Friday, February 9, 1990
The Jerusalem Post Magazine, p. 18.
Need personal advice? Why not consult your personal philosopher?
It's an old-new idea, and now it's in Israel.
THE PHILOSOPHER'S COUCH
By: Calev Ben-David
SINCE THE EARLIEST days of civilization, philosophers have grappled
with resolving the most fundamental and difficult questions of human
existence. For at least one paradoxical dilemma, however, they have not
even come close to formulating an answer. Just how exactly can one make
a living with a philosophy degree, besides teaching the subject to even
more people who will soon have to face that same problem?
Finally, an answer may have been found to this riddle; surprisingly,
it's hardly a new one. In fact, it's
an idea that goes back to the very origins of philosophy.
Today's popular conception of philosophy defines it as a purely
theoretical subject far removed from the fields of everyday life, a
form of mental masturbation game-playing for intellectuals who want to
while away the hours in an academic ivory tower. Yet if we go back to
the roots of philosophy, to Socrates and Plato in ancient Greece, or
Lao Tzu in imperial China, we see that the philosopher was very much a
valued advisor to society, whose counsel was taken
seriously on almost every issue in both the personal and public spheres.
Though this attitude still exists in some slight degree regarding
political matters, in the personal sphere
this function is largely fulfilled today by either psychologists,
social workers or religious lay leaders.
Of course, the founders of psychology did incorporate much of
philosophy while formulating their discipline, with Freud taking
inspiration from the ancient Greeks and more contemporary figures like
Nietzsche. Yet philosophers themselves are no longer seen as fit or
qualified to have a direct role in
treating or advising those suffering the dilemmas of everyday life.
WELL, PHILOSOPHERS may now be taking back some of that territory, with
what is called philosophic "counselling," "consultation" or "practice."
It's currently being done in Europe by about 70 philosophers in Germany
and the Netherlands, and has attracted enough media attention to merit
coverage in Newsweek and the International Herald Tribune.
It's also come to these shores in the person of Shlomit Schuster, a
38-year-old woman who
holds an M.A. in philosophy from the Hebrew University [note of the
web-author: Schuster was born and grew up in the
ex-Dutch colony Surinam].
six months ago by placing advertisements in the local Jerusalem newspapers offering her services as a philosophic
counsellor. She has since seen about 30 clients willing to pay NIS 80 for each 75-minute session.
According to Schuster, philosophic counselling was formulated about 10
years ago in West Germany, under the impetus of a Cologne philosopher
named Gerd Achenbach. The idea spread to Holland and was put into
practice by Dutch philosopher Ad Hoogendijk, whom Schuster met during a
visit to her
native country [note of the web-author: should read "a visit to The
Netherlands"] three years ago.
Along with her philosophy studies, Schuster has examined counselling
methods which offer an alternative to a strictly orthodox
pyschoanalytic approach. After first
studying creative therapy for three years in Holland, she joined an
"anti-psychiatric" work community which stressed a more
holistic, or unified, approach toward the treatment of social and
Schuster, a slight, soft-spoken woman, begins her discussion of
philosophic counselling by stressing:
"We are not therapists, and what we do is not therapy. The aim of the
philosophical counsellor is to philosophize together with the client -
never referred to as a patient - with the aim of producing a positive
effect on his or her life.
"This isn't a new idea; Greek philosophers also thought they could
improve society and the lives of their fellow citizens. Philosophy was
from the beginning seen as an instrument of healing."
SCHUSTER POINTS to the dialogues of Socrates and Plato as an early
example of "one-on-one" philosophic discussion. Yet it's a pretty big
leap from that to what Schuster and her collegues are trying to do;
after all, Plato never came to his master with questions about mid-life
crises or feelings of sexual
inadequacy. Exactly how are lofty philosophical concepts actually
brought to bear on the mundane problems of everyday life, and how is
this different from psychotherapy?
To help others understand her approach, Schuster has written up a case
study of her sessions with a client whom she calls Dov B., a
middle-aged man suffering from severe insomnia who has been unable to
find relief with either prescription drugs or psychotherapy. Dov B. is
convinced that his insomnia is caused by obsessive thoughts of revenge
towards his deceased
parents. Rather than look for some underlying subconscious reasons for
the insomnia, Schuster takes Dov. B.'s explanation at face value and
suggests that the only "revenge" left open to him is to forgive his
parents. When he balks at the suggestion, Schuster engages him in a
philosophical dialogue on the
meaning of forgiveness, trying to give him a broader understanding of
the concept which will allow him to accept it.
Schuster then deals with Dov B.'s belief that one reason he has trouble
sleeping is his concern over "unconscious memories" which he feels, but
Rather than taking the Freudian approach of digging for those memories,
Schuster tries to alter his attitude towards forgetfulness by
suggesting it as a positive faculty, in that the mind has the faculty
exclude or erase (not just "bury" or "sublimate") memories from the
subconscious which prove threatening.
THE INSPIRATION for Schuster's suggestion seems to derive from the
Sartrean notion of a "consciousness which puts its past out of play by
secreting its own nothingness." Yet it would be a
mistake to think that she and Dov. B engaged in a deep discussion on
existentialism; as she writes in her
report, "to philosophize with him is not easy ... Dov was not
interested in talk on a theoretical and abstract level."
This seems to be one obvious limitation of the philosophic practice;
not everybody with problems at home is going to have the mental
capacity or patience to relate them to
The most striking difference between
philosophic and pyschological counselling is that the former stresses
the ability of the rational mind to "think through" emotional problems,
thus undercutting the emphasis placed on the subconscious by the
latter. In other words, philosophic
counselling asserts the supremacy of the superego over the id - or as
Decartes might have put it, "I think, therefore I am OK."
Schuster's case study of Dov B. does report at least some temporary
progress in treating his insomnia, though how effective philosophic
counselling might actually prove to be is something that could only be
tested if it were done on a more widespread basis. This is a prospect
that would obviously be cause for concern to psychologists, analysts
and others in the mental health field.
DR. ELIE HAYARDENI, a clinical psychologist practicing in Jerusalem,
contacted Shlomit Schuster after seeing her ad in the local press. "I
was interested because I myself have studied philosophy extensively,"
he says, "and I try to apply
everything I know, as every counsellor should, in my treatment.
Schuster did impress me as a knowledgeable and serious person, and
pyschology does have a tradition of incorporating philosophical
beliefs, particularly in Europe, where, for example, you have the
school of existential psychotherapists
which takes its inspiration from Sartre. "But it's important to note
that these are cases where licensed, professional psychologists are
using philosophic ideas in their treatment, which is a big difference
from people who simply have a
philosophy degree doing one-on-one counselling.
"Of course, anyone is free to give advice to other people on their
problems. Take for example what we call 'street' or 'market'
counselling, where people seek the advice of a
rabbi, or a local wise man - this is perfectly legitimate for what it
is. If people like Schuster can help give direction to undirected
people by using philosophy, fine, why not?
"However, I wouldn't call it counselling, and I don't think the
Ministry of Health could be convinced that it is. I see a problem with
having unlicensed, unsupervised non-professionals treating people for
their personal problems. I have all the respect in the world for
Spinoza or Nietzsche, but I don't think
they could effectively counsel people on things like sexual problems.
For example, many of my patients are brilliant academics who know all
about philosophy, yet all that knowledge doesn't help them solve their
Though Hayardeni's objections are well taken, the question of whether
Schuster and other philosophers who hang up a shingle are doing serious
counselling may be beside the point. There is so much pop-psychology
and philosophy of the "I'm OK, you're OK" or "looking out for number
one" variety available in the marketplace these days, not to mention
pseudo-religious, holistic, new-age mystical beliefs available, that a
straight dose of Hegel or Kierkegaard offered by accredited academics
such as Shlomit Schuster probably is not going to do much harm. At the
very least, it will help boost the personal self-esteem of people who
wonder why they
struggled all those years in university to earn a philosophy degree.