I wanted to share this article by Emily Wax from Aug 22nd’s Washington Post titled “Philosophical counselors rely on eternal wisdom of great thinkers”. The gist of the article is that around 300 people around the United States have established philosophical counseling practices where, for 80 dollars an hour, clients can pick the mind of a highly trained philosopher. The process is designed to be an alternative to psychological counseling for people who do not believe themselves to be ill, only lacking in perspective, new concept or mental training. The leading proponent of this kind of counseling is Lou Marinoff, the author of Plato Not Prozac! Applying Eternal Widom to Everyday Problems. Coincidentally an ex of mine once gave me a copy of that book. I could never figure out if it was because she thought I would be a good philosophical counselor, or because she thought I needed perspective, new concepts and mental training. Probably both. In any case, if you are curious about the concept, that would be the place to start.
There is a lot to like about this movement, not the least of which is the idea of philosophers making good money for a change. Beyond that, I think it is good to reinforce the distinction between mental illnesses and erroneous thinking. As Alan Watts liked to say with a laugh, “Anyone who goes to an analyst should have her head examined,” meaning that if you go to a doctor, you can hardly be surprised when you are treated like a sick person. Instead of dwelling on how to “fix” what is “broken” inside one’s self, it may be in some cases healthier to instead come to new understandings of how the world works, and how best we might operate in the world armed with a new understanding. Anything that promotes reflection on the world instead of deeper self-absorption is a welcome practice in my opinion.
That said, I wonder what you all think about the way this counseling is marketed as being access to eternal wisdom? It may be my training in the philosophy of science, or all the 18th century Philosophes murmuring on the shelf behind me, but it seems to me that appeals to timeless wisdom are kind of… bogus. There are two problems here, the eternal part and the wisdom part. Not to get too relativistically funky, but the more timeless something claims to be, the less mass it seems to have, the less substance. Wisdom demands substance, in the form of context and is rooted in practice. If you aren’t engaged in a practice, solo or in a community, wisdom is either exotica or abdication of reason to authority. Wisdom that can be doled out without context is about as useful as a fortune from that Zoltar machine in the movie Big. Worse, it can be harmful, because it can create false understanding. For example, in the article we find this quote from Marinoff:
“Read the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism, who taught that every loss comes bundled with gain, for they are inseparable manifestations of yin and yang,” offered Marinoff. “In other words, instead of focusing on the loss, focus on the gain: Losing a job, you have just gained an opportunity to develop a latent talent and to enter a more suitable career path.”
That sounds like Really Good Advice, but entering a state of non-judgment is really, really difficult. It takes Taoist practitioners years to habituate this state, and they have the context and foundational theoretical support to buttress them. If I was a client and heard this, it would be very easy to just obsess on looking at the bright side of things, instead of cultivating equanimity. Could a good philosophical counselor provide this context and foundation, certainly. Could they do the same equally well for Nietzsche and Sartre and Schopenhauer and Rousseau and Plato? There’s a reason why therapists don’t specialize in cognitive-behavioral and gestalt and Rogerian and Jungian counseling all at the same time.
In conclusion, I really do think this is a helpful and useful alternative to therapy for those who do not consider themselves ill, but I am suspicious of anyone who makes claims to possess timeless wisdom. If you’re thinking to yourself that I ‘m just jealous people will pay philosophical counselors 80 dollars an hour to give them profound things to read without much context, something librarians will do for free, well, you ain’t wrong. They have to set themselves up as experts in order to charge clients like therapists do, but is the therapy model really the best way to do it? Is there no way to establish small sophist schools instead? Those might be cheaper, create a persistent group of like minded thinkers, and allow for philosophical specialization. Plus, it completely removes the questionable idea of philosopher as healer, and restores the philosopher to position of social teacher, where in my opinion she or he belongs. If you are a philosophical counselor, and have ever dreamed of being a public philosopher, I would be happy to hook you up with some space in the local public library. It would do the polis some good.