“A philosopher’s words are empty if they do not heal the suffering of mankind. For just as medicine is useless if it does not remove sickness from the body, so philosophy is useless if it does not remove suffering from the soul.” ~ Epicurus

Have you ever felt that your personal problems are more of the philosophical variety? That your occasional concerns or ‘blues’ concern finding a meaningful life rather than indicating the need for medication’?  That you want to find a life that’s right for you?

But why philosophy?  In the words of one some philosophical counselor:

“Philosophers are specialists in understanding people who are notoriously hard to understand.  What philosophers do is listen to, and think about other philosophers, and their job is to pit their minds against the minds of some of the greatest intellects our civilization has known….  They must be able to do this so well that they can take the part of any major philosopher, know that philosopher so well that they can become him or her ‘from the inside,’ and convincingly present a given weltanschauung as absolutely right.  Then they must be able to turn around and say exactly what’s wrong with it and why.  This is why any well-trained philosopher, other relevant traits being assumed, ought to make a good personal consultant.”

~ J. Michael Russell

Let me say a bit about philosophy and its place in education and the culture at large.  The first thing everyone thinks they know about philosophy is that it is useless; useless in the sense that it does not produce results, such as definite answers or a steady job.  The useful is the province of the normal, the healthy, the sane, the safe.  It follows that the pursuit of philosophy, the inquiry into the useless, is a sign of deviance, abnormality, even sickness, and is a dangerous path.  When Einstein took a keen interest in philosophy as a college student, his father urged him to quit its idle speculations and apply his mind to something more practical, such as engineering.  Thank heavens he took his father’s advice–yet it was exactly Einstein’s philosophical imagination that helped him see the problems of physics in an entirely different light.

Philosophy is something we typically encounter for the first and only time—if ever—in college.  It is rarely explained why we have to take courses in the subject.  The pitch is often uninspired, if not repellent:  dead white Greeks and Europeans musing about abstract, bottomless questions that gain little grip on the real world.  Scholarship often does not pretty the picture:  to the casual observer, it may seem a matter of splitting split hairs, of pushing words around a page, of playing at logic puzzles that needlessly burden the brain and lack the thrill of Sudoku to boot.  Ironically, this is not that different from how Socrates himself was derided in Athens at the time:  a fool with his head in the clouds, at best, and a corruptor of the youth and disturber of the peace, at worst.  The philosophy courses into which young people are herded are often part of a core curriculum, whose purpose is also rarely explained.  What this points to is a broader problem:  we are confused about the ends of education.  The place of philosophy in our current understanding of education tells us a lot about what is wrong, or at least confused and/or vague, with that understanding of education, with how philosophy is understood and practiced nowadays and, by extension, with our view of what it means, as the late author David Foster Wallace put it, “to be a fucking human being.”

The university would not exist without philosophy, and yet the university today is in gradual pursuit of its demise.  The reasons are many and entwined.  Economic:  sinking endowments and bursting budgets lead universities to cut programs and courses, and the humanities, ever challenged to defend their “relevance,” are the first in the offing.  Ideological:  plagued by “science-envy,” philosophy has over the last half-century or so aped the style and terminology of the natural sciences in order to demonstrate that is produces “hard,” “objective” knowledge widgets (and, of course, to receive grants).  Intellectual:  postmodernism weakened the autonomy of philosophy by calling into question the objectivity of logic, reason, and science.  This resulted in a schism in philosophy:  analytic thought, modernist in deeming philosophy an extension of the sciences, and Continental thought, postmodernist in likening philosophy to a kind of intellectual art.  Analytic philosophy was very clear but lacked depth; Continental philosophy felt deep but lacked clarity.  The point is that these forces converged to create a perfect storm that damaged philosophy within and without:  its practitioners could barely agree on first principles—a house divided—and its connection to the other branches of knowledge and the wider world was lost—the proverbial “ivory tower” metaphor took hold.

And so with the center ceasing to hold, it is on the margins that the practice of philosophy must flourish.  Along with the growth of philosophical counseling, public philosophy is in the process of a renaissance, and philosophical consulting with businesses, organizations, and corporations is a burgeoning field as well.  The philosophical spirit is part of being human, and can, has, and will be nurtured beyond the confines of the academy.

The lack of prestige accorded philosophy in the university, and the cries of uselessness beyond it, are unfortunate.  We might use the analogy of personal finance.  Young people are bombarded with courses on everything from astronomy to Middle Eastern history to film studies–and yet rarely are they given instruction in sound financial practices.  If they are lucky, they get financial advice from their parents, but this is often a kind of folk wisdom—a mixture of old wives tales and sound principles, sometimes helpful, sometimes ill-informed.  As such, scores of people holding high-school diplomas, college degrees, or even PhDs lack basic skills in personal finance.  What is more, a certain taboo cloaks the subject:  people are embarrassed to talk or even think about it, assuming others have their house in order.  Finally, the tragedy is that the basic principles are not complicated to grasp or difficult to implement.  My point is that something essential, or at least something that can substantially contribute to successful living is not institutionally transmitted by the culture or the educational system.

In the same way that we have widespread financial illiteracy, we have widespread philosophical illiteracy.  We could use additional analogies:  nutrition or civics come to mind.  But the logic is the same:  something essential or at least conducive to successful living is not passed down, is not sewn into the social fabric.  As such, philosophical counseling can be understood as a form of adult or continuing education.  Indeed, education is perhaps the central theme of the most famous philosophical allegory, Plato’s Cave.  In it, Plato compares two forms of education.  One we might call the “information” or “transaction” model: here, education is about the transmission of knowledge, information, and skills; the imparting, Plato says, of sight into blind eyes.  Today’s increasingly consumerist view of education comes to mind.  The other—the highest form of education—we might call the “formation” or “transformation” model:  here, education is about guiding the soul toward the right things, forging character, and integrating the different parts of the soul.