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Tim Lebon interviews Louis Marinoff, the foremost exponent of philosophical counselling.
If you saw such headlines as ‘The way forward is Plato, not Prozac’ and ‘I shrink therefore I am’ in the Times and Telegraph last autumn, you may have been left wanting to find out more about philosophical counselling. The man behind the headlines was Manhattan philosophical practitioner Louis Marinoff, associate professor of philosophy at the City College of New York. He has been compared by the media to Socrates and Freud, though he’d rather think of himself as a “next generation Woody Allen”. Last month he made a flying visit to London, giving a well-attended public lecture and a number of workshops. He also found time to talk to Philosophy Now. Tim Lebon, himself a qualified existential therapist, asked the questions.
Professor Marinoff, can I ask you to do the impossible and explain in a few sentences what Philosophical Counselling is, and how it proceeds?
You can ask. I would prefer to explain in a few sentences something possibly even more impossible: what Philosophical Practice is. The media is currently fixated on counselling, partly because that lends itself to controversy and thus to sensationalism, in terms of philosophy’s putative ‘competition’ with psychology, psychiatry and other types of counselling. However, your readers need to know that philosophical practitioners can work effectively with groups and organisations as well as with individuals. While specific aims and techniques obviously differ with the respective needs of individual clients, groups and organisations; and while each practitioner has his or her own unique style of practice, some features are common to all. In my view, philosophical practice most broadly construed is the application of philosophical insights, systems and methods to the resolution of human problems and the improvement of life generally, through constructive dialogue. Being human entails having problems; philosophical practice involves problemmanagement.
I imagine that many readers are interested in philosophy because they firmly believe it can be useful in life. Is this what brought you to Philosophical Counselling?
In a private sense, yes. Philosophy has been supremely useful in my life, because it has helped me make sense of thoughts and experiences. The discovery of meaning, value and purpose, and the practice of virtue – particularly in trying circumstances – are quintessentially philosophical tasks. We all face issues about which science says too little; theology, too much. Philosophy provides a ‘Middle Way’. I was my first client, you know – and probably my hardest case.
Just how do you counsel yourself philosophically ?
It’s a matter of finding philosophical systems or insights or arguments that help to manage ones problems.
So having discovered the usefulness of counselling yourself, you decided to make your services available more generally ?
Initially I had no intention of ever ‘using’ philosophy therapeutically on anyone but myself. After earning a PhD in philosophy of science, I took up a position at the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Applied Ethics. That was fortuitous: I was hired for computing expertise and bilingualism, as the Centre was then engaged in setting up networks for Canadian professional and applied ethicists. Part of my own research was (and is still) to do with the computer modelling of rational and moral agents. As part of our public service, researchers at the Centre gave regular media interviews on issues of business, environmental, medical and professional ethics. Hardly a week went by when one of us wasn’t on radio, TV or in the newspapers. Suddenly, members of the public began phoning up the Centre or even walking in off the street, asking to speak to a professional ethicist. They were seeking philosophical guidance. We began providing it. I developed protocols, and eventually made contact with the international movement of philosophical practitioners.
So that’s how you started doing ‘Ethical Counselling’. Perhaps you could help us understand how this works by telling us how you would have dealt with the famous case of Sartre’s student in Occupied France, who had to choose between escaping to England to fight for the Free French or staying put to look after his sick mother.
This is a paradigm case for ethics counselling based on decision theory. It is a classic moral dilemma. The student feels impelled by two duties of completely different types and cannot fulfil both. Had he been my client, I would have tried to help him scrutinise his options and articulate their implications. Could someone else have looked after his mother while he fought with the Free French? Could someone else have fought with the Free French while he looked after his mother? What were his mother’s preferences, and how much should they have influenced his decision? Sometimes in cases like this one needs to choose not that option which maximises anticipated satisfaction, rather that option which minimises anticipated dissatisfaction. What would he least regret having not done, both tomorrow and ten years hence?
As well as seeing clients with ethical problems I understand you and other philosophical counsellors see people with more general life problems. Can you give me a couple examples of how philosophical counselling has helped people in practice?
I don’t want to venture superficially into case-studies, and this isn’t the place to do so deeply, but here are some concrete examples of clients whose problems have been amenable to philosophical counselling: A woman wants to feel more valued in her job. A male employee is ordered to remove a painting from his office wall because it offends a female colleague. A professional woman’s marriage is spiralling toward divorce. A young man, convinced that humanity will be extinct in thirty years, sees no point in making the film he dreams of making. A woman who is a successful film-maker is unhappy with her latest script, which she wants to imbue with a moral message. A Protestant parent, whose daughter is engaged to a Jewish man and whose son is engaged to a Muslim woman, wants to anticipate and avoid potential religious conflicts. A woman is trying to cope with her mother’s terminal cancer. A man is trying to cope with a mid-life career change.
You mentioned earlier about the international movement of philosophical practitioners. Can you tell me more about the recent history of the movement?
Contemporary philosophical counselling began in Germany with Gerd Achenbach, in 1981. His German Society for Philosophical Practice numbers probably a few dozen practitioners. There are dozens too in the equivalent Dutch society, smaller numbers in Israel, Canada and Slovakia, and new societies now forming in Japan and Poland.
Things are more complex in America, where the success of the New York conference launched philosophical practice in perhaps the definitive free-market economy. The number of practitioners is swiftly growing, as is the number of societies.
What sort of people do you think are best able to practise – those from a therapeutic or philosophical background? And what sort of philosophical background do you believe is most helpful?
In my view, a philosophical practitioner requires both an advanced philosophical background, such as a postgraduate philosophy degree and therapeutic experience with philosophy, such as that hitherto self-generated by pioneers in the movement.
It may be that counselling professionals with non-philosophical backgrounds could acquire credentials in the subject, participate in philosophy workshops, and thus by stages divert their practices into more philosophical avenues.
But there is no consensus on the issue of training philosophical practitioners. Gerd Achenbach maintains that philosophical counsellors cannot be trained (i.e. they are ‘born’, not ‘made’) and thus he conducts no training. Then again, leading Dutch practitioners have developed and are refining training workshops for philosophical counsellors (e.g. Ria Vriend), for facilitators of Socratic dialogue (e.g. Dries Boele), and for organisational consultants (e.g. Jos Kessels and Henk van Luijk). I am conducting a postgraduate course on Philosophical Practice, starting this March at Felician College, in New Jersey. It will be (as far as I know) the first of its kind in America, though assuredly not the last.
I’d like to suggest that philosophical counselling of a sort began long before 1981 – indeed possibly as long ago as the fifth-century BC when Socrates found himself compared to a gadfly for pestering the citizens of Athens with awkward questions. One obvious difference between Socrates’ activity and philosophical counselling is that Socrates worked in public. Would you agree that another difference is that a philosophical counsellor is more interested in helping the client than Socrates was?
I agree. One doesn’t know how to read Socrates sometimes because Plato was putting his own words into his mouth. But he wasn’t an advocate for his client in the way that a philosophical counsellor is - he was an advocate for knowledge, falsification of naïve definitions or the truth.
So examining one’s life, though it might be beneficial, might be harmful.
I would agree though it’s a very tough call when one comes down to cases; Let’s take a medical problem.. A patient comes in for a routine examination, the physician finds a tumour that will kill him in a number of weeks, he is about to go on vacation, should the doctor tell him and spoil his holiday? Ignorance can be bliss…
That seems to me to raise an extremely interesting dilemma for the philosophical counsellor in terms of how much it is his or her duty to help the client in terms of getting to truth or in enhancing their well-being, if these two aims do not coincide. Rather than pursue that I wonder if we can look at some difficulties that arise for the whole enterprise of philosophical counselling, that can be drawn out quite nicely by the comparison with Socrates. Socrates thought that the best road to knowledge was through philosophical dialogue. However if one thinks that knowledge is gained more by empirical investigation then what we may get from philosophical discussion is just the counsellee’s, or perhaps worse still, the counsellor’s, opinion. In the context of counselling, surely what people want are facts – such as how they can stop feeling so anxious – and philosophers aren’t the right people to go to for this sort of information. Do you think there is anything in this argument?
There need be no conflict between rationalist and empiricist positions in counselling contexts. Hobbes said rightly that the world is governed by opinion, and in that sense many clients seek counselling precisely because they are somehow dissatisfied with inadequacies in their opinions. In such cases I see the counsellor’s role as helping the client to lead precisely what Socrates called ‘the examined life’. This can entail offering opinions not about what the client should or shouldn’t do, rather about ways in which the client can more effectively examine and modify his or her opinions.
If you are anxious, then you must identify the root cause of your anxiety in order to treat it properly. If you are anxious because you are a paranoiac having an easy day, then you should probably enjoy your relative ease. If you are anxious because of some external crisis in your life – such as an illness of a family member or a threat to your financial security – then you should experiment to discover whether valium or meditation or counselling – or some combination thereof – works best to mitigate your anxiety. But if you are anxious because you are experiencing a moral dilemma, a professional ethical problem, a dearth of meaning, a lack of purpose, or a personal or political conflict, then philosophical counselling is probably your best bet. My style of philosophical counselling increasingly involves problemmanagement. I help clients understand what kind of problem they have. Through dialogue, we disentangle and classify its components. Then the client can pursue appropriate and perhaps pluralistic solutions.
So dialogue can still be very useful even if it isn’t the sole route to knowledge. Philosophical counselling may play a part – an important part – in helping one lead the examined life.But is leading an examined life as important as Socrates thought? Socrates thought that knowledge was a sufficient condition for virtuous behaviour. Most people would disagree. They might say that what we need more is to know how to do X rather than knowing that X is the case, to use Gilbert Ryle’s distinction. In the context of counselling, this would suggest that assertiveness training or behaviour therapy is often more appropriate than any form of conversation. Do you agree?
I agree that philosophical dialogue is not a direct means of behavioural modification. To the extent that one’s behaviour is informed and conditioned by one’s beliefs, then modifying one’s beliefs can indirectly modify one’s behaviour. Moreover, I hold (with Aristotle and Confucius) that virtues need to inculcated and practised, and in consequence I believe that dialogue can provide a stimulus to virtuous habit. By the same token, one cannot learn martial arts or tennis or music by dialogue alone; one requires training and practice.
However, a desire to modify a more general aspect of one’s behaviour – rather than a desire to acquire a new skill or cultivate a new habit – raises a fundamental philosophical question involving the demarcation between nature and nurture. While a person who is by nature impatient may become more patient by practising patience, the behavioural dividends of such an investment may not be worth the trouble. It might be simpler in fact for the person to engage in roles in which impatience itself is valued – though offhand I cannot think of very many. Similarly, if you want to become more assertive, then by all means try assertiveness training. But if you are very meek by nature then you may find such training difficult. There are forms of ‘social judo’ that might better mobilise your meekness toward your desired ends. I believe that we cannot completely override nature with nurture. Just as one cannot change one’s eye-colour by training, one surely cannot change certain facets of one’s character, and hence of one’s behaviour, by training.
So what you are saying is that assertiveness training may assume the power of nurture is greater than it actually is, which suggests it’s better to have the self-knowledge – perhaps enhanced by philosophical counselling – to be more aware of what sort of person one is. However it could be argued that many people, especially at the times when they begin counselling, cannot function well enough to think philosophically, or else are not intellectually capable enough. Maybe it is more appropriate to recommend to relatively healthy intellectuals rather than the average counselling client. How would you respond to this?
This cuts both ways. It is certainly true that philosophical counselling is not for everyone; one ought to be curious, speculative, pensive, analytical, and inwardly articulate to benefit most from it. Then again, people of great intellectual capacity are sometimes the most selfdeluding, and have come to occupy unassailable though dysfunctional intellectual positions. More generally, it is probably fair to say that some people are simply ‘pre-philosophical’, and as such are impervious philosophical counselling. But surely it is also fair to say that many nonintellectuals possess abundant commonsense, and derive corresponding benefits from the exercise thereof. Practical wisdom is hardly inaccessible to the masses; people perennially reinvent and exercise it for themselves.
I must also add that many of my clients come to me as refugees from psychological or psychiatric interventions. They are sick and tired of wallowing in their emotions, and of having their intellects discounted by non-philosophical therapies. Although aware that in the Humean short run reason is indeed the slave of passion, their awareness of a Hobbesian longer run, in which passion itself is constrained by reason in passion’s service, makes them seek philosophical dialogues instead of crying-towels or medications.
A lot of what you’re saying about philosophical counselling would also apply to existential counselling, in which I and many others in the UK have a particular interest. In existential counselling, the client and counsellor engage in a dialogue aimed at enhancing the client’s selfknowledge and allowing them to become the author of their own life. Do you think that links could be made between the two approaches?
It appears that we are not discussing anything like ‘two approaches’ to philosophical counselling. In my view, philosophical counselling is analogous to a genus; particular therapeutic approaches, to species belonging to that genus. Thus existential counselling, stoic counselling, Buddhist counselling, virtue counselling, ethics counselling, decision-theoretic counselling, and philosophical midwifery – to name just a few styles – are all species of that genus. To push this further, it appears to me that every philosophical counsellor ultimately has his or her own unique style, which may consist of an individual blend or spectrum of approaches. Some cases may be more amenable to existential counselling; others, to another approach or blend of approaches.
During my UK visit, I’ve had a useful meeting with Ernesto Spinelli and Michael Harding from the Society for Existential Analysis at Regent’s College. That meeting and subsequent dialogue have born fruit: we are pleased to announce the founding of the Anglo-American Society for Philosophical Practice. The society will co-ordinate and promote lectures, seminars and workshops on philosophical practice. It will foster constructive interchange between societies in the UK and the US – such as the Society for Existential Analysis and the American Society for Philosophy, Counselling and Psychotherapy, respectively.
That sounds like an exciting development. I wonder though if there are some differences between existential counselling – which tends to be very non-directive – and philosophical counselling as practised by yourself. One difference is that you as a philosophical counsellor refer to philosophers in counselling sessions (which existentialist counsellors would not normally do ). Is that a fair characterisation?
Yes… I will certainly recommend philosophical ideas or insights or propositions or systems to my clients if I think that they are helpful. I don’t do it as a rule of thumb but if it looks like it will make a difference, if it will reinforce something he already thinks only more articulately then of course I will pass that on – that’s facilitation.
Is there one philosopher in particular who you find the most helpful?
No, the philosopher I find most helpful is myself. I have my personal favourites but they aren’t necessarily the ones I will enlist.
Who is your own philosophical hero? I would guess it might be Socrates?
You guess tastefully, but incorrectly. I have reached a stage in life – well into my fifth decade – in which I have long-since ceased worshipping heroes. Nowadays I tend to regard all men as my instructors, and try to remain on a hemlock-free diet.
There’s been quite a lot of interest in Philosophical Counselling in this country, mainly due to yourself. How many people, if any, are actually practising it, here and worldwide?
What appears mainly due to me is scarcely due to me alone; I’m merely in the eye of an auspicious philosophical storm. I happened to organise the Third International Conference on Philosophical Practice, which as you know took place in New York in July 1997. Whereas our first two international events (Vancouver 1994 and Leusden 1996) scarcely attracted any publicity, the third conference has precipitated waves of media attention and public interest. The movement’s tide is obviously high in Anglo-America, and my colleagues and I are happily fitted out to sail on it. The amount of interest shown vastly outweighs the actual number of practitioners. But that demand in turn will fuel an increased supply. I would add that the current popularity of philosophical counselling appears bound up inextricably with Manhattanite mystique, thanks largely to Woody Allen’s movies. Allen artfully if hyperbolically portrayed the quintessential neurotic New Yorker, and inadvertently depicted deficiencies of psychological and psychoanalytic therapies in the bargain. He interleaved his personal failings generously, shamelessly, wittily and often philosophically with those of the psychotherapeutic profession and the prepostmodern society of his day.
Apparently, many movie-goers – especially non-New-Yorkers – took him far too literally. Since I both practice philosophy in Manhattan, and am also a kind of performing artist (of what I call ‘stand-up philosophy’), some people view me as a next-generation Woody Allen. It’s a nice thought! I have written satirical novels, and I am currently writing a screenplay for a major Hollywood producer, which should do for philosophy what Allen did for psychology – only in a positive sense. There’s an entertaining and humorous facet of my philosophical practice, which – like the laughter it engenders – is also therapeutic.