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Shirley Hughes

Why Does Being A Philosopher Help In Philosophical Practice?

I think of personal consulting and much of what others call therapy as like dancing with another person. Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow and sometimes the hardest part to learn is how to stay out of your partners way. You must understand your partners way of moving very well indeed if you are to follow it, move with it and know what will embellish and accentuate and what will interrupt.

The 'dance' of personal consulting requires the kind of intellectual ability we should expect a well trained philosopher to have even if it also calls for traits and skills philosophers are not likely to have. Philosophers are specialists in understanding people who are notoriously hard to understand.

What philosophers do is listen to and think about other philosophers and their job is to pit their minds against the minds of some of the greatest intellects our civilisation has known, 'understand which is not the same as memorising', what those thinkers did say, would say, avoided saying, assumed or presupposed; who influenced them and how; which ideas connect with which; and how it all fits together. They must be able to do this so well that they can take the part of any major philosopher, know that philosopher so well that they can become him or her 'from the inside'.

All academic disciplines breed a degree of self criticism that goes with a sense of never knowing as much as one ought to know, but this is especially true of philosophy which has historically been one of the most self critical and introspective of disciplines. Indeed the popular image of not being good for much owes a great deal to philosophers criticisms of themselves from Socrates on, and perhaps the world at large would not have had enough imagination to change the discipline with being useless if the philosophers had not themselves intimated as much.

It is no wonder that philosophers are insecure given the stature of the minds against which they must match wits and given the complexity of the problems with which they deal.

Granted philosophers tend to be 'out of touch' with their feelings — a drawback in a consultant— which would be shared by representatives of other disciplines such as psychiatry, psychology or medicine, but they are well used to keeping themselves in focus, to bringing a question back to 'what do 1 make out of all this? How does what I'm saying and what I'm trying to understand in this other person match with what makes sense to me?' (the first person is often offensive to many academics).

Some philosophers may have managed not to lose their more affective sensitivities; for others their introspective habits may be a natural bridge to regaining their feelings.

Hoping for the best on that score 1 would venture that the philosophers habits of self criticism and ongoing evaluation of one's own views are a decided asset in a personal consultant. Perhaps the posture of the confident physician is more 'curative' in the realm of medicine, but in the larger enterprise of personal reflections and consulting I think we best invite self scrutiny in others by modelling this in our own conduct.

Philosophers are in the habit of puzzling for what seems an eternity on the beauty of an esoteric argument like Zeno's which has it that an arrow can never reach its target and that motion is indeed impossible. People from the empirical disciplines are more likely to shoot the arrow and say "see". Who would you rather talk to about the way you look at the world?

Philosophers are in the habit of really concentrating for a long time on a theme which many would find boring and too hard to follow. They are in the habit of going back to the same passage again and again, each time seeing it in a new light and a deepened way.

This is an important trait for a practioner whose most urgent practical task will sometimes be "How am I going to stay alive through this hour and remain interested in the same old story"?

In contrast to the empirical disciplines which tend to view the acquisition of' knowledge in a linear or 'building blocks' fashion, philosophers are used to treating little that is important as settled.

The perspective of a great thinker is treated as eternal and discussed in present tense grammar "Plato thinks rather than Plato thought"

In philosophy issues that tend to remain present and open and are thought about in a very special way which leaves one as ready to advocate as to criticise. In empirical disciplines, such as psychology, claims are talked about in a way which highlights their date, summarises them and treats them at a distance. Philosophers are familiar with In depth a large spectrum of the most fundamental schemas through which anyone has ever looked at anything. The chances of being able to follow, restate, anticipate and 'dance' with a client in philosophical practice have got to be markedly improved by this training.

Philosophers are first and foremost theorists and they are good at thinking in terms of theory.

Now theories can get in the way of a consultant and it is most common for psychotherapists to be blinded and inhibited by being wedded either to a theory about a given individual or some general theory about how one is supposed to be a therapist.

Ideally a theory helps you focus without giving you blind spots and allows you to be specific without forcing them; it should augment the 'dance' rather than constrict it.

Philosophers are familiar with logical positivism which is pretty much the singular vision of' psychologists but do not tend to take it too seriously. They are professionals at shifting from one theory and quickly to another and being able to work with many theories which makes sense of the details to which they are applied.

Philosophers have an extremely and extraordinarily rich repertoire of theoretical perspectives at their disposal and are especially adept at picking up new ones (such as may be offered by clients) and seeing their implications or assumptions.

This fosters being open minded and cultivates an ability to make some kind of sense out of what practically says about anything.

Other disciplines by contrast are often intellectually constipating. Among the intellectual assets for practicioners which philosophers in general often have one should mention the advantage of having in depth familiarity with particular philosophers from the tradition.

There are many major philosophical thinkers with theories philosophers know well which are decidedly better thought through than much of what one finds in the empirical sciences.

I refer to philosophical positions which are broad in scope, open textured enough that one can listen to another through this perspective without forcing an interpretation on what is heard and which are rich enough in specific insight as to provide a treasurehouse of feedback. I can readily imagine a practitioner whose perspective was adopted from Aristotle or Spinoza or Hume Or Marx or Hegel or Wittgenstein or especially any of the existentialists like Nietzsche Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre working in a powerful and exciting way.

This is important if a) having some theoretical perspective which guides the way one 'dances' is helpful and b) is not as significant as is popularly supposed just which theoretical perspective one identifies with for one's "effectiveness" in practising.

Struggling with values has always been an important dimension of therapeutic practice yet it is undertaken by people who often do not have even a basic idea of how to think intelligently about ethical relativism and who haven't the faintest idea of what the genetic fallacy is or whether it is indeed a fallacy.

Wouldn't formal training in logic and critical thinking be the appropriate background for doing the practice equivalent of Rational—Emotive therapy which seeks, with conspicuous absence of warmth and empathy, to challenge a client's illogical thinking and irrational beliefs?

If consulting is the business of challenging a person's muddled thinking (syllogistic healing?) that's what philosophers do most.

Wouldn't the appropriate background for what Glasser calls Reality Therapy be to study the pragmatist's vision of epistemology and metaphysics? How could anyone follow the theories of Jung who did not thoroughly understand Kant? Regarding those practitioners who adopt heavily from Zen and Taoism, wouldn't it help to come from a discipline where one studies these traditions? Wouldn't the application of a self-actualisation perspective better come from people who have studied really solid thinkers on that score, like Hegel and Aristotle? Wouldn't a Radical Therapy best be pursued by someone who really knew Marx? Wouldn't a feminist perspective on therapy come better from those who had really studied feminism?

Mightn't a Nietzschian scholar have as much of an insight-generating theoretical perspective as an Adlerian? And if one could be found willing shouldn't a Wittgensteinian scholar used to contemplating primitive language games quickly get the hang of Transactional Analysis?

Finally philosophers who have studied existentialist philosophers have a monumental advantage as practitioners over the academic backgrounds of virtually everyone else. The existentialists who philosophers know best Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre provide well thought out theories with profoundly specific applicability for the concerns of personal consulting.

If a theory of applied existentialism is forthcoming it may best and most likely come from philosophers who are experienced philosophical practitioners.

A theory is a philosophical theory when its principle claims are predominantly justified by arguments based on the implications of concepts rather than empirical data.

As long as theories about persons are going to be so heavily philosophical, philosophers should be playing a central rather than a peripheral role in developing theory of personal consultation.

Philosophical practicioners are able to provide a setting within which individuals can explore their hopes, fears and anxieties and come to a deeper understanding and the problems presented by clients have in common that they concern things like meaning, value, ethics and personal conflict. ideological incompatibility etc. and it is these areas that philosophical practice is particularly strong.

It's strength is that it recognises the limitations of the 'medical model' that is the viewpoint that individuals suffer from mental illnesses that can be cured insisting that problems and anxieties are part of every persons life that they are not necessarily pathological and that they can often be addressed by philosophical means.

Their approach is one that uses philosophical insights and techniques to help clients think about their lives. Practitioners engage with clients in a dialogue (Socratic dialogue) the aim of which is to help the client think more clearly and deeply about their issues. It's value can often be not so much in the production of definite answers as the revitalisation of the thinking process and the acquisition of philosophical skills and attitudes. Their training in philosophy helps and enables practitioners to facilitate the process in a professional and respectful manner.


Louis Marinoff The Three Pillars 1998 pp. 50—56

Shlomit Schuster "Philosophy as If It Matters: The Practice of Philosophical Counseling" Critical Review, Vol. 6, No. 4, 1992, pp. 587—599

Tim LeBon "The Value and Use of Philosophy" Journal of the Society of Consultant Philosophers Vol. 2, No. 1 p. 40