James had recently left the fundamentalist religion of his childhood and now felt lost. He had grown up thinking that outside his religion there was only materialism, but he needed something more. Over time he became dispirited, for without a greater purpose in life he could not see the point in pursuing anything. When he no longer found motivation to complete his university assignments his partner pushed him to see a doctor. The GP offered James anti-depressants but he refused, so they referred him to a psychologist.
The psychologist did not make a formal assessment but hinted that James was suffering a mild depression. She gave him cognitive-behavioural exercises to do at home, but as far as James could see these amounted to a cure by persuasion: that he should become content with pursuing his career, relationship, and fitness. She also signed him up for a mindfulness app which taught him to detach from his negative emotions, however James saw his angst as meaningful: it expressed the longing to go deeper. Something important was missing in all of this.
James is one kind of person who comes to philosophical counselling, a new field that combines philosophy and counselling. Their concerns are not psychological so much as philosophical. By “philosophical” I do not mean intellectual. I mean rather that the person's concern regards meaning, value, and perspective. What James needs is a perspective on life which is as true and good as possible. He needs a way of relating to life that satisfies his longing for depth and meaning.
Modern philosophical counselling began around forty years ago with people like Gerd Achenbach and later Lou Marinoff. They were academics who saw that philosophy could shift from the teaching format to a counselling approach, to help people with their individual problems through the application of philosophical ideas and practices, such as critical thinking, to their situations. That is part of a wider shift known as "applied philosophy" which has taken the discipline out of the academy on a range of fronts. Philosophical counselling can be emotionally-attuned also, as found in diverse disciplines and activities such as existential therapy and Ran Lahav’s Philo-Practice Agora.
In many ways we are witnessing a reversal of history. Ancient philosophy met the needs of people like James. For example Stoic philosophy was a way of living rather than a purely intellectual activity. As Christianity became the dominant way of finding meaning, philosophy was pushed out of practical life. It's practices such as evening self-examination were absorbed into monasticism, while its intellectual powers were reduced to being a servant to theology. Now, with the demise of religion in the West, philosophy is returning to its old role as a guide to life.
There are problems with this change, however. Some weeks ago a friend and I went on a bicycle ride. We ended at a café on the grounds of the Abbotsford Convent, which is now a children’s farm and organic market. As we sat there eating the sugar and carbs we had earned, on a beautiful Spring morning, we were pummelled by the cafe's sound system pumping out 90s dance music. I was puzzled but my friend, whose family once owned a restaurant, suggested that the staff had set the music to match their mood and not that of their customers. They had probably been there since 7AM, were very busy, and so chose energetic music for their sake without realising how jarring it was for the patrons. I think the same thing happens in philosophical counselling. Academics, who are not always the best at stepping outside their own heads, have fashioned philosophical counselling around their own intellectual temperament, as though to use philosophy to guide your life means applying Immanuel Kant and formal logic.
These people are used to the reduction of philosophy to an intellectual practice, which happened 2000 years ago, and so they take an academic approach to philosophical counselling. Ancient philosophers, by contrast, were critical of mere academics. Philosophy was a deeply reflective and intelligent way of living, but what counted most was that "way of living" bit. Philosophical claims emerged from the heat of life, from the struggle to overcome adversity, to flourish, and to be a decent person. The best philosophers had fought in citizen armies like Socrates, or lived in slavery such as Epictetus. They knew real life and did philosophy from that place, as a flesh and blood activity of the heart and hands, as much as the mind.
That past way of doing philosophy needs to become its future too. The future of philosophical counselling lies in getting further away from academics. But I think it also needs to step away from where counselling is going. Counselling is increasingly a mental health practice, integrated with clinical psychology and psychiatry, because this is where the government dollars are to be found. Many philosophical counsellors frame the discipline in those terms, as an alternative to mainstream mental health treatments. It is not unusual for them to do this by making crude and irresponsible criticisms of psychiatry. But philosophical counselling should not take that approach. It is not a mental health service, and it should leave that approach to the psychologists and psychiatrists who will always do a better job, even if they have their own blind spots and vices that need changing. Rather, philosophical counselling is about perspective, meaning, value, about creating good lives and good communities.
I think that philosophical counselling should not be limited to a counselling approach, either. When it began some four decades ago coaching didn’t exist, and when it did exist it was for a long time a superficial activity. These days however, serious coaching is more like applied science. Done properly it is the application of genuine expertise. I think that a lot of philosophical counselling needs to shift into a philosophical coaching modality. That removes it from the mental health field and is a much better fit. What James needs is philosophical coaching for his life concerns. I note that positive psychology coaching is flourishing, and that positive psychology is a natural sibling to philosophy. I would suggest a three-way integration of philosophy, positive psychology, and coaching, as per the diagram below.
I am not suggesting that this model of philosophical coaching should replace philosophical counselling. Counselling is more contemplative, more emotionally attuned, more focused on what happens when we listen deeply. Whereas coaching is outcomes and action focused, and more didactic. They are different arts. I know because I practice both. In counselling I see myself as a listener and healer, in coaching I view myself more as a personal trainer offering an age-old tradition of self-improvement for flourishing and virtue development.