Philosophy as Therapy – Introduction
B.Contestabile firstname.lastname@example.org First version 2008 Last version 2014
Table of Contents
The predominant movement in today‘s English-speaking philosophical culture is toward an increasing fragmentation of the subject into a set of highly professional specialisms and quasi-scientific and highly technical sub-disciplines whose connection with a “way of life” is virtually nil – except in the minimal sense that achieving the relevant qualifications and mastering the relevant intellectual techniques is how their practitioners happen to earn their living. If anyone today were to ask whether a member of a modern philosophy department can hope to “live better” than a lawyer, say, or a member of a metallurgy department, the question would in all probability be taken to be merely about relative salary and career prospects [Cottingham, 148-149].
Philosophy as therapy is a countermovement to this “culture”, which roots in ancient ways to do philosophy.
Type of problem
- What is philosophy as therapy?
- What is the difference between philosophical therapy and psychotherapy?
The shortest definition of philosophy as therapy is philosophy as a means to cure (or reduce) suffering.
In ancient times doing philosophy was a way of life; it was not restricted to an intellectual discipline [Hadot].
Relation to psychotherapy
Philosophical therapy competes with psychotherapy mainly in the counseling of mentally sane people. Individualistic philosophical therapies strive to avoid theory-specific terms and consider the patient’s constitution, environment and life story as a unique phenomenon.
Philosophical therapy – in contrast to psychotherapy – is not only concerned with the life satisfaction of the individual, but also with the search for the
“objectively” true and good.
A more detailed version of this paper is available from Philosophy as Therapy – Beyond the Medical Model
What is philosophy as therapy?
The term therapy implies that there exists some kind of suffering to work therapeutically with.
The shortest definition of philosophy as therapy therefore is
philosophy as a means to cure (or reduce) suffering.
Since there are different kinds of suffering, there are also different kinds of therapies. The term philosophy as therapy embraces all philosophies that
▪ are (were) practiced as therapy or
▪ can be interpreted as therapy.
1. In the context of philosophy as therapy the term therapy does not refer to mental illness. It addresses the suffering involved in daily life like
▪ disappointments, defeats, deprivation, suppression and loss of control
▪ accidents, crimes, catastrophes, wars
▪ illnesses, aging and death.
For more information on this definition see Philosophy as Therapy – A Review.
There is no consistent usage of the terms philosophical therapy and philosophical counseling. 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
Narrower meaning, methodically related to cognitive behavioral therapy [Martin, 17-18]:
Philosophy as therapy is an ancient idea [Hampe].
▪ In ancient times doing philosophy was a way of life; i.e. it was not restricted to an intellectual discipline [Hadot].
▪ The term therapy is usually applied to an individual or a group. Attempts to reduce suffering on the cultural level are associated with the terms political philosophy and cultural critic. But in ancient times the boundaries between philosophy, psychotherapy, politics and religion were fluent and therapies were imbedded in worldviews and social ideals (e.g. Buddhism and Stoicism).
In Socrates’ day, almost all Greek thinkers assumed or argued that the polis, the community, was the correct and only environment for human moral flourishing – that a good polis created goodness in its citizens (…). As a moral philosopher, then, Socrates was also a political philosopher [Waterfield, 29].
▪ There is no claim that knowledge in general has a therapeutic effect. The search for knowledge has to be guided by the desire to avoid (or reduce) suffering in order to be therapeutically effective. Consequently, there is no claim that philosophy in general aims at some form of therapy. Philosophy as therapy is just one of many branches of practical philosophy.
▪ There is also no claim that the application of reason is the only way to improve life satisfaction, in particular no claim that reason has to be applied to every aspect of life. As Zen-Buddhists, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Freud, Wittgenstein, Feyerabend and others demonstrated, philosophers may even find arguments to quit reasoning [Schmidt, 5].
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▪ Philosophical therapy is designed for the worries of sane people [Van Hooft, 12].
▪ Psychotherapy objectifies the client, forms a theory about the client and interprets the client’s statements in terms of that theory [Van Hooft, 20].
▪ Individualistic philosophical therapies strive to avoid theory-specific terms and consider the patient’s constitution, environment and life story as a unique phenomenon.
▪ According to Freud a person is sane if he/she is able to love and able to work. A retreat-oriented life is diagnosed as a sign of depression.
▪ In a philosophical therapy a retreat-oriented life – if it comes out of a profound argument – is not associated with mental illness.
▪ Psychotherapy is a specialized field within the social sciences.
The separation of the disciplines began with the development of individualistic therapies (see Freud’s Philosophy of Life).
Arguments for the ancient holistic view are amongst others:
o It might be more efficient to improve living conditions than to occupy therapists with the result of miserable conditions.
o Freedom of opinion is not a gift; it has to be (politically) defended. Philosophical knowledge cannot be passed on without freedom of opinion.
▪ Psychotherapy as well as philosophical therapy connect academic knowledge with the practice of daily life
A historical approach to philosophy as therapy helps to understand the relation between philosophy, psychotherapy and religion [Hampe].
For more information about this topic see Philosophy as Therapy – A Review
A therapy is characterized by a goal and a method. We start with a rough classification of goals:
Contemporary philosophical counseling aims at a Socratic life, i.e. a life in which there is honest self-appraisal and rational inquiry into goals; in short, an examined life [Van Hooft, 20]. The motivation to undergo a therapy is usually a concrete problem, but it can also be a diffuse kind of suffering or discontent. The Socratic examination may lead to the solution of pending problems [Van Hooft, 24] or to the insight that a more profound therapy is indicated. The following classification of goals refers to the latter case.
Self-restriction and self-realization
All forms of philosophical therapy attempt to improve (self-) knowledge and – as a consequence – gain more freedom of choice. Inner freedom can be restricted by uncontrolled desires (emotions, passions) as well as by the unconscious suppression of desires. There are accordingly two kinds of suffering and corresponding therapies:
1. Suffering caused by desires. The goal of the therapy is the elimination of inadequate (irrational) desires.
Example: Philosophers of Hellenism [Van Hooft, 6,8,10]
2. Suffering caused by the suppression of desires. The goal of the therapy is the Western understanding of self-realization.
Example: Nietzsche [Van Hooft, 7]
Survival and non-existence
Philosophy doesn’t necessarily have to function as a tool for (genetic) survival. The discovery that suffering can be reduced by questioning the wheel of (genetic) reincarnation is at the source of Buddhism. This leads to a different classification of philosophy as therapy:
▪ Greek tradition: Develop a strategy for survival. Cope with suffering
▪ Buddhist tradition: Liberate from (genetic) reincarnation. Cope with non-existence.
Most contemporary interpretations of the term philosophy as therapy are committed to the (life-friendly) Greek concept and conform well to the current historical period of expansionism. The Buddhist tradition, in contrast, cultivates the awareness of transience and decay.
The life of an individual knows periods of expansion and decay as well. Therapies which help to unfold and expand the self are different from therapies, which help accepting the dissolution of the self.
Methods depend on the goal to be pursued:
Free association and
For the application of these methods
▪ to the suffering involved in daily life, see The Controllability of Life Satisfaction.
▪ to the cultural loss of meaning, see Cultural Pessimism and Therapy.
The therapeutic good
The liberation from suffering fulfills a requirement of the summum bonum (the highest good):
It is not a means to an end, but an end in itself.
To extend the perception of the self so that it embraces the suffering of all sentient beings is the most plausible form of objectivity in the context of therapy. We will use the term therapeutic good for this extended (not individualistic) form of liberation.
The therapeutic good is an ancient concept and originates in Buddhism. The four Noble Truths can be interpreted as diagnosis, etiology, prognosis and prescription [Gethin, 63-64]. The idea to extend the individual liberation to all sentient beings is accredited to the Mahajana School.
In the tradition of Socrates we will consider the Noble Truths as theses, which are open to falsification.
The fundamental dilemma
Greek skepticism started the debate concerning the justification of suffering, known as theodicy. In a contemporary philosophical debate suffering cannot be charged to a divine creator any more, but (indirectly) to all individuals who procreate. On the other hand, turning against life might be a hopeless undertaking and result in an additional kind of suffering. The situation is characterized by a moral dilemma:
What is a reasonable answer to the fact that traumatic forms of suffering exist and persist?
▪ Is it compassion and alienation in the tradition of Theravada-Buddhism?
▪ Is it the non-violent promotion of ethical knowledge in the tradition of Mahajana-Buddhism?
▪ Is it political and humanitarian action in the occidental tradition?
▪ Is it technological progress?
Biological and cultural evolution
The basis of every therapy is the understanding of suffering. The prime goal is therefore a theory of the origination and dispersion of suffering: An analytical approach is confronted with unpleasant theses. One of them is that the degree of suffering increases with evolution and seems not to be limited. The degree of happiness increases as well, but suffering cannot be compensated by happiness across individuals.
▪ Does the cultural fight against suffering with its increasing complexity and its prolongation of lifetime lead to higher degrees of suffering (in analogy to the biological level)? The answer to this question requires analyzing the ambivalence of technological progress.
▪ Can the distribution of suffering be influenced in a long-term perspective? Will an extremely suffering minority pay the price for the progress of the majority (in analogy to the biological level)?
▪ The control of cultural evolution presupposes the existence of a free will. To what extent are human values and decisions controlled by the unconscious?
▪ Does philosophical therapy have an answer to cultural pessimism?
The Socrethics papers on biological and cultural evolution relate to above questions.
In contemporary ethics the social philosophy which comes closest to Buddhism is negative utilitarianism [Keown, 176].
There are, however, competing concepts of objectivity which claim to be rational:
▪ Positive utilitarianism says that life’s chances outweigh its risks. There is an implicit assumption that the situation of the suffering minority will improve by maximizing total welfare.
▪ Contractual concepts of justice maintain that individual liberty has a higher ethical priority than the reduction of suffering.
Major questions are the following:
▪ Does the therapeutic good imply a hostile philosophy? How many people should there be?
▪ Can negative utilitarianism be reconciled with a concept like Rawls’ Justice as Fairness.
▪ What are the global ethical priorities?
The Socrethics papers on social philosophy relate to above questions.
Philosophy of life
The relation between the therapeutic good and individual interests is ambivalent:
1) The therapeutic good supports individual interests in two ways:
Whatever form it takes, some kind of a larger world-view is a spiritual need that we all have and which both Plato and Aristotle thought grounded a fully happy life [Van Hooft, 28].
b) Each individual may get in a situation, where he/she profits from the benefits of a risk-averse and compassionate society.
2) On the other hand the therapeutic good is in conflict with the biological meaning of life:
a) How could the main point of human life be the elimination of evil? (…) The same could be said of the idea that helping others is the only thing that really gives meaning to life. If no one’s life has any meaning in itself, how can it acquire meaning through devotion to the meaningless lives of others? [Nagel, 217]
b) A risk-averse and compassionate society may succumb in the competition with risk-tolerant and less compassionate societies.
A reasonable philosophy of life therefore has to acknowledge and reconcile diverging values:
We should certainly try to harmonize our lives to some extent with how we think the world should be. But there is no necessity to abandon all values that do not correspond to the objective standpoint, even though this may be possible as a personal choice – a choice of self-transcendence [Nagel, 173].
The Socrethics papers on the philosophy of life relate to above topics.
I would like to thank Michael Hampe for the inspiring conversations in the context of this paper.
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