IHT Critique of Reason

International Herald Tribune (Israel edition: www.haaretzdaily.com)

Friday, October 10, 2003 Tishrei 17, 5764

Critique of pure reason

By Danit Nitzan

If all the psychological treatments don't work, you can always turn to a philosophical counselor.

He may not cure your distress, but at least he'll explain what it means.

Shlomit Schuster, a philosophical counselor, has a
doctorate from Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Fourteen years ago she set up the first practice in
Israel for philosophical counseling, the Sophon
Center, and in 1996 she founded the Israeli
Society for Philosophical Practice and Counseling
(ISPPI), which numbers about 40 members, five of whom make a living from philosophical counseling.
Aside from them, there are some philosophical
counselors in Israel who aren't members of the
society, some who don't regularly engage in
counseling, and some who serve as counselors for businesses or hold workshops.

Schuster says that the
establishment of philosophy as
a counseling profession has
lagged far behind the fields of
psychological, medical,
psychiatric and of course
religious counseling.

"During the past decade, philosophy has become a profession because people speak to one another less,she says.

"In the past there used to be
long discussions between people, there was free
time, there was closeness. Today there are SMS
messages. But Descartes, Plato, Socrates, all
of them, in fact, gave advice. They didn't just
discuss general subjects. In effect,
discussions with philosophers were focused on
things that were important to the students in
their everyday lives, rather than abstract
ideas. They talked about the meaning of life,
about the question of why I suffer, what I
want, why there is death. These are questions
that a person asks himself, and that it's hard
to deal with alone."

What kind of training is necessary for a
philosophical counselor?

Schuster: "An academic knowledge of the history
and the development of philosophy (societies
for philosophical counseling accept as
counselors people with a master's degree or
higher in philosophy); familiarity with
approaches, theories and streams in philosophy,
according to which the counselors are able to
present the client with a variety of
possibilities; and the ability to conduct a
logical intellectual dialogue; to characterize
and define the client's dilemmas; to detect
contradictions and to see options for solving
the conflict."

Schuster treats individuals with personal
problems: "Problems in the family, such as a
conflict with one's children or one's husband,
difficulties at work, questions of `myself with
regards to society, my family, my friends. For
example, when I talk to you, you can hear the
noise that the neighbors children are making.

We may consider the question of to what extent they should restrict these children, in
order to spare others the noise that they make.
After all, not everything is legislated."

She says that philosophy has always dealt with
the general question of "What is the meaning of
life" - but the immediate and important
question for most people is the personal one:
"What is the meaning of my life." Philosophical
counseling acts as a mediator between
philosophical thinking - which is analytic,
systematic, reasoned and clear - and questions
about everyday life, and its goal is to help to
impose order and methodology in thinking and in
the formulation of a clear world view.

Three types of friendship

N., a 33-year-old woman from Rishon Letzion,
went to Dr. Shlomit Schuster for philosophical
counseling. She feels that thanks to the
philosophical dialogue they engaged in, she has
succeeded in finding herself and her path,
after a long period of crisis: "At the time I
was a student of engineering at Tel Aviv
University, a particularly `masculine' field,
and I found myself socially alienated, failing
in my studies, and in love with a guy who
wasn't at all interested in me. From being a
top student in high school, who had friends and
was socially adept, I became a person who
couldn't find her place."

She tried psychological therapy. "I met with the
psychologist about 80 times, but I didn't feel
any better. I continued to fail at my studies
and to feel lonely. I'm an intellectual and
rational person, and burrowing through my
thoughts, through the past and all of
psychology's endless questions, didn't suit me.
In addition, things that were bothering me
didn't seem appropriate for a psychological
discussion. I was troubled by the conflict
between theocracy and democracy. Democracy is
an important value to me, and I wanted to solve
the contradiction, but psychology didn't help
me with that. I also had doubts regarding
questions of morality, because I'm very extreme
in my view of morality, and it was hard for me
to deal with moral fluidity."

One day N. came across an article about Dr.
Schuster in the newspaper, and decided to turn
to her. "When I spoke to her about morality,
faith, freedom and democracy, I finally felt
that these were legitimate and logical subjects
about which to have doubts, and I felt less
distressed about them. I succeeded in
redefining myself in terms of faith and
democracy - instead of being traditional, I'm a
Reform Jew. My self-esteem improved as well,
because when I thought I was crazy for being in
love with someone for such a long time, Shlomit
read to me what Plato had to say about
craziness - that it makes life more interesting
and varied - and I tried to see it that way."

The counseling influenced her to reach a
decision on more practical questions, too. "I
told Shlomit that I felt intuitively that if I
transferred to the university in Be'er Sheva
[Ben-Gurion University], maybe I would manage
to finish my degree there. Until then I had
thought that intuition is something to be
ignored, but Shlomit and I started to talk
about intuition and about using it, and at the
end I transferred to Be'er Sheva, completed my
bachelor's degree with honors, did my master's
degree in the same field, and at present I'm a
doctoral student and I'm working in my

N.: "I'm an intellectual and analytic person -
what can you do? In many cases I was considered
strange because of my nature, but in the field
of philosophical discussion I felt at home. I
saw that the philosophers dealt with the same
questions as I did, and I felt more comfortable
with myself, and in general."

Dr. Lydia Amir, a senior lecturer in philosophy
in the academic track of the College of
Management in Rishon Letzion, says that "the
task of the philosophical counselor, in my
view, is to find the philosophical problem that
lies behind the distress described to him. When
a person comes to a philosophical counselor in
order to discuss a specific problem, the
conversation usually reveals previous
assumptions, logical fallacies in thinking, and
the values that guide them. After this stage,
we can begin to reexamine these opinions on the
specific problem that is preoccupying them."

Amir, who has been a personal philosophical
counselor for 12 years, specialized in problems
of ethics in business and also advises
organizations. From her experience, she says,
the philosophical discussion between the
counselor and the client usually centers on the
meaning of life, questions of values, the
nature of love or friendship, professional
ethical dilemmas and the desire of the client to clarify his opinions
to himself - for example, in matters of religion and politics.

Amir cites the example of a man in a senior
position in the merchant navy, who felt very
lonely on his travels because he didn't want to
have a close relationship with the ship's crew
members who, he claimed, didn't behave
ethically and transgressed certain laws.
However, the loneliness was hard for him.
"During the conversation we clarified the
connection between friendship and shared
values, and using the three types of friendship
proposed by Aristotle (based on mutual
advantage, on pleasure, or on shared values),
we solved the problem. He understood that his
relationship with the crew can be based on
mutual advantage, of the kind that lasts
exactly as long as the journey, and that there
is no need to accept their values as well."

In Amir's view, this not a matter of counseling
but conversation, or maybe even a private
philosophy lesson: "Some of the people who come
simply want to buy themselves a profound
discussion on a philosophical issue."

Midwives of ideas

German philosopher Gerd Achenbach is considered
the founding father of the approach that
utilizes philosophy as an applied practice that
operates outside of academia. Already in 1981,
Achenbach began to accept people for counseling
in the area he defined as "life questions." In
1982 he founded a practical philosophy society
in Germany, which eventually became the
International Society for Philosophy in
Practice (ISPP), an umbrella organization for
other societies operating in many countries,
mainly in Europe and North America, but also in
South America, Australia, Turkey and Japan.

Although counseling about "life questions" is
familiar from the fields of psychological and
religious counseling, Achenbach's model is to
create a "free place" where there is no room
for medical, psychological or religious tools.
In meetings with the philosophical counselor,
people are supposed to make use of
philosophical tools to consolidate their
thoughts and views in relation to issues that
are troubling them.

On the Web site of the ISPP, Achenbach presents
his principles and answers some basic
questions: what is the essence of philosophical
counseling, who seeks it, what is its ultimate
goal. "People show up who don't just want to
live or to get through" life, explains the
site, "but rather want to give an account of
their lives and want clarity about their lives'
shape, the from-where, in-what, where-to. Their
demand quite often is to reflect upon the
special circumstances, the peculiar
entanglements and the somewhat ambivalent
course of their lives. In short: They visit a
philosophical practice in order to understand
and to be understood. It is almost never the
Kantian question `How shall I live?' which
moves them, but more often the question of
Montaigne: `What am I actually doing?'"

. . . .

Thinking about ourselves

According to Prof. Anat Biletzki, head of the
Department of Philosophy at Tel Aviv University
(TAU), mankind is in crisis - "a crisis of
globalization, of lack of personal security, of
lack of national security, and there's a sense
of an undermining of the foundations of human
existence. In such times it's not surprising
that many people are searching for answers -
some turn to religion or to New Age doctrines,
and some turn to philosophy and philosophers."

Philosophy uses intellectual tools and concepts,
and is always critical, says Biletzki, "and
that's what distinguishes it from religion and
from New Age [thinking], and makes it more
relevant today. Turning to philosophy is a
result of an attempt to think logically about
ourselves and the world around us."

The revival of philosophy is reflected in the
academic world as well. The philosophy
department at TAU is the largest in Israel, and
larger than most in Western countries. Not only
do its 1,000 students fill the lecture halls,
the lectures sponsored by the department for
the general public are full as well.

Philosophy enables people to look at things in a
different way - and so fields such as gender,
art, religion and digital culture are seriously
studied by philosophers. "Philosophy includes
everything, as long as the discussion is held
with conceptual and critical tools," says
Biletzki. "It is essentially pluralistic - one
of our students even wrote a master's thesis
about the philosophy of cookbooks."

The renewed admiration for philosophy is readily
apparent when philosophers from abroad visit
Israel and give lectures: Slavonic philosopher
Slavoj Zizek came to Israel in January, and the
auditoriums for his four lectures (in the Tel
Aviv Cinematheque, and in Jerusalem in
Mishkenot Sha'ananim, Beit Shmuel and the Van
Leer Institute) were full to capacity. Nor was
the auditorium on the Mt. Scopus campus of the
Hebrew University, where French philosopher and
linguist Jacques Derrida spoke when he received
an honorary doctorate there this past May, big
enough to contain the large audience that came
to listen.

In addition to special talks and lecture series
such as "Practical Philosophy," which was
offered by TAU this past January and for which
there was a huge demand - there are also books.
A few weeks ago Spinoza's "Ethics" was issued
in a new translation by Prof. Yirmiyahu Yovel
(published by Hakibbutz Hameuchad). Machberot
Lesifrut issued a series of books devoted to
the great Western philosophers, in the form of
comics accompanied by texts explaining
difficult philosophical concepts - from Plato's
world of ideas to Wittgenstein's famous
silence. Aliyat Gag and Yedioth Ahronoth
published the series "The Great Philosophers,"
which includes 20 translated booklets about the
greatest Western philosophers, from Democritus
and Plato to Kant and Berkeley.

Sifriat Hapoalim publishers also recognized the
trend: Its series "Post-Modern Encounters,"
with translated booklets about Derrida,
Foucault, Baudrillard and Nietzsche, has met
with impressive success. In January 2003,
Haaretz published a survey ranking the
philosophers most popular among Israelis,
according to sales of their books. It turned
out that Friedrich Nietzsche is the most
popular with Israeli readers, with Ludwig
Wittgenstein in second place, followed by
Baruch Spinoza, Socrates, Plato, Karl Marx and
Rene Descartes.

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