Frequently Asked Questions:  The Who, What, Where, Why, and How

What is Philosophical Counseling (PC)?

The basic idea behind PC is that our common difficulties (the confusion, the boredom, the anxiety, the frustration, the alienation) are not necessarily signs of medical problems (sickness, illness, or pathology), but rather are simply part of being human.  Put differently:  we have problems because we are problems.  Viewed more as problems of human existence, these conditions may benefit from our philosophical traditions, which offer some of the most sophisticated and effective strategies for contemplation and effective action.  Philosophers are well trained to help others navigate these conditions by applying the methods of our great wisdom traditions. PC aims to create a safe and stimulating space for reflection leading to action through spirited dialogue that examines the client’s life with respect to matters of ultimate concern and with the help of our great wisdom traditions.  Put more simply:  it is about helping people get where they need to go:  to live wisely and live well.

What are the goals and potential benefits of PC?

-clarifying, justifying, and/or reconfiguring one’s worldview and values

-developing a more robust and diverse intellectual life

-cultivating personal autonomy and skillful habits of mind

-sorting out conflicts in belief systems within oneself, one’s family, one’s colleagues,                etc.

-rethinking and reimagining one’s options and possibilities with respect to a             particular problem

-dealing with moral dilemmas at home or at work

-seeking greater meaning, purpose or fulfillment in personal and/or professional life

-exploring how different traditions understand the human condition

Who is PC for?  Who is it NOT for?  Is it right for me?

At the most general level, individuals who are rational, functional, and not suffering from serious and debilitating mental illness who 1) want help dealing with a short-term problem, or 2) want to pursue long-term personal growth and integration.  It may be of special interest to individuals who meet these criteria and have tried different forms of psychotherapy or psychoanalysis in the past and found them wanting.

Please note:  if you have even the slightest suspicion that you are suffering from a serious mental or emotional illness or disorder; if you are worried that you may be of harm to yourself or others; if you have a history of mental illness or institutionalization; or if your mental or emotional problems are so debilitating as to interfere with your work and everyday life–then PC is NOT for you.  If any of the above apply to you, you are probably best served by seeing a psychiatrist or trained psychotherapist.

How does it work?   

Philosophical counselors have training in different traditions and use different methods.  Some might use the Greeks, some the Stoics, others Buddhism, others Existentialism, and some might just use classic Socratic dialogue (for my background, training, and approach, see the “About” section).   The counselor plays the role of facilitator or listener, guiding the client in the direction his highest self wants to go–and helping him discern the higher from the lower.  This can consist in examining the client’s assumptions, presenting options, analyzing decision procedures, teaching alternative conceptions of flourishing, modeling philosophical analysis, and so on.  Counselors also sometimes incorporate meditative practices to complement and reinforce this intellectual work.

Does PC involve teaching?  

It depends.  In one sense, almost certainly:  insofar as the counselor is modeling philosophical behavior and skills for the client—mental habits of concept clarification, critical reasoning, and so on—then teaching is clearly involved.  The presumption is that acquiring these skills and habits will help the client gain clarity and control over her situation, and that they are gradually transmitted and developed through the counseling process.

In another sense, it is up to the client:  she may just have a disinterested curiosity to know what, e.g., Buddha or Aristotle think about what it means to live a good life, and in these cases, the counselor will impart information and perhaps even recommend appropriate texts.  However, the emphasis is on channeling theoretical inquiry toward the client’s own practical concerns, problems, and situation.  Aristotle insists:  “We are not studying in order to know what virtue is, but to become good.”

Does PC involve meditation?

Not necessarily.  Many PCers focus squarely on the intellectual work.  However, I think meditative practices can be a powerful complement to the rational work of dialogue and introspection and, in one sense, are a different and equally vital form of mental work; you might use the analogy of cross training:  Meditation helps the mind breathe, and can lubricate our mental machinery, enhancing the rational work that goes on in counseling and introspection; in turn, reflection on and discussion about one’s meditative practice can help identify and anchor its benefits.  As such, if appropriate, I can provide clients with beginner instruction in basic meditative techniques and refer them to the revelant Zendo, yoga studio, temple, etc.

Is PC a form of therapy?

It depends on what we mean by therapy.  If we look at the dictionary definition of therapy, here is what we find

1.the treatment of disease or disorders, as by some remedial, rehabilitating, or curative process: speech therapy.

2.  a curative power or quality.

3.   psychotherapy.

4.  any act, hobby, task, program, etc., that relieves tension.

I think we typically operate with two senses of therapy.  The first is technical and predominantly medical:  physical therapy, psychotherapy, chemotherapy, etc.  We work with a trained professional to alleviate a medical disease, disorder, ailment, injury, or illness through the application of specific knowledge, expertise, and techniques.  This sense of therapy falls under the rubric of health care conducted by physicians or mental health professionals.

The second sense is personal and recreational:  we find playing with our pets, doing yoga, or cooking “therapeutic.”  Therapy here has an aesthetic and spiritual connotation.  It refers to an activity in which we are wholly absorbed that takes us away from the pressures of the day, in which we come back to ourselves by forgetting ourselves, in which we play.  At the least, it is a kind of escape; at best, a kind of self-transcendence.

PC falls somewhere between these two senses of therapy, but the approach is educational, not medical.  To get a better handle on this, see the next question.

How is PC different from psychotherapy?  

Again, it depends on what we mean by “psychotherapy”—and, of course, by “therapy” itself–as there are myriad forms of it.  Given the sheer gamut of views on this topic, it is safe to say PC and psychotherapy are not apples and oranges; it is better to say that they share what Ludwig Wittgenstein called a “family resemblance.”  Certain forms of existential or humanistic  therapy, which eschew a medical perspective by focusing more on health than sickness, more on the person as a whole than her particular problems, roughly overlap with PC in terms of their aims, activities, and approach.  In addition, cognitive-behavioral therapy, by emphasizing the power our beliefs have over our emotions and behavior, certainly has a connection to PC.

However, the resemblances here are not merely fortuitous:  a number of pioneers in these forms of counseling psychology either explicitly anchor their approach in philosophical traditions, or implicitly employ concepts or deal with themes explored in depth by philosophers in the past.  Indeed, one might argue that some modern forms of psychotherapy bear more resemblance to PC than to the experimental, scientific and behaviorist psychology that dominated the field decades ago.  As Lou Marinofff notes, “Psychological counseling is clearly an art-form whose efficacy depends above all on the skill and artistry of the counselor, and not on any unitary theory of counseling.  Moreover, psychological counselors are perpetually at war with one another:  break-away schools, ideological schisms and vituperative conflicts are the order of the day.  The nascent [PC] movement is exactly like this, only more so.”  This can help us clarify the ambiguity regarding therapy referred to above.  If there are forms of psychotherapy whose practitioners do not identify themselves as, and are not recognized as, diagnosing and treating mental illnesss, diseases, or disorders, and if we understand therapy in this latter, medical sense, then there are forms of psychotherapy that are not properly classed as forms of therapy.  They may more properly be classed as forms of counseling that, in their approach, aims, and activities, address issues that cannot be understood medically or causally, but noetically and philosophically.  They would, then, be similar to PC, though PC would offer the added benefit of a more rigorous grounding in philosophy.

Even if PC and psychotherapy could be clearly demarcated in theory, and even if PCers and psychotherapists reached broad consensus on this demarcation, in practice, this line would be swiftly blurred.  The reason is cultural:  since psychotherapy and psychiatry have long been the dominant lens through which the public interprets its mental health (even without ever having sought treatment from mental health professional), people are likely to approach PC bearing ideas, assumptions, theories, stereotypes, and so on, either passively absorbed through the culture or explicitly shaped by their experiences with psychotherapists.  While the process of PC may be quite distinct, and may lead people to challenge or reject some of their preconceived ideas regarding mental health, the practical work of PC will inevitably have to treat with these ideas.  But keep in mind that, in this regard, PC’s relationship to psychotherapy is similar to its relationship to the religion, the nationality, the culture, or the industry of which the client may be a member:  it examines and questions the fundamental assumptions, ideas, theories, worldviews, values, etc.–the “baggage”–associated with that membership, and helps the client sort through it as carefully as possible.

It is worth mentioning here that, despite its practical orientation, PC does serve a theoretical function in this respect:  in delimiting itself from psychotherapy, it can also help psychotherapists clarify and rethink how they approach and practice their own discipline.  The appropriate model here is cooperation and mutual enrichment rather than opposition and mutual suspicion.  Some PCers claim that—or at least ask whether—at least some psychotherapists are doing philosophy without being fully aware of it (and, by implication, are doing is less effectively than those who are philosophically trained could), and that ignorance of, or muddled thinking about, the theoretical framework shaping their practice may weaken it.  Correspondingly, it is surely the case that PC can be enriched by incorporating insights from traditional psychotherapists, particularly in navigating the affective dimension.

Is PC a form of life coaching? 

There is certainly a family resemblance between the two.  Both PC and life coaching are intended for individuals who are basically healthy and mentally well, but who are looking to become more effective or excellent, for personal growth and self-actualization.  Some PCers may describe themselves as life coaches, and some life coaches explicitly draw on philosophical traditions.  However, life coaches are unlikely to have the same depth and breadth of philosophical training, and are more likely to traffic in trendy, pop psychology, self-help feel-goodery whose aim is more pragmatic and instrumental:  to motivate, inspire, and drive a client to achieve her goals, whatever those may be.  The focus may be more on the most effective means to achieve a presumed goal, than to deliberate about which goals are worthy of pursuit.  PC focuses more on the “life” than the “coaching.”

Is PC like spiritual direction or pastoral counseling?   

At face value, no.  These are typically associated with a particular religious tradition—Christianity—while philosophy is not wedded to any religious or spiritual tradition.  However, insofar as philosophy attempts to help us work out the meaning, purpose, and value of our lives, it is difficult to completely disentangle it from religion.  Indeed, the great theologian Paul Tillich understood the life of faith to be about matters of ultimate concern.  Though the language may be different, PCers are, like spiritual directors or pastoral counselors, attempting to help clients abandon limiting or unhealthy habits of thought, feeling, and action.  Moreover, both have a similar view of the function of tradition and are conservative in this limited sense:  traditions provide the scaffolds of sanity, bulwarks to withstand the fierce and shifting winds of culture and desire that can lead us astray.

One difference is that spiritual direction often involves forms of prayer and/or meditation, while PC is mainly a rational and dialogic exercise.  However, I strongly advocate using contemplative practices to complement and enhance PC.  As a longtime practitioner of Zen meditation and yoga, I can attest to the power of these practices to foster insight, focus, contentment and clarity, and to put one in a better position to deal with and understand one’s problems.  Moreover, there is now abundant empirical evidence for the mental, emotional, and physical benefits of such contemplative practices.

In that sense, I think we can answer this question by pointing to the popular distinction between religion and spirituality.  Crudely put, religion is mythological in the sense that it deals mainly with beliefs and doctrine, while spirituality is mystical and experiential in the sense that it deals mainly with certain practices and “spiritual exercises.”  PC can be helpful to any one of three types of people:  1)  religious—those who are troubled by theological questions or inconsistencies in their belief system that perhaps family members, priests, or pastors cannot adequately handle; 2) secular—those who do not have a religious affiliation but nevertheless desire to sort out matters of ultimate concern; 3) spiritual but not religious—those who do not embrace any particular theological doctrines, but who are curious about or find value in spiritual practices, and may be trying to mesh this with their secular worldview.  The starting point is the client’s own frame of reference, and this may well involve the exploration of theological, metaphysical, and spiritual questions.

Do I need any background in philosophy?   

No.  In fact, a lack of familiarity with philosophy may be an advantage.  The fountainhead of the philosophical life is what Zen Buddhists call beginner’s mind:  the natural directedness of the mind to reach out of itself and seek.  That is the fuel that powers the whole journey.  As Aristotle put it, “All men by nature desire to know.”  The tendency to over-intellectualize our situation, bred by an overreliance on books and a preoccupation with theory, can depress this desire and blind us to our true situation.

Put another way, you already have a background in philosophy just by being human.  We have a tendency to think our issues and problems are unique, weird, or unusual—but chances are that they’ve been addressed again and again in different philosophical traditions.

Where are philosophical counseling sessions held?  

This depends largely on the client’s preferences regarding comfort and convenience.  Meetings can be at a quiet public place, such as a café or park, or at the client’s or counselor’s residence.  Some people find this reassuring because it avoids the stigma of sickness associated with “going to the doctor.”

Is PC covered by health insurance?   

At this point in time, no, and as things currently stand, this seems appropriate:  PC is a pedagogical journey, not a medical or mental health service.  However, the growth of holistic medicine and increasing confidence among physicians in the mind-body connection (and in the notion that the mind is not just the brain), combined with the mainstream-ing of PC, may change this in the future.

(Photo at Celebration Medical)