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Philosophical Counseling

by Peter B. Raabe PhD

One of the most serious problems facing today's graduate students of philosophy is the lack of future employment in the field. But this scarcity of jobs is only a significant problem if working in philosophy is narrowly defined to mean teaching in a college or university. The perception that a philosopher is always someone who teaches in an institution is a fairly recent development within the history of philosophy. In fact philosophy did not begin as an academic subject at all. It was originally considered a practice, a way of life, or a means by which to help people live better lives. Around the beginning of the Christian Era Seneca wrote in his letter to Lucilius, "Shall I tell you what philosophy holds out to humanity? Counsel. One person is facing death, another is vexed by poverty....All mankind are stretching out their hands to you on every side. Lives have been ruined, lives that are on the way to ruin are appealing for some help; it is to you that they look for hope and assistance."

But today few people facing death or vexed by poverty would imagine that they could find hope, assistance, or even simple comfort in a visit to an academic philosopher. Academic philosophy has gained the reputation of being dry, abstract, lacking in empathy and human compassion, more interested in tidy hypothetical cases than complex real-life problems, largely unconcerned with women's issues, and generally focused on technical trivialities. The so-called practice of philosophy in colleges and universities has, for the most part, deteriorated into shuffling specialized terminology and playing mind games. The typical position of the academic philosopher is exemplified in Bertrand Russell's Lowell lectures delivered in Boston in 1914. He said that the aim of philosophy is the theoretical understanding of the world, "which is not a matter of great practical importance to animals, or to savages, or even to most civilized men."

Psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung saw this abandonment of practical philosophy as an unfortunate development. In his 1942 introductory address at the Conference for Psychology in Zurich, Switzerland, he described academic philosophy as an outright embarrassment to professional psychotherapists. He told his audience, "I can hardly draw a veil over the fact that we psychotherapists ought really to be philosophers or philosophic doctors — or rather that we already are so, though we are unwilling to admit it because of the glaring contrast between our work and what passes for philosophy in the universities."

The point Jung was making is that philosophy lost its way when it stopped being of service to humanity, when it denied its practical nature, and when it instead became something only done by academics with and for other academics. He understood that when psychotherapists are helping their patients deal with their problems they are in fact practicing philosophy, but that psychotherapists dare not call themselves philosophers because of the bad reputation for uselessness that philosophy had gained. This raises the question, Why was it that those professionals who were trained in psychology were doing philosophy with their patients in the first place? The answer is because at that time in history philosophers were unwilling to help ordinary people deal with their everyday human problems.

Philosophy is done best by philosophers. And yet while may scholars study philosophy, few trained philosophers actually practice it. Students are taught philosophy so that they may in future teach other students to become teachers of philosophy, and so on into infinity, but there is no practice. This is same as if medical doctors were to teach medicine to students so that they might become teachers of medicine to other students, and so on, without anyone ever actually practicing medicine by treating the suffering individuals in their community. Courses in applied ethics are sometimes claimed to be the practice of philosophy, but classroom discussions of practice are simply discussions not practice. Courses in applied ethics are no different from classroom discussions of medicine; and a classroom discussion of medicine is a far cry from actually treating people in distress.

Again, the idea, that philosophy ought to be helpful in a very practical sense, is not new. Many of the most famous philosophers understood the role of philosophy to be to help their fellow human beings deal with the difficulties experienced in daily life. More than two thousand years ago Epicurus characterized philosophy as "therapy of the soul." He maintained that the arguments made by a philosopher are just empty if they do not relieve any human suffering. The Stoics also made it clear that philosophy is not merely the memorization of abstract theories or the exegesis of texts, but learning the art of living well. Socrates used philosophy not to teach concepts but to encourage his discussion partners to question their assumptions and beliefs, to examine their thinking and attitudes about almost every issue imaginable. Nietzsche scolded the philosophers of his day because he saw that philosophy had degenerated into a boring academic pursuit. He said he was waiting for a "philosopher physician" who would muster the courage "to risk the proposition: That what was at stake in all philosophizing up to this point was not at all 'truth' but something else — let us say, health, future, growth, power, life."

The twentieth century's most influential philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, asked rhetorically, "What is the use of studying philosophy if all it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions in logic, etc., and if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life?" John Dewey, the highly regarded American philosopher of education, wrote earlier this century that philosophy would show its true value "only when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men." Philosophical counselors have willingly accepted the challenge to take philosophy out of the lecture hall and present it to the real world.

Simply put, philosophical counseling consists of a trained philosopher helping an individual deal with a problem or an issue that is of concern to that individual. Philosophical counselors know that the majority of people are quite capable of resolving most of their problems on a day-to-day basis either by themselves or with the help of significant others. It is when problems become too complex — as, for example, when values seem to conflict, when facts appear contradictory, when reasoning about a problem becomes trapped within a circle, or when life seems unexpectedly meaningless — that a trained philosopher can be of greater help than the average friend or family member.

Philosophical counseling goes directly to the heart of philosophical issues and concerns that are not only of general public interest but of personal relevance and significance to a particular individual. It offers both the best available theoretical information as well as the most practical approaches to non-academic problems to individuals searching for relief from the difficulties of their own real-life situations. And because a philosophical counselor does not diagnose philosophical problems as psychopathology, philosophical counseling can be far more helpful in certain situations — in not labeling those who are troubled as mentally ill — than many of the various forms of psychotherapy.

But just because a philosophical counselor may be dealing with emotional and very intimate issues does not mean he or she is therefor not doing "real" philosophy. Every question the philosophical counselor asks of a client and every suggestion he or she makes is informed by a philosophical expertise every bit as rigorous as those of her academic colleagues. Philosophical counseling does not replace academic philosophy; instead it instantiates what has been learned in the classroom. It is a collaborative, creative dialogue between two individuals — one of whom (the counselor) has been extensively trained in both the history and the practice of philosophy, and an other (the client) who wishes to draw on this expertise — whose ultimate goal is the improvement of the life of the client.

Unlike teaching in a classroom, philosophical counseling is not primarily concerned with the direct transmission of knowledge from an expert to a novice, or from the 'knower' to the one seeking knowledge. Yet there are times when a client wants to learn from the philosophical counselor such things as critical and creative thinking skills, what famous philosophers have said on various issue, how to make an ethical decision, and so on. Philosophical counseling becomes teaching when the client asks to learn due to a personal Entwicklungsdrang (literally, the urge to develop), and when the counseling relationship is intentionally focused on the exchange of information and abilities.

Fortunately, today there are a number of philosophers who have chosen to work outside the confines of institutional theorizing, and to once again practice philosophy in the real world. They sometimes call themselves practicing philosophers or philosophical practitioners. But most commonly they refer to themselves as philosophical counselors. There are now graduate courses in philosophical counseling, professional associations, certification programs, and practicing philosophical counselors in most of the major countries of the world, including Canada, Holland, Norway, Austria, France, Switzerland, Israel, Great Britain, Italy, and the United States. There are also a number of books and journals being published which deal specifically with theory, method, and issues in philosophical counseling. These resources are now helping to make the dream many students have of working as professional philosophers outside the academy become a reality.

© Peter B. Raabe 2002


Peter B. Raabe has a private philosophical counseling practice in North Vancouver, Canada. He is the author of Philosophical Counseling: Theory and Practice and Issues in Philosophical Counseling (Greenwood Press/Praeger). He also teaches courses in philosophy for counselors at Simon Fraser University. You can visit his website at