In memory of Susan Sontag (1933-2004)*
By Shlomit C. Schuster
When I finished in
1994 the first draft of my book, Philosophy Practice;
An Alternative to Counseling and Psychotherapy,
I sent it to Ms. Susan Sontag. In response to my dedication of the book to her, and my letter, she sent me a card from New York with the words:
14 December 1994
Dear Ms. Schuster,
I was touched by your kind words and the dedication.
With my warm wishes for your projects, present and future.
I finished the first draft of Philosophy Practice: An Alternative to Counseling and Psychotherapy, but the book still evolved and changed, and only after a couple of years was it really ready to be published. During those years Ms. Sontag’s reply was, and ever will remain, a treasure and moral encouragement to me. I met Sontag twice, once in Jerusalem and once in Frankfurt. Both were occasions when she received prize awards for her works. After each of these ceremonies she gladly chatted with old and new friends, gave away autographs, posed for press photographers, and talked with journalists and enthusiasts waiting to speak to her. Alas, our last “arrivederci” to Ms. Sontag came too soon. How sorry I still am, that on the 28th of December 2004, I received the news that Sontag had died in the early morning of that day. Though it was no public secret that she again had received treatment against cancer, her death seemed sudden and unexpected.
A change in my philosophical practice is that I see Sontag’s works now as having more importance then before; her writings are the remaining relics of her highly moral and aesthetic way of being. Before philosophical practice came in my life, Sontag appeared in it with a message that touched me: she called for people to experience art immediately, instead of seeing art objects through the glasses of art historians and critics. Yes, more so, life itself had to be experienced to the fullest, and a way to that is through the experience of art. The shadow world of meanings that deplete immediate experience and communication had to be broken down, and this not only in the art world. Truth is the actual experiencing of life in all its aspects: of suffering, ecstasy, and all else there is. Such intimate knowledge of truth is a first necessity for a writer, but other professionals would also benefit from it.
In 2002, Ms. Sontag visited the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University and gave there a reading from Regarding the Pain of Others. Additionally Sontag attended the seminar discussion at the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital on Illness as Metaphor. As an introduction to Sontag’s performance, Dr. Rita Charon emphasized that Sontag’s work and the discussion thereof in a multi-disciplinary forum demonstrates that “witnessing suffering and responding with empathy are larger than any one discipline.” The study of Sontag’s work at medical school can teach physicians the art of listening to their patients. The Sontag classics such as Illness as Metaphor, Aids and Its Metaphors, The Way We Live Now, and Alice in Bed, are tools for demystifying the experience of suffering. Such demystification seems also to be needed in the professional fields that focus on mental distress and emotional suffering!
The life and writings of Susan Sontag have been and remain a source of inspiration to me. I hope that other philosophical practitioners may find as well a source of strength and guidance in Sontag’s legacy. Philosophy Practice: An Alternative to Counseling and Psychotherapy has several references to Sontag’s oeuvre which will further show the interrelatedness of her thought with philosophical counseling.
From the onset of philosophical practice in 1981 it was clear that Dr. Gerd B. Achenbach’s approach would be attractive to people from all over the world. Achenbach’s approach is based on reflecting on everyday life and the experiences of each person. It is not limited to any particular philosophy. Philosophical practice is a free philosophical dialogue! Through its openness, philosophical counseling can indeed embrace all traditions and disciplines, while not overwhelming these by its embrace, nor does it becomes enslaved by schools and methods. Socrates, the so-called father of Western philosophy, has often been considered the ancient philosophical practitioner par excellence. Yet, as I point out in the historical sketch in Chapter 2, long before Socrates, other men and women in possession of practical wisdom and a philosophy of life were helping themselves and others through philosophizing. Over the last two decades, Achenbach's idea about philosophical counseling has inspired philosophers worldwide, and philosophical counseling has become a global practice. There is evidence of a steadily growing international movement with individual philosophical practitioners in many European countries, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South-America, and Africa. Also, societies for philosophical practice flourish. In addition to the International Society for Philosophical Practice, there are national societies in many countries worldwide: e.g., in Germany, the Netherlands, Britain, Norway, Finland, Italy, Spain, India, Israel, Australia, Canada, and the USA. The eighth international conference on Philosophical Practice has been in Seville, Spain, in April 2006.
With the success of Achenbach’s initial practice, other so-called philosophical counseling perspectives have emerged. Some of these new forms challenge the critical and humanistic principles of the original perspective. To regard the actual as the real, and vice versa is essential in philosophical counseling. However, the new kinds of philosophical counseling are often merely shadows of the original idea; their concerns are just with theories and methods of counseling and do not relate at all to the free encounter with the thoughts and experiences of individuals or groups.
Often these other types of philosophical counseling practices have not developed within the original, critical Achenbach approach, and are often only poor attempts to imitate it, or are pseudo therapies and alternative new age practices. And this cannot be otherwise: Everything under the sun, everything that has the radiance of uniqueness, has its shadows. These shadow approaches have their own charms and purposes, and can be beneficial sometimes as well. One need not be worried or intimidated by the success of these new practices. There is hope that in due time, those who search for truth, goodness, and wisdom will recognize which philosophical counseling approaches made a real contribution to humanity, and which are substantial and of value to the philosophical discipline.
At present, the aim of many young philosophical counselors is to quickly invent another thought system, mostly deriving from the desire to produce something fashionable, something new, something different, as if that were philosophical counseling. It is not practice and life experiences that are the basis for these new practices, but philosophical and psychological imagination; merely gross speculations. In the light of these developments Philosophy Practice: An Alternative to Counseling and Psychotherapy remains highly relevant: I challenge philosophers in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Australia to reexamine the root ideas of the philosophical counseling movement and to stay with these, since this is the real force for a sound development of philosophical counseling.
An aspect of philosophical practice that has been little explored so far by the majority of philosophical counselors is philosophical psychoanalysis. Yet, several case studies in this book show that people want to come to terms with their past, their childhood, and with their dream life. In spite of the fact that these issues are the main subjects of investigation in classical psychoanalysis, some people prefer to investigate these topics in philosophical counseling sessions. In my book The Philosopher’s Autobiography: A Qualitative Study I present in detail a theoretical justification for philosophical psychoanalysis as a suitable approach for philosophical counseling.
Shlomit Schuster, Jerusalem
* Section of the foreword to the Italian (2006) and Chinese (2007) translation of
Philosophy Practice: An Alternative to Counseling and Psychotherapy, (1999) by Shlomit C. Schuster.
(Copyright Shlomit C. Schuster, 2005, 2006, 2007. All rights reserved. This internet publication includes minor changes from the original forewords. For information on the English, Dutch, Italian and Chinese editions of Philosophy Practice: An Alternative to Counseling and Psychotherapy see http://sites.google.com/site/thephilosophicalcounselingweb/publication-list