International and Israeli Press on Philosophical Counseling

Published:

Friday, February 9, 1990

The Jerusalem Post Magazine, p. 18.

Section: Features

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 Confucius and 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].

Schuster began 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 emotional problems.

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 cannot remember.

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 to 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 existentialism.

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 personal life."

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 all the 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.



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