I have a good mind to help

June 16, 2000

Can a philosopher help you decide whether to buy a car or get divorced? Ayala Ochert reports on the professors who, for a small fee, will help sort out your problems.

Do you have a problem at work? Trouble in your marriage? Need new direction in your life? Perhaps a philosopher can help. More and more philosophers are leaving their departmental coffee rooms to offer "philosophical counselling". Philosophy is not just some dry intellectual pursuit, they claim - it has real relevance to our everyday lives.

Lou Marinoff, a professor of philosophy at the City College of New York, is at the vanguard of this emerging profession. Author of the best-selling book Plato Not Prozac, Marinoff argues that many problems are at root philosophical. "We need to distinguish between psychiatric, psychological and philosophical problems. Prozac can be very helpful, but there are people whose brain chemistry is perfectly all right, and whose problem may have to do with issues such as purpose, meaning, value, ethics. And this kind of person is better off seeing a philosopher," he claims.

Plato Not Prozac is already available in 15 languages and seems to have hit a rich vein of public interest. In it Marinoff gives examples from his own practice - including the case of Vincent, a writer, who turns up preoccupied by a problem at work. A female colleague, offended by the Gauguin reproduction Vincent had put up in his office, complained to their boss. Vincent was given a stark choice - take the picture down or resign. Though he chose to keep his job and remove the picture, he was left feeling angry and full of resentment.

Marinoff decided that Vincent's negative emotions stemmed from his sense of injustice and turned to the 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill for help. After Mill's distinction between offence and harm was explained to Vincent, he realised that his female colleague had mistaken being offended by the picture with being harmed by it. "But Vincent also realised that he too had merely been offended, not harmed. He was then able to laugh the incident off," says Marinoff. Peace of mind, delivered in one hour, at a cost of $100.

Marinoff has since set up the American Philosophical Practitioners Association to deal with the flood of interest from academic philosophers hoping to ply their trade, and the association offers certification in philosophical counselling.

Marinoff insists that demand has been driven by the public and that he and his colleagues are being dragged down from their ivory towers by the masses. While he was working at the centre for applied ethics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, people would turn up on his doorstep, asking for his help, he says.

"They began by telephoning. They would say, 'I have what looks like an ethical problem or a moral dilemma, so maybe what I need is a philosopher.' Then they started walking into the centre saying, 'I want to see a philosopher.'" he says.

In 1991, Marinoff and his colleagues began offering philosophical counselling as a public service. When he later moved to New York, he realised that this was the sort of thing that New Yorkers would pay good money for, and that the "marketplace of ideas" need not be just a metaphor.

Now the choice is not just between a Freudian or Jungian therapist, but between a Hegelian or an Aristotelian or a therapist from any other school of thought.

"Of course, there are more philosophers than psychologists because our tradition is 2,500 years old, not 100," Marinoff boasts.

While some psychologists have welcomed philosophers into the fold, many are uncomfortable with the new competition. Dorothy Cantor, former president of the American Psychological Association and a private practitioner in Westfield, New Jersey, is worried by the possibility that academics with PhDs in philosophy might try to "treat" patients with deep-rooted troubles. She is not comforted by assurances from philosophical counsellors that they will restrict their practice to people with philosophical problems, referring others to psychiatrists or psychologists. "My challenge is, without having been trained, how will they recognise the person with serious psychological problems?" Speaking from her private practice at Westfield, New Jersey, Cantor is sceptical that many problems are at root philosophical. "Occasionally, a very depressed patient will ask, 'What is life all about anyway?', which could be interpreted as a philosophical question. But to me it is a desperate cry of, 'My life is meaningless, I have no direction, I have no purpose.' That is not a philosophical question at all. I also have a sense that there is an economic issue here. Academic jobs are very hard to come by and when you can't find a job doing what you were trained to do, you try to look for some other way of making a living using your training."

Some philosophers also have reservations about philosophy as therapy. Roger Scruton, visiting professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, London, worries that the purity of the subject might become tainted. "Philosophy is not a form of counselling, it's a way of life that involves the pursuit of truth," he says. In an article for The Times, Scruton wrote: "Philosophy has until now spoken with the accents of the academy and not with the voice of the fortune teller."

Marinoff counters that philosophy is neither about discovering the truth nor about curing people. "The premise of a philosophical counsellor is not that there is something wrong with you, but that there is something right with you, for wanting to understand what is going on."

American Philosophical Practitioners Association: www.appa.edu/.


Martin Young, a PhD student from the University of California, Irvine, and Sandra Garrison, a graduate student at San Jose State University, have both trained as philosophical counsellors.

"That philosophers would work outside the academy is surprising to people," Young says. "My typical conversation with a graduate student goes: 'Philosophical counselling - what's that? Could I make money doing it?'" "There are 1,000 applications for every position," says Garrison, who hopes that the growing enthusiasm for philosophical counselling will improve her career prospects. She sees this trend as philosophy returning to its roots. "Issues aren't new, they're thousands of years old. The root of philosophy is real issues in real life."


Harriet Chamberlain is a philosophical counsellor based in Berkeley, California, who conducts group workshops in critical thinking. "Critical thinking is the best way for individuals to see the reality of their lives. It involves understanding how you think, understanding what your beliefs and values are. Critical thinking demands evidence and so it minimises illusions and fantasies," Chamberlain says.

Her clients have used the workshops to help make decisions, both big and small. Marie, a communications director, was strengthened in her resolve not to buy a car. "Society tells us you are a grown-up when you have a car. But I realised that one of my values is not to have a car, but to walk and use public transport."

Ellis, a pre-press technician, said it helped him become a home-owner. "I thought that was impossible. Using a Socratic question-and-answer approach, Harriet had me list my reasons for believing that. For example, I believed I had a bad credit record. But when she asked me why I believed that, it became clear that it was just an assumption I had made." Ellis has since bought a home. "Nothing real, just a great deal of bad thinking was keeping me from owning a home."

Another client, Mitra, used the course to resolve questions about love. "I was in a relationship for seven years that was not very satisfying to me. I began asking, 'Why am I in this relationship? Is this how I want my life to be?' And the answer to those questions were no. So I broke it off. What I got from the workshop were the right questions to ask, rather than, 'Is he well off, does he have the right education or family background?'" ANGLO-US ACADEMIC LINKS.

Philosophical counselling began in Germany in the 1980s, but it is in the United States that it has really taken off - in part because of a growing disillusionment with psychology.

Britain has its own version of philosophical counselling in the form of existential psychotherapy, introduced from the Continent by R. D. Laing.

"Rather than trying to resolve people's problems immediately, or look at them from a quasi-medical standpoint, existential psychotherapy considers most problems as problems of living in the world," explains Ernesto Spinelli, academic dean of Regent's College School of Psychotherapy and Counselling in London, where he trains existential psychotherapists.

"Existential psychotherapy tries to help people understand the assumptions they have and the values they hold. In doing so, the problems that people bring are often clarified so that they stop being problems in the way that they were before," he says.

Because of the similarities in their practice, he and Lou Marinoff have set up an Anglo-American Society for Philosophical Practice to cultivate their relationship.

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