Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"philosophical counselors"

The first, unbidden, word into my head, without much evidence to go on, was "idiotic!"

An article in The Washington Post suggests that there is a new vogue in treating the psychologically-discombobulated -- feed 'em the wisdom of the ages.

They’re like intellectual life coaches. Very intellectual. They have in-depth knowledge of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist theories on the nature of life and can recite passages from Martin Heidegger’s phenomenological explorations of the question of being. And they use them to help clients overcome their mother issues.

God Almighty! Anyone capable of grasping or wading through the wisdom of the ages has probably plumbed the unsatisfactory route of the intellect! Isn't it time to get serious?

In defense of these counselors, the article does say,

Philosophical counselors say they immediately refer any client with clinical depression or suicidal thoughts to psychiatrists, fearing lawsuits if they make a mistake by prescribing Kierkegaard to a client who really needs Klonopin.

The idea of heaping wisdom on the bright and distressed strikes me as being a little like giving a man who has been poisoned by soup another bowl of warm soup. Poison, of course, can prove to be an effective antidote to poison ... but not often.

The whole exercise strikes me on its face as being a self-serving effort on the part of out-of-work philosophers to sidestep the ignominy of driving a cab.

An aching heart eased by wise nostrums? It may be marginally less depressing than the slick-willy, gotta-pay-the-rent, prescribe-pills fad in psychological venues, but still ...  Ick!


  1. Hello,

    I saw this post and was slightly taken aback by your comments. Of course, they do seem to be responses to the article you mention, as well as the quotes, which make philosophical counseling sound like a process of giving suffering people snippets of wisdom from Heidegger. Some might consider that heaping poison upon poison.

    But the force of your post is much broader and seems to attack the very idea of philosophical counseling, or the idea of doing philosophy with someone about their life problems in order to help them. This broader attack is simply ill-informed.

    The process of philosophical reasoning and questioning is not about giving snippets of wisdom but working ourselves past the noise of everyday belief to get at our root assumptions. Very often, we realize we don't have evidence for what we most cherish or that we were caught up in fantasies and contradictions. The result, for philosophical reasoning, is a process of belief revision as well as a change in how we live.

    This process is not far off from the living practice of Zen, especially as engaged in Koan traditions. That is a large claim, but in short - both are wisdom based traditions that use quite radical personal techniques of questioning to uproot deep evils. The evils in philosophy are different than the three poisons in Buddhism, but you can see the similarities.

    Anyways, although I agree there are reasons to be cautious about philosophical counseling, there are also reasons to be cautious about Zen practice and teachers. But both have great potential to help us see things as they are.

    Also, to put my cards on the table, I am a philosopher who just received a PhD and can only find part time college teaching, but I am not a philosophical counselor. I do consider it an option though. I am also a zen practitioner in the Korean tradition in a seminary program training for lay ordination. (I don't think these credentials matter one bit, for what its worth. What matters is the content of the post, the content of the response, and whether we ought to accept one or the other. But given that I don't comment on your blog ever and you don't know who I am, they may help to give some background to my response.)

    In the Dharma,

  2. Dear Kusa -- Thank you for your measured and thoughtful response. If you like, feel free to write me off as a cranky blowhard. I've been called worse. :)

    Circumstances, of course, dictate the usefulness or futility of anything. So perhaps I could have been more cautious. I do my best not to use the word "we," which always sounds a bit fatuous in my ear. "I" works better for me. And I will concede that philosophy can point out alternatives.

    But I am (perhaps unduly) wary of intellectual refinements as a soother of profound distress. The distances that the intellect maintains strike me as useful in their time but unlikely to produce an intimate peace...which, I propose, is what anyone might wish for a person in distress. Since we are talking about vaguely-defined aspects here, about the best I can offer as a premise for my cranky outburst is Swami Vivekananda's observation that "The mind [he meant intellect] is a good servant and a poor master."

    Congratulations on your Ph.D., and, as someone who has known a number of Ph.D.'s in philosophy (not philosophers, mind you, but Ph.D.'s in philosophy), I sincerely hope you find a job in this lifetime ... and I don't mean driving a cab. (That's meant as a mild joke ... a lot of my Ph.D. friends spent time behind the wheel before they ever stood in front of the blackboard.)

    And best wishes in your Zen studies. I look back with pleasure on the few public meetings I attended at which Soen Sa Nim spoke. I even had the pleasure of crossing swords with him once. Now there's a man who could fry your grits. :) Good luck ... and by all means, fry some grits.