratic dialogue was refined by European philosophical practice in the early twentieth century by the Göttinger philosopher, teacher and politician Leonard Nelson and developed further by his student, Gustav Heckmann, while serving as a teacher in the Socratic school in exile in Denmark during the 1930s Nazi regime (Nelson, 2010). The contemporary uses of Socratic dialogue in European practice settings in Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Austria is explored in Philosophical Practice: The Journal of the American Philosophical Practice Association (Jens & Gronke, 2010; Krohn & Kessels, 2010).

Philosophical counselling, as a distinct client-centered practice, is relatively recent. The German philosopher Gerd Achenbach opened his philosophical counselling practice in 1981 near Cologne, Germany. The practice quickly spread through the pioneering work of individual practitioners and the growth of professional associations in the Netherlands, Canada, Norway, Austria, France, Switzerland, Israel, Great Britain, the United States and beyond. Today, philosophical counselling is part of a wider movement of philosophical practice conducted through philosophy cafés, organisational consultancy, group counselling and individual client counselling. The professional organisations that are springing up internationally are in the process of defining their own professional codes of ethics, certification procedures, scholarly standards and organisational missions. Some academically affiliated philosophers are beginning to offer courses in philosophical counselling and the day is near when advanced degrees in philosophical counselling will be available. For now, academic philosophers are seeing more opportunities to get out of armchair philosophy and into philosophical practice.

Kate Mehuron PhD, is a practicing philosophical counsellor, certified by the American Philosophical Practitioners Association. She is Managing Editor of Philosophical Practice: Journal of the American Philosophical Practitioners Association. Professor Mehuron is also Professor of Philosophy and Head of the Department of History and Philosophy at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Michigan.


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Image: Sprial Staircase at Nile House, Prague by Dave Henri