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The Meaning of Philosophical Counseling

The following text is the introduction section of the paper "SARTRE'S 'WORDS' AS A PARADIGM FOR SELF-DESCRIPTION IN PHILOSOPHICAL COUNSELING." I presented it as a key-note lecture at the Second International Congress for Philosophical Practice at Leusden, the Netherlands. The complete text is found in PERSPECTIVES IN PHILOSOPHICAL PRACTICE (Doorwerth: Verening Filosofische Praktijk, 1977) pp. 20-34.

Copyright (c) 1996 Shlomit C. Schuster All rights reserved.


In 1987 when for the first time I met a philosophical counselor, Ad Hoogendijk, it was clear what was meant by the Dutch words "Filosofische Praktijk," "Filosofische Raadsman" and "filosofisch raadgeven."

These terms signified a type of counseling that is not psychological counseling or therapy, but a philosophical alternative and critique of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy.[1] The terms, equivalent to Gerd Achenbach's German terms "Philosophische Praxis und Beratung," were translated as philosophical practice and philosophical counseling in the first publications in English on the subject.

Those publications were interviews with Petra von Morstein in the Calgary Herald of September 11, 1987, and with Ad Hoogendijk in the International Herald Tribune of September 16, 1988.

Accordingly, I translated "Philosophische Praxis und Beratung" as "Philosophical Practice" and "Philosophical Counseling" in my article, the first English academic treatment of this subject, that appeared in the Journal of Applied Philosophy in 1991. I found this translation accurate and meaningful, since Achenbach's idea does not relate to one specific philosophy as the foundation and essence for counseling, but to everything philosophy is and everything it can do for a person.[2]

Moreover, I do not consider the word counseling as the exclusive property of therapists. Are there not financial counselors, beauty counselors, tax counselors, security counselors, counselors to prime ministers and to royalty?

When one refers to a data source like the Philosopher's Index, or other more general sources in the English language for "philosophical counseling," one finds much information on philosophy and counseling, philosophy and psychotherapy, and so on, but one cannot find the words "philosophical counseling" and "philosophical counselors" before 1987.

I found only one article, about two pages long, that proposes a type of counseling somewhat resembling Achenbach's idea of philosophical counseling; it was written in 1980 by Seymon Hersh and entitled "The Counseling Philosopher."[3] Hersh compares the counseling philosopher to a coach and a field-engineer. He found that his clients did not view themselves as sick people, or neurotics in search of a cure or of consultation, but rather as "intelligent 'investors' who want to get increasingly greater returns on their investment in living."

Apparently, as a counseling philosopher Seymon Hersh had none of the problems with the legal limitations that are said to make the free practice of philosophy in the USA impossible, or at least a risky enterprise.[4] Hersh founded and presided over the organization the Humanist of Orange County, California, and was a senior executive in private industry before he became a counseling philosopher; to my regret, however, I have no information about his academic credentials as a philosopher.

Then there were philosophers who wrote articles in which they proposed that the philosopher assume the role of counselor, but by this they meant a kind of psychological counselor or psychotherapist. For example, the article by the philosopher Elliot Cohen "The Philosopher as Counselor" in which he describes his counseling as a modified approach of Rational-Emotive Therapy and Transactional Analysis.[5] Cohen applies philosophical concepts and methods to a preexisting psychological approach. An interpreter of Albert Ellis' Rational-Emotive Therapy already called this psychological approach philosophical therapy. In applying philosophy to it, Cohen accentuates the logical foundations of living.

And, by the way, let me not forget to mention Wittgenstein as an associate, and other philosophers who considered their philosophy therapy, although the therapy they proposed remained on a purely textual and conceptual level.

Almost since the beginning of this century psychologists have been writing about philosophical approaches to counseling, and psychotherapists have been using philosophy in their approaches. The psychologist Carl Rogers calls the final version of his client centered therapy a philosophical approach to counseling. His serious attempt to abandon the psychotherapeutic paradigm, however, had little success because he replaced the concept of healing by that of psychological growth.

None of the psychologists and therapists with philosophical affinities abandoned the psychological, therapeutic paradigm, nor did they call themselves philosophical counselors.

Only great minds like Karl Jaspers and Michel Foucault present mental health workers with the much desired but seldom attained shift in practice paradigm; that is the change from a psychological to a philosophical understanding and way of life. Jaspers and Foucault both underwent a philosophical conversion through which they separated themselves from contemporary psychiatry and psychology.[6]

Philosophical counseling did not originate in psychological counseling; it was not practiced previously by psychologists or therapists, nor was it an offshoot of a hybrid psychology- philosophy approach.[7] Philosophical counseling has philosophy as origin and tradition. It is an autonomous philosophical discussion about whatever a client wishes to discuss with a philosopher. Though somewhat similar to advisory applied philosophy one cannot identify philosophical counseling as applying philosophy.[8]

Only after some time during which Gerd Achenbach and other philosophers successfully practiced philosophical counseling did certain psychologists and psychotherapists suddenly proclaim themselves philosophical counselors. Moreover, they laid claim to having been doing philosophical counseling for much longer than the philosophers; their history of philosophical counseling, however, goes back to an unverifiable date, some time before Achenbach institutionalized the subject in 1981. And yet, most of these psychological-philosophical counselor-therapists acknowledge that the philosophical counseling movement started with Achenbach.

What is it that suddenly made these psychologists and therapists abandon their old terminology, though often not their old methods, and consider themselves philosophical counselors? I stress, not everyone with a background in the social sciences subscribes to this deceptive, imaginative history of philosophical counseling, nor do they all combine philosophical counseling with the social sciences.

Eite Veening, for example dissociates his work as a philosophical practitioner from his other professional activities as a social worker.[9] As I see it, philosophical counseling by philosophers-psychotherapists, who do not practice philosophical counseling separately from psychological counseling is the attempt of the therapeutic establishment to underwrite philosophical counseling as preferably done by somebody with a psychology degree, or at least under the supervision of or in cooperation with a therapist.

And what leads those therapists to think as they do? Probably a desire to prevent the damage a free philosophical discussion is reputed to cause anyone who might be diagnosed as in need of therapy, in other words, a potential client of therapists. After all it is believed that thinking, and especially philosophical thinking, can be dangerous even to so-called normal persons.

Ben-Ami Scharfstein applied psychological diagnostic categories such as the inclination to suicide or depression to the great philosophers of the Western world.[10] Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Mill, Kierkegaard, James, Nietzsche, Santayana, Russell and Wittgenstein all seem to have suffered from such conditions; nevertheless their dedication to philosophy does not appear to have been a destructive factor in their lives.

Not to speak of Socrates, whose tendency to hear a mysterious voice and certain other unusual traits, would put him in the category of being a dangerous schizophrenic, and he might even have been hospitalized. If Socrates were alive today, his dialogues would have been with psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, other patients and perhaps with an interdisciplinary counselor as well.

In my opinion, people who can be categorized under various diagnostic labels, but are nevertheless responsible enough to participate in social and cultural life, have the basic human right to talk freely with any practitioner of their choice, whether they choose an expert in Voodoo, Astrology, or anything else. To deny individuals the right to engage in free discussion because of an assumed psychopathological condition is not only an act of medical and psychological paternalism, but is discriminatory and unethical.[11]

Philosophical practitioners and counselors should instead, in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, promote and respect rights and freedoms such as freedom of thought, conscience, and speech. I do not suggest that philosophical counseling can help everybody, the extent to which philosophical practice can be helpful depends not only on the client, but also on the personal qualities of the philosophical counselor. Only during conversations with a client can it become clear if philosophical counseling is useful or not.

However, a decision not to continue with a client should not be based on issues like the color of the client's skin, his or her political or religious ideas, or on the recognition of so-called psychopathological symptoms. If it is impossible to establish a dialogical relation because lack of mutual understanding obstructs philosophizing or even makes common sense communication impossible, then, obviously, a counselor should suggest that the client find help elsewhere.

Bertrand Russell defined intellectual freedom as follows: "We may say that thought is free when it is exposed to free competition among beliefs--i.e., when all beliefs are able to state their case, and no legal or pecuniary advantages or disadvantages attach to beliefs."[12] Fear of free thinking seems to be more than just fear of freedom. Economical, political, educational, medical and cultural institutions may consider free competition among beliefs as not serving their interest.

I first encountered the confusion introduced into a terminology that was used with utter clarity by Achenbach and other pioneer philosophical counselors, in certain philosophers and psychologists who had a dual professional identity. These interdisciplinary counselors, as well as others, do not look upon "Philosophical Practice and Counseling" as a profession that has been defined and transmitted in articles, interviews, speeches, and sessions by one philosopher to another. Instead of respecting philosophical counseling as an intellectual commodity that materializes into a human praxis, it is considered a type of pure Platonic Idea that can be remembered or reinvented however anyone wishes. Such counseling may be 100% different from Gerd Achenbach's most basic ideas on philosophical counseling.

Just as financial inflation harms the poor more than the rich, the weak more than the strong, this inflation in terminology harms the authentic philosophical counselor, and the relatively young philosophical counseling movement, more than the well-established psychology-philosophy therapists and counselors.

Confusion left unclarified harms us all, but above all, it harms the public image of philosophical counseling. I ask my self and all of you: why not try to end this confusion? Why not distinguish between different approaches? Why not take an example from Freud's rebellious students who did not call themselves just psychoanalysts but, for example, individual psychologists and analytical psychologists. Inspired by Freud, they all owed him something, but each went his or her own way and accordingly they named their approaches differently. I believe that those who are inspired by Achenbach but use philosophy quite differently, should also have the imagination to find a different name for their practice.

I should like to mention here the example of the American philosopher Pierre Grimes, who since 1978 has worked with a method he calls Philosophical Midwifery, in which he uses Plato's philosophy to help persons to deliver themselves of what are considered false beliefs. In a recent publication about his work Grimes calls Philosophical Midwifery a mode of psychotherapy and a mode of philosophical counseling.[13] This seems to me a fair use of terminology. Theirs might be a mode, a particular variety, a kind of philosophical counseling, but not philosophical practice and counseling proper, which has its own identity that can be defined as a reciprocal relation in which philosophical thought and freedom of thought are developed.

In her article "Practical Daydreaming" in the Journal Filosofie of May, 1996, Anette Prins-Bakker described freedom in philosophical practice. My free translation of it is as follows: "The greatest freedom possible is found in philosophical practice because a client can always raise objections about the philosophical starting-points or methods a practitioner may use."[14]

Philosophical practice and counseling was, is, and may it always be, a "free place." I believe that this particular aspect of philosophical counseling guarantees that its practitioners do not cause their clients any harm. It is a fact that during the fifteen years that philosophical counseling has existed there has not been a single malpractice case against philosophical counselors.

In philosophical counseling empathetic understanding replaces the scientific method of diagnosing people's hardships and questions. Free philosophical discussion grounded in empathy is a way to reach new insights either into oneself or into life as a whole. In philosophical practice and counseling, hermeneutics or interpretation is not the revelation of scientific truths underlying communication (Unterlegen).

Instead there is a dialectical process in which the practitioner becomes one with the problem, not by applying a particular philosophy to it, but by giving the client a fresh self-explicatory impulse (Auslegen). Hermeneutics happens.

Achenbach accuses most psychotherapists, but also some philosophers whom he calls pretense philosophers, of creating "second" illusive realities by interpreting questions, complaints, or problems exclusively in terms of a specific theory, whether it be Freud's sexual-dynamic interpretation of the soul, or an exclusive Heidegarian, Sartrean, Platonic or other approach.

In my work as a philosophical counselor I have often found that before one can start with "Auslegen" one has to consider undoing "Unterlegen." Most people maintain presuppositions of a psychological nature about themselves and others. Without giving thought to the nature of these pre-conceived notions one cannot embark on a free philosophical interpretation of any problems or questions. I call the undoing of psychological and psychopathological presuppositions "de-analyzing" or "de- diagnosing." Of course, one can only proceed with undoing presuppositions if a client agrees.

The verb "to diagnose" is massively laden with medical connotations. In non-clinical usage, however, "to diagnose" is defined by the New Webster Comprehensive Dictionary of the English Language as "to establish or verify, as the cause or nature of a problem." One can verify the cause of noise in a motor, of failure to pass an examination, or of sadness. In this non-clinical sense, philosophical counselors do indeed "diagnose:" through philosophical means they verify the cause or nature of the client's problem. Such philosophical verification or diagnosis is completely different from medical diagnosis in that trying to understand the source or nature of the problem is not based on an a priori understanding of it.

De-analysis and de-diagnosis are useful for clients who habitually think about themselves in psychoanalytical or other diagnostic terms. These procedures help such clients understand the origin of their self-concepts. The counselor can then discuss with the client whether a psychological, scientific self- concept is necessarily true, or if they might not choose, discover, or create some other self-concept and philosophy of life.


[1] Up to now, most theory and practice of philosophical counseling in the USA has ignored--or perhaps abhorred-- philosophical counseling as a critique of the mental health professions. Nevertheless, quite a few of the psychiatrists and psychotherapists which most of these USA philosophical practitioners so try to please, have formulated themselves a considerable amount of psychotherapeutic critique concerning, for example, diagnostic and labeling methods. For a description of philosophical counseling as an alternative and critique of psychotherapy see:

Shlomit C. Schuster, (1991) "Philosophical Counselling," Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol.8, No. 2, pp. 219-223; Shlomit C. Schuster, (1992) "Philosophy as If It Matters: The Practice of Philosophical Counseling," Critical Review, Vol. 6, No. 4, pp. 587-599; Shlomit C. Schuster, (1995) "The Practice of Sartre's Philosophy in Philosophical Counseling and in Existential Psychotherapy," Iyyun, The Jerusalem Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 1, pp. 99-114; Shlomit C. Schuster, (1995) "Report on Applying Philosophy in Philosophical Counseling," The International Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol. 9, No. 2. pp. 51-55; Shlomit C. Schuster, (1996) "Philosophical Counseling and Humanistic Psychotherapy," Journal of Psychology and Judaism, Vol. 20, No. 3., pp. 247-259.

[2] Achenbach, Gerd B. Philosopische Praxis (Koln: Jurgen Dinter, 1984, 1987); Achenbach, Gerd B. & Macho, Thomas. Das Prinzip Heilung (Koln: Jurgen Dinter, 1985); Achenbach, Gerd B. "Die 'Grundregel' philosophischer Praxis." In Kuhn, R. & Petzold, H. (Eds.), Psychotherapy & Philosophie (Paderborn: Junfermann Verlag, 1992) pp. 345-362.

[3] Seymon Hersh, "The Counseling Philosopher," The Humanist May/June 1980, Vol.40, No.3., pp. 32-34.

[4] My consultation for those American philosophers who are afraid of having sueing clients is as follows: Let your client sign, as legal evidence, an agreement in which the client states that he or she--and he or she only--is fully responsible for any actions or events he or she might assume to have been caused by philosophical practice and counseling. In contradistinction to smoking, philosophizing has not been proven harmful. As long as smoking and philosophizing are not compulsory, the responsibility for any possible damages done to oneself remains with the smoker and the client-philosopher. A second suggestion for those counselors who cannot practice counseling without having an insurance in case they would be charged with malpractice: do not forget to insure yourself against being abducted by Aliens, your next client might be a Martian.

[5] Cohen, Elliot D. Philosophers at Work (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1988), pp. 344-353.

[6] Foucault, Michel. Politics, Philosophy, Culture; Interviews and Other Writings 1977-1984, ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman (New York: Routledge, 1988); Schilpp, Paul A. The Philosophy of Karl Jaspers (New York: Tudor, 1957).

[7] There have been philosophers working in psychological- philosophical therapy and counseling approaches for decades. See, for example, the membership list of the British Association for Existential Analysis. These philosopher usually work like, and accordingly consider themselves, Existential or Humanistic Therapists or Counselors. Their method--with the exception of using philosophy--have very little if anything in common with the new non-therapy, free inquiry approach of Achenbach. It would be new, but lacking integrity, if these philosophers who are Existential and Humanistic Therapists and Counselors would start to call themselves philosophical counselors.

[8] For a differentiation between Achenbachian philosophical counseling and applied philosophy see my paper "Report on Applying Philosophy in Philosophical Counseling," The International Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol. 9, No. 2., 1995, pp. 51-55.

[9] Veening, Eite P. Denkwerk (Culemborg: Phaedon, 1994).

[10] Ben-Ami Scharfstein, The Philosophers, New York, Oxford University Press, 1980, p. 346.

[11] A justification of rejecting psychological diagnostic practices as a form of discrimination is found in, for example: Szasz, Thomas S. The Myth of Mental Illness (New York: Harper & Row, 1974); Szasz, Thomas S. Insanity: The Idea and Its Consequences (New York: John Wiley, 1987); Szasz, Thomas S. The Myth of Psychotherapy (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1978); Newman, Fred. The myth of Psychology (New York: Castillo, 1991).

[12] Russell, Bertrand. "Free Thought And Official Propaganda," in The Will to Doubt (New York: Philosophical Library, 1986). p. 19.

[13] Pierre Grimes, Philosophical Midwifery, The Mind Opening Academy, Huntington Beach, 1996. p. 2.

[14] Anette Prins-Bakker, "Practisch Mijmeren," Filosofie, Vol. 6, No. 2, p. 35.