Philosophy as Therapy – Introduction


B.Contestabile        First version 2008   Last version 2014





Table of Contents




1.  Basics 

2.  Comparison with Psychotherapy 

3.  Forms of Therapy

4.  Objectivity



Further Reading









Starting point

The predominant movement in today‘s English-speaking philosophical culture is toward an increasing fragmentation of the subject into a set of highly professional specialisms and quasi-scientific and highly technical sub-disciplines whose connection with a “way of life” is virtually nil – except in the minimal sense that achieving the relevant qualifications and mastering the relevant intellectual techniques is how their practitioners happen to earn their living. If anyone today were to ask whether a member of a modern philosophy department can hope to “live better” than a lawyer, say, or a member of a metallurgy department, the question would in all probability be taken to be merely about relative salary and career prospects [Cottingham, 148-149].

Philosophy as therapy is a countermovement to this “culture”, which roots in ancient ways to do philosophy.



Type of problem

- What is philosophy as therapy?

- What is the difference between philosophical therapy and psychotherapy?




The shortest definition of philosophy as therapy is philosophy as a means to cure (or reduce) suffering.

In ancient times doing philosophy was a way of life; it was not restricted to an intellectual discipline [Hadot].



Relation to psychotherapy

Philosophical therapy competes with psychotherapy mainly in the counseling of mentally sane people. Individualistic philosophical therapies strive to avoid theory-specific terms and consider the patient’s constitution, environment and life story as a unique phenomenon.


Philosophical therapy – in contrast to psychotherapy – is not only concerned with the life satisfaction of the individual, but also with the search for the

“objectively” true and good.


The delineation between philosophical therapy and psychotherapy is vague insofar, as philosophical methods like maieutics, hermeneutics and the change of perception are also used in psychotherapy.






1. Basics



What is philosophy as therapy?

The term therapy implies that there exists some kind of suffering to work therapeutically with.

The shortest definition of philosophy as therapy therefore is


philosophy as a means to cure (or reduce) suffering.


Since there are different kinds of suffering, there are also different kinds of therapies. The term philosophy as therapy embraces all philosophies that

         are (were) practiced as therapy or

         can be interpreted as therapy.

[Lunsford, 9]


1.      In the context of philosophy as therapy the term therapy does not refer to mental illness. It addresses the suffering involved in daily life like

         disappointments, defeats, deprivation, suppression and loss of control

         accidents, crimes, catastrophes, wars

         illnesses, aging and death.

2.      A contemporary therapy is also concerned with the loss of religious and secular scenarios of salvation and the corresponding loss of meaning [Van Hooft, 22]


For more information on this definition see Philosophy as Therapy – A Review.




There is no consistent usage of terms in the context of philosophy and therapy. In this paper we use the following synonyms:


Wider meaning, including all philosophical traditions which aim at the cure or reduction of suffering:

         Philosophy as therapy

         Philosophical therapy

         Therapeutic philosophy

         Therapeutic understanding of philosophy


Narrower meaning, methodically related to cognitive behavioral therapy [Martin, 17-18]:

         Philosophical counseling

         Philosophical consultancy




Philosophy as therapy is an ancient idea [Hampe].

         In ancient times doing philosophy was a way of life; i.e. it was not restricted to an intellectual discipline [Hadot].

Philosophical counseling has often been said to be rooted in the Socratic tradition, which viewed philosophy as a search for the good and the good life (Philosophical counseling, Wikipedia)


         The term therapy is usually applied to an individual or a group. Attempts to reduce suffering on the cultural level are associated with the terms political philosophy and cultural critic. But in ancient times the boundaries between philosophy, psychotherapy, politics and religion were fluent and therapies were imbedded in worldviews and social ideals (e.g. Buddhism and Stoicism).

In Socrates’ day, almost all Greek thinkers assumed or argued that the polis, the community, was the correct and only environment for human moral flourishing – that a good polis created goodness in its citizens (…). As a moral philosopher, then, Socrates was also a political philosopher [Waterfield, 29].




         There is no claim that knowledge in general has a therapeutic effect. The search for knowledge has to be guided by the desire to avoid (or reduce) suffering in order to be therapeutically effective. Consequently, there is no claim that philosophy in general aims at some form of therapy. Philosophy as therapy is just one of many branches of practical philosophy.


         There is also no claim that the application of reason is the only way to improve life satisfaction, in particular no claim that reason has to be applied to every aspect of life. As Zen-Buddhists, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Freud, Wittgenstein, Feyerabend and others demonstrated, philosophers may even find arguments to quit reasoning [Schmidt, 5].






This picture was taken from the internet (author unknown)




2. Comparison with Psychotherapy





         Psychotherapy treats mental illnesses like hysteria, narcissism, bulimia, compulsive disorder, anxiety disorder (claustrophobia, agoraphobia etc.) and major depressive disorder.

         Philosophical therapy is designed for the worries of sane people [Van Hooft, 12].



         Psychotherapy objectifies the client, forms a theory about the client and interprets the client’s statements in terms of that theory [Van Hooft, 20].

         Individualistic philosophical therapies strive to avoid theory-specific terms and consider the patient’s constitution, environment and life story as a unique phenomenon.



         According to Freud a person is sane if he/she is able to love and able to work. A retreat-oriented life is diagnosed as a sign of depression.

         In a philosophical therapy a retreat-oriented life – if it comes out of a profound argument – is not associated with mental illness.



         Philosophy as therapy resumes the holistic and interdisciplinary view that was characteristic for the ancient world.

         Psychotherapy is a specialized field within the social sciences.


The separation of the disciplines began with the development of individualistic therapies (see Freud’s Philosophy of Life).

Arguments for the ancient holistic view are amongst others:

o   It might be more efficient to improve living conditions than to occupy therapists with the result of miserable conditions.

o   Freedom of opinion is not a gift; it has to be (politically) defended. Philosophical knowledge cannot be passed on without freedom of opinion.


For more information about the differences between philosophical therapy and psychotherapy, see Philosophy as Therapy – Beyond the Medical Model.




         The delineation between philosophical therapy and psychotherapy is vague insofar, as philosophical methods like maieutics and hermeneutics are also used in psychotherapy [Van Hooft, 23].

         Psychotherapy as well as philosophical therapy connect academic knowledge with the practice of daily life


A historical approach to philosophy as therapy helps to understand the relation between philosophy, psychotherapy and religion [Hampe].

For more information about this topic see Philosophy as Therapy – A Review




3. Forms of Therapy


A therapy is characterized by a goal and a method. We start with a rough classification of goals:




Contemporary philosophical counseling aims at a Socratic life, i.e. a life in which there is honest self-appraisal and rational inquiry into goals; in short, an examined life [Van Hooft, 20]. The motivation to undergo a therapy is usually a concrete problem, but it can also be a diffuse kind of suffering or discontent. The Socratic examination may lead to the solution of pending problems [Van Hooft, 24] or to the insight that a more profound therapy is indicated. The following classification of goals refers to the latter case.



Self-restriction and self-realization

All forms of philosophical therapy attempt to improve (self-) knowledge and – as a consequence – gain more freedom of choice. Inner freedom can be restricted by uncontrolled desires (emotions, passions) as well as by the unconscious suppression of desires. There are accordingly two kinds of suffering and corresponding therapies:

1.      Suffering caused by desires. The goal of the therapy is the elimination of inadequate (irrational) desires.

Example: Philosophers of Hellenism [Van Hooft, 6,8,10]

2.      Suffering caused by the suppression of desires. The goal of the therapy is the Western understanding of self-realization.

Example: Nietzsche [Van Hooft, 7]

Therapies of desire [Nussbaum] tend to be normative; therapies for self-realization tend to be individualistic.



Survival and non-existence

Philosophy doesn’t necessarily have to function as a tool for (genetic) survival. The discovery that suffering can be reduced by questioning the wheel of (genetic) reincarnation is at the source of Buddhism. This leads to a different classification of philosophy as therapy:

         Greek tradition: Develop a strategy for survival. Cope with suffering

         Buddhist tradition: Liberate from (genetic) reincarnation. Cope with non-existence.


Most contemporary interpretations of the term philosophy as therapy are committed to the (life-friendly) Greek concept and conform well to the current historical period of expansionism. The Buddhist tradition, in contrast, cultivates the awareness of transience and decay.

The life of an individual knows periods of expansion and decay as well. Therapies which help to unfold and expand the self are different from therapies, which help accepting the dissolution of the self.




Methods depend on the goal to be pursued:






Related psychotherapy





Diagnostic talk





Free association and





Moral criticism


Existential therapy



Stoic asceticism


Cognitive behavioral therapies


Anatta (Selflessness)


Insight meditation

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy



For the application of these methods

         to the suffering involved in daily life, see The Controllability of Life Satisfaction.

         to the cultural loss of meaning, see Cultural Pessimism and Therapy.




4. Objectivity



To transcend the individualistic perspective and look for objectivity is (…) what makes a practice distinctively philosophical [Van Hooft, 28].



The therapeutic good

The liberation from suffering fulfills a requirement of the summum bonum (the highest good):

It is not a means to an end, but an end in itself.

To extend the perception of the self so that it embraces the suffering of all sentient beings is the most plausible form of objectivity in the context of therapy. We will use the term therapeutic good for this extended (not individualistic) form of liberation.

The therapeutic good is an ancient concept and originates in Buddhism. The four Noble Truths can be interpreted as diagnosis, etiology, prognosis and prescription [Gethin, 63-64]. The idea to extend the individual liberation to all sentient beings is accredited to the Mahajana School.


In the tradition of Socrates we will consider the Noble Truths as theses, which are open to falsification.



The fundamental dilemma

Greek skepticism started the debate concerning the justification of suffering, known as theodicy. In a contemporary philosophical debate suffering cannot be charged to a divine creator any more, but (indirectly) to all individuals who procreate. On the other hand, turning against life might be a hopeless undertaking and result in an additional kind of suffering. The situation is characterized by a moral dilemma:


What is a reasonable answer to the fact that traumatic forms of suffering exist and persist?

         Is it compassion and alienation in the tradition of Theravada-Buddhism?

         Is it the non-violent promotion of ethical knowledge in the tradition of Mahajana-Buddhism?

         Is it political and humanitarian action in the occidental tradition?

         Is it technological progress?



Biological and cultural evolution

The basis of every therapy is the understanding of suffering. The prime goal is therefore a theory of the origination and dispersion of suffering: An analytical approach is confronted with unpleasant theses. One of them is that the degree of suffering increases with evolution and seems not to be limited. The degree of happiness increases as well, but suffering cannot be compensated by happiness across individuals.

         Does the cultural fight against suffering with its increasing complexity and its prolongation of lifetime lead to higher degrees of suffering (in analogy to the biological level)? The answer to this question requires analyzing the ambivalence of technological progress.

         Can the distribution of suffering be influenced in a long-term perspective? Will an extremely suffering minority pay the price for the progress of the majority (in analogy to the biological level)?

         The control of cultural evolution presupposes the existence of a free will. To what extent are human values and decisions controlled by the unconscious?

         Does philosophy as therapy have an answer to cultural pessimism?


The Socrethics papers on biological and cultural evolution relate to above questions.



Social philosophy

In contemporary ethics the social philosophy which comes closest to Buddhism is negative utilitarianism [Keown, 176].


There are, however, competing concepts of objectivity which claim to be rational:

         Positive utilitarianism says that life’s chances outweigh its risks. There is an implicit assumption that the situation of the suffering minority will improve by maximizing total welfare.

         Contractual concepts of justice maintain that individual liberty has a higher ethical priority than the reduction of suffering.


Major questions are the following:

         Does the therapeutic good imply a hostile philosophy? How many people should there be?

         Can negative utilitarianism be reconciled with a concept like Rawls’ Justice as Fairness.

         What are the global ethical priorities?


The Socrethics papers on social philosophy relate to above questions.



Philosophy of life

The relation between the therapeutic good and individual interests is ambivalent:


1)      The therapeutic good supports individual interests in two ways:

a)      Under certain conditions altruism improves life satisfaction and creates meaning.

Whatever form it takes, some kind of a larger world-view is a spiritual need that we all have and which both Plato and Aristotle thought grounded a fully happy life [Van Hooft, 28].

b)     Each individual may get in a situation, where he/she profits from the benefits of a risk-averse and compassionate society.


2)      On the other hand the therapeutic good is in conflict with the biological meaning of life:

a)      How could the main point of human life be the elimination of evil? (…) The same could be said of the idea that helping others is the only thing that really gives meaning to life. If no one’s life has any meaning in itself, how can it acquire meaning through devotion to the meaningless lives of others? [Nagel, 217]

b)     A risk-averse and compassionate society may succumb in the competition with risk-tolerant and less compassionate societies.


A reasonable philosophy of life therefore has to acknowledge and reconcile diverging values:

We should certainly try to harmonize our lives to some extent with how we think the world should be. But there is no necessity to abandon all values that do not correspond to the objective standpoint, even though this may be possible as a personal choice – a choice of self-transcendence [Nagel, 173].


The Socrethics papers on the philosophy of life relate to above topics.








I would like to thank Michael Hampe for the inspiring conversations in the context of this paper.








1.      Cottingham John (2013), Philosophy and Self-Improvement, in Philosophy as a Way of Life, Essays in Honor of Pierre Hadot, pp.148-166, Wiley Blackwell, UK

2.      Gethin, Rupert (1998), Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press

3.      Hadot Pierre (1995), Philosophy as a way of life, Oxford, Blackwell

4.      Hampe Michael, Therapeutic Understanding of Philosophy, ETH, Switzerland

5.      Keown, Damien (1992), The Nature of Buddhist Ethics, New York, Palgrave.

6.      Lunsford Gina Marie (2005), Socrates and Wittgenstein: Philosophy as Therapy, Florida State University

7.      Martin Mike (2000), Ethics as Therapy, Philosophical Counseling and Psychological Health, National Philosophical Counseling Association

8.      Nagel Thomas (1986), The View from Nowhere, Oxford University Press

9.      Nussbaum Martha (1994), The Therapy of Desire, Princeton University Press, New Jersey

10.  Schmidt Alfred (2001), Sind Philosophen verrückt?

11.  Van Hooft Stan, Philosophy as Therapy, Deakin University, Melbourne

12.  Waterfield Robin (2009), The Historical Socrates, History Today, January




Further Reading


1.      Cavell Stanley (2004), Cities of Words, Cambridge

2.      Deurzen, E. van (2002) Existential Counseling and Psychotherapy in Practice, London

3.      De Botton Alain (2000), The Consolations of Philosophy, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books

4.      Duane Daniel (2004), The Socratic Shrink, New York Times Magazine, March 21

5.      Faust Volker, Psychosoziale Gesundheit

6.      Freud Sigmund (1929), Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, Fischer, 2001

7.      Hampe Michael, Die eigene Stimme in der Psychoanalyse

8.      Hampe Michael (2004), Rationale Selbstbefreiung, in Klassiker der Philosophie heute

9.      Marinoff Lou (1999), Plato not Prozac! New York, Harper Collins

10.  Niedermeier Richard (2002), Buchkritik zu Socrates’ Couch von Lou Marinoff

11.  Robertson Donald (2010), The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy: Stoicism as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy, Karnac, London

12.  Raabe, Peter (2001), Philosophical Counseling, Westport, Praeger

13.  Schuster Shlomit (1999), Philosophy Practice: Westport, Praeger

14.  Süsske Rudolf (1992), Unter dem Pflaster liegt der Strand

15.  Vukomanović Milan (2004), Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein: Filozofija i Društvo 24