Over the past year, there has been an explosion of media interest in philosophical counselling, with articles appearing in Britain in The Times, The Sunday Times, The Independent and The Observer. Even the BBC has got in on the act, running an item on philosophical counselling on the Radio 4 Today programme. In New York, assemblyman Ruben Diaz is currently sponsoring a bill which if passed will lead to state certification of philosopher practitioners and the qualification of their clients for health insurance reimbursement. So philosophical counselling is on a high at the moment, but what exactly is it?
Although it has antecedents in the distant past, the recent history of philosophical counselling begins with Gerd Achenbach’s work in Germany in the early 1980s. Achenbach advocates a form of personal counselling that draws not upon the established theories of psychology, psychiatry or psychoanalysis, but rather on the insights generated in philosophical dialogue. In Achenbach’s terms, philosophical counselling is a method beyond-method. Free from doctrinal stricture, philosophical practitioners are able to provide a setting within which individuals can explore their hopes, fears and anxieties and come to a deeper self-understanding. In this sense, philosophical counselling is a kind of dialogical dance, where the counsellor sometimes leads, sometimes follows and sometimes stays out of the way completely (see Russell, The Philosopher as Personal Consultant).
Achenbach’s ideas spread from Germany into the Netherlands and from there they have proliferated into Israel, Canada, the United States, Britain, Scandinavia and many other countries. Numerous organisations now exist for philosophical counselling; there is a growing literature; there are two internet mailing lists and many web sites; and there have been three international conferences.
So a lot of activity, but what kinds of people seek the services of a philosophical counsellor? Louis Marinoff, president of the American Philosophical Practitioners Association, answers this question by citing a few examples. He talks about: a woman who wants to feel more valued in her job; a male employee who is upset after being asked to remove a painting from his office because it offends a woman colleague; a lesbian feminist professor of social science who suspects that the political movement she serves is only using her and that it cannot resolve her personal problems; and a devotee of the Celestine Prophecy who believes that everything is part of God’s plan, but cannot understand why God planned to have him mugged (Louis Marinoff, The Three Pillars).
What these examples have in common is that they concern things like meaning, value, ethics, personal conflict, ideological incompatibility and so on. It is in these areas that philosophical counselling is particularly strong. Its strength is that it recognises the limitations of the medical model _ that is, the view that individuals suffer from mental illnesses which can be cured – insisting that problems and anxieties are part of every person’s life, that they are not necessarily pathological, and that they can often be addressed by philosophical means. Of course, this is not to claim that every problem is susceptible to philosophical analysis. As Marinoff puts it, …You don’t want to try to treat severe personality disorders with Sartre (quoted in The Sunday Times, 15 March 1998). However, it is to claim that where problems concern meaning, ethics and the like, then philosophical counselling has a role to play.
Client consulting is not the only thing that philosophical practitioners do. They also work with groups. At its most informal, this can be seen in the activities of the various philosophical cafés and forums that have sprung up across Europe and North America, where a trained facilitator leads a group in philosophical discussion. But more formally, group work will often involve a method termed Socratic Dialogue. This works in the following way. The group will propose a universal question, such as: What is justice? What is love? Or what is good? And each member will relate an experience from his or her own life which supposedly embodies the sought after universal. The group will then pick one of the experiences and pursue it as a mechanism for articulating and specifying the truth of the universal. It is a quasi-Platonic method which, it is claimed, produces surprising consistency in articulated conceptions across different groups. But regardless of outcomes, it is avowed that the method produces certain benefits. According to Marinoff, it is conducive to a kind of civility, a kind of thoughtfulness that is applicable in the larger context of one’s life (The Three Pillars).
So what is the future for philosophical practice? It looks bright at the moment, but with qualifications. The relationship between a nascent philosophical counselling and the established mental health disciplines has yet to be worked through. The stakes are high, certainly in the States, where healthcare is big business. Unless philosophical counselling can demonstrate that it is cost-effective, credible and that it can coexist alongside the established disciplines, it will remain only one among many alternative practices.