It sounds like a nice idea. You visit a philosopher, you have a chat, and you feel better. Lengthy therapy? Unlikely. Prozac? Definitely not. And the unconscious? What unconscious? Okay, so it might cost you a bit, up to $100 an hour in the States, but then so do the various “psycho-disciplines” and anyway your mental health is surely worth it? The philosophical counsellors themselves are bullish about their future. Louis Marinoff, President of the American Philosophical Practitioners Association, believes that people are delighted that philosophers are practising with clients the art of leading the examined life and claims that philosophical practice has a rosy future.
But is this really something that we should be pleased about? Is it in fact to the betterment of those seeking psychological help that philosophical counselling should take its place in the pantheon of existent therapies? Or perhaps there are reasons to be cautious before wholeheartedly embracing this brave new world?
This article will deal with three broad categories of criticism that can be levelled against philosophical counselling. These concern: (a) money; (b) the scope of philosophical counselling; and (c) the credibility of philosophers as counsellors.
According to some critics, philosophical counselling is damned by its association with money. For example, in a Times (London) article, Roger Scruton, citing Socrates as his exemplar, argues that the true philosopher, in contrast to the sophist, never asks for payment. The profit motive, he suggests, undermines the pursuit of truth, and in the case of philosophical counselling, provides a strong incentive for counsellors to espouse a thorough-going relativism, enabling them to offer to their clients a “catalogue of belief systems”, from which the client can pick the most palatable. He concludes that:
When Plato founded the first academy, and placed philosophy at the heart of it, he did so in order to protect the precious store of knowledge from the assaults of charlatans, to create a kind of temple to truth in the midst of falsehood, and to marginalise the sophists who preyed on human confusion. Little did he suspect, however, that he was providing the sophist with his ultimate disguise (The Times, “The return of the sophist”, 11 March 1997)
So what do we make of this criticism? Well, it seems to have two related strands. The first is the claim that for philosophers to remain philosophers they must not take payment for their services. And the second is the specific accusation that the profit motive results in philosophical practitioners jettisoning their commitment to the pursuit of truth, replacing it instead with a cynical pick-and-mix philosophical relativism.
The first of these criticisms can be dismissed straightforwardly on the grounds that it is mere assertion. For example, there is no logical, necessary relationship between Socrates not being paid and the production of his dialogues. That is, it is quite possible to imagine that he might both have been paid and have produced the same dialogues. It is implausible to suggest that in this latter circumstance, he would not have remained a philosopher. Moreover, as Louis Marinoff points out in a reply to Scruton, only the rich, or their entourage, can afford to disdain money.
The second specific accusation also lacks force. In the first place, it is simply not true that philosophical counsellors in general espouse philosophical relativism (Louis Marinoff, for example, has described himself as a Platonist). Indeed, it is not possible to generalise at all about philosophical counsellors, since they vary considerably in their philosophical, ideological and political outlooks. And in the second place, the notion that the pursuit of truth is necessarily subverted by commodified relationships (i.e. the relationship between counsellor and client) is not proven. Of course, money matters, but whether it necessarily corrupts, as Scruton seems to imply, is more doubtful. The more subtle, and (ironically) post-modern, argument that “truth” is always contextual, and that monetary relationships, in the philosophical counselling setting, form part of that context in an important way, is not open to Scruton, for it would undermine his claim that philosophy is the way to objectivity.
The scope of philosophical counselling
But, in fact, philosophical counselling does have a problem with relativism. It is just a different problem from the one identified by Scruton. Philosophical counselling, following Achenbach, is essentially a method “beyond-method”. It is not doctrinally committed, but rather is a philosophically informed dialogical practice, which enables individuals to explore their hopes, fears and anxieties within a setting which is likely to promote deeper self-understanding. What unites philosophical counsellors is their rejection of the excesses of the medical-model and their insistence that it is normal for a person to have psychological issues that need to be addressed. And herein lies a problem.
There are no criteria generally accepted by philosophical counsellors which determine whether a psychological problem is susceptible to philosophical practice or not. Lets take schizophrenia as an example. In its more severe manifestations, schizophrenia is characterised by: delusions (paranoia or grandeur); hallucinations; incoherent thought; disassociation from reality; flat emotions; and so on. It is normally treated by means of anti-psychotic drugs, which function to inhibit dopamine (a neurotransmitter) activity in the brain.
But is there a role for philosophical counselling in the treatment of schizophrenia? According to Louis Marinoff, philosophical counsellors should not treat severe personality disorders, and presumably schizophrenia is included amongst their number. However, things are not quite this straightforward. First, it is not clear what kind of therapy a philosophical counsellor can recommend to a client who presents the symptoms of schizophrenia. Many philosophical counsellors reject the medical model completely, but anti-psychotic drugs, which have a direct and measurable somatic effect, have transformed the lives of many schizophrenics over the last 30 years. And secondly, and perhaps more disturbingly, Marinoff talks scathingly about:
philosophical counsellors who endeavour to treat everything by philosophical means. They are deconstructed enough themselves to have taken what evidence we have of the undermining of absolutism and to have applied it to the other extreme. Of course, many of them are scientifically semi-literate and they suppose, for example, that the theory of relativity proves that everything is relative (they say as much in their literature). They will then attempt to solve all sorts of problems by philosophical means that might not be philosophical problems (The Three Pillars, Louis Marinoff).
Of course, every therapeutic and mental health discipline will have its fair share of practitioners who perhaps should not be practising. But there is specific problem for philosophical counselling – and it is the problem of relativism. Because philosophical counselling lacks a delimited method and conceptual framework, the boundaries of acceptable practice are likely to remain fluid. Consequently, it is unlikely that there will ever be a formal set of guidelines that specify which kinds of problems are philosophical in nature and which are not (Marinoff recognises that this might be a matter of style). If these guidelines do not exist, then there will always be philosophical counsellors who are willing to deal with disorders such as schizophrenia, which would be better handled by the medical profession.
Moreover, this relativism extends also to the content of philosophical counselling. It is difficult to see, for example, why a philosophical counsellor could not encourage a religiously informed discourse to address the problems of schizophrenia. Or perhaps a discourse informed by Jungian concepts or Eastern philosophy. It might be thought that this is not really a problem. Different people will have different preferences, in terms of what they want from a counsellor. However, this is to fail to recognise that many psychological problems can be very effectively handled by specific and established therapeutic programmes. If you have a phobia of spiders, for instance, you should embark on a programme of systematic desensitisation, because it works. You should not, in the first instance, visit a philosopher. The “horses for courses” view also suggests the relativism that Roger Scruton finds so repugnant. To be cavalier about the content of philosophical counselling seems to deny that philosophy has a privileged role to play in the pursuit of truth.
So the problem of relativism is not, as Scruton suggests, that individual philosophical counsellors articulate their philosophies to the needs of their clients. It is rather that philosophical counselling as an institution is ambivalent about method and content. Consequently, it fails to specify either the kinds of issues that can be addressed by philosophical practice or the sorts concepts and methods that should be employed in the endeavour. In this “anything-goes” sense, philosophical counselling is suggestive of a post-modern phenomenon.
The credibility of philosophers as counsellors
The open-ended character of philosophical counselling methodology confers enormous responsibility on counsellors for the well-being of their clients. Consequently, their credibility and integrity is absolutely essential. Indeed, more so than is the case in psychotherapy and psychiatry, where practitioners can follow clearly established methods, arguably regardless of their own personal qualities. But can we be confident about the credibility and integrity of philosophical counsellors?
In some ways, it is easy to see why a philosopher might make a good personal counsellor. For example, the ability to listen and to respond rationally is clearly essential to the task of counselling a couple with marital difficulties. And similarly, a background in ethics will be useful in aiding a woman to come to a decision with regard to her unwanted pregnancy. But one must not be carried away by such examples, for it is just as easy to construct instances which demonstrate the absurdity of philosophers as counsellors. For example, it is hard to imagine why a background in formal logic or the philosophy of science will help a philosopher deal with obsessive-compulsive disorder. And similarly, it seems unlikely that the poker waving Wittgenstein would have been particularly successful in aiding a man to control his violent temper.
Of course, these kinds of examples will be dismissed as “straw-men” by the advocates of philosophical counselling. They will respond that it is a certain kind of philosophical training that lends credibility to the idea that philosophers will make good counsellors. And further that it is possible to ensure the high-standard of philosophical counselling by instituting programmes of official certification (like the one established by the American Society for Philosophy, Counseling and Psychotherapy). But these responses are not adequate. Firstly, as I have already indicated, there are many psychological disorders that will never be properly susceptible to the philosophical method (e.g., schizophrenia) and others that are better dealt with by alternative techniques (e.g. phobias). And secondly, programmes of certification meet resistance from within the philosophical counselling community. Indeed, there has been a vituperative, if minority, response to the recent news that a bill is making its way through the New York State Assembly for the licensing of philosophical practitioners.
The other standard response to the charge that philosophers lack credibility as counsellors is to point to the short-comings of psychology and psychiatry. It is the “psychotherapy in crisis” response. But again it is not satisfactory. In the first place, it is flawed logically. The alleged shortcomings of established therapies are no justification for instituting another kind of flawed therapy. If anything the opposite is the case.
But perhaps more importantly, the “psychotherapy in crisis” response is disingenuous about the successes of the mental-health disciplines. Consider that prior to the 1950s, schizophrenia was thought untreatable, patients were confined to mental institutions and their wards were termed “snake pits” (Rosenhan and Seligman, Abnormal Psychology, 1995). But with phenothiazine drugs many sufferers are now able to live relatively normal lives in the community. And successes are not restricted to the somatic treatments: behavioural therapies are very effective in dealing with specific anxieties and addictions; and cognitive-behavioural therapies are fruitful in treating depression, anxiety disorders and sexual dysfunction. Indeed, if philosophical counsellors are able to duplicate the successes of the established disciplines, they will be doing well.
This article began with a question. Should we be pleased with the success that philosophical counselling is currently enjoying? At the moment, the answer must be that the jury is out. It might be that philosophical counselling brings important benefits to the mental health field. For example, it is a timely corrective to the excesses of the medical model. Depression and anxiety need not always be dealt with by Prozac and the like. But there are many unanswered questions and potential pitfalls. In the short term, naivety might be the greatest source of potential harm to those who visit philosophical counsellors. Dorothy Cantor, former president of the American Psychological Association, makes the point starkly: philosophical counsellors naively assume that purely intellectual discourse can address problems that are intractably emotional and sometimes severely debilitating (The New York Times, 8 March 1998).