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Philosophy as Therapy – Introduction


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





Table of Contents




1.      History of Philosophical Therapy

 1.1  Timeline

 1.2  The Notion of Philosophy

 1.3  The Notion of Therapy

 1.4  Models of Philosophical Therapy

2.      Basics

 2.1  Definition

 2.2  Therapeutic Goals

 2.3  Therapeutic Methods

 2.4  Indications

 2.5  Comparison with Psychotherapy

 2.6  Comparison with Religion

3.      Therapy as Search for Knowledge

 3.1  The Search for Truth

 3.2  The Search for the Good

 3.3  Ways of Thinking

 3.4  Representational Clarity

4.      Therapy as Risk Ethics

 4.1  Definition

 4.2  Buddha

 4.3  Roman Stoics

 4.4  Nietzsche

 4.5  Freud

 4.6  Cross Comparison

5.      Conclusion



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?



Philosophy as therapy

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.



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.


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.


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.






1. History of Philosophical Therapy



1.1  Timeline



Ancient India

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 2006, 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].

Knowing the “supreme reality” means knowing the path to the liberation from suffering – that is the claim of the Samkhya doctrine.

-        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.



Middle East

The Therapeutae were a Jewish sect which flourished in Alexandria and other parts of the Diaspora of Hellenistic Judaism in the final years of the Second Temple period. The term Therapeutes means one who is attendant to the gods, although the term, and the related adjective therapeutikos carry in later texts the meaning of attending to heal, or treating in a spiritual or medical sense. The Therapeutae are described in De vita contemplativa ("On the contemplative life"), written in the first century A.D (…) The author was employing the familiar polarity in Hellenic philosophy between the active and the contemplative life, exemplifying the active life by the Essenes, another ascetic sect, and the contemplative life by the desert-dwelling Therapeutae (Therapeutae, Wikipedia)


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]

According to Lothar Baus the Therapeutae originally were Buddhist monks [Baus, 201].



Ancient Greece

The Hellenistic therapies emerged from the conflict between the representatives of the antique pagan world view and their critical-rationally arguing challengers. In the course of this development philosophy was stepwise detached from religion (except for pantheism) and “therapy as worship” became “therapy as an art of living”. Philosophers who specialized on ethics like Socrates, Pyrrho, the Cynics, the Stoics and Epicurus adopted a therapeutic function, which the priestly caste was not able to exercise. Today Hellenistic ethics is seen as an uncontroversial example of philosophical therapy [Banicki 2014, 22].

         With Socrates, one can see all of the components necessary for the construction of an art of living.

         In ancient philosophical sources, however, the idea of an “art of living” is primarily associated with the Stoics [Sellars, 55].



Middle Ages

According to Pierre Hadot the decline of philosophy as a way of life was caused by the rise of Christianity. Christianity positioned itself as a “philosophy” with its own regimen of spiritual exercises and spiritual goals. Christian interest in pagan philosophy was limited to its discourse [Zeyl].

Throughout the Middle Ages philosophy as a way of life survived in niches. Philosophers such as Peter Abelard and John of Salisbury drew upon the readily available Latin works of Cicero and Seneca, not only for philosophical ideas but also for an understanding of the nature and function of philosophy as such [Sellars].




         In the Renaissance conceptions similar to the ones of Abelard and Salisbury can be found in Petrarch’s On the Remedies of Both Kinds of Fortune and in the explicit attempt to create a Neostocism by Justus Lipsius [Sellars, 174-175]

         A clearly therapeutic conception of philosophy was promoted by the Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza in the 17th century [Spinoza] [Hampe, 2004]. Spinoza’s claim that knowledge of true causes of passive emotion can transform it to an active emotion anticipated one of the key ideas of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis. In contrast to the Stoics Spinoza maintained that strong emotions have to be controlled by opposing strong emotions. Consequently, if reason should control passion, then reason itself has to become a passion (Spinoza, Wikipedia).

         Spinoza’s monistic (pantheistic) concept was in conflict with the dualist theory of Descartes [Cottingham, 159-164]. Descartes prevailed in this competition and his methodical criticism could explain the subsequent academic refusal to work on therapeutic topics [Hampe 2015].



Late modern period

         With the translation of the Upanishads in the early 19th century they started to attract attention from a western audience, in particular the attention of Hegel, Schopenhauer and the transcendentalists (Upanishads, Wikipedia). Hegel was more impressed by the level of abstraction in some parts of the Upanishads, than by their therapeutic potential. He basically understood philosophy as an abstract system, constructed by a process of intellectual analysis [Sellars, 167].

Schopenhauer, in contrast, lamented that philosophy has been relegated to a purely abstract and theoretical subject, cut off from the goal that gave it its very raison d’être in earlier times, the goal of achieving a vision of reality that would lead to self-understanding and self-transformation. With Nietzsche’s existentialist approach philosophy finally returned to being a concrete attitude, a way of life and a way of seeing the world [Cottingham, 148-149].

         In the 20th century Ludwig Wittgenstein promoted the therapeutic understanding of philosophy by claiming 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, thereby unraveling the distortions of (philosophical) language.

         Under the influence of Nietzsche Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze conceived “practical philosophy” as a way of life in which philosophy and life are united. In this context Deleuze explicitly referred to Spinoza [Sellars, 3-4]. 

         Since the 1980s the so-called “ivory-tower philosophy” is challenged by a movement in practical philosophy called philosophical counseling or philosophical practice.




1.2  The Notion of Philosophy



Greek philosophy

The French philosopher and Historian of philosophy Pierre Hadot showed that the key to understanding the original philosophical impulse is to be found in Socrates. What characterizes Socratic therapy above all is the importance given to living contact between human beings. Hadot's recurring theme is that philosophy in Antiquity was characterized by a series of spiritual exercises intended to transform the perception, and therefore the being, of those who practice it; that philosophy is best pursued in real conversation and not through written texts and lectures; and that philosophy, as it is taught in universities today, is for the most part a distortion of its original, therapeutic impulse. He brings these concerns together in What Is Ancient Philosophy? which has been critically reviewed (Pierre Hadot, Wikipedia)

Hadot’s analysis of ancient spiritual exercises influenced Michel Foucault’s interest in such practices.


A critical review was written, amongst others, by the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum. She asked:

“How can the daily life of an ancient philosopher be distinguished from the daily life of a religious sectarian?”

According to Martha Nussbaum philosophical practice is characterized by arguments, precise reasoning, logical rigor and definitional precision. Building an art of living is not specific to philosophy, it has to be an art that is committed to the truth (in contrast to religion, astrology etc.).

Nussbaum suggests that if one does not emphasize the role of reason in ancient philosophy then an ancient philosophical way of life will become indistinguishable from ancient religious ways of life. Hadot and Foucault are unable to account for the difference between the sorts of ascetic exercises undertaken by, say, the Desert Fathers, and a properly philosophical exercise [Sellars, 117]


According to Pierre Hadot and Michel Foucault the focus on arguments is typical for the analytical branch of contemporary philosophy and is not suited for the study of ancient philosophy [Banicki 2015, 612]. But what is a philosophical argument? According to Nussbaum “philosophical argument” means

         Practice of argumentation

         Psychological interaction aimed at personal and societal change

Ancient philosophers want to distinguish themselves from magicians and sophists, but they are aware that there is a personal frame and an interpersonal, historical and cultural context. That shifts the philosopher’s interest to psychology and the effectiveness of arguments: rhetorical, narrative, imaginary, mnemonic. Literary and rhetoric techniques are essential. A therapeutic argument cannot be understood without its context. Arguments are not timeless and abstract. Philosophical arguments are inherently personal, responsive to the particular case. Most classical philosophical arguments can easily be discussed without reference to their recipient and author. In case of the therapeutic argument this is impossible [Banicki 2015, 618-620].


         This interpretation of the term philosophical argument moves Nussbaum’s position closer to the one of Hadot and Foucault.

         At the same time Hadot’s and Foucault’s position is moved closer to the one of Nussbaum, because there is evidence that they did not neglect the role of reason in ancient philosophy [Banicki 2015, 622-624] [Sellars, 115-118].

Banicki concludes that Nussbaum’s, Hadot’s and Foucault’s interpretations of Greek philosophy are not as distant after all [Banicki 2015, 604]. But that is only true for the interpretation of the philosophical discourse. There remains a disagreement with regard the importance of theory versus practice:


Ancient philosophers emphasize that acting is more important than reasoning. Theory is in the service of practice [Banicki 2015, 614-617]. One cannot claim that one has genuinely philosophical knowledge unless one produces a way of life which is authentically philosophical [Banicki 2015, 625-626]. Philosophy, in the words of Seneca “teaches us to act, not to speak” [Banicki 2015, 613].

         Nussbaum – in the tradition of Aristotle – considers discourse to be the essence of a philosopher’s life [Banicki 2015, 615]. In Aristotle’s world view intellectual activity is ranked higher than practical activity.

         Hadot, in contrast, assigns a secondary and derivative character to intellectual activity. 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 Nussbaum underestimates the importance of practice. The right way of living cannot be found solely by arguments, even if these arguments have a practical goal and are inherently personal and responsive to the particular case. The validity of philosophical arguments has to be verified in a concrete implementation (exercise, experiment, daily life). A major part of ethical knowledge is emotional knowledge and can only be acquired in practice. When ancient philosophers like Socrates declared that acting is more important than reasoning [Sellars, 49, 52] then they meant that only practical life can decide, if the theoretical reasoning was correct [Sellars, 170].


The ancient emphasis on practice anticipates the stance of contemporary pragmatists. The following statement of John Dewey may serve as an example:

Theory is an abstraction from direct experience and ultimately must return to inform experience.” (Pragmatism, Wikipedia).



Buddhist philosophy

Similar to Hadot’s and Foucault’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].



Comparison with modern philosophy

         The conception of philosophy as a highly abstruse, technical and specialist activity with little or no bearing on the individual’s experience has become dominant only in comparatively recent times. The tendency for philosophy to be divorced from the concerns of everyday life has occurred especially since the European Enlightenment and the advent of professionalized philosophy as an academic, secular discipline which often allies itself with scientific analysis.

         By contrast, pre-Enlightenment thinkers in many cases saw it as the purpose of philosophy to address matters of ultimate concern to individuals – matters what might be termed sense in life questions [Burton, 189].


         In ancient times doing philosophy was a way of living; i.e. it was not restricted to an intellectual activity [Hadot] [Sellars, 6, 171, 175]. This definition assigns a high significance to the philosopher’s biography. Philosophical doctrines are primarily expressed in one’s behavior. It enables one – in the words of Nietzsche – to examine a philosopher through what he did, rather than what he said, let alone what he wrote. Biographical literature and anecdotal material such as Xenophon’s Memorabilia or Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers are accordingly instructive [Sellars, 171-172].

         For modern philosophers like Hegel and Bernard Williams the idea that there is a relationship between philosophy and an individual’s biography merely indicates a weakness in the philosophical position in question [Sellars, 167].


         Some philosophers (e.g. existentialists and pragmatists) think philosophy is ultimately a practical discipline that should help us lead meaningful lives by showing us who we are, how we relate to the world around us, and what we should do.

         Analytic philosophers, in contrast, see philosophy as a technical, formal, and entirely theoretical discipline, with goals such as "the disinterested pursuit of knowledge for its own sake”.

(Metaphilosophy, Wikipedia)

The existentialist and pragmatist view accords well with the ancient notion of philosophy.


In ancient Greece the feedback from practical life 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 Nussbaum’s “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. Following some examples:




1.3  The Notion of 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].



Hellenistic ethics as therapy

The ancient Greek world view was life-affirmative and polytheistic and it is unclear to what extent Socrates was still a pagan believer. Although he applied his criticism rather to the social class of the priests than to religion, many of his contemporaries considered him to be an atheist [Bremmer, 12]. Similar to Buddha he turned away from metaphysical speculations and concentrated on ethics. With the ascent of the natural sciences critical-rational thinking became even more important:

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 – morally and in terms of happiness (…).

         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 (…). In ancient Athens thirty percent of the population was slaves.

Philosophers were more like psychotherapists. Unlike priests and ministers today, the priests of the ancient world did not provide pastoral counseling (Frank Kyle, 441). Doing philosophy included contemplative and meditative practice [Hadot].

Stoicism – possibly influenced by Indian philosophers – created meaning by a pantheistic world view.

It is generally regarded that Hindu religious texts are the oldest known literature containing pantheistic ideas (Pantheism, Wikipedia)

Pantheism is easier to reconcile with natural sciences than polytheism.



Buddhist and Hellenistic risk-aversion

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, see The Moral Ideal of the Complete Life.



Comparison with contemporary therapies

Historically philosophical therapy started as a soteriological mission, closely affiliated with religion. Knowing the “supreme reality” means knowing the path to the liberation from suffering – that is the claim of the rationalist Hindu philosophy (Samkhya), which could be at the root of Buddhism [Baus 2006, 43-44]. In this context the term self-realization relates to a radically different notion of the self:

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

         In the modern understanding (Nietzsche, Freud), however, the art of living is the fabrication of a personality for oneself. The “true self” emerges from an authentic discovery of one’s individuality [Martin, 27-28].


Similarly the term liberation from suffering has a very different meaning than in contemporary therapies:

         The ancient understanding of liberation is „liberation of the mind from the body” respectively “liberation of the spiritual from the material”.

According to Plotinus it is possible to understand ourselves as elements in a larger world. Civil virtue requires us to prefer public duties to our lesser, personal attachments. But there are at least three reasons to reckon that even this service is parochial:

o   However glorious our city, its service may be corrupting

o   All moral action is inferior, dependent of the existence of evils that no truly virtuous person could desire to exist

o   All action is uncertain, we can never be sure of its outcome

The moral ideal is the detached, contemplative life, the life of a resident alien rather than the life of a citizen [Clark, 97].

In ancient times uncontrolled desires/passions were the prime source of (avoidable) suffering.

         Nietzsche and Freud, however, developed their philosophies in a historical environment where the repression of desires had become a problem. Their therapeutic method accordingly consists in liberating and enforcing desires, by disclosing the destructive effects of morality, social control and indoctrination [Pearson, 139, 142-143]. The value of personal attachments is rediscovered at the cost of civil virtue and spiritual goals.




Ancient concepts of self-realization are in conflict with modern concepts. In modern Western ethics

         the Stoic notion of self-realization is rather associated with self-restriction

         the therapeutic goal of Buddhism is rather associated with selflessness.




1.4  Models of Philosophical Therapy


In the antiquity there were at least three models of the therapeutic process:



The Buddhist model

One model of philosophical practice is the soteriology made famous by the Buddha as the ‘four noble truths’, consisting in accounts of suffering, the causes of suffering, liberation from suffering, and the path from suffering to liberation in the shape of eight sorts of ‘right understanding’. [Ganeri, 122-123]. The Buddhist model accords well with the original meaning of the word therapy, because it reflects the close relation between philosophy and religion in the antiquity.

Buddhism argues that our suffering is a result of deep attachment to uncontrollable and unreliable things. Buddhist philosophical therapy is, in this respect, about cultivating an attitude of “letting go”. The things that we think matter so much are not worth being anxious, unhappy, and angry about (…). Emotions and desires are expressions of our interpretation of the world. If our interpretation is out of accord with the way the world really is, then unhappiness will result [Burton, 192].


For detailed information see Noble Eightfold Path and Buddhist meditation.



The Stoic model

Stoicism, as well as Buddhism, may have been influenced by the Samkhya doctrine [Baus]. In Stoicism the therapeutic process is associated with 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]. The goal of a Stoic therapy is apatheia, a state without suffering (literally without passion). Note that the ancient meaning of passion was anguish or suffering, i.e. passively reacting to external events – somewhat different from the modern use of the word (Stoicism, Wikipedia).



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]. The translation of theoretical understanding into practical ability requires training or exercise [Sellars, 107-108, 119]. Consequently there are two distinct forms of philosophical texts:

         Philosophical theory:

o   Treatises such as those produced by Aristotle, Chrysippus, or Hierocles

o   Commentaries, such as those produced by Alexander of Aphrodisias or Simplicius.

         Description of philosophical exercises:

o   Instructional texts directed towards training, such as the Enchiridion (Handbook) of Epictetus

o   Texts where the act of writing itself can be seen to constitute the exercise, such as Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

[Sellars, 126-127]


Philosophical exercises can be subdivided into

         Exercises for the soul (spiritual exercises), 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 dialogue existed for the sake of spiritual guidance [Zeyl].

         Exercises for the body (physical exercises), thought to impact the soul at the same time. All physical training involves an element of spiritual exercise [Sellars, 113].


Philosophical exercises aim at the change of one’s habits. Typical Stoic aims are the following [Sellars, 120, 135, 137].

         Self-control in difficult situations, control of desires and aversions, control to act or not to act.

         Critical reflection of one’s judgments, freedom from deception and hasty judgment.

         Awareness of transience, acceptance of the fact that all living beings have to die.

The overall goal is to detach life satisfaction from external circumstances and bring one’s will in harmony with the will of the cosmos [Sellars, 141].



The medical model

The other is a model of medicine found in the treatises of the physicians, according to which there is an account of disease, the causes of disease, health or ‘freedom from disease’, and the treatment of disease [Ganeri, 122-123].


Medical analogies are commonly invoked in both Buddhist dharma [Gowans, 17-18] [Burton, 187] and Hellenistic philosophy. Cicero and Galen expressed the view of many Hellenistic philosophers when they described philosophy as a medical science for the mind [Sellars, 64-68]. The most general form of analogy may be stated as follows:


“Just as medicine cures bodily diseases and brings about physical health, so Buddhist Dharma and Hellenistic philosophy cure mental diseases and bring about psychological health” [Gowans, 11].


The medical model can be used as analogy for the Buddhist model, if the four Noble Truths are interpreted as diagnosis, etiology, prognosis and prescription [Gethin, 63-64] [Burton, 187]. Another example stems from Epicurus:





Empty are the words of that philosopher

who offers no therapy for human suffering.


For just as there is no use in medical expertise

if it does not give therapy for bodily diseases,

so too there is no use in philosophy

if it does not expel the suffering of the soul.


Epicurus [Long and Sedley, 155]





For Nussbaum, Hadot and Foucault ancient philosophical therapy is a therapy of passions/desires, which can be understood in analogy to medical therapy [Banicki 2015, 627-628]. Konrad Banicki suggests that the structure constituted by the three concepts health ideal, disease and process of treatment seems to be generally accepted in thinking about medicine or therapy of any kind. Consequently he demands that a therapeutic vision of philosophy has to identify the diseases it attempts at curing [Banicki 2014, 14-15]. Such a requirement, however, overstretches the analogy with the medical model, see chapter 2.5.




2. Basics



2.1  Definition


The history of philosophical therapy suggests that there are at least two possible definitions (see chapter 1.4):

1.      A narrower definition, which associates philosophical therapy with the cure of a mental disease (medical model)

2.      A wider definition, which associates philosophical therapy with the cure of suffering (Buddhist and Stoic model).


According to Christopher Gowans “the medical analogy does not have as much importance as its intuitive appeal and the frequency with which it was invoked might lead one to suspect” [Gowans, 12]. John Sellars suggests that “the prevalence of the medical model in the antiquity reflects the influence of Socrates who hints at the analogy but who would not have engaged in the careful analysis of the status of medicine begun by Plato and taken to its heights in later authors such as Galen and Alexander of Aphrodisias” [Sellars, 74].  There are significant disanalogies between medical therapy and philosophical therapy (see chapter 2.2).


The medical model is a metaphor which covers only one among several aspects of therapeutic philosophy. Whereas the notion of “disease” (and the corresponding notion of the “right way of living”) changes considerably in the course of history, the goal to reduce suffering by means of knowledge is vastly undisputed and survived all times. With regard to contemporary philosophical therapy it is therefore recommendable, to apply the wider definition of therapy. The reinterpretation of specific desires/emotions (or suffering in general) as “disease” in ancient therapies is first and foremost of historical interest.


Philosophy as therapy = Philosophy as a means to cure (or reduce) suffering.


In this 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].






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].


For more arguments in favor of above definition see Philosophy as Therapy – A Review.




There is no consistent usage of terms in the context of philosophy as 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




         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)




2.2  Therapeutic Goals


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].

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 the character has to change. “Self-transformation changes the internal disposition that determines the way in which one responds to external events” [Sellars, 83]. The following therapies aim at self-transformation:



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], Freud [Hampe 2007].

Therapies of desire [Nussbaum] tend to be normative; therapies for Western 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 fundamentally different from therapies, which help accepting the dissolution of the self.




2.3  Therapeutic Methods


Methods depend on the goal to be pursued.

The following table refers to the Western understanding of “self-realization”, see chapter 1.3.







Related Psychotherapy




Realistic assessment of one’s own character


Language Analysis

 Diagnostic talk




Strengthening of the Ego against the pressures of sexual drives and moral norms

Free association and Hermeneutics




Affirmation of life as will to power


Moral criticism


 Existential therapy


Self-restriction (Self-control)

Elimination of inadequate desires/emotions


Stoic asceticism


behavioral therapies




Insight into non-selfhood (Anatta) and development of compassion

Insight meditation

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy



Table from Philosophy as Therapy – A Review



Wittgenstein’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 therapies. Because “clarity” is an aesthetic criterion, Wittgenstein’s method is sometimes called aesthetic [Peterman, 121].




2.4  Indications



General indication

A general indication is the existential crisis, which is caused by the loss of religious and secular scenarios of salvation, and the corresponding loss of meaning [Van Hooft, 22]. The scientific demystification of nature and the cultural evolution of suffering suggest that the suffering in this world might be invincible and without a sense. Philosophical therapy has a certain potential to substitute unrealistic world views and helps to cope with cultural pessimism.


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].



Character-specific indications

Character-specific indications are the result of a diagnostic talk (possibly using Socrates’ Maieutics). Following some examples:

-        The Stoic therapy is indicated, if an individual causes harm due to aggression or anger [Nussbaum].

-        The Buddhist therapy is indicated, if an individual suffers from obsession or excess-activity and corresponding mental exhaustion.

-        Freud’s therapy is indicated, if an individual tends towards alienation or neurotic symptoms [Cavell, 299].

-        Nietzsche’s therapy is indicated if an individual suffers from fatalism, stagnation or passivity.



Normative therapies


Individualistic therapies



Therapy of Obsession





Therapy of Fatalism





Therapy of Aggression




Therapy of Alienation






The above mentioned therapies are necessarily opposing:

1)      Alienation can be seen as an undesirable form of social disengagement, obsession as an undesirable form of social engagement.

a)      The therapy of alienation requires (social) engagement

b)      The therapy of obsession requires disengagement

2)      Fatalism can be seen as an expression of powerlessness, aggression as an expression of power.

a)      The therapy of fatalism requires a gain in power

b)      The therapy of aggression requires a renouncement to power



Philosophy-specific indication

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 cognitive psychology and language analysis, see quietism (Fischer uses the term therapeutic philosophy exclusively for this kind of therapy). Obviously a philosopher can be a pathogenic agent, a patient or a therapist, depending on his/her way to do philosophy [Gunnarsson] [Fischer, 53].


Problems with uncontrolled cognitive processes (like false analogies) are not only known in philosophy, but also in disciplines like mathematics and computer programming. But what is the gain in introducing the terms health ideal and disease in this context? Cognitive disturbance, disquiet and bewilderment may certainly contribute to emotional and behavioral problems [Gunnarsson] [Fischer, 53] but it is not sufficient to explain the emergence of mental illness. The majority of philosophers, mathematicians and programmers cope with their problems or reach for help before getting ill. Associating a certain mental state with a disease is a strong normative claim. In our view contemporary philosophical therapy should not distinguish between different mental diseases – that is the task of psychotherapy – but between different kinds of suffering/risk, caused by different ways of living.




2.5  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].




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 (see chapter 1).

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].

The Platonic (possibly not the historical) Socrates suggested that politics is an art which takes care of the soul. While legislation preserves the good of the soul, justice restores it [Sellars, 40-42]. Aristoteles can be seen as political philosopher for similar reasons [Zeyl].


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 corresponding terms.

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].




         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.

         Psychotherapy is a specialized field within the social sciences.

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.




2.6  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. Buddhist meditation is a form of mysticism.




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. In contrast, the Orthodox Jew cannot lose his/her relation to God and the Zen Buddhist cannot lose his/her relation to the emptiness of the universe [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].


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 The Price of Liberation, 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 meditation form. From his 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.




3. Therapy as Search for Knowledge



3.1  The Search for Truth


All forms of philosophical therapy attempt to adjust the agent’s perception to a critical-rational world view, i.e. they confront him-/her with the reality principle. All philosophers mentioned in chapter 2.3 search for the truth, but they concentrate on a different aspect of reality:




         Buddhists observe 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 Negative Utilitarianism and Buddhist Intuition.

         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. A Buddhist considers the self to be an illusion and the identification with the self’s desires to be irrational. Liberation has to come from inside.





René Magritte  La Promesse



Roman Stoicism

         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].

Roman Stoicism (ca. 27 B.C.-180 A.D.) – in contrast to early Stoicism – is characterized by the engagement for marriage, family and politics.

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].




         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.

         Another important influence 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)





A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows

that faith does not prove anything


Friedrich Nietzsche





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)

         Nietzsche vigorously attacks the "free will" of the theologians that is designed to make men "guilty" in the eyes of God. But he also warns against a naturalism that makes man a simple mechanism governed by cause and effect (The Information Philosopher).




         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].

         Psychoanalysis navigates in the opposite direction of Buddhism and strives to raise consciousness of repressed desires. 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)

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




In the Hindu metaphor of the “world theatre” the therapy as search for truth 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

         Modern therapies: change roles and influence the script.

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




3.2  The Search for the Good




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)


For believers the ethical guidelines are given. The search for a good life is a sign of ideological uncertainty. For many people the loss of faith causes an existential crisis in view of the suffering and injustice in this world. It is unclear to which extent Socrates was still a pagan believer, but it is evident that he was looking for a new and reliable orientation. 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 primarily a search for the “objectively” good.


The generic name for the craft concerned with the good of the soul is politiké, the art of life, subdivided into legislation, which promotes the good of the soul (as gymnastics promotes the good of the body), and justice, which preserves it (as medicine preserves the good of the body) [Taylor, 47].


The Platonic Socrates’ good can be characterized as follows:

1.      He believes that the objective good exists.

2.      He is aware that he does not know it, and possibly never will.

3.      He associates the good life with the search for the good, independent of project’s success.



Normative therapies

The normative approach maintains – in accordance with Socrates – that there are objective criteria for a good life.

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

In chapter 3.1 we mentioned two normative concepts: Buddhism and Roman Stoicism.

1.      Given the uncertainty about the cultural evolution of suffering we do not know if Buddhism or Roman Stoicism is morally preferable. In a pessimistic scenario the (early) Buddhist ideal of childlessness is more convincing than taking the responsibility for a family and then struggling for equanimity.

2.      Buddhism, in contrast to Roman Stoicism adheres to the ethical ideal of non-violence. We do not know under what circumstances and to what extent violence can be justified.

Given this uncertainty, the (Socratic) search for ethical knowledge [Tayor, 60] becomes an objective criterion for a good life. Both, Buddhism and Roman Stoicism, have to be adapted to contemporary scientific and ethical knowledge (chapter 4.2 and 4.3).



Individualistic therapies

In therapies where cultural norms and the lack of authenticity are seen as a source of suffering (see chapter 3.1, Nietzsche, Freud) the prime therapeutic goal is the liberation from false authorities and the improvement of self-knowledge. The question of objectivity is rather raised at the end of the therapy than at the beginning [Van Hooft, 28]. An individualistic concept for developing morality, called moral perfectionism, is proposed by the American philosopher Stanley Cavell. Cavell calls Socrates and Plato a forerunner [Cavell, 445-447]. The term perfectionism stands for the effort to improve and is reminiscent of Socrates’ endeavor (virtue) to improve ethical knowledge [Taylor, 60]. The (lifelong) search process is individualistic, but – by referencing Plato – Cavell suggests that it leads to objective criteria for a good life.

For more information on Cavell’s concept see Moral Perfectionism and Justice.

For concrete examples see The Good Life in Philosophical Films.




The distinction between normative and individualistic therapies can be explained with the subtle, but important distinction between the Socratic and Stoic conception of philosophy [Sellars, 167-168]:

         Socratic conception: According to Socrates philosophy as an art of living is an activity that aspires to wisdom. It is a method and not a goal. This agrees with the etymological sense of the word philosophy which is “love for wisdom”.

The Socratic philosopher is not wise, but possesses the self-awareness of lacking wisdom, and thus pursues it (Sage, Wikipedia)

Socrates (and later Wittgenstein) discovered that the process of searching the truth has a therapeutic effect.

         Stoic conception: According to Zeno philosophy represents wisdom. (Stoic) philosophy is the time-tested result of numerous search processes, exemplarily represented by Stoic sages. The Stoic therapists thought to know the risks in life, and the best way to master them.



Value pluralism

A different approach – particularly in times of uncertainty – consists in leaving the idea of a single ethical ideal (like Aristotle’s complete life) and accepting that there are conflicting and yet defensible forms of a good life.

Value pluralism contends that there are two or more genuine scales of value, knowable as such, yet incommensurable, so that any prioritization of these values is either non-cognitive or subjective. A value pluralist might, for example, contend that both a life as a nun and a life as a mother realize genuine values (in a universalistic sense), yet they are incompatible and there is no purely rational measure of which is preferable (Meta-Ethics, Wikipedia).

Value pluralism does not exclude that the incompatible forms of a good life share values like human rights (see Moral Universalism, Wikipedia)


In order to illustrate value pluralism we use a structure which is taken from Hinduism. The Hindu life goals – called Purusarthas – are based on a more than two thousand years old experience and can be regarded as a result of anthropology. The tension between the affirmation and denial of the (material) world is typical for Hinduism:





Liberation from suffering





Power and wealth





Comply with the law

 Roman Stoics




Love and desire





Each of the therapies discussed in this paper can be assigned to one of the Hindu life goals:

 1.     Freud can be assigned to Kama because of the central role of the pleasure principle and sexuality in psychoanalysis. Adopting Freud’s point of view means accepting the importance of sexuality and getting engaged in a partnership.

2.      Nietzsche can be assigned to Artha because of the central role of the will to power. Adopting Nietzsche’s point of view means accepting the importance of power (influence in its widest sense) and getting engaged in creative competition.

3.      Roman Stoics can be assigned to the Dharma because their concern for the family, the community and the state corresponds to the Dharma in Hinduism.

4.      Buddha can be assigned to Moksha because his prime goal is the liberation from suffering. Adopting Buddha’s point of view means changing the perception of the material world.

These assignments suggest that value pluralism not only exists within the community (in the form of conflicting philosophies) but also within the psyche of each single individual. The Hindu value pluralism, however, is restricted by the Dharma and is therefore far from moral relativism. In contemporary philosophy the Dharma has to be replaced by an ethics of reason like Rawls’ theory of justice, which includes human rights.




3.3  Ways of Thinking


Concerning Socrates see The Socratic Way of Thinking.


The philosophers mentioned in chapter 2 use several methods to gain insight, but they emphasize one of them:


Spinoza (who was influenced by the Stoics) spent much time and energy on deriving rational conclusions from axioms (see Ethics), whereas Nietzsche spent most of his time on questioning axioms (and even rationality).







  of value





  disclose values




creative, antithetic thinking

  contest values




analytical, deductive thinking

  derive values




insight meditation


  release values



Each method is linked to a goal and provides corresponding insights. But each method also has its limitations and may prevent insights into a different area:


1.      A person who is in a free-association mood, neglects analytical thinking.

2.      A person who is in a problem-solving mood, cannot gain meditative insight.


Ancient philosophers combined analytical and meditative methods:

         Buddhism aims at spiritual liberation but uses analytical methods to understand the material world.

         Stoicism, with its emphasis on reason, included spiritual exercises similar to some forms of Eastern meditation (see Stoicism, Wikipedia)

Modern philosophers replace meditation by different forms of mental liberation:

         Freud’s psychoanalysis represents interplay of analytical thinking and free-association.

         In Nietzsche’s work we find a combination of grim analytical diagnosis and dreamlike break-outs.


There are some theses about the relation between moods and methods of thinking. It seems that

         an optimistic mood tends to induce creative thinking and

         a slightly depressive mood tends to induce analytical thinking


Possibly the converse is also true

         Creative thinking (e.g. free association) induces an optimistic mood

         Analytical thinking induces a slightly depressive (cramped) mood




3.4  Representational Clarity



Socrates and Wittgenstein

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].


The ancient observation that language analysis and the dissolution of dogmatic views can have a therapeutic effect [Kuzminski, 44] was resumed by Nietzsche, Freud, Wittgenstein and Cavell. Language can either support or hinder the insight, which is required to change one’s way of living. The term language includes metaphorical, pictorial and visual language. Cavell for example attempts to describe life forms and self-transformation by means of films, see The Good Life in Philosophical Films.



Let us assume that Socrates’ “essence of human existence” can be described by the therapeutic methods of chapter 2.3 and that the corresponding philosophies represent Wittgensteinian “forms of life”. Ancient and modern philosophers characterized the “essence of human existence” by the term self-realization. Given the contradicting meanings of this term (see chapter 1.5), language analysis is a prerequisite for taking an authentic choice.


It has to be emphasized, though, that language analysis is not sufficient to change one’s way of living. Language analysis is only therapeutically effective, if the cognitive insight is accompanied with a change of emotion. Self-transformation is an emotional process and not just an intellectual activity. The emotional process may require openness, spontaneity and experiments or – in the case of normative therapies – concentration, self-discipline and exercises.




Language is a means and serves a purpose. One of these purposes is to implement repression.

         Intentional repression can be implemented by excluding undesired terms/associations from the language.

         Conversely non-intentional repression can be removed by rediscovering the previously undesired terms/associations.

Language accordingly supports or hinders the insight, which is required to change one’s way of living.



         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. But from an impartial view neither the Western nor the Buddhist language can be characterized as “disease-causing”. Both philosophies may be unproblematic for a majority and harmful for a specific person. If – for this specific person – the pressure of suffering becomes too high, then philosophical therapy can cure or reduce suffering by disclosing an alternative way of living



Non-intentional analogical reasoning

Structural analogies are forged by metaphorical extension [Fischer, 63]. Metaphors which were initially applied to concrete or familiar things or actions (like “grasp a stone to throw”) are extended to abstract or new concepts (like “grasp the implications of a claim”). Much of our “mental vocabulary” is recruited in this way from the domains of manipulation and perception [Fischer, 60]. In the moment where we engage in philosophical reflection, we are prone to unwittingly mishandle such analogies, in what cognitive psychologists call “non-intentional analogical reasoning” [Fischer, 63, 66].


Problems with false analogies can be solved by becoming aware of the non-intentional reasoning, possibly with the help of an advanced philosopher. If, for example, a student were bewildered because of John Locke’s conception of the mind – which rests on the false analogy between intellectual and perceptional activities – then he could be reassured by a philosopher with advanced knowledge in cognitive linguistics and cognitive psychology [Fischer, 60].



Intentionally distorted language

Since philosophical therapy has a political dimension, it not only investigates the language of the patient, but also the language of his/her environment. In practical philosophy – as well as in theoretical philosophy (example above) – we may be guided by false analogies and dubious connotations which are embedded in the meaning of words and pictures [Fischer, 60]. The distortion of language is a well-known means to indoctrinate, oppress and mislead people.


One of the most famous examples in this context is the entry gate to the Auschwitz I Schutzhaftlager, or Protective Custody Camp, with its infamous "Arbeit macht frei" sign over the entry (this phrase, found also at other concentration camps, can be translated as "Work makes you free / Work sets you free" or "Work brings freedom") (Auschwitz-Birkenau, by Geoff Walden)






By disassociating tranquility therapies 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 using the wider definition of “therapy” (see chapter 3.1) and 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].




4. Therapy as Risk Ethics


There are things that cannot be changed. Many determinants of life satisfaction are uncontrollable.

We can, however, influence probabilities by changing our way of living.


Risk ethics suggests that agents should be as well-informed as possible, in taking their decisions.

This chapter clarifies the chances and risks of each philosophy, so that we can make an authentic choice.



4.1  Definition


         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.


Therapeutic goals are characterized by chances and risks, and not by a health ideal.

         Therapies of desire [Nussbaum] tend to be normative.

Normative therapies (Buddha, Roman Stoicism) are characterized by a specific time-tested solution for dealing with risks. However, Buddhism and Roman Stoicism are just two among a wide variety of ancient philosophical schools, which correspond to various personality types or attitudes [Chase, 263]. The decision to adopt an ancient ethical ideal can be as authentic as the decision to develop an individualistic lifestyle [Sellars, 170].

         Therapies of repression tend to be individualistic.

Individualistic therapies (Nietzsche, Freud) 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. An individualistic therapy does not promote but also does not exclude the re-discovery of ancient ethical ideals.



4.2  Buddha



Therapeutic goal

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].


Buddhism argues that our suffering is a result of deep attachment to uncontrollable and unreliable things. Buddhist philosophical therapy is, in this respect, about cultivating an attitude of “letting go”. The things that we think matter so much are not worth being anxious, unhappy, and angry about (…). Emotions and desires are expressions of our interpretation of the world. If our interpretation is out of accord with the way the world really is, then unhappiness will result [Burton, 192].





If thou wilt make a man happy, do not add to his riches

but take away from his desires.


Epicurus, but clearly Buddhist origin





Therapeutic method

         Among the uncontrollable and unreliable things are sexual relations and material property. Buddhist schools developed a strategy to reduce risk by reducing social commitments [Beckwith, 46, 93].  

         The Eightfold Path – in particular meditation – can be understood as a therapeutic method for the liberation from suffering. The core idea is a (preferably painless) elimination of desires and corresponding risks. The elimination is less painless, if it is reached by insight, rather than moral ban or confrontation with the outside world. The release of irrational attachments causes a feeling of liberation. The desire for enlightenment and the desire to help other sentient beings are not irrational, and therefore excluded from the elimination [Burton, 194]. Consequently a Buddhist therapy also does not aim at the extinguishment of all emotions [Burton, 195]. Progress on the path to liberation is only possible on the basis of ethical conduct in daily life. Ethical conduct causes a state of remorselessness and corresponding inner calm.

         The most important method of meditation in Buddhism is Vipassana:

Vipassanā (Pāli) in the Buddhist tradition means insight into the true nature of reality, namely the three marks of existence:

o   impermanence

o   suffering or unsatisfactoriness, and

o   the realization of non-self

For a short description and references see Vipassana.

         Buddhism found a way how to cope with cultural pessimism by changing the perception of the world and moving to a different (mystic) state of consciousness.



Secular Buddhism

         Secular Buddhism is ethics for people who cannot accept the suffering in this world and who believe that we are trapped in a hedonistic treadmill instead of progressing towards (technological) salvation; see The Cultural Evolution of Suffering and Negative Utilitarianism and Buddhist Intuition.

         The everyday life of a secular Buddhist could be called compassionate and risk-averse (in particular by avoiding violence) but does not ask for self-destructive asceticism [Burton, 211]. The Eightfold Path is still valid but the worldview is adapted to contemporary scientific knowledge.

         Secular spirituality may (partly) replace religious spirituality. From a secular perspective the spiritual world does not exist in the hereafter, but in the brains of all people who strive to liberate the mind from the body. Individuals come and go, but the vision of a world without suffering remains. The (imagined) liberation from suffering is a possible source of well-being, just as well as the kind of happiness that goes with life’s biological destination.

         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.

         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]. Secular Buddhism tends to be less skeptical and does not exclude political activity [Burton, 214]. The Engaged Buddhism movement, for example, assumes that even if the world will never be good, it is still possible to make it “less evil”.



Related psychotherapy

Mindfulness and meditation, have been "directly inspired from the Buddhist tradition" and have been widely promoted by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to have a positive impact on several psychiatric problems such as depression and therefore has formed the basis of mindfulness programs such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction (Neural mechanisms of mindfulness meditation, Wikipedia)




4.3  Roman Stoics


Early Stoic ethics is similar to Buddhist and Cynic ethics.

Roman Stoicism is characterized by the influence of the Romans on Stoicism, starting with the rise of the Roman empire about 27 B.C. The duty to the partner (marriage), the family (children) and to the state became of prime importance.



Therapeutic goal

         At the core of the Stoic therapy is the liberation from passions thru self-control, respectively self-restriction. According to Stoicism eudaimonia can only be achieved if the peace of mind is not disturbed by passions. The goal of the therapy is apatheia, a state without suffering (literally without passion), see Stoicism. Decisive for apathy is the insight that all external goods have no value for spiritual wellbeing (Affekt, Wikipedia) [Sellars, 154].

         There are good reasons to assume that Hellenistic philosophy was influenced by the Eastern tradition [McEvilley] [Clark, 84].

In the Stoic understanding the art of living is the discovery and exposition of something that pre-exists. 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].



Therapeutic method

       Stoicism tries to eliminate irrational desires. Similar to Buddhism, the elimination of desires should be achieved through knowledge and insight instead of moral commandments and prohibitions. Desires are irrational, if the risks are underestimated. The insight into transience leads to a weaker attachment to the world, but not to a complete abandonment.

       The Stoics avoid disappointment by attaching to timeless values. Stoics 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. Whereas the original Stoa was a center of dissident asceticism and social radicalism [Francis], the Roman Stoicism 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].

       Stoicism can be interpreted as a twofold strategy to deal with a superior combatant (nature):

1.      Identify with the combatant, perceive nature as divine

2.      Reorient aggression against the self, control the self

The reoriented aggression helps to gain power over the fate:

-       Independence from the inner world

The Stoics looked upon the passions as essentially irrational, and demanded their complete extirpation (Stoicism, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Note that the ancient meaning of passion was anguish or suffering, i.e. passively reacting to external events – somewhat different from the modern use of the word (Stoicism, Wikipedia).

-       Independence from the outside world

Asceticism can be interpreted as a fictitious adaptation to a scarce environment, a kind of exercise for times of privation or war. The Stoic self-control is not self-destructive – on the contrary – it serves survival. If individual projects fail, then self-control helps to maintain equanimity. Peace of mind comes out of the conviction to act in accordance with reason.

The controlled aggression and the accordance with the world as it is help to tolerate conditions that cannot be changed. The stability of the (Roman) Stoic state was guaranteed by a perception of the social status which has much in common with the Hindu caste system:





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.

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)

         Contemporary therapies using Stoic concepts adopt the paramount position of reason, but not the pantheistic background. As a consequence natural laws are considered to be indifferent rather than “good”.

         The Stoics were seeking for an objective judgment and created the rule "Follow where reason leads" (see Stoicism, Wikipedia). An objective judgment can be reached by perceiving the world from the perspective of an impartial observer (e.g. Rawls’ Original Position). As a consequence the ancient Stoic vision of society has to be revised (see Stoics do Care about Social Justice, by Eric O.Scott). Rawls’ Theory of Justice accords with the Roman Stoic cosmopolitanism insofar, as it resumes the tolerance relative to different religions and world views. Stoic virtues are promoted within a framework of tolerance.

         Stoicism was – before it turned agnostic during the Roman Civil Wars (44-30 BC) – 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 that can be changed. Decisive is the belief that the government of reason (value rationality, not instrumental rationality) is the best available option.




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




Related psychotherapy

Among modern psychological systems the closest parallels to the ancient therapy of intervention into the impulse-system are not found in psychoanalysis but in certain roughly behavioral therapies [McEvilley, 641].

For a description of contemporary therapies which are based on Stoicism see [Robertson]. Rational Emotive Therapy (RET) maintains that a person is rarely affected emotionally by outside things but rather by his/her perceptions, attitudes, or internalized sentences about outside things and events [McEvilley, 641].

The truths of Stoicism were perhaps best set forth by Epictetus, who in the first century A.D. wrote in the Enchiridion: “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them.” (REBT, Wikipedia) [Sellars, 155]

Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) does not use uncheckable concepts from psychodynamics (like energy balance, driving forces etc.) or from personality psychology (like narcissism, complexes etc.)

REBT as a cognitive-behavioral form of therapy has throughout many years of general research and outcome studies received a large degree of scientific testing, and substantial research has directly and indirectly confirmed its hypotheses (Rational emotive behavior therapy, Wikipedia)




4.4  Nietzsche



Therapeutic goal

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].

The core of his therapy is the affirmation of life as will to power. Following some concrete manifestations:

         Master morality:

A part of Nietzsche's remedy for nihilism is a revaluation of morals — he hoped that we are able to discard the old morality of equality and servitude and adopt a new code, turning Judeo-Christian morality on its head (…). Virtue is not to act according to what has been commanded, but to contribute to all that betters a human soul. Nietzsche attempts to reintroduce what he calls a master morality, which values personal excellence over forced compassion and creative acts of will over the herd instinct, a moral outlook he attributes to the ancient Greeks (Nihilism, Wikipedia)

         The truth:

Nietzsche's philosophy shares with nihilism a rejection of any perfect source of absolute, universal and transcendent values (…). However, recognizing the chaos of nihilism, he advocated a philosophy that willfully transcends it. Furthermore, his positive attitude towards truth as a vehicle of faith and belief distinguishes him from the extreme pessimism that nihilism is often associated with (Nihilism, Wikipedia)



Therapeutic method

         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.

         Competition plays an important role in Nietzsche’s concept of psychic health. He refers to the agonal nature of the Hellenistic culture, where events like the Ancient Olympic Games had a religious dimension. Although Nietzsche counts on the unconscious as a driving force, he strives to transform the biological competition into a cultural one. Master morality is the principle that allows succeeding in the cultural competition.

         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 (the truth) 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.

         The will to survive 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.



Related psychotherapy

The psychotherapy that comes closest to Nietzsche’s philosophy is existential therapy.

Existentialism suggests that it is possible for people to face the anxieties of life head-on and embrace the human condition of aloneness, to revel in the freedom to choose and take full responsibility for their choices. The strictly Sartrean perspective of existential psychotherapy is generally unconcerned with the client's past; instead, the emphasis is on the choices to be made in the present and future. The counselor and the client may reflect upon how the client has answered life's questions in the past, but attention ultimately shifts to searching for a new and increased awareness in the present and enabling a new freedom and responsibility to act. The patient can then accept they are not special, and that their existence is simply coincidental, without destiny or fate. By accepting this, they can overcome their anxieties, and instead view life as moments in which they are fundamentally free (Existential therapy, Wikipedia).




4.5  Freud



Therapeutic goal

         The aim of psychoanalysis is to release repressed emotions and experiences, i.e., make the unconscious conscious. 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.

(New series of lectures on the introduction to psychoanalysis, in Wolfgang Mertens:"Psychoanalytical Schools in Dialogue", Volume 1, Huber-Verlag 2010, p.85)

         This objective is rational, as far as the acquired spontaneity does not lead to the blind tolerance of risks. Depression may have a protective function and the German word for passion Leidenschaft (Leiden = suffering) is well founded. The devastating effect of passion led i.a. to the Stoic emphasis on self-control. The psychoanalytic discovery of unconscious biological needs almost inevitably leads to a confrontation with cultural norms and to an inner disunity. Often in the course of the analysis one form of suffering replaced by another.

         Certain patients (especially philosophically interested ones) explain the cognitive process – which was thought as a means to an end – as an end in itself and undergo longstanding psychoanalytic treatments without measurable success (measured in terms of reduced suffering). This therapeutic goal is rational as long as the insight, which is gained by the therapy, compensates the psychological strain.



Therapeutic method

         Free association is focused on the acquisition of spontaneity, i.e. the therapist does not direct the cognitive process in a specific direction. The extension of knowledge is not predetermined or limited, so that the behavior cannot be predicted. The therapy extends knowledge like a journey of discovery. The next destination emerges from the new knowledge which is acquired.

         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.

            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 (individual) sense in life.



Related philosophical therapy

            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.




4.6  Cross Comparison




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



  Roman Stoics

  universal law (logos)

(global) community







  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 understand ones dependencies and options, and attain a realistic estimation of chances and risks.

For more information on the different levels of heteronomy, see An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Freedom of Will




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.




  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)








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.




5. Conclusion



Philosophy as therapy

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.



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.

         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.

         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.






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

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

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

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

8.      Vukomanović Milan (2004), Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein: Assessing the Buddhist Influences on their Conceptions of Ethics, Filozofija i Društvo 24