When Socrates stated that the unexamined life was not worth living, it seems that he meant not just his own life or that of his family members, and not just the lives of the elite nor his fellow philosophers, but the lives of the timeless, universal crowd of people called humanity.
Whereas it is customary for most of the world population today to have their lives and selves examined by psychologists, the idea that one can examine oneself with the help of a philosopher as counsellor is still as revolutionary today as it was in Socrates’ day.
Socrates’ example has been in many ways a guide for philosophers throughout the ages. In the examination of life philosophers have always been in one sense or another imitating him. However, person to person exchange in examining life has curiously enough disappeared, and instead academic discourse and the scholarly paper have become the accepted means to such analyses.
In the last fifty years psychologists have come to believe either that philosophy is dangerous in and for their profession or that they should use it in their various treatments. During the 1970s, more psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health workers became interested in doing philosophy, especially existentialism and phenomenology, as an integral part of their therapeutic vocation. Perhaps encouraged by this interest in philosophical knowledge and skills, some philosophers have finally taken a stand and have begun to help people to think through matters of daily life.
In 1981, the German philosopher Dr. Gerd B. Achenbach was the first who opened, what he calls, a philosophical praxis. In a pleasant office, in the forest-surrounded Bergisch-Gladbach, near Köln, Achenbach, began receiving those searching for a certain kind of guidance. Some of his clients – or visitors in Achenbach’s terminology – had already tried everything that today’s society offers as solace for anxieties, suffering, and existential questions. After the psychoanalyst, guru, astrologer, and the New Age workshop, they arrived for help at the praxis of a sympathetically listening skeptic. Achenbach’s aim is to offer the public an alternative to psychotherapy, but not an alternative therapy. Clinical diagnoses and treatment, along the lines of the medical paradigm of therapy, are absent in Achenbach’s approach; even so, philosophical counselling can have therapeutic results as well.
Achenbach resists turning his praxis idea into a method, and prefers to keep the style of conversation indeterminate and open-ended. Nevertheless, one can present descriptions, “road signs”, that give directions to other philosophers aiming to imitate his successful and responsible advice to people searching for meaning or solutions in problematic situations. Of these road signs, four basic ones are:
- The sincere communication between the philosophical practitioner and the visitor, based on a “beyond-method” method.
- The importance of dialogue, as that which enlivens – and flows from being.
- “Auslegen” – a looking for explanations – in which the practitioner becomes united with the problem, not by imparting his own understanding of it, but by giving the visitor a fresh impulse to explain him or herself.
- The innovative component of dialogue, the element of wonder in philosophical practice, which does not allow for fixed viewpoints, standard attitudes or permanent solutions.
After the initial success of his praxis, Achenbach founded a society for philosophical praxis in 1982. Through press, radio and T.V. reports, Achenbach’s counselling practice became so well known in Germany and beyond, that philosophers inspired by his example opened offices in Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Austria, Switzerland and Israel. Philosophical practice is now a growing international movement with practitioners also in Britain, France, the USA, South-Africa, China, Taiwan and Australia. Societies for philosophical practice flourish not only in Germany, but also in the Netherlands, Britain, Canada, USA, and Israel. The third International Conference on Philosophical Practice was held last August in New York, and the fourth is planned for August 1998 in Germany.
With the growth of interest in philosophical praxis, so alternative perspectives have emerged. Most significantly, the last few years have seen the emergence of a form of philosophical practice which challenges the critical and humanistic principles of Achenbach’s original practice. Some psychologists and other mental health workers, with supplementary degrees in philosophy, seem to be trying to recover “lost territory” by calling their therapy – “philosophy work” or “philosophical counselling”. Counsellees would therefore do well to ask their philosophical practitioner if he or she is a member of a society for philosophical practice, and what the practitioner means by “philosophical counselling.” After all, why should counsellees unknowingly place themselves into another kind of therapy? Although there are some differences and debates about philosophical counselling in the few philosophical counselling societies, the general conception of philosophical counselling accepted by these societies is more of less the same and at least in some part inspired by Achenbach’s.
Since philosophical counselling is not a branch of psychotherapy, but an independent dialogue between a philosopher and any person who is interested in philosophy as a way of life, it is – so long as they are able to talk rationally – a practice for everybody. One’s interest in it does not depend upon one’s state of health.
Philosophical counsellors and the public have good reasons to disregard most psychotherapeutic theories concerning the dangers of self-disclosure and intimate discourse between people when not supervised by the “expert” in this field, i.e. the professional mental health worker. Most of these theories claim “research” as evidence, but often research is contradictory, so one must be doubtful about any of the conclusions which are drawn. Take, for example, the disputes that surround transference theory. Behaviourists traditionally reject the theory on the ground of their scientific findings, whereas in the psychodynamic inspired therapies, the belief in transference is still justified in scientific/observational terms.
The British charity the Samaritans seems to have proven with its work in befriending people, that ordinary, friendly relationships between one who looks for help and a helper is very effective and not dangerous or destructive at all. Thus, in my work as a philosophical counsellor, I have adapted and utilised the experience of the Samaritans in suicide prevention.
Soon after I started practising in Israel in 1989, the Jerusalem weekly Kol Ha-ir offered me the opportunity to place every weekend a free small-ad reading: “The Philosophy Line: Philosophical Counsel in Existential Problems and Ethical Dilemmas.” The philosophy line is a telephone-first-aid-line for people of all ages. Questions and problems on all subjects may find a first outlet through this channel. However, existential problems and ethical dilemmas are the basic subjects for which the philosophy line offers its free services. The idea of the “philosophy line” developed from my work as a philosophical counsellor and is not only the first of this kind in Israel, but in the world.
Promoting friendship is an important aspect in the philosophy line and in my philosophical practice. In the philosophy tradition, friendship is an ethical ideal that influences the way of life and well-being of the individual. And more than that: Aristotle understood friendship as fundamental in the good society. Friendship as practice is an idea that is not often found in philosophical or psychological text books today. However, the founder of the suicide prevention telephone line, Chad Varah, discovered that it was the friendship that he offered, rather than the advice which he gave, that was helpful in preventing suicides. This observation caused “befriending” to become the main task in The Samaritans’ contacts with desperate people.
I offer persons calling the philosophy line, friendship (philo) combined with wisdom (sophia). Sometimes people are happy with just one of these possibilities, and that is acceptable too. For example, a young mother, who wanted to kill her child and herself, started out telling me: “I am not interested in philosophising.” She did not believe in philosophy or in anything else. Nevertheless, through her perception of my friendly attitude and empathic listening she came to reconsider her decision from an ethical point of view. A few hours after our phone conversation she called back to say that she had decided not to kill her child and would think about not killing herself. I quickly approved of her decision and encouraged her to continue to contact the philosophy line. However, she remained hesitant to identify herself and would not accept my invitation to visit.
Just as in philosophical counselling sessions, in the telephone sessions I use no technique to alter clients’ thoughts or intentions. Achenbach’s “beyond-method” dialogue is in some aspects similar to Buber’s I-Thou relationship. For Buber, an I-Thou relationship exists in all genuine encounters. In philosophical counselling, as in the therapies inspired by Buber (e.g. Roger’s person-centred approach), the genuineness of the encounter is very important. Buber considered that there is a demand by patients on the therapist to step out of his or her secure world, which is based on professional training and knowledge. The patient needs to meet the therapist in an “elementary situation between one who calls and one who is called.” There self is exposed to self. The meeting of self-with-self, the meeting with the dark domain of the therapist’s passions, anxieties and so forth – this gap in the control of the therapist, rooted in his or her wrestling with these forces, fortifies the patient.
In his essay “Healing through Meeting” Buber reaches the following conclusion: “In the immediacy of one human standing over against another, the encapsulation must and can be broken through, and a transformed, healed relationship must and can be opened to the person who is sick in his relations to otherness.” There is no knowledge or method for the genuine encounter in the Buberian dialogue: it happens, it is given. Genuine dialogue and encounter are not bound to a routine timing or a specific place. Accordingly, a hot-line conversation is also appropriate in this context.
I invite people who are very desperate to meet with me as a friend, and not as a professional who charges for the visit. After such a first visit, I advise continuing the newly established relationship and suggest that the person considers embarking on philosophical or another type of counselling. This approach is especially successful with people who reject or are critical of the psychological establishment. More recently, I began offering also philosophical advice by e-mail.
Since 1981, Achenbach’s approach has proven itself a beneficial and secure philosophical way of aiding “everybody” in thinking through the predicaments of daily life. Though some philosophical practitioners may find it desirable to practice and develop philosophical counselling differently, I find that Achenbach’s basic ideas contain all needed for practising philosophy in a responsible and professional way.
Achenbach, G. B., Philosophische Praxis (Koln: Jorgen Dinter, 1984, 1987a).
Schuster, S. C. (1991) “Philosophical Counselling” in Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 219-223.
Schuster, S. C. (1997) “Philosophical Narratives and Philosophical Counseling”, in Journal of the Society for Existential Analysis, Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 108-127.