Prescribing Aristotle: Philosophical counseling 101

Aug 23, 2011

Philosophical counselors aren't your prescription writing, couch therapists. Philosophical counselors are "practitioners who are putting their esoteric learning to practical use helping people with some of life's persistent afflictions."

Philosophical counselor Andrew Taggart gave the who, what, when where and why on philosophical counseling.

Related: Philosophical counselors rely on eternal wisdom of great thinkers

Hi everyone. Ready to have a meaningful conversation about philosophical counseling and, more generally, about the role of philosophy in everyday life. 

With a typical client, how much time do you spend helping them understand the texts vs. helping them talk about their lives?

In my practice, I begin always with where the individual stands: with what's on her mind, what's leading her not to live well, and so on. We only read philosophical texts if those come up "organically" in the midst of conversations. Or afterward. But an understanding of the philosophical tradition is not necessary. What is necessary is the ability to think openly, critically, and reflectively about what matters most. 

Why should I hire a philosophical counselor instead of just reading Plato myself?

Good question. I don't think of the philosophical life is the kind of thing one hires or doesn't hire; it's the kind of practice that one lives. You could think of a philosopher as a guide: she's someone who's willing to help you through because, perhaps, she's been there before or because she's aware of the pitfalls, or because she has, let's say, a broader perspective. She doesn't--or shouldn't--claim to be wise; but she should be able to claim--and with good reason--to able to put you on the path of wisdom. And that, I think, is all to the good. 

Is the PhD deemed necessary and would it be worth pursuing for the purpose of qualifying for this practice? Are there rosters of respected practitioners, and who polices matters such as abuse, boundaries, etc. which are a problem even in the medically qualified psychotherapy profession?

The PhD isn't necessary, no, though it might be helpful to have a PhD (or an advanced degree) in order to get a layout of the land. The larger point, however, is that philosophy is a way of life, a practice, and so it's the kind of endeavor best learned through actually doing it, through living philosophically, through working with others on what it means for them to live better. 

In answer to your 2nd question: You can go to the APPA website to see a rost of trained, qualified philosophical practioners. 

In answer to your 3rd question: The APPA has a nice code of ethics that is, I believe, also available there. It speaks to the kinds of persons trained philosophical counselors work with. 

 

Why do you refer to your client as "her"?  Do you only treat women?

No, it was just a grammatical thing. I didn't want to say he/she, him/her, and so on. In my replies today, I'll be hopping back in forth between "he/him" and "she/her."

Does that make sense?

What if someone has a serious psychological problem? Do you then send them to other types of therapy? You can't prescribe drugs, right?

I'd say--and I'm only speaking for myself--that it's not really an issue *if only* because I only work with people who, in terms, are pretty intact and self-reflective. In the initial conversations, I can pretty well figure out whether this conversation partner and I will get along well together--whether we'll be able to dance together, so to speak. 

That said, if someone does seem to have a serious psychological problem (say, according to the Diagnostic & Stastical Manual), then the idea is to refer him or her to the appropriate psychiatrist. 

It's a question of good judgment, really, something that philosophers (ideally) ought to have cultivated over the years we've spent thinking about ourselves and each other.

Hope this helps. 

Hi Andrew - I think your way of approaching life, through philosophy, is fascinating. (Please correct me if that is a mis-representation of your outlook!). I have read a lot of the philosophy classics in college and graduate school. Do you have any recommendations of contemporary philosophers to read? Perhaps an author who analyzes some of the classics and applies them to contemporary issues and/or pushes the thinking further. Thanks!

Start where you stand in the world and then work from there. In other words, let your experience be your guide and then hit upon some works that speak to you, that resonate with you, that help you make sense of things, that provide some conceptual clarity. 

Generally, I don't recommend one-size-fits-all books for each person. I like to work with someone, see how he works, and then--perhaps--we read a book together. 

One thing, though, about reading: good reading is slow, contemplative, like wine-tasting. We sit with it; we mull it over; we relish it; we let it sit with us. The kind of learning in school--technical, theoretical, etc.--simply won't do. The slow reading that changes our life: that's the thing!

Sorry this answer doesn't give you a good syllabus. Hope it's helpful, though.

I am trained as a coach with roots in mind-body-spirit connection and believe that this philosophical approach will really help both me and my clients. Can the applications of this be used by simply reading, or is there a method you prescibe?

I like the "mind-body-spirit connection" you mention at the outset. That's fantastic!

Well, you're asking a great question. I don't follow a set method. I like to think of my practice as a stroll. A stroll has that quality of meandering (in fact, we often stroll in the park or sit on a bench), it has that leisurely quality to it so that the mind can run about, can run its course. And yet, a stroll aims at something: at getting somewhere! 

Now, if you're looking for methods, though, you can thumb through some of Lou Marinoff's books. I think his book Philosophical Practice might shed some light on what's out there. 

Oh, philosophy: no prescriptions, only contemplations...

Really enjoying answer your thoughtful questions. Please keep them coming. And ask follow-ups, by all means. This is a conversation, after all!

If he loves another, what should I read?

My lord. What a lovely expression that: "If he loves another..." 

Poetry--elegy--Plato's dialogues. 

There's also a long tradition in the west: the monastic tradition that speaks about softening our desires, calming us, freeing us of fixed ideas, of l'amour fou. 

Consider heartbreak this way: like slow thoughts, good ones, that we repeat to ourselves, mumble to ourselves, in order to soften ourselves from the pain. 

Think too of your life as a practice: One can't get over something about "intellectualizing it" away. One must--or so I think--start to live beautifully, develop practices, routines, a way of life in which that desire for another, that longing for another, finally goes away. It is not the work of a day, but it is work. A life work...

Hi there- I majored in philosophy back in the 80's and have been poor since I graduated, pursuing work I enjoy that has meaning for me personally, but does not pay enough to do much more than survive and pay bills in this country-- unlike the business/tech majors, or those like me that were fortunate enough to find a mate that had a real job to pay the bills. While I'm happy that I only partially had to sell my soul to go back and learn marketing, doing it for nonprofits that have a cause I support, I feel greatly disillusioned and saddened with the deeper understanding now of how the world really works, which has always been and always will be a battle between the haves and have nots, and the role of the US in tipping the balance. Everything is driven by global corporate business interests, the top sliver of the very wealthy they support, and the relentless quest to pursue things for the benefit of man and man alone (as long as the venture is profitable) at the expense of all other life on the planet because he is the more advanced (ha ha) species. Sure there is that group of us that works to make change, but ultimately everything still depends on the for profit sector, because it is a capitalist world, and mankind is not ready for another way. And now everything in this country that has fostered the illusion of a middle class (benefits, living wages, housing) is being siphoned away because every person and every organization is now invested in Wall Street instead of having money in the bank, the basic needs (healthcare, pensions) of a society are not profitable, and people are stupid enough to believe right wing propaganda that it's all the government's fault, when really it is the fault of every person for not understanding the bigger picture and having no moral and ethical center of empathy. We traded the feudal system of Europe for a different form of slavery with 30 year mortgages on little plots of land with everything shipped in from afar so it only costs us 10 bucks. So I do what I can, living simply, buying locally, meditating while walking my dog, finding solace in the beauty of nature, and pondering whether I will ultimately leave this country to live out the rest of my life in a more humane form of existence.

I welcome your suggestions for who I can read to work through much more than a winter's discontent. Back in the 80s, Simone de Beauvoir, and Kirkegaard were my favorites. Thanks.

This is a remarkable story. Let me try to answer the first part and why don't you come back--in a tete-a-tete, in a series of exchanges, indeed in a conversation--to the larger claims you make.

First to the opening part...

You might want to check out a few things about written about overcoming the life of the mind / drudgery divide over at Inside Higher Ed. Here are the things I mention: http://andrewjtaggart.com/2011/08/23/a-few-essays-on-philosophy-as-a-way-of-life/

Generally speaking: I'm encouraged by signs of new life. Look into all the great experiments out there on social entrepreneurship, on social business, and so on. People, more than ever, creative people just now are trying to overcome the creativity/business dichotomy, and some are really succeeding, really making it work. When it does work, it's quite beautiful and moving: a meaningful life combined with a broader social mission. 

OK, ask follow-ups...

I just checked this site and don't see anywhere where practitioners are listed and I would like to find someone in my area. Could you be more specific about where the practitioners are listed? Thanks - I'm really enjoying this conversation!

Well, yes, you're absolutely right... It USED to be there. Try emailing Lou Marinoff. Here's his email: Lou Marinoff, Ph.D. marinoff@frontiernet.net You can also google "philosophical counseling and see what comes up.

UPDATE: the website address is appa.edu

Andrew, do you find that your clients become more contemplative and intrigued with these types of conversations? And what will we do at the onset if we cannot answer a question, or a client enjoys this path and we don't have all the answers? Perhaps I'm thinking too much ...

Begin at the end of your question: "Perhaps I'm thinking too much..." The question, or so it seems to me, is not thinking too much or too little but thinking more clearly. 

One can liken philosophy, when it's working well, to a long exercise (think of yoga or some such): you practice it in the right way at the right time for the right reasons. And, over time, things start--what?--to come into balance.

Now the opening part of your question: I think the philosophical life 'goes all the way down' (to questions of money, to routines, to hygiene, and so on) and 'all the way up' (to questions of God, the universe, etc.). With some conversation partners (I'm stopping calling them clients--see here: http://andrewjtaggart.com/2011/03/19/how-should-i-refer-to-the-philosophical-counseling-clients-i-work-with/), we discuss business stuff; with others, it's spirituality; with some, logic; with others, the heavens...

Philosophy; all the way down & all the way up. 

Truth, is it ALWAYS the answer?

Well, maybe we're speaking in koans...

If by truth, you mean self-understanding and if by self-understanding you mean crafting a life that's worth leading, then yes truth is always the answer. 

Better yet: truthfulness, that virtue but not that virtue alone, is at the heart of a beautiful and meaningful life.

To get an idea of the interactions between a philosophical counselor and client, what are the typical concerns people want to discuss? Can discussed topics be generalized into categories such as death and free-will or are they more specific such as discussing what career path one should invest in?

Typical concerns in my practice vary, if only because I start from the premise that a good life = a whole life. To start from wholeness (how the person relates to society, to history, and so on) is to see a particular problem as arising from a larger context. One example: work. Well, that's a concern that arises out of our vexing historical situation today--namely, economic collapse. So, we'd need to discuss John or Jane's work life in connection with these broader forces at work (at work in work ;) ). 

In my view, death, free will, and so forth arise out of a person's life need (see here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/andrew-taggart/the-life-need-of-philosop_b_856480.html) and grow outward & upward. 

I think we're thinking along the same lines. Or at least I get that impression. Lovely questions. 

At what stage of therapy do you break out Thus Spoke Zarathustra? Whitehead? And what about de Botton's excellent and approachable 'Consolations of Philosophy' ?

Think of life as an ongoing education in the heart, in the mind, in the whole person. And then ask, "What does this person need now, just now, in order to get his or her life back in order?" If you answer that question, the ideas will flow freely & the works you read--if indeed you opt to read some--will take care of themselves. 

(Botton's book, by the way, is a nice primer for those who want to learn more about the ancients.)

My lunch break is over, and I just wanted to say thank you - For your perspective, leadership, and willingness to share your learning. The world is blessed to have you here! Be well, the mind-body-spirit coach in progress, Carole H.

You're welcome, Carole!

What reading do you recommend for someone in transition? I am working through changing my career, from marketing to coaching - and it's daunting to take a leap of faith, although I believe I have talent in this area. Willing to read and read and build more awareness of, well, anything!

Tough question. The problem, it seems to me, is that we're in a historical transition. I've been throwing out all the books, as it were, and going with improvization. 

A few words though. Try stepping stones. http://andrewjtaggart.com/2011/06/25/and-what-pray-tell-do-stepping-stones-look-like/

Do you meet with your conversation partners face to face or do you interact via Skype or other internet means?

I like that you're picking up on the conversation partners lingo. That's lovely. I don't much care for the concept of client. Seems alienating. 

I work via Skype, in person, over Google docs (letter exchange), via email--just about any way that will keep my conversation partners & I in close, *ongoing* conversation. If the philosophical life is the examined life, then that life needs to be kept up, kept going. It is not something that begins on the clock & ends 50 min. later...

Can one ever get past self serving?

Philosophical clarification. What do you mean by 'self-serving'? Please elaborate. It sounds to me like an excellent question.

Hello again, I'm the mind-body-spirit coach. Thanks for the suggestion of Lou Marinoff's books, I will definilty check into it. I have my certification, and am looking for additional accredidations - is there such a thing for this path of counseling, or someone I can contact as a mentor? I believe we can all use more intellegent converstations in our lives, and coaching stops short on that, albeit it is helpful. I am more conversational and am drawn to this. I appreciate your approach and leadership of this philosophy. Good work!

I think you said that you had to run. Just saw this question. You can go through the APPA for accreditation. Lou's also the one to speak to about that. He's fond of talking with people who are interested in philosophical practice. 

Better to trust the untruthful or keep wariness alive?

All right, I'm game ;)

1. Better to build communities in which trust is a virtue that we educate, cultivate, nourish.

2. Barring that, better to trust those who may not be trustworthy *provided that* the harm is likely to be minimal. 

3. Best not to trust someone with a gun pointed at you. Literally & figuratively. 

Your reply? Rebuttal.

Did you feel that?

yes, it's kind a to-and-fro, isn't it? sea-like, yes?

Thanks, everyone, for your sharp, warm, inviting questions and comments! I hope you'll continue the conversations with your friends and neighbors.

In This Chat
Andrew Taggart
Andrew Taggart is a philosophical counselor and educational adviser living in New York. In 2009, he finished a Ph.D. and soon after leaving the academy, he began the slow, meditative process of thinking aloud and sorting things out. He is currently writing a book on philosophy as a way of life, he speaks regularly with self-reflective individuals about the shape of their lives, and he is working with social entrepreneurs to help build new educational institutions that better fulfill our basic needs.
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