Everybody's Philosophical Counselling

Everybody's Philosophical Counselling


Shlomit C. Schuster

When Socrates stated that the unexamined life was not worth living, it seems
that he meant not just his own life or that of his family members, and not
just the lives of the elite nor his fellow philosophers, but the lives of
the timeless, universal crowd of people called humanity.

Whereas it is customary for most of the world population today to have their
lives and selves examined by psychologists, the idea that one can examine
oneself with the help of a philosopher as counsellor is still as
revolutionary today as it was in Socrates' day.

Socrates' example has been in many ways a guide for philosophers throughout
the ages. In the examination of life philosophers have always been in one
sense or another imitating him. However, person to person exchange in
examining life has curiously enough disappeared, and instead academic
discourse and the scholarly paper have become the accepted means to such

In the last fifty years psychologists have come to believe either that
philosophy is dangerous in and for their profession or that they should use
it in their various treatments. During the 1970s, more psychiatrists,
psychologists and other mental health workers became interested in doing
philosophy, especially existentialism and phenomenology, as an integral part
of their therapeutic vocation. Perhaps encouraged by this interest in
philosophical knowledge and skills, some philosophers have finally taken a
stand and have begun to help people to think through matters of daily life.

In 1981, the German philosopher Dr. Gerd B. Achenbach was the first who
opened, what he calls, a philosophical praxis. In a pleasant office, in the
forest-surrounded Bergisch-Gladbach, near Köln, Achenbach, began receiving
those searching for a certain kind of guidance. Some of his clients - or
visitors in Achenbach's terminology - had already tried everything that
today's society offers as solace for anxieties, suffering, and existential
questions. After the psychoanalyst, guru, astrologer, and the New Age
workshop, they arrived for help at the praxis of a sympathetically listening
skeptic. Achenbach's aim is to offer the public an alternative to
psychotherapy, but not an alternative therapy. Clinical diagnoses and
treatment, along the lines of the medical paradigm of therapy, are absent in
Achenbach's approach; even so, philosophical counselling can have
therapeutic results as well.

Achenbach resists turning his praxis idea into a method, and prefers to keep
the style of conversation indeterminate and open-ended. Nevertheless, one
can present descriptions, "road signs," that give directions to other
philosophers aiming to imitate his successful and responsible advice to
people searching for meaning or solutions in problematic situations. Of
these road signs, four basic ones are:

1. The sincere communication between the philosophical practitioner and
the visitor, based on a "beyond-method" method.
2. The importance of dialogue, as that which enlivens - and flows from
3. "Auslegen" - a looking for explanations - in which the practitioner
becomes united with the problem, not by imparting his own understanding
of it, but by giving the visitor a fresh impulse to explain him or
4. The innovative component of dialogue, the element of wonder in
philosophical practice, which does not allow for fixed viewpoints,
standard attitudes or permanent solutions.

After the initial success of his praxis, Achenbach founded a society for
philosophical praxis in 1982. Through press, radio and T.V. reports,
Achenbach's counselling practice became so well known in Germany and beyond,
that philosophers inspired by his example opened offices in Canada, the
Netherlands, Norway, Austria, Switzerland and Israel. Philosophical practice
is now a growing international movement with practitioners also in Britain,
France, the USA, South-Africa, China, Taiwan and Australia. Societies for
philosophical practice flourish not only in Germany, but also in the
Netherlands, Britain, Canada, USA, and Israel. The third International
Conference on Philosophical Practice was held last August in New York, and
the fourth is planned for August 1998 in Germany.

With the growth of interest in philosophical praxis, so alternative
perspectives have emerged. Most significantly, the last few years have seen
the emergence of a form of philosophical practice which challenges the
critical and humanistic principles of Achenbach's original practice. Some
psychologists and other mental health workers, with supplementary degrees in
philosophy, seem to be trying to recover "lost territory" by calling their
therapy - "philosophy work" or "philosophical counselling". Counsellees
would therefore do well to ask their philosophical practitioner if he or she
is a member of a society for philosophical practice, and what the
practitioner means by "philosophical counselling." After all, why should
counsellees unknowingly place themselves into another kind of therapy?
Although there are some differences and debates about philosophical
counselling in the few philosophical counselling societies, the general
conception of philosophical counselling accepted by these societies is more
of less the same and at least in some part inspired by Achenbach's.

Since philosophical counselling is not a branch of psychotherapy, but an
independent dialogue between a philosopher and any person who is interested
in philosophy as a way of life, it is - so long as they are able to talk
rationally - a practice for everybody. One's interest in it does not depend
upon one's state of health.

Philosophical counsellors and the public have good reasons to disregard most
psychotherapeutic theories concerning the dangers of self-disclosure and
intimate discourse between people when not supervised by the "expert" in
this field, i.e. the professional mental health worker. Most of these
theories claim "research" as evidence, but often research is contradictory,
so one must be doubtful about any of the conclusions which are drawn. Take,
for example, the disputes that surround transference theory. Behaviourists
traditionally reject the theory on the ground of their scientific findings,
whereas in the psychodynamic inspired therapies, the belief in transference
is still justified in scientific/observational terms .

The British charity "The Samaritans" seems to have proven with its work in
befriending people, that ordinary, friendly relationships between one who
looks for help and a helper is very effective and not dangerous or
destructive at all. Thus, in my work as a philosophical counsellor, I have
adapted and utilised the experience of the Samaritans in suicide prevention.

Soon after I started practising in Israel in 1989, the Jerusalem weekly Kol
Ha-ir offered me the opportunity to place every weekend a free small-ad
reading: "The Philosophy Line: Philosophical Counsel in Existential Problems
and Ethical Dilemmas." The philosophy line is a telephone-first-aid-line for
people of all ages. Questions and problems on all subjects may find a first
outlet through this channel. However, existential problems and ethical
dilemmas are the basic subjects for which the philosophy line offers its
free services. The idea of the "philosophy line" developed from my work as a
philosophical counsellor and is not only the first of this kind in Israel,
but in the world.

Promoting friendship is an important aspect in the philosophy line and in my
philosophical practice. In the philosophy tradition, friendship is an
ethical ideal that influences the way of life and well-being of the
individual. And more than that: Aristotle understood friendship as
fundamental in the good society. Friendship as practice is an idea that is
not often found in philosophical or psychological text books today. However,
the founder of the suicide prevention telephone line, Chad Varah, discovered
that it was the friendship that he offered, rather than the advice which he
gave, that was helpful in preventing suicides. This observation caused
"befriending" to become the main task in The Samaritans' contacts with
desperate people.

I offer persons calling the philosophy line, friendship (philo) combined
with wisdom (sophia). Sometimes people are happy with just one of these
possibilities, and that is acceptable too. For example, a young mother, who
wanted to kill her child and herself, started out telling me: "I am not
interested in philosophizing." She did not believe in philosophy or in
anything else. Nevertheless, through her perception of my friendly attitude
and empathic listening she came to reconsider her decision from an ethical
point of view. A few hours after our phone conversation she called back to
say that she had decided not to kill her child and would think about not
killing herself. I quickly approved of her decision and encouraged her to
continue to contact the philosophy line. However, she remained hesitant to
identify herself and would not accept my invitation to visit.

Just as in philosophical counselling sessions, in the telephone sessions I
use no technique to alter clients' thoughts or intentions. Achenbach's
"beyond-method" dialogue is in some aspects similar to Buber's I-Thou
relationship. For Buber, an I-Thou relationship exists in all genuine
encounters. In philosophical counselling, as in the therapies inspired by
Buber (e.g. Roger's person-centred approach), the genuineness of the
encounter is very important. Buber considered that there is a demand by
patients on the therapist to step out of his or her secure world, which is
based on professional training and knowledge. The patient needs to meet the
therapist in an "elementary situation between one who calls and one who is
called." There self is exposed to self. The meeting of self-with-self, the
meeting with the dark domain of the therapist's passions, anxieties and so
forth - this gap in the control of the therapist, rooted in his or her
wrestling with these forces, fortifies the patient.

In his essay "Healing through Meeting" Buber reaches the following
conclusion: "In the immediacy of one human standing over against another,
the encapsulation must and can be broken through, and a transformed, healed
relationship must and can be opened to the person who is sick in his
relations to otherness." There is no knowledge or method for the genuine
encounter in the Buberian dialogue: it happens, it is given. Genuine
dialogue and encounter are not bound to a routine timing or a specific
place. Accordingly, a hot-line conversation is also appropriate in this

I invite people who are very desperate to meet with me as a friend, and not
as a professional who charges for the visit. After such a first visit, I
advise continuing the newly established relationship and suggest that the
person considers embarking on philosophical or another type of counselling.
This approach is especially successful with people who reject or are
critical of the psychological establishment. More recently, I began offering
also philosophical advice by e-mail.

Since 1981, Achenbach's approach has proven itself a beneficial and secure
philosophical way of aiding "everybody" in thinking through the predicaments
of daily life. Though some philosophical practitioners may find it desirable
to practice and develop philosophical counselling differently, I find that
Achenbach's basic ideas contain all needed for practising philosophy in a
responsible and professional way.

© Shlomit C. Schuster 1997
Subpages (1): Review on Rousseau