Let's Talk: Philosophers Reach Out

This is the story of a newspaper article that might not be - how should I say? - of apparent immediate consequence.

Just like philosophy.

Yet, rooted in problem solving, sprinkled with tension, and inherently significant, it could therefore be useful.


Just like philosophy.

There is a new way of practicing it known as "philosophical counseling" now growing in popularity in the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, Britain, and Israel. In shorthand, this is problem solving through applied philosophy.

Let's say you are caught up in a snarly ethical or moral problem at work or home, or you want to marry someone from another faith with differing cultural values and there is tension in the relationship. Basically, nothing is wrong with you in a medical or psychotherapeutic sense.

To avoid being labeled or categorized, you don't want to visit a psychologist. But you know, or hope, that fresh insights would help smooth the bumpy uneasiness of your perceived dilemma.

So, sit down with a philosophical counselor like Vaughna Feary, Paul Sharkey, Thomas Magnell, or Louis Marinoff. Explore the logic of your thinking, or your "self-talk," that might be clouding your moral reasoning or straining the values of your world view. Clarify meaning and values, philosophically speaking.

"We explore the ways in which clients think," says Mr. Sharkey, professor emeritus of community health, philosophy and Religion at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, "and how their own ways of approaching a problem could be contributing to the problem. The main focus is that people are usually more upset than they need to be, and we help them look at the problem more realistically."

Fair enough. As Socrates counseled centuries ago, always proceed empirically, or realistically. Doing so here reveals that the introduction of philosophical counseling in the US has not gone smoothly.

Among US philosophers, arguments have broken out over definitions of counseling, standards for it, motives behind it, and overall intent. How is philosophical counseling better than, or different from, other kinds of counseling? And any kind of counseling can often be unsettling in a finite world, if it raises more questions than it answers.

For philosopher Christopher Phillips, who conducts philosophical discussions known as "Socrates' Cafe" in many venues around San Francisco, academics are attempting to control this fledgling counseling movement with premature restrictions. "They are trying to force certification in a field that has yet to even be defined," he says, "and in my opinion, trying to get a name for themselves."

Just as philosophy demands rigorous logic, some philosophers insist that certification is necessary to protect the public.

'I think it is important to have standards of practice," says Vaughna Feary, a philosophy professor at Farleigh Dickinson University in Madison, N.J., and director of a philosophy program in the Morris County Correctional Facility. "It's not a matter of academics, but competence."

Ms. Feary has seen philosophy at work on murderers, sex offenders, and white-collar criminals. "Inmates usually have poor consequential reasoning," she says. "Cognitive rigidity is a big problem, too, and almost all of them have an absolute inability to envision alternative courses of action."

Feary works with captive, emotionally hungry participants breaking out of egocentric viewpoints. What animates Mr. Phillips is the conviction that pure philosophy is really "co-inquiry," a process where there is more of a sense of inquiry being done together, and not philosophical counseling as an alternative to other kinds of counseling.

Unlike psychology, the emphasis in philosophical counseling for most philosophers is not on exploring past problems, but looking at logic and reasoning here and now. "The whole point," he says, "is to bring philosophy outside of traditional academia and bring it into everyday life."

Feary would not necessarily disagree and contends that in society a lot of "basically philosophical problems have been psychologized."

She says, "A lot of depression is not some kind of psychological problem, but comes about because people lack direction and a sense of meaning in their lives. And here, the great philosophical tradition, in terms of what great philosophers have said, for instance, about happiness, can be explored."

To help identify philosophy as accessible to anyone, Phillips founded the Society for Philosophical Inquiry recently as a reaction to the American Society for Philosophy, Counseling and Psychotherapy (ASPCP), a group of academically based philosophers advocating certification of philosophical counselors and practitioners.

To establish the criteria for certification, this group subsequently formed the American Philosophical Practitioners Association (APPA) in New York. It helped draft a controversial bill for the New York State Assembly to consider licensing philosophical practitioners. If passed, critics ask, will insurance reimbursement for counseling be far behind?

Mr. Sharkey, who is vice president of APPA, says there are 125 members of ASPCP, not all of whom are philosophical counselors. "But if they are," he says, "we want to have a program of certification which reviews academic credentials, gives an exam, and has letters of reference for good character."

This is anathema to Phillips, who cites a grass-roots, nonacademic interest now in philosophy that has little to do with individual counseling.

"There is a burgeoning movement of philosophical inquiry in cafes, bookstores, senior centers, hospices, and prisons," he says. "So many people have jobs where they don't use their minds, and finally they have found a place to gather that is not a church, or a typical group, and all these individuals come together to lock heads and hearts."

Thomas Magnell, president elect of ASPCP and chairman of the philosophy department at Drew University in Madison, N.J., says the argument over certification will pass. "It's wise to have something," he says, suggesting that 2,000 years of philosophic tradition can endure even certification.

German philosopher Gerd Achenbach is credited in l981 with having the first private philosophical consultations outside of a university setting. As part of a suicide-prevention program, he wanted to offer a "free place" where philosophy could help people gain insights into their lives and decisions. Mr. Achenbach contends that good counselors cannot be made, but are born, so he offers no training.

After his introduction, philosophical counseling began popping up across Europe, particularly in the Netherlands. Most countries now have certification programs. In the US, Louis Marinoff, philosophy professor at City College of New York and one of the early proponents of philosophical counseling, contends that psychology and psychiatry have all but failed people.

In his view, the institutionalized version of philosophy, as practiced in most universities, is now "more or less withering on the vine."

He says, "People are rediscovering the kind of philosophy that was most usefully done in antiquity. Also, there is a failure of science to explain anything intelligible to human beings about meaning, value, purpose, and ethics. I believe that science helps us discover objective truths about the natural world, but cannot explain everything. So it is the province of philosophy to deal with the questions of meaning and value, not to answer the questions, but to explicate them."

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