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Philosophy as Therapy – Introduction


B.Contestabile       admin@socrethics.com        First version 2008   Last version 2018





Table of Contents




1.  Definition

2.  Forms of Therapy

3.  The Therapeutic Process

4.  Comparison with Psychotherapy

5.  Comparison with Religion

6.  Therapy as Adaptation to Reality 

7.  Therapy as Risk Ethics

8.  Therapy as Search for the Good Life



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. Definition



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]


The cure (or reduction) of suffering can – but does not have to – lead to a state of happiness. We purposely abstain from characterizing philosophy as a happiness promising recipe or wellness-package. The deliberate attempt to become happy may even generate a counter-productive result [Hettlage, 154].


In above definition the entire topic of mental health is bypassed. Philosophical therapy aims at the clients' well-being without assuming that he/she suffers from a mental disease [Cohen, 32], in accordance with Lou Marinoff’s vision of a “therapy for the sane” [Marinoff].






By disassociating retreat-oriented lifestyles and tranquility therapies like Buddhism from psychological health [Zhang, 442] and from normality it is possible to exclude them from public support. But possibly the culture which excludes tranquility therapies is not as “healthy” and “sound” as it pretends to be. The question is especially pressing in authoritarian and totalitarian systems. The political and ideological abuse of the term “psychological health” often goes with an abuse of psychiatry. Examples are abundant in history and seen during the Nazi era and the Soviet rule, when political dissenters were labeled as "mentally ill" (Political abuse of psychiatry, Wikipedia). The political and ideological instrumentalization of psychiatry is one of the reasons for liberating philosophy from the medical terms health ideal and disease.

“The goal of philosophical counseling cannot be to return its clients to some socially (or biologically) defined level of functioning; nor can it be to treat deviancy” [Paden, 10].


For more information on the definition of philosophical therapy 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




Therapy begins to be philosophical, if the cure of mental suffering includes critical-rational thinking. Given this criterion the therapeutic function of philosophy can be traced back to the Upanishads (Vedanta, last chapters of the vedas), in particular to the Samkhya doctrine, which provides the metaphysical background for the Yoga school [Soni, 219] and which is a possible root of Buddhism [Baus, 43-44].

The Upanishads are a collection of philosophical texts of Hinduism and a part of the vedas. They developed out of Brahmanas (ritual texts) and are partially prose, partially verse (…). The early Upanishads all predate the Common Era, some in all likelihood pre-Buddhist and pre-Jain (7th-6th century BCE) and therefore also pre-Socratic. In Sanskrit Upanishad literally means “to sit down close to” a guru (Upanishaden, Wikipedia) .

The Upanishads are a transitional form between the earlier vedas and the critical rational thinking of early Buddhism and Jainism.

The topics are – in contrast to the earlier vedas – not of a sacral or ritual nature. They address thinkers and seekers (Upanishaden, Wikipedia).

The Upanishads were, for centuries, memorized by each generation and passed down verbally (Upanishads, Wikipedia).

Since the goal of teaching was the liberation from suffering (moksha) the Upanishads can be associated with philosophical therapy [Soni, 222, 231-232].

-        With the mediation by a guru the Upanishads can be seen as precursors of guided therapies and philosophical counseling.

-        In the 4th century BC the proliferation of new ideas was favored by the emergence of sutras (textbooks). The written forms of the Upanishads can be seen as guidebooks for self-therapy.




The original meaning of the word therapy is service and the context was predominantly ancient worship [Ritter, 1163]. The term philosophical therapy is therefore reminiscent of the close relation between philosophy and religion in the antiquity [Clark, 83] [Kapstein, 99-100]. Later the term included other types of services, in particular the care for body and soul. Therapy in the sense of healing and curing is probably found for the first time in writings of the Hellenistic Age. Curing the soul was traditionally seen as a task of the philosophers and wise. The cure of mental suffering by means of counseling is already mentioned with the Sophists and Platon [Ritter, 1164].


In ancient times there were no clear boundaries between the role of a priest, physician and psychiatrist [Gowans, 12].

The specialized profession of “physician” had not yet separated itself out from the larger profession of shaman or “medicine man”, which included functions of magic, mythmaking, protophilosophy, and song or poetry, along with healing. Some of those whom we now regard as Greek philosophers would have appeared in the eyes of the Persian kings as “physicians.” [McEvilley, 15]




         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. 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. For more information on therapeutic goals see Philosophy as Therapy – A Review.




Methods depend on the goal to be pursued:

The following table refers to the Western understanding of self-realization:

         In ancient philosophy the “true self” emerges from the re-discovery of a (lost) universality [Ganeri, 120, 126].

         In the modern understanding (Nietzsche, Freud), however, the “true self” emerges from an authentic discovery of one’s individuality [Martin, 27-28].







Related psychotherapy






Language Analysis

Diagnostic talk






Free association and







Moral criticism


Existential therapy






Stoic asceticism


Cognitive behavioral therapies




Anatta (Selflessness)


Insight meditation

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy




Language serves a purpose. It can either support or hinder the insight, which is required to change one’s way of living. Language analysis is the major tool in the pursuit of representational clarity. The removal of linguistic confusion (e.g. by Socrates’ Maieutics) is a prerequisite for an authentic choice of one’s way of living.

The adventure of philosophy initially assumed for Socrates the form of a linguistic analysis of what he and others said about moral matters (…).

For Socrates language analysis is not the goal of philosophy and should not be viewed as an end in itself. For him, it was only a means, a method that allowed for the clarification for what he viewed as the essence of human existence (…). With him, language analysis has something in common with medicine, for whereas the latter aims at curing the body and preventing disease, the former, if carefully administered, heals the soul of its confusion [Navia, 48].




There are different ways to do philosophy. One of these ways has a potential to cause emotional and behavioral problems [Fischer, 53]. According to Eugen Fischer there are uncontrolled cognitive processes, which make the philosopher address pseudo-problems [Fischer, 57-58]. Wittgenstein talks of a specific kind of “disquiet” which is caused by imaginary issues and which can only be calmed by terminating the unreasonable worry about them. The method for curing philosophy-specific problems is language analysis. Obviously a philosopher can be a pathogenic agent, a patient or a therapist, depending on his/her way to do philosophy [Gunnarsson] [Fischer, 53]. Wittgensteins’s philosophical therapy stands (among others) in the tradition of Socrates [Peterman, 129]. The clarity of the language is a prerequisite for making an authentic choice between competing ways of living. Because “clarity” is an aesthetic criterion, Wittgenstein’s method is sometimes called aesthetic [Peterman, 121].


In accordance with Socrates Wittgenstein claimed that “philosophy is not a theory, but an activity” [Aubry, 212]. For Wittgenstein the use of language is rooted in “forms of life”, which are ultimately ways of acting in the world [O’Grady, 239]. His therapy consists in disclosing these roots. Following an example:

         If the language expresses, that all things are impermanent, then we are immediately aware that it is futile to get attached. In some Buddhist traditions, the word for color is the same as for desire. Color is a characteristic of everything and at the same time a symbol for transience. These traditions cultivate an accordingly ascetic-melancholic view on sexuality, which reflects the volatility of all desire [Seelmann, 2009].

         How far the Korean language is influenced by Buddhism cannot be examined here. It is noticeable, however, that this language does not know the term self and therefore promotes a distant perception of one’s needs, desires and actions. Koreans, for example, do not say “I am thirsty”, they say “the throat is dry”. They also do not say “I am angry”; they say “the anger rises” [Seelmann, 2012].

From the Buddhist perspective the Western language is harmful, because it represses the source of suffering. From the Western perspective the Buddhists language is harmful because it represses natural desires.


Socrates’ and Wittgenstein’s therapies are of a general kind and address all possible types of personalities. For the other therapies mentioned above there is a link to personality psychology:



Personality psychology

The table below links therapies to communication styles, which are explored in personality psychology. Communication styles are known from the factor analysis of interaction behavior [DTV, p.213] [Berkowitz]. They can be described by the two factors dominance and affiliation respectively their reversal compliancy and detachment:













Roman Stoics








This diagram discloses that there are conflicting (and even opposing) forms of therapies.

Concerning the operationalization of the two factors dominance and affiliation within the framework of the Big Five see Interpersonal Styles.




3. The Therapeutic Process


Philosophy can change our way of living. We will associate such a change with the term self-transformation, because it implies a change of one’s character and not merely a change of one’s environment. “Self-transformation changes the internal disposition that determines the way in which one responds to external events” [Sellars, 83].



Philosophical discourse is a part of the philosophical way of life, but discourse makes only sense, if the acquired knowledge is implemented in practical life [Sellars, 170]. Ancient philosophers emphasized that acting is more important than reasoning; theory is in the service of practice [Banicki 2015, 614-617]. The translation of theoretical understanding into practical ability requires training or exercise [Sellars, 107-108, 119]. Each form of therapy corresponds to a specific kind of self-transformation.


The French philosopher and Historian of philosophy Pierre Hadot assigns a secondary and derivative character to intellectual activity in the therapeutic process. According to Hadot philosophical discourse originates in a choice of life – not vice-versa. The task of philosophical discourse is to rationally justify a way of life, as well as the corresponding vision of the world. Discourse of this kind turns out to come after the fact [Banicki 2015, 613-614].

To interpret theory merely as the rationalization of a previously chosen practice is probably overdone, but conversely, it is well possible that many philosophers underestimate the importance of practice.


Similar to Hadot’s criticism of a purely argumentative and logical approach to ancient Greek philosophy, there are also reservations against such an approach to the Buddhist philosophy:

1.      Buddhism emphasizes that it can be extremely difficult to transform deeply engrained emotional and cognitive habits through straightforward rational considerations [Burton, 196]. The philosopher’s mistaken theories are simply rationalizations of these habits and therefore a superficial problem. Theories – which are more symptoms than causes – can be refuted trough arguments, but not habits. The refutation of the view that there is a permanent self, for instance, does not destroy one’s attachment to the ego [Burton, 197]. Buddhist writings therefore make use of literary forms such as parable, metaphor and contextualized descriptions. Many of the Buddhist scriptures are purportedly records of dialogues that took place between the Buddha and various disciplines. [Burton, 198].

2.      The purpose of the “right view” has been missed, if one’s understanding of it is a cause of self-satisfaction, or if one uses it to appear clever or superior to other people. Such a misguided attitude betrays the fact that one has not been genuinely affected by the therapeutic message, namely that craving and selfishness are to be given up [Burton, 209].

3.      Rational examination needs to complemented and confirmed by experiential verification (…). But experiences unscrutinised by reason are also unreliable (…). Hence there are developed traditions of debate in some forms of Buddhism. The Buddha said that his words should be accepted “after due investigation” rather than out of respect for him [Burton, 216].




4. Comparison with Psychotherapy



         Psychotherapy treats mental disorders like hysteria, narcissism, bulimia, compulsive disorder, anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder.

         Philosophical therapy competes with psychotherapy mainly in the counseling of mentally sane people [Van Hooft, 12] [Clark, 83] [Martin, 2].


Extract from an interview with Lou Marinoff:

Many of our most pressing problems aren’t even emotional or chemical to begin with – they’re philosophical. To wit: You don’t have to be clinically depressed or burdened by childhood guilt to want help with the timeless questions of the human condition – the persistence of suffering and the inevitability of death, the need for a reliable ethics. ‘’Even sane, functional people need principles to live by’’ [Duane].


Contemporary therapies may pursue a concrete goal – as the Stoics did – but they can also be open processes:

The verb “to diagnose” is massively laden with medical connotations (…) Philosophical verification or diagnosis can be completely different from medical diagnosis in that trying to understand the nature of the problem is not based on a priori knowledge [Schuster].




         Psychotherapy objectifies the client, forms a theory about the client and interprets the client’s statements in terms of that theory [Van Hooft, 20]. The definition of mental diseases may be influenced by political ideologies, religions or dictators of the mainstream.

         Individualistic philosophical therapies strive to avoid theory-specific terms and consider the patient’s constitution, environment and life story as a unique phenomenon. The language should be theory-neutral, because otherwise the patient is guided in a specific direction. A standardized language is already a loss of individuality. Ideally, the patient discovers his/her own language in the course of the therapy [Hampe 2007]. If the patient has already been confronted with a particular theory, then the corresponding way of thinking has first to be undone [Schuster].



Psychological health

         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.


The ethical goal to liberate oneself from anger, fear and grief is a controversial conception of psychological health. In addition, the Buddhist and Hellenistic traditions believed that in various ways that it was necessary to withdraw from ordinary life (psychological or otherwise) in order to achieve genuine tranquility. The claim that psychological health requires downgrading the importance of ordinary life is also controversial [Gowans, 26-27] [Soni, 226].


A specific disanalogy concerns the soteriology of Buddhism:

         The medical goal is to be again free from disease, a previous state of heath presupposed. Buddhism attempts to terminate a state of suffering and confusion without presupposing a previous state of wholeness and health [Halbfass, 250] (in contrast to Hinduism, where atman represents such a state).

         In Samkyha and Buddhism the goal is not well-being, but rather the freedom from attachment. Medicine itself is, as seen from this perspective, an integral part of samsara. In order to liberate from suffering, one has to sacrifice happiness [Halbfass, 253-254].




Contemporary psychotherapists – with some exceptions like existential therapists – typically adopt the scientific stance of value-neutrality. They validate emotions, but not world views [Martin, 19-20]. The Buddhist and Stoic therapies [Sellars, 150-164], in contrast, rely on specific world views with clear conceptions of the true and good. If the world view changes, then the form of therapy changes as well. In medicine there is only one goal (health). The medical model cannot explain why there are conflicting goals in philosophical therapy.


In medical practice in the primary sense the removal of a patient’s false or unwarranted beliefs is arguably much less central than in Buddhism and Hellenism, because physical diseases are less likely to be directly caused by beliefs [Gowans, 15].


The separation of the disciplines began with the development of individualistic therapies:

As a specialized science, a branch of psychology – ‘depth-psychology’ or psychology of the unconscious – it is quite unsuited to form a Weltanschauung of its own; it must accept that of science in general (Sigmund Freud, A Philosophy of Life).



Moral questions

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 therapies were imbedded in worldviews and social ideals.

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].


Besides associating a healthy life style with moral value – which is a controversial issue – medicine does not contribute much to the development of moral guidelines.

If we think that living well requires living virtuously, then the medical analogy is problematic (…). There are no actions that are characteristically expressive of being healthy. By contrast, there are actions that are characteristically expressive of being just, courageous, or compassionate. Hence the medical analogy is not naturally suited to philosophies like Buddhism and Stoicism that regard virtue as a necessary feature of living well [Gowans, 27].

One of the primary objections to tranquility philosophies is that anger is a morally required response to serious wrongdoing on the part of others. Both Buddhism and Stoicism directly reject this: they maintain that a virtuous response to wrongdoing is free from anger (…). Since the normative question cannot be avoided, any tranquility philosophy implies a response to it and regarding psychological well-being as analogous to physical well-being is not a helpful model for reflecting on this position [Gowans, 29].


Philosophers criticize those psychiatrists, who associate immoral behavior with mental diseases, without reflecting the cultural and historical background of the health ideal and morality.

Most philosophically minded thinkers who have looked critically at the concepts of mental health and mental illness have found them to be inherently laden with moral value (…). We pack our value preferences and aversions into these notions. Critics object that positive concepts of health

(like the WHO’s ideal of complete well-being [Banicki 2014, 16])

lead to the expansive pathologizing that alarms Marinoff and others (…). Unquestionably, our culture has been shaped dramatically by a therapeutic trend: the tendency to adopt health-oriented approaches to issues traditionally viewed as moral matters. As just a few examples, the DSM lists drug abuse, alcohol dependence, impulse control disorders, and a variety of personality disorders that in the past were discussed as character flaws. The replacement project seeks to replace morality with therapeutic outlooks (…). It is dangerous, insofar as it creates the "medical tyranny" of therapists who are implicitly given power in moral matters, under the guise of morally neutral science [Martin, 10-12].




The medical model is a metaphor which covers only one among several aspects of therapeutic philosophy.

         Psychotherapy is a specialized field within the social sciences.

         Philosophical therapy resumes the holistic and interdisciplinary view that was characteristic for the ancient world. It is not only concerned with the well-being of the individual, but also with the search for the “objectively” true and good [Martin, 21] [Van Hooft, 28]. Whereas psychotherapy delegates economic and political questions to separate disciplines, philosophy works on normative answers.

Arguments for the ancient holistic view are amongst others:

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

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




         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


For more information on the relation between philosophical therapy and psychotherapy, see Philosophy as Therapy – A Review.




5. Comparison with Religion


The philosophical therapies which come closest to religion are the spiritual exercises in Stoicism (if they are seen in a pantheistic context) and the Buddhist meditation, which is a form of mysticism.



Spiritual exercises

Exercises for the soul (spiritual exercises), are not to be understood as esoteric or religious [Banicki 2015, 622]. The Stoics and the Epicureans, both proposed materialist accounts of the soul and yet both schools have engaged in spiritual exercises [Sellars, 114]. The study of physics, for example, was seen as a spiritual exercise with a moral aim and philosophical dialogues existed for the sake of spiritual guidance. Examples for the latter are Platonic dialogues, notably the practice of death in the Phaedo and the practice of transcendence over all that is mundane described in the Theaetetus [Zeyl]




Mysticism is a place of peace and reflection in a life that is characterized by expansionism and conflicts.

As an alternative to this "still further and further" people have always striven for a different conception of will and time:

-  Instead of going for "more and more" ->  taking a break and looking for stability

-  Instead of insisting on the desired ->  renouncing to one’s own will.

[Tugendhat 2007, 194]

Mysticism is a means to salvation. Salvation is primarily salvation from suffering, in particular the suffering from transience. One can find the meaning of life in the love to a person, in the love of the family or in a professional task, but then one despairs when this point of reference is lost [Tugendhat 2006, 112]. In the usual definitions of mysticism different points of view are mentioned:


1)    Outward-oriented view, transcendence of the self:

a)  Religious Western mysticism: Immediate making contact with God

b)  Non-religious Western mysticism and Indian Vedanta: Meditative merging with the ultimate reality


2)    Inward-oriented view, dissolution of the self:

a)  Theravada Buddhism and Samkhya Yoga: Leaving the phenomenal world

b)  Daoist Mysticism: Remaining in the phenomenal world.

[Tugendhat 2006, 116-117].


Hinduism emphasized that everything emerges out of a mystery and eventually returns to it. The mystery is not void, because it is able to produce animated worlds. The individual is confronted with an incomparable and enigmatic power (the numinous). To interpret this view as “a projection of the infantile experience of one's own littleness” as Freud did in The Future of an Illusion may be plausible in certain cases, but is an undue simplification in other cases. The feeling of powerlessness (Ohn-Macht) has real reasons such as disasters, accidents, illnesses, aging and death. Religion and mysticism emerge both from the experience of the numinous, but their target is opposed:

-  Religion tries to satisfy the human desires (for perfection, immortality, etc.) in a transformed world.

-  Mysticism tries to liberate from the human desires (greed, care, etc.). The self is transformed instead of the world, or the self is completely dissolved.

[Tugendhat 2006, 121-122].

According to this definition, mysticism is accessible to everyone.


In some cultures, mysticism is associated with religious music, such as Sufi music or Gregorian chorale .

For Indian musicians such as Hariprasad Chaurasia, the scales of their ragas are symbols outside of time and space. They are regarded as the tonal representatives of a transcendent reality, a reality that can be experienced through the magic of the sounds (Die Welt ist Klang , Deutschlandfunk, 25.12.2012)

In Southern India there is a thousand-year-old tradition, which goes back to sacred writings such as the Vedas and Upanishads, as well as anonymous wise men (Rishis) and sacred musicians (…). They all proclaimed that good music is the key to self-discovery and to the salvation of the individual from its inner and outer conflicts (Karnatic Music, Wikipedia).

A mystic dimension is also ascribed to some compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach, e.g. Piano Concerto No.5, Largo or the Goldberg-Variations Aria.  It seems that some kinds of music making are an alternative to meditation or can even be seen as a form of meditation [Gordon].


In the personalizing Bhakti tradition there are forms of mysticism that are close to the Christian tradition, especially when they go with asceticism. In these cases, the same psychoanalytic diagnosis may be applied as mentioned above. The question is, however, whether such an analysis can do justice to the phenomenon. The dissolution of the ego necessarily contains regressive elements, but is, on the other hand, an adaptation to the reality of transience. Mysticism creates its own reality in which the assessments of the “struggle for survival” do not apply. Thereto a poem by the Bengali writer R. Tagore:





The Meeting


My heart longs day and night for the meeting with you -

For the meeting that is like all-devouring death.

Sweep me away like a storm;

Take everything I have;

Break open my sleep and plunder my dreams.

Rob me of my world.

In that devastation,

In the utter nakedness of spirit,

Let us become one in beauty.


Alas for my vain desire!

Where is this hope for union except for you, my God?






Comparison between Christian and Buddhist mysticism

In an effort to find universal character traits of all human beings [Tugendhat 2007] the commonalities of Christian and Buddhist mysticism are often emphasized. But the differences are actually more interesting. In the following the term Buddhist mysticism refers to the Vipassana meditation, which is practiced, among others, in Theravada Buddhism:

1.   Realm of emotions: Christian mysticism is associated with worship, ecstasy and affirmation (the mystic is emotionally engaged), Buddhist mysticism is associated with inner peace, mindfulness and indifference (the mystic is emotionally absent).

2.  Object of observation: Christian mysticism sees the object of worship in the external world, Buddhist mysticism focuses on inner conditions. Christian mysticism is related to bhakti yoga because it assumes that love needs an object. Buddhist mysticism attempts to get rid of objects.

3.   Awareness of the self: The self is not given up in Christian mysticism (as opposed to Buddhist mysticism), but is given a transcendental expression through the union with God.

4.   Biological Needs: The (medieval) Christian mysticism requires asceticism and sometimes even mistreatment of the body; the Buddhist mysticism rejects asceticism and seeks the "middle" way. The middle way of the Buddha, however, was still a very strict practice (see e.g. The Price of Liberation by Peter Masefield).

5.  Method: Christian mysticism is based on faith, Buddhist mysticism on a process of cognition.


Hinduism before the Buddha already knew forms of mysticism similar to the Christian ones. There, too, the goal was to reach an ecstatic state through physical asceticism. Buddha practiced this kind of mysticism for several years, but finally gave preference to a knowledge-oriented form of meditation. From Buddha’s perspective the search for a heavenly state or for perfection is a lack of knowledge, indicating a loss of reality.


For more information on the relation between philosophical therapy and religion see Philosophy as Therapy – A Review.




6. Therapy as Adaptation to Reality




The Socratic Way of Thinking emerged in times of ideological uncertainty, when religion was challenged by science and people were looking for a new and reliable orientation. The same is true for all forms of philosophical therapy mentioned in chapter 2. They all attempt to adjust the perception to a critical-rational world view.

In ancient Greece the replacement of pagan beliefs led to a vast diversity of theories. The disagreements were such that Pyrrho concluded that the best strategy for the pursuit of happiness is to suspend judgment [Sellars, 88-103]. Obviously “truth-orientation” did not exclude conflicting therapies, even within the same cultural context. If we extend the investigation to truth-orientation in different cultures, then we can even find opposing visions of the therapeutic goal. How is that possible? The main reason is probably that philosophers focus on different aspects of reality:




  Aspect of reality




  Biological drives

  Laws of the unconscious



  Survival of the fittest

  Laws of evolution


  Roman Stoics

  Universal law (logos)


  Family and society








         Buddha: According to Christopher Beckwith the Trilaksana (three marks of existence) is characteristic for early Buddhism [Beckwith, 26-32]. The Trilaksana negates the characteristics of God (as well as Heaven) presumably the early Zorastrian and early Brahmanist God: an uncaused, perfect, eternal being, in a perfect world [Beckwith, 151-152].


         The truth, according to Sariputra, a chief disciple of the Buddha:

“Not knowing the experience of suffering, not knowing the cause of suffering and not knowing the path to its avoidance – that is fatal ignorance” [Baus, 11].

This is reminiscent of Socrates’ claim that that no one errors or makes mistakes knowingly.

Only the experience of suffering can disclose the ethical priority of suffering. Emotional knowledge is as important as intellectual knowledge.


         The reality principle is e.g. phrased as follows:

“What is the cause of suffering according to Buddha? Could it not be the same cause as the one for our social problems? The root cause of all these disturbing mental states (kleshas) is ignorance – we do not see things as they really are. The perception of the world is systematically distorted. We live in a collective madness.” (adapted from Buddhismus, Santikaro Bhikkhu)

This is reminiscent of the Platonic analysis of the soul:

There are different levels of the soul, only a bit of us is real and knows truth (…). We live in a dream, we are wrapped up in a dark veil, and we don’t believe anything exists except ourselves [Clark, 99].

The distorted perception of suffering is investigated in The Denial of the World from an Impartial View.


         The collective madness – according to Buddha – is the struggle for survival and procreation, a struggle which requires attachment to transient values. When we are confronted with transience (loss, illness, aging, death) then we suffer and we are disappointed of life – the delusion cannot be maintained (German “wir sind ent-täuscht”). The Buddhist therapy strives to avoid this disappointment by avoiding attachments, in particular, the attachment to the self.  In Buddhism the notion of a self is completely given up (see Anatta). Self-realization is replaced by the insight into non-selfhood.

In the Simile of the Lute the Buddha explains that if one looks within and investigates, one will find only the psychological elements and not the self, just as one will search in vain among the components of a lute for the sound that the lute makes [Ganeri, 128].

Coming to know that there is no enduring self is thus clearly seen as a therapeutic philosophical achievement. No emotion that requires one to admit the existence of enduring self, such as regret or possessive desire, is able to survive the surgical removal of that commitment [Ganeri, 124]. Greed is a failure to understand that none of things one seeks to obtain is going to last; it should also be understood that greed is, of its nature, insatiable [Ganeri, 130].

The condition of being without pain and suffering is also a condition of being without pleasure, because pleasure and pain are always inter-mixed, just as someone who wishes to administer a bitter poison, mixes it into honey [Ganeri, 124]. Believing that the ideal state is a pleasureless state might lead me, not to give up all pleasure, for that is not a realistic human end, but to allow myself to be nourished by the pleasures I have and also to resist voluntarily seeking out new ones (...) Philosophy, then, enables us to (…) direct our efforts securely on their target, the living of a life free of suffering [Ganeri, 135].


         Considering the escapist nature of early Buddhism is debatable if there is something like Buddhist politics [Conze, 120]. The acquisition of resources to fight injustice usually implies entanglements with the ruling economic, political and military institutions. Possibly life-affirming activities of any kind are counter-productive in the long-run, because they serve an inscrutable evolutionary process which perpetuates suffering [Zimmer, 214-215]. For examples see the The Cultural Evolution of Suffering.



Secular Buddhism

         Secular Buddhism is a broad term for an emerging form of Buddhism and secular spirituality that is based on humanist, skeptical, and/or agnostic values, as well as pragmatism and (often) naturalism, rather than religious (or more specifically supernatural or paranormal) beliefs. Secular Buddhists interpret the teachings of the Buddha and the Buddhist texts in a rationalist and often evidentialist manner, considering the historical and cultural contexts of the times in which the Buddha lived and the various suttas, sutras and tantras were written. Within the framework of secular Buddhism, Buddhist doctrine may be stripped of any unspecified combination of various traditional beliefs that could be considered superstitious, or that cannot be tested through empirical research, namely: supernatural beings (such as devas, bodhisattvas, nāgas, pretas, Buddhas, etc.), merit and its transference, rebirth, Buddhist cosmology (including the existence of pure lands and hells), etc. Traditional Buddhist ethics, such as conservative views regarding abortion, and human sexuality, may be called into question as well (Secular Buddhism, Wikipedia).

         There is plenty of empirical data with regard to the evolution of global suffering and risk. If suffering and/or risk increases, then culture as a whole may have to be considered as a patient needing a therapy. In this case it is inconsequent to advise patients to lead a reasonable life without at the same time analyzing the culture (as Freud did in Civilization and its Discontents) which permanently produces new patients. The belief in progress could be – similar to religious promises of salvation – just another pretext to sanction the immense suffering in this world, see The Cultural Evolution of Suffering. Possibly we are trapped in a hedonistic treadmill instead of progressing towards (technological) salvation; see Negative Utilitarianism and Buddhist Intuition.

         If one transposes Buddha’s way of thinking [Steinkellner] to nowadays then it is plausible to assume that he would have reconciled his doctrine with a scientific world view. If reincarnation is seen from the perspective of genetics, then the elimination of the desire to procreate terminates the reincarnation of individual genes. Insofar there is an affinity between secular Buddhism and Antinatalism; see Secular Buddhism and Justice.

         Some schools, especially Western Buddhist ones, take more progressive stances regarding social issues [Burton, 214] (Secular Buddhism, Wikipedia).

This progressive stance goes with a kind of “minimal optimism”: Even if the world will never be “good”, it may still be possible to make it “less evil”:





The Star Thrower

Someone is walking along a beach that is littered with exposed starfish that are dying in the low tide.

He sees a young woman who carefully picks one and flings it into the ocean.


Young lady says the observer don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and starfish everywhere?

You can’t possibly make difference.


She listened politely, then picked up another and tossed it into the water saying

It makes a difference to THIS one.



[Barash, 132] adapted from [Eisele]






Roman Stoicism

         Socratic-kind questioning and doubt had undermined the old pagan beliefs. The schools of philosophy inspired by Socrates, such as Cynics, Stoics and Epicureans focused on ethics, for at least two reasons:

The first is that despite their limited ability to investigate the larger questions such as the origin of the universe, the nature of reality, including that of divine beings, and the ultimate purpose of it all, they still believed that it was possible to fully understand the nature of the good life.

The second reason was that in age of thought and insecurity, it was necessary to find a way of living that was morally meaningful, that gave one control over one’s life and offered a way to achieve happiness (…) Philosophers were more like psychotherapists. Unlike priests and ministers today, the priests of the ancient world did not provide pastoral counseling. Doing philosophy included contemplative and meditative practice [Hadot].


         Despite pronounced differences of cosmology, of many particular doctrines, of nuance and accent, there nonetheless is much in Buddhism and Stoicism that merits close comparison. Especially noteworthy is the rigor with which both hold that our pains and frustrations stem from false beliefs about ourselves, beliefs that are to be therapeutically overcome through a sustained process of education and ascesis [Kapstein, 106].


         There are good reasons to assume that Hellenistic philosophy was influenced by the Eastern tradition [McEvilley] [Clark, 84]. See The Buddhist Influence on Hellenistic Ethics. According to Hadot the ancient spiritual exercises lead from individuality and particularity to objectivity.

Freeing oneself from the limited first person perspective will free one from the emotional turmoil that goes with it. From the cosmic perspective, everything is in a continual state of change and nothing is expected to remain stable for long. In this sense, the “point of view of the cosmos” enables one to free oneself from attachment to particular external objects [Sellars, 154, 163].

The Stoics avoid disappointment by attaching to timeless values. They find eternity in the law, which governs the world. The Stoic world view was pantheistic. Humans as rational beings can recognize the universal law. The only virtue is – being conscious of this universal law – leading a rational life.




God, grant me the

         Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

         Courage to change the things I can, and

         Wisdom to know the difference.


Origin disputed, but clearly Stoic doctrin




       Whereas the original Stoa was a center of dissident asceticism and social radicalism [Francis], Roman Stoicism (ca. 27 B.C.-180 A.D.) promoted a mystical absorption in the structure of society. Acting rationally was interpreted as acting with respect to our natural impulses for self-preservation, family and society [Gowans, 21].

By changing our way of looking at the world, we are to transform ourselves to the point of becoming fully integrated beings (…) harmonizing our will and desires with the course of nature, and recognizing and fulfilling the social obligations placed upon us by the demand for justice. By all these means we can achieve a cosmic consciousness that raises us above the petty concerns of our individualistic lives, and makes us aware that we are parts of the All [Chase, 264].





Remember that you are an actor in a drama,

of such a kind as the author pleases to make it…

It is your business, to act well the character assigned you;

to choose it is another's.







Modern Stoicism

         Modern Stoicism is an intellectual and popular movement in the late 20th and early 21st century which attempts to revive the Stoic philosophy in the modern setting (Modern Stoicism, Wikipedia)

         In modern Stoicism the ancient slogan “follow nature” is interpreted as follows:

Following nature means following the facts. It means getting the facts about the physical and social world we inhabit and the facts about our situation in it [...] before we deliberate about normative matters. (Modern Stoicism, Wikipedia)

A pantheistic world view may be helpful for individual well-being, but does not contribute to the reduction of global suffering. On the contrary, the acceptance of the world “as it is” and the (robot-like) insensitivity to suffering combined with the conviction “to obey a divine law” proved to be disastrous in history of ancient Stoicism (see Roman Civil Wars). According to contemporary physics the natural laws are rather indifferent than “good”, rather contingent than “beautiful”, and possibly not even eternal.

         Modern Stoicism shifts Epictetus’ famous dichotomy of control to a more reasonable trichotomy: some things are up to us (chiefly, our judgments and actions), some things are not up to us (major historical events, natural phenomena), but on a number of other things we have partial control [Irvine]. Irvine recasts the third category in terms of internalized goals, which makes more sense of the original dichotomy. Consider his example of playing a tennis match. The outcome of the game is under your partial control, in the sense that you can influence it; but it is also the result of variables that you cannot control, such as the skill of your opponent, the fairness of the referee, or even random gusts of wind interfering with the trajectory of the ball. Your goal, then, suggests Irvine, should not be to win the game—because that is not entirely within your control. Rather, it should be to play the best game you can, since that is within your control. By internalizing your goals you can therefore make good sense of even the original Epictetean dichotomy. As for the outcome, it should be accepted with equanimity. (Stoicism, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

         Stoicism was – before it turned agnostic during the Roman Civil Wars – an optimistic world view. Modern Stoics resume this ancient optimism and share the belief in progress with the Enlightenment philosophers. Both movements overcome cultural pessimism through trust in the healing power of reason. Modern Stoics are neither passive nor unemotional [Robertson], they just focus on the things they can control. Decisive is the belief that the government of reason (value rationality, not instrumental rationality) is the best available option.




         An important influence on Nietzsche was the atheistic thought which spread out in Western countries after the French Revolution and which opened the way for the nineteenth century movements of Rationalism, Freethought, and Liberalism. An early atheistic publication in Germany was The Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach (History of Atheism, Wikipedia)

Nietzsche’s atheism aims to redirect people's attention to their inherent freedom, the presently-existing world, and away from escapist, pain-relieving, heavenly otherworlds (Nietzsche, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)





A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows

that faith does not prove anything


Friedrich Nietzsche





         Nietzsche’s search for truth is best understood against the background of the life sciences in the 19th century (although he does not explicitly refer to science). His genealogy of values and his account of a will to power are influenced by 19th century debates on teleology, biological functions, and theories of evolution [Emden]. Nietzsche sees cultural evolution as an open process. Reality is not given, it can be changed. Reality is interpreted by the survivors and the survivors are always right.


         It is in the texts of his middle period (1878-1882) that Nietzsche’s writing comes closest to being an exercise in philosophical therapeutics [Pearson, 137]. In his essay Dawn (1881) Nietzsche suggests that by reflecting, with the aid of psychological observation, on what is “human, all too human”, that “we can lighten the burden of life” [Pearson, 139].


         Nietzsche addresses the existential crisis, which is caused by the loss of religious scenarios of salvation, and the corresponding loss of meaning [Van Hooft, 22]. The scientific demystification of nature suggests that the suffering in this world might be without a sense. The affirmation of life as will to power, however, constructs meaning in seemingly hopeless situations and develops an almost unlimited creativity in finding positive interpretations of the world. Nietzsche’s remedy for cultural pessimism is cultural perfectionism. Transhumanism – which is reminiscent of overman – may eventually lead to the liberation from suffering.


         Nietzsche did not intend to derive or establish morality, unlike classical moral philosophers, but rather to trace the historical development and the psychological presuppositions of certain moral values. According to Nietzsche the acquirement of philosophical knowledge cannot be reduced to arguments and precise reasoning [Pearson, 157]; it requires self-experimentation [Pearson, 145]. There is not a single morality – numerous new attempts at living life and creating community should be undertaken [Pearson, 161]. Nietzsche criticizes the European prejudice, according to which sympathetic affects and compassion define the moral [Pearson, 146]. The emotional knowledge to be acquired in a Nietzschean therapy is therefore in conflict with the Buddhist tradition.


         A contemporary interpretation of master morality is simply the secular worldview. According to Nietzsche the fight for truth (and for the dominance of truth) has a therapeutic effect in all areas of life, because it makes the individual stronger. The discovery that the individual is able to create his/her own values is an immense gain in power. The individual becomes independent and, as far as self-created values are accepted by others, attains a dominant position.




         In his search for truth Freud explicitly refers to a science-oriented worldview. He conceived the mind as an energy processing apparatus that obeys Newtonian mechanics and the law of entropy. According to mechanistic principles, energy that accumulates within a system leads to a buildup of pressure and accumulated energy is converted into anxiety. Unless the energy is discharged or transformed symptom formation ensues. Energy transformation leads to higher levels of organization whereas symptom formation leads to lower levels [Palombo, 15].


         Freud ascribed the numerous 'hysterical' attacks in the society (especially among girls from noble houses) to the repression of biological desires. Given the pathogenic (in particular religiously based) social regulations at that time, the physician and healer Freud almost necessarily became an advocate of repressed drives. He associated the term ethics with the mentioned pathogenic rules so that the concept of healing was linked to an averting and liberation from ethics (or religion). In order to speak of Freud's ethics, one has therefore to break away from the traditional understanding of ethics. Since Freud tried to heal the suffering of his patients by raising awareness of the repressed biological desires, he seems to assign a moral value to raising awareness and emotional insight.


         From the starting point that religion is an illusionary yet extremely relevant creative force in culture, Freud comes to a general suspicion against the institutions of cultural life (...): "If we have recognized the religious doctrines are illusions, then the immediate question arises as to whether other cultural heritages which we esteem and which dominate our lives are of a similar nature. Possibly the conditions governing our state institutions are also illusions [Hampe 2009, 186].

As we have seen, the culture in Freud's eyes "overcomes the aggression of the individual" by weakening his/her physical and emotional powers, by relieving him/her of many of the hardships of life, but ultimately "disarming" him/her with its norms. Culture "creates an instance within the individual" and "monitors him/her like the controller of a conquered city. "The supervisory authority, which culture uses to master aggression, is the conscience, or, as Freud calls it, the" superego." Within this psychological instance, the internalized values that human beings adopt from their parents in childhood, exercise a lifelong control [Hampe 2009, 188]

Cultivation, therefore, does not mean the aggression disappears, but that it is transformed, so that the aggression which is directed towards human beings, takes place within the individuals, in his/her own mental life. In short: the inter-individual aggression becomes intra-individual. If we consider in a somewhat banal categorization aggression and destruction to be bad, peacefulness and constructiveness to be good, then the cultivation of a human being is by no means a development towards the good. It just seems as if destructivity and aggression were eliminated. In fact, however, they are only swept under the carpet [Hampe 2009, 190]


         In 1933 Sigmund Freud formulated the goal of psychoanalysis as follows:

Its intention is to strengthen the ego, to make it more independent of the superego, to expand its field of perception and to expand its organization so that it can acquire new pieces of the Id. Where Id was, Ego shall be [Freud 1915, 85].

As compared to antiquity culture has changed in such a way that the loss of passion is considered to be a main source of suffering. The Buddhist dissolution of the self in meditation or the Stoic dissolution of the self in Pantheism are now considered to be a regression:

Freud categorizes the oceanic feeling of wholeness, limitlessness, and eternity as being a regression into an earlier state of consciousness — before the ego had differentiated itself from the world of objects (…) Freud imagines that the oceanic feeling became connected with religion later on in cultural practices (Civilization and Its Discontents, Wikipedia)

Psychoanalysis is in conflict with revealed religions, because it interprets religions, instead of acknowledging their interpretational sovereignty [Freud 1930]. In psychoanalysis the dissolution of the self is only considered to be useful if it serves the exploration of the unconscious [Süsske]. Psychoanalysis is clearly life-affirmative. Religions and ideologies which attempt to direct emotions to transcendent goals are categorized as collective madness. The sense of life is an individual concept where the struggle for power and love can take a decisive position.


         According to Freud, cultural promises of happiness cannot be kept. The assumption that the psychoanalytic liberation of the individual produces a society with less suffering, however, is possibly also a utopia. It is by no means self-evident that real suffering is easier to bear than neurotic suffering. One only has to imagine aggressive "liberated" partners, employees, adolescents and competitors in order to appreciate the bourgeois neuroses once again. For Freud, the (biological) link between aggression and pleasure is in any case the reason for a profound cultural pessimism [Freud 1930].





The idea of freely unfolding

the personality seems excellent,

as long as one does not come upon individuals,

whose personality has unfolded freely.


Nicolas Gomez Davila




Philosophical psychoanalysis

            The philosophical significance of Freud’s psychoanalysis was investigated by Stanley Cavell [Cavell, 289-295] [Hampe 2006]. Freud can be seen as a philosopher because of his radical quest for knowledge and because hermeneutics has its origin in philosophy. Philosophical psychoanalysis is practiced on the basis of free association and hermeneutics, without using an expert language and without being fixed on Freudian concepts like the Oedipus complex or the drive theory.


            The method of philosophical psychoanalysis differs from orthodox psychoanalysis by its rejection of jargon. The concepts of the unconscious, association and interpretation date back to ancient concepts of knowledge acquisition and can therefore be attributed to philosophy.
The anamnesis of the Freudian kind (not all of them) resembles a novel, because it expresses the absolutely individual in a common language, which is not a technical jargon or only in a very limited sense [Hampe 2007].
The more such a novel is infiltrated by the technical jargon of psychoanalysis (e.g. introjection, libido, transference etc.) the more it goes on distance to philosophical therapy and the more it becomes psychotherapy.


         There is a methodical similarity between Freud’s and Wittgenstein’s way to do philosophy, although Wittgenstein’s method rather treats a question than the person raising it. Wittgenstein aims at general insight, but on the basis of particular person’s sensibility and experiential background [Hagberg, 68-69].

If we aim at a fuller understanding of our own courage or cowardice, or pride or prejudice, we need an overview of the self’s words and deeds in the corresponding context. This constitutes a kind of connective analysis of the self’s past, i.e. an analysis of one’s intellectual genealogy [Hagberg, 79].

A Freudian therapy attempts to connect the present with the past as well, but the emphasis is more on the emotional than on the intellectual genealogy. Since the uncensored emotions, which are discovered in such a process, are conciliated with the self, the Freudian therapy is in conflict with the Buddhist tradition [Rubin, 47, 75]. Whereas Freud promotes adaptation to the biological nature of humans, Buddha strives to transcend it.

Whereas Psychoanalysis strives to condition people for the biological race, Buddhism questions the sense of this race. For Buddhists the psychoanalytic reactivation of biological motives is a relapse into ignorance.


            Freud’s well known slogan “We can change neurotic misery into real misery” makes clear that he had no intention to solve psychic problems by means of unrealistic optimism. Cultural pessimism should be overcome by reverting to biological resources and not by utopias. The unconscious simply ignores the future. Freud’s biography illustrates that it is possible to be an optimist in personal matters and a pessimist with regard to the future of society. Even in a culture that is destined to decay, it is possible to find a (individual) sense in life.




What is a realistic world view in the face of so many philosophical theories and models? The focus of a philosophical therapy is on the process of acquiring knowledge. Ideas from the philosophical tradition are used as a source of inspiration [Niedermeier].


The therapeutic goal is not a specific view, but an authentic view on the basis of profound knowledge [Martin, 27-28].

Marinoff and other practitioners hold that we all have a philosophy of life, whether we know it or not, and that we can benefit from identifying that philosophy, making sure it helps us, rather than hinders us [Duane].




In the Hindu metaphor of the “world theatre” the therapy as adaptation to reality means that the philosopher acquires knowledge about the play that is performed and the role which he/she is supposed to undertake:

         In Buddhism: leave the stage and become a spectator.

         In Roman Stoicism: agree with the familial and social role one has to play

         Therapies according to Nietzsche and Freud: change roles and influence the script.

The aim of philosophical therapy is to attain certain freedom of choice over one’s own destiny.




7. Therapy as Risk Ethics




         Risk: In order to define risk, one has to define situations like loss, catastrophe or undesirable outcome. Risk can be expressed in terms of financial loss, suffering, risk of dying etc. This definition makes clear, that risk can only be valuated relative to a goal. If not mentioned otherwise in this paper, the term risk relates to suffering.

         Risk ethics investigates the general question under which conditions a person is permitted to expose him-/herself or others to a risk. The term risk ethics includes the evaluation of chances [Rippe, 4].

         Risk-averse ethics is characterized by sacrificing chances (respectively efficiency) in order to avoid risks. For a more detailed definition see Hostility and the Minimization of Suffering.

The term ethics within risk ethics suggests that – whatever kind of self-transformation is pursued – it has to be subjected to a Socratic examination.

From the perspective of risk ethics therapeutic goals are characterized by chances and risks, and not by a health ideal.




Risk can only be valuated relative to a goal, but the diversity of subjective goals in life has become immense. In the following we reduce this diversity to four basic topics which are borrowed from the purusarthas. Each of the therapies discussed so far is assigned to one of these topics:


1.     Freud is assigned to Love and Desire because of the central role of the pleasure principle and sexuality in psychoanalysis.

2.      Nietzsche is assigned to Power and Wealth because of the central role of the will to power, power understood as influence in its widest sense.

3.     The Roman Stoics are assigned to Compliance with the Law because they emphasized the duty to the family and the state.

4.   Buddha is assigned to Salvation because the prime goal of his philosophy is the liberation from suffering.




Cultural goals


Biological goals and

their Sublimations







Power and wealth




Comply with the law

Roman Stoics



Love and desire





On the cultural level there are reasons to deviate from the biological goals. In the game of life we may be successful from the genetic point of view, but with regard to survival we are all losers. We may lose the persons we love most. We will age, get ill, and finally die. The fact that traumatic forms of suffering exist and persist is a major challenge for any attempt to construct sense in life. Cultural tradition not only reveals the risks of the biological goals, it also teaches us that biological preferences can be sublimated (e.g. love in art, power in technology) and that non-biological forms of happiness (like mysticism) exist and can be learned. The cultural goals represent a stronghold against transience.




Therapies have all sorts of consequences; nevertheless the ones that have to do with social relations are more frequent and therefore significant:

According to their specific vision of reality each of the four philosophies emphasizes a certain form of social relation:

         Psychoanalysis typically leads to a changed behavior in partnership or a new partnership

         Therapies based on Nietzsche’s philosophy typically lead to new activities in social groups. The emphasis is on creating and enforcing one’s own values.

         The Stoic identification with nature and humanity (respectively the universal law) brings about that individual strokes of fate are given less importance.

         The Buddhist Insight meditation makes it possible to devaluate external activities and enjoy self-absorption. This is perceived as a gain in freedom.


The identification corresponds to the aspect of reality that is considered to be the most important:




  Aspect of reality


  Social relation




  Biological drives

Object of love

  Partner, children


  Survival of the fittest

Elite or opposition


  Interest groups

  Roman Stoics

  Universal law, logos

(Global) community

  Family and society






  Absence of relations



The discovery of the biological utility function makes clear that striving for uniqueness has a biological root and individualism cannot be the ultimate criterion for inner freedom. In the struggle for survival and procreation we operate with a biological self, which is in a certain sense in foreign services (an insight which exists in Buddhism already in the 5th century BC). It is possible to liberate oneself from this dependency (partly at least) by changing ones identification.The human psyche is able to identify with a person, a family, a community, a concept of justice or even a state of consciousness like the Nirwana. The (relative) freedom in behavior consists in being able to dispose of these options.




Each construction of sense (chances, opportunities) is tied to specific risks:

         If the sense of life is found in the family, then accidents, illnesses and death may destroy it.

         If the sense of life consists in a business career, then the failure of this career will destroy it.

The more ambitious and emotionally loaded the sense of life is construed; the higher is also the involved risk.


Psychoanalysis often refers to a conflict between inner instances (see Freud’s three-instance model), where passions and controlling forces are removed to the unconscious. If the person suffers from the repressed conflict, then the conflict must then be made conscious before it can be resolved.

In other cases – in particular in the absence of neurotic symptoms – repression is already the solution! The awareness of (previously unconscious) passions does not necessarily mean that they can be controlled or acted out in a given environment. Whoever experiences the power of genuine passions is more or less at their mercy. There are good reasons, for example, to suppress aggressive affects, as the Stoics did.


A philosophical therapy therefore has to find a compromise between

1.      the liberation of passions thru acquisition of spontaneity

2.      the liberation from passions thru acquisition of self-control

Both kinds of liberation go with risks, which must be assessed as realistically as possible.


Early Buddhists, Cynics, Epicureans and Skeptics developed a strategy to reduce risk by reducing social commitments. Buddha and Pyrrho of Elis, for example, lived as celibate, wandering ascetics [Beckwith, 46, 93].  The Roman Stoics committed to family and politics, indeed, but their commitment was driven by pietas and not passion. This reduction of risk has to be paid by the loss of “natural” happiness. In the context of Apatheia [Höffe, 101] Aristotle used the argument that insensitiveness is far from human nature. But Buddhists and Hellenists are not insensitive, they are differently sensitive. Buddhists replace passion by meditative happiness and compassion, and even Stoics are not unemotional. If they manage to avoid excessive self-control (and corresponding mental illness) then the Aristotelian complete life looks like a questionable risk.




  Attachment /identification


  Risks by social commitments



  Object of love

  High (biological altruism)



  Elite or opposition


  Medium (opportunism)

  Roman Stoics

  (Global) community


  by Pietas (not passion)







Contemporary philosophical therapies do not prescribe an ethical ideal. The goal is to explore the individual risk profile, and take account of the fact, that it changes in the course of time. The discovery of the individual risk profile corresponds to the discovery of the individual chances and risks within a social and cultural environment. The decision to adopt an ancient ethical ideal can be as authentic as the decision to develop an individualistic lifestyle [Sellars, 170]




Humans are born with an addiction to gamble in the casino of life. Utopists believe to win, but science suggests that the bank always wins in the long-run. The maximal win is a feeling of ecstasy, but the maximal loss is so horrible that it is repressed by most of the gamblers:

         Buddha suggests liberating from the addiction and offers a method for complete withdrawal.

         Freud, in contrast, suggests that high risk-aversion or withdrawal lead to depression and somatic illness. He motivates his patients to take risks.

         The Stoics continue to gamble but reduce the risks. The price for this reduction is a corresponding reduction of chances.

         Nietzsche strives to change the rules of the casino in his favor.

For an impartial view on the casino of life see The Denial of the World from an Impartial View.




8. Therapy as Search for the Good Life




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)


Socrates was a moral and political philosopher and fought against moral relativists such as the Sophists [Taylor, 66]. Consequently his search for a good life was a search for the “objectively” good, and for a way of living that represents and promotes the good.

To transcend the individualistic perspective and look for objectivity is (…) what makes a practice distinctively philosophical.

This kind of questions however, is rather raised at the end of a therapy than at the beginning [Van Hooft, 28].

As long as a person is trapped in confusion [Lotter, 4] or struck by a blow of fate, we cannot expect that he/she cares for “objectivity”.


In a Socratic search the therapeutic effect emerges (partly) from the search process itself, i.e. from philosophical conversations with friends and/or discussions within a (democratic) community. For more information see The Socratic Way of Thinking.



The therapeutic good

There is no consensus in philosophy on the definition of the good and the good life. It is evident, however, that the goal of philosophical therapy – which is the cure (or reduction) of suffering – fulfills a requirement of the Aristotelian 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.


The other philosophies, discussed in this paper, did not pursue the therapeutic good with first priority:

         Nietzsche aimed at the liberation from false authorities and imposed ideologies. His therapy addressed the existential crisis, which was caused by the loss of faith and orientation. His political philosophy, however, is often associated with aristocracy:

The egalitarian premise of all contemporary moral and political theory — the premise, in one form or another, of the equal worth or dignity of each person — is simply absent in Nietzsche's work (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

         Similarly to Nietzsche, Freud was concerned with the liberation from oppressing beliefs and disease-causing moral demands. He was not a man of politics, however, to say the least [Dolar, 15]; his ambition was rather to be a man of science. He refused that psychoanalysis should adopt a world view [Dolar, 16], in contrast to some of his successors (see e.g. Freudo-Marxism).

         In Roman Stoicism the therapeutic good had a second priority as well. The first priority was to lead a rational life in harmony with the universal law. The meaning of this statement, however, changed considerable in the course of history. Stoicism, which started as a back-to-nature philosophy (similar to Buddhism and Cynicism) turned into a cornerstone of Roman militarism.

Nietzsche’s pursuit of cultural perfection, Freud’s respect for science and the Stoic engagement for reason contribute to a science-friendly culture and we cannot exclude that a technological breakthrough leads to the liberation of suffering. It would be a miraculous side effect of life-affirmation, however. Until now, technology proved to be ambivalent with regard to suffering.



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 childlessness and retreat in the tradition of early 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; see The Biological Evolution of Pain.

         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)? For an answer to these questions see The Cultural Evolution of Suffering.

         The control of cultural evolution presupposes the existence of a free will. To what extent are human values and decisions controlled by the unconscious? For an answer to this question see An Interdisciplinary View on the Freedom of Will.



Social philosophy

1.      In contemporary ethics the consequentialist ethics which comes closest to Buddhism is negative utilitarianism [Keown, 176]. The two ethics have a common goal, but they differ with regard to the world view. Buddhism is basically pessimistic, whereas negative utilitarianism is open to both pessimism and optimism (including a technological salvation). Despite its flexibility negative utilitarianism is at most a marginal note in the History of Welfare Economics. The positive utilitarian idea that the suffering of the minority can be compensated seems to meet the majority’s intuitions.

         Is the Buddhist denial of the world irrational? See The Denial of the World from an Impartial View and Negative Utilitarianism and Buddhist Intuition.

         Does the therapeutic good imply a life-hostile philosophy? See Hostility to Live and the Minimization of Suffering.

         How many people should there be? See On the Buddhist Truths and the Paradoxes in Population Ethics.


2.      An alternative to negative utilitarianism is Rawls’ theory of justice. Rawls’ engagement for human rights and his difference principle reduce suffering as well, but circumvent the totalitarian potential of consequentialism. The liberty principle guarantees that Buddhists, Stoics, Nietzscheans and Freudians can peacefully live together, and the difference principle assures that they all contribute to the welfare of the worst-off. Rawls theory raises a claim on objectivity and is associated with the term common good.

         Can negative utilitarianism be reconciled with a concept like Rawls’ Justice as Fairness? See Negative Utilitarianism and Justice.

         Under which premises could Buddhism be reconciled with Rawls’ Justice as Fairness? See Secular Buddhism and Justice.



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 non-biological 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)      Most people assign intrinsic value to life and for many of them their family is the prime source of meaning. Under these premises one could argue as follows:

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)     The prime biological goal is survival. 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].


Stanley Cavell suggests abandoning all predefined conceptions of the good. In accordance with Socrates a good life is characterized by the search for the good. The focus is on the way of thinking, rather than on a desired result; see Moral Perfectionism and Justice and The Good Life in Philosophical Films.






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Further Reading


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

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

3.      Faust Volker, Psychosoziale Gesundheit

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

5.      Hampe Michael (2015), Therapeutic Understanding of Philosophy, ETH, Switzerland

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

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

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

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








The Buddhist Influence on Hellenistic Ethics


Ancient Indian Dialogues on Wisdom