In 399 BC, at Socrates' trial for impiety and corrupting Athenian youth, the “father of Western philosophy" defended himself by saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living."
This is part of Socrates' legacy; he was known to push people to partake in their own examinations, even if they didn’t want to. Socrates, at least in Plato's telling, would engage random people he encountered in what’s now called "Socratic dialogue." He would ask a series of questions about an assumption they held, and these questions would inevitably reveal that a person’s reasons for holding on to a belief didn’t rest on solid foundations.
For example, when Socrates questioned Euthydemus about whether it was immoral to be deceitful, Euthydemus replied that of course it was—until Socrates provided a number of confusing situations and caveats showing that deceitfulness might not be so immoral after all.
That the examined life is a virtuous one, and a more fulfilling one, has been a touchstone of philosophy ever since, and it’s come to find new application. Philosophical counseling is a once-niche but now burgeoning practice in which people with academic philosophy training set out to be like modern-day Socrates in the marketplace, helping their clients examine beliefs, values, and assumptions as they attempt to lead a better life.
As evidence of its mainstreaming, the practice was covered in the spring issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, in which journalist Jennifer King Lindley wrote about how she sought out philosophical counseling while dealing with existential questions brought on by the pandemic.
“Sitting silently on my sofa, between slugs of warming wine, I pondered in earnest,” Lindley wrote. “Was I using my time here well? I had experienced depression before and been gratefully righted by therapy and medication. This was different; this stew felt more existential.” Lindley described philosophical counselors as “personal trainers for the mind and soul.”
To some extent, we all philosophize in our lives. We encounter suffering, and we have to come up with some way to deal with it and to grapple with life’s big questions. Philosophy is in the background of your beliefs about what love and friendship are, what makes up a meaningful life, and what family is, along with issues of justice and ethics. Philosophical counseling seeks to help with a process already taking place within you.
But the contemporary practice of philosophical counseling clashes head-on with thorny philosophical concerns of its own—about the limitations of when it can help people and the boundaries between philosophical “problems of living” and the other fields that people turn to when experiencing distress: psychology and psychiatry.
Psychology has largely usurped philosophy as the way that people in the modern era understand themselves, their goals, feelings, and reactions to the world. Instead of ethics and virtue, we speak of attachment styles and love languages. For many secular people, psychologists are who we turn to when we have concrete problems: Should I get a divorce? What do I do if I’m no longer satisfied at work? How do I have a better relationship with my mom? Turning to a philosopher instead could be a fresh way to approach such dilemmas. Yet this leads to not-so-easy questions: What is a philosophical problem of living, and what is an emotional problem better dealt with by psychology? Is philosophical counseling a replacement for therapy? An add-on? Is a philosophical counselor just a life coach with a Ph.D.?
Depending on who you ask, the answers to these questions will vary. Many believe we've excessively pathologized normal reactions to living by defining them as mental illnesses (often by necessity, for insurance reimbursement). Others might respond that there are serious ethical issues involved with sending someone with clinical depression or anxiety to seek help from a philosopher.
Complicating all this is the lack of regulation in the field. In the United States, there are two major philosophical counseling organizations, the National Philosophical Counseling Association (NPCA) and the American Philosophical Practitioners Association (APPA). The two groups have ideological differences, primarily around this exact issue: the relationship between philosophy and psychology, and who can call themselves a “counselor” without mental health licensing.
There’s a growing demand for philosophy in psychiatry, and the practice of philosophical counseling could act as a bridge between or complement to existing mental-health options. But another version of philosophical counseling could be a more antagonistic force. A view found brewing not-so-secretly under the surface of philosophical counseling is a disdain for the entire mental health infrastructure. Naturally, a problem arises when people who are ideally supposed to collaborate with or refer clients to mental health professionals harbor deep skepticism about the existence and boundaries of mental health issues to begin with.
In this way, philosophical counseling embodies frustrations with both philosophy and psychology that are at a boiling point. There are significant dissatisfactions with academic philosophy: It’s hard to make a living or find a job in academia, and some feel philosophy has lost sight of its myriad practical applications. There is also discontent with the way mental health services are currently construed and delivered in the U.S., with purported over-focus on diagnoses and medication. The turn to philosophy represents a desire for a different way of interrogating our mental lives and making meaning, in the pursuit of the highest goal (according to Plato): a good and virtuous life.
Around two years ago, Joe Pingo, a 47-year-old in Illinois, started to feel a heavy existential malaise that was unfamiliar to him. He described it like a void: a nagging, recurring thought that the struggles of life, including his work as a behavioral therapist with vulnerable people, were all meaningless.
Pingo is a behavioral therapist, so he tried to use cognitive techniques that had worked for him and his patients before, but they weren’t helping this time. “It wasn’t coming from some kind of trauma that I’d experienced, or issues with parents,” Pingo said. “It was just this persistent thought that I was having.”
His problems were philosophical in nature, and so he turned to Monica Vilhauer, a philosophical counselor. Vilhauer helped Pingo to question why he was perceiving the world in this way, and interrogate his assumptions about meaninglessness. She also offered advice from thinkers who’d pondered the same issues, like the existentialists.
“It’s not just sitting in front of someone saying, ‘Sartre said this about meaninglessness,’” Pingo said. “It’s, ‘Here's what Sarte said, but now how can you take what he said and use it in a practical sense to help yourself?’”
The notion that philosophy should be practical, and inform the way we live, has survived well beyond Socrates. The French philosopher Pierre Hadot thought that philosophy’s purpose was to be a way of life, and that academia had largely forgotten that. In the 1990s, Pierre Grimes founded the “philosophical midwifery movement," based on Socratic midwifery, as described in Plato’s dialogue The Theaetetus. The idea is that every person has their own philosophy inside of them, and a philosopher's job is to help an individual birth their own truth.
For Pingo, philosophical counseling snapped him out of his existential crisis and helped him reappraise his life. He continued to see Vilhauer after—not as frequently as one might see a therapist, but a couple times a month. He views it as maintenance of his overall wellbeing.
German philosopher Dr. Gerd B. Achenbach, who opened a philosophical practice in Bergisch-Gladbach, near Cologne, started this type of modern philosophical practice in the 1980s. Achenbach has written that philosophical practice is not therapy, though it can have therapeutic outcomes, which Pingo agreed with. He considered it an alternative to psychological counseling, not a replacement for it. Achenbach's practice became publicized through local media, and a small handful of philosophers around the world started to open up their own practices.
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The story of the establishment of philosophical counseling in the U.S. is a bit more rocky. The leading figures of American philosophical counseling, who lead the NPCA and APPA, are philosophers Elliot Cohen and Lou Marinoff. Their origin stories are both rooted in the realization that they wanted to use philosophy as a way to help people.
In 1991, Marinoff was working at the University of British Columbia at the Center for Applied Ethics. It was a research position, but he often talked to the media as an ethicist. Then, people started to contact the center to ask to talk to a philosopher.
“People were coming to us, not for guidance—we don’t tell people what to do—but for clarity,” Marinoff said. This was the start of his philosophical practice, and of his conviction that philosophy could help people with problems that had little to do with mental illness and more to do with life. He wrote the best-selling book Plato, Not Prozac!: Applying Eternal Wisdom to Everyday Problems in 1999.
Similarly, Cohen entered philosophy to try to change lives but discovered that much of academic philosophy wasn't applied to people’s actual daily experiences. In 1980, he established the International Journal of Applied Philosophy, which was focused on how to take academic philosophy from universities and apply it to the real world.
Cohen linked up with Albert Ellis, the American psychologist who was inspired by Stoicism and invented rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), a forefather of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Cohen then created logic-based therapy, a philosophically-oriented form of REBT.
The first international conference on philosophical practice in 1994 brought together a group of philosophical practitioners who, before then, were practicing in relative isolation. “Then we became aware of each other as a community and we realized that we had the nucleus of a movement,” Marinoff said. “And this really is a movement—philosophical practice.”
Cohen and Marinoff's paths intertwined. Cohen and Marinoff both served as leaders in the first professional organization for philosophical practitioners, the American Society for Philosophy, Counseling, and Psychotherapy (ASPCP), co-founded by Cohen and Paul Sharkey. That is, until Marinoff formed the American Philosophical Practitioners Association and split off, taking some members of the ASPCP with him. Under Cohen's leadership, the ASPCP was renamed as the National Philosophical Counseling Association in 2012.
In 2004, the New York Times Magazine documented this split, blaming it on disagreements about certification and the direction the organization should take. "The embryonic field of philosophical counseling suffered its first full-blown professional schism," wrote journalist Daniel Duane. Marinoff rebutted that there was no such schism but that he and Cohen had both served on the board of the ASPCP together until the logistical issue arose around whether the ASPCP, an academic organization, could appropriately certify people to become philosophical counselors. Marinoff's solution was to develop the APPA as a professional organization, which could do the certifications as a nonprofit educational corporation.
Cohen recalled it slightly differently. “There was a splinter group that was formed from the association by an individual who was part of the association that decided to try to recruit some of the members of our board,” he said. “He didn’t tell me about it, but he went ahead and did that. That’s why we have two associations in philosophical counseling in the United States.”
Leaving the past aside, the two groups retain some ideological differences that get at the heart of the questions about the role of philosophical counseling. The NPCA views itself as a bridge between psychology and philosophy, and makes it very clear that it views philosophy and psychology as allies: “Philosophical and psychological forms of counseling are complementary and mutually supportive avenues for helping people to confront their problems of living,” their website reads, in bold.
According to the NPCA, a philosophical counselor should help with issues like “mid-life crises, career changes, stresses of everyday life, physical illness, death and dying, aging, meaning of life, and morality” along with questioning beliefs, values, and ethics. A mental health practitioner, on the other hand, will be focused on psychological issues surrounding mood, like depression or anxiety, trauma, and delusions. The NPCA provides an extensive list of issues that a philosophical consultant would need to refer out for.
NPCA credentialing is stringent. Philosophical counselors must be trained in an area of mental health practice and be licensed where they practice. If someone only has a philosophy background, they cannot call themself a counselor, but only a “philosophical consultant.”
It takes only three days and a graduate degree in philosophy, on the other hand, to be certified as a "counselor" with APPA. The APPA training is not about teaching philosophy (presumably people already know that) but about giving the tools to build a practice. This entails understanding the similarities and differences between philosophy and psychology and how to tell who is a good candidate for philosophical counseling, as well as how to market your practice.
While APPA lists boundaries of practice on its website, it also openly raises questions about the legitimacy of practices like psychology and psychiatry, at least as practiced in the U.S. “Not every personal problem is a mental illness,” it says on APPA’s website. “If you are physically ill or emotionally dysfunctional, see a doctor. But if you want to examine your life, see a philosophical counselor. You’ll get dialogue, not diagnosis." Elsewhere, it reads, “Philosophical counseling is therapy for the sane."
The question around the appropriate application of philosophical counseling caused a legal skirmish back in the early 2000s between Marinoff and the City College of New York, where he is employed as a philosophy professor, as documented by the Times in 2004. The legal documents highlight that there was some uncertainty as to what philosophical counseling actually is—who and what it's for. “While ‘philosophical counseling’ does not yield to a precise definition, what constitutes ‘philosophical counseling’ is central to this case,” the case opinion states. The case was eventually dismissed, and the drama mostly ends there, and Marinoff’s relationship with the school hasn’t been impacted. (He won the 2019 Provost’s Outstanding Teaching Award.)
The APPA and the NPCA continue to flourish on their separate paths—both Cohen and Marinoff said they’re receiving more and more applications and training more counselors and consultants (by their own definitions) each year. Over the summer the APPA launched a new online service called Chat with a Philosopher, where a person can see which APPA-certified philosophers are online (and how much their rates are) and talk instantly to them about whatever philosophical matter is troubling them.
Some issues that lead people to seek philosophical counseling are more obviously philosophical. A few years ago, Matteo Liberatore, a musician in New York, felt conflicted about contradictions between his meditation practice and ideas around free will. Meditation implied that he had the agency to watch his mind and thoughts from a distance, but he felt this contradicted ideas around determinism.
Liberatore reached out to a philosophical counselor, Rick Repetti, and they talked through his conflict. Liberatore didn’t get a solid answer that provided an easy reconciliation between meditation and determinism. Instead, he learned there was no simple answer, but that this was a topic many other philosophers had grappled with. After philosophical counseling, Liberatore next ended up seeing a therapist who was also a meditation teacher.
But other people's issues inhabit greyer areas. After Kira Rentas graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2014, she started working in Manhattan at an intense job that she said “took a lot out of me.” She was in an emotionally abusive relationship, and she felt frustrated that her life wasn’t blossoming. “I thought I’d made all the right choices,” she said. “I did well in school, I got into an Ivy League, I graduated, I got a job, I had a relationship.”
Rentas was diagnosed with major depression and anxiety when she was 17 years old, and has also had an eating disorder, so she was familiar with therapy and traditional mental health treatments. She sought out philosophical counseling from a desire to try something different. In previous therapy sessions, she sometimes felt like she was talking to a wall: explaining how she felt, but without a lot of back and forth or dialogue. Meeting with philosophical counselor Lauren Tillinghast, based in New York, changed that.
A good candidate for philosophical counseling, Marinoff said, is a person who "doesn’t have something wrong with them" but doesn’t spend enough time “developing what’s right with them.” This is a difficult criteria to practically apply, not only because of the arbitrariness of what "right" and "wrong" mean but also because many people want to inhabit the two worlds of philosophy and psychology. Rentas still has a psychiatrist and still takes medication, so she engages with both practices. “I’m a firm believer in medication,” she said. “I think it’s important.”
"I do think it is a worthwhile endeavor, and many clients may specifically be looking for such a thing–to better understand, clarify, work through, and identify their own beliefs about themselves, the world, and the situation they find themselves in,” said Awais Aftab, a psychiatrist with philosophical interests who facilitates the Conversations in Critical Psychiatry in the Psychiatric Times. “In practice, however, I can see how things would get messy very quickly, and how any neat division between the philosophical and the psychological would unravel.” It can be messy for both the clients and the counselors, Aftab said, and difficult to keep the philosophy separate from the psychology that’s providing the context for the philosophical topics and discussions.
Tillinghast, certified by APPA, said that people sometimes come to her with what feels to them like a philosophical question. But more frequently, clients find her through Psychology Today, where she lists her practice, after initially looking for a psychological therapist.
Tillinghast said she thought it was fine to list her services on Psychology Today because it’s made clear on her page that she’s a philosophical counselor. But when I looked at her listing, the conditions she claims to treat include PTSD, ADHD, substance abuse disorder, OCD, and more—conditions that both APPA and the NCPA say philosophical counselors are unequipped to handle.
In a chapter of the book New Frontiers in Philosophical Practice, Roxana Kreimer and Gerardo Primero wrote about how the claims philosophical counseling makes and the boundaries it observes going forward will determine whether it blossoms into a truly interdisciplinary field or something more like a pseudoscience.
“Philosophical counseling has also acquired some features of a typical pseudoscience, because it showed no interest in testing its own claims with empirical studies,” the authors wrote. Even if philosophical counseling doesn’t do harm, Kreimer and Primero wrote, there could be indirect harms of money and time spent on a practice that doesn’t offer as much benefit as an alternative one that’s been more rigorously tested. And a philosopher’s triaging abilities to direct to those alternative services might be similar to that of a lay individual, Aftab said—meaning people with no training in mental health at all.
I decided to undergo philosophical counseling sessions myself, to see what it was like. Vilhauer told me it's not like receiving a lecture in a classroom; the philosophy comes in through the discussions. “I’m a friend who’s listening to their problems and then saying, ‘OK, I noticed that this particular problem relies on this belief or this value. Let's bring that forward and take a look at it,’” she said.
When Alex Gooch, a philosophical counselor in the UK, was thinking about starting a practice, he did several sessions with different practitioners to see what it was like, and found that every person had a different approach. “No two sessions were structured the same,” he said.
Gooch said that so far in his practice many people are coming to him with questions about their relationship with work. Are they in the right job? Should they change careers? How can they be more fulfilled? What about bigger questions, I asked, like whether God exists, or what happens after we die. “Certainly I would not consider it my role to propose answers to a big question like what death is, or what is the meaning of life,” Gooch said. Instead he would explore the question, the ramification of the question, and all the potential answers to that question.
I did a sample session with Gooch, who was certified by APPA, in which we did just such a process with a question I brought in about striving to achieve balance between creative pursuits and work. Gooch opened a Word document on our Zoom session and we charted out different possibilities for a life divided between passions and work, the implications for my identity and emotions, and all of the possibilities in-between. He also referenced some relevant philosophical texts that I could read later: E.F. Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed, and Susan Wolf's work on meaningfulness in life.
A few weeks later, I did a session with Himani Chaukar, a philosophical consultant, trained in logic-based therapy, or LBT, through the NPCA. To give each session a fair assessment, I also talked to her about my desire to balance my work life with creative hobbies. After listening to me, Chaukar pointed out two logical fallacies that she noticed in my thinking. (This is part of the more-structured process of LBT.) One was "awfulizing," which sounded similar to catastrophizing, a psychological construct in which a person jumps to the worst-case scenario. The other fallacy was self-damnation, which meant that I judged my own actions by incredibly high standards. “You’re constantly expecting so much from yourself, demanding perfection,” she said.
If I were her client, she said, the next step would be to come up with an action plan to counter these logical fallacies. She also shared what she called philosophical antidotes, or uplifting philosophy quotes from two Indian philosophers that related to my logical fallacies.
These can be very powerful for clients, she said, because they highlight how the specific issue a person is grappling with—say, work-life balance—has been thought about by others, in some cases for thousands of years.
As someone who’s been in many years of psychological therapy, I thought both sessions were useful, and insightful. Both accurately picked up on traits that I've dealt with in therapy (perfectionism and catastrophizing), but I didn’t feel they crossed inappropriately over into the bounds of psychology. At the same time, I am not currently in a vulnerable emotional place, having done so much psychological work before having ever attempted something like philosophical counseling.
Like me, Sophia, a 43-year-old in Brooklyn who is using a pseudonym to protect her identity, has been in all kinds of therapy, from psychodynamic therapy to CBT. When Sophia did psychotherapy, she said it helped her to understand her past, and how she arrived at where she is today. Doing CBT better helped her to understand how her thoughts can lead to behaviors she doesn’t appreciate in her life. “I had done all that, and it helped greatly, but it felt like something was missing,” she said.
She felt that philosophical counseling was a complementary practice that could fill in that missing piece. “It helped me challenge my avoidance behaviors,” she said. “It made my fears more explicit. It made me question how my own beliefs were my barriers.”
From my interviews with clients, there seems to be great benefit in the ability to go back and forth between philosophy and psychology, and use the various tools from each of these practices. But concerningly, I found that some philosophical counselors can lean toward a materialistic and critical view of mental illness, arguing that only those with serious “brain disorders” should be in the hands of mental health practitioners.
“Some people suffer from cerebral illnesses, which can render them dysfunctional or even dangerous to themselves or others,” APPA’s website says. “Such persons may benefit from psychiatric care. Philosophical counselors, however, are concerned that psychiatry potentially labels every kind of human problem or behavior a ‘mental illness’: we find such a view unacceptable.” This position could lead to fewer or reluctant referrals and also interfere with an individual's views surrounding their emotional distress since it strictly classifies certain mental experiences as "dangerous" and rooted solely in biology. It also doesn't make space for when people find validation and solidarity in diagnoses, or have helpful experiences with mental health services.
Peter Raabe, a philosophical counselor in Canada, wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on describing and justifying philosophical counseling as a form of therapy for what he called “so-called mental illnesses.”
“I always use the word so-called because mental illnesses really aren't real,” he told me.
Raabe described to me his conviction that there’s a marked difference between the mind and the brain, and that philosophers “can’t fix brains, but we can help people to adjust their minds.” But this is a philosophical stance unto itself, and many scientists or philosophers who argue for embodied cognition would not agree that there is such a clear difference or duality between the material stuff of the body and the consciousness that emerges from it.
When pressed about her Psychology Today page, Tillinghast also expressed skepticism at the field of psychology and psychiatry, saying that “even this concept of mental illness is an extremely new concept, it's not clear how stable this definition is,” and that psychiatrists don't even know why medications work. She questioned the boundaries of disorders like depression and PTSD. “Human depression is a response to a depressing world,” she said. Regarding PTSD, she added: "Some of us would just call that learning from experience."
Aftab doesn’t think that philosophical counselors have any obligation to accept the validity of diagnoses from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the handbook that describes and (attempts to) categorize mental disorders. “Many psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health clinicians also share similar sentiments about pathologization of problems of living as well as skepticism regarding the validity of DSM diagnoses,” Aftab said. Philosophical counselors are not alone in that.
But it does become a problem if they start using philosophical counseling to treat psychological problems based on their sometimes extreme beliefs around mental illness, which one can easily imagine influencing how they identify psychological problems in their clients.
“The mental health industry as a whole is basically constituted to ask what's wrong with you,” Marinoff said. “If you go to a psychotherapist, they're trained to try and evaluate what's wrong with you. And it's scandalous that they've all been colonized by Big Pharma and the insurance companies. So they have to make a diagnosis or they don't get paid. So they've got to find something wrong with you.”
This position makes some stark generalizations about the motive and intent of all mental health practitioners. It might be fitting for a philosopher of science or mind to question the usefulness, emergence, and etiology of mental illness diagnoses, and many do. But it's a slightly different situation when a philosophical counselor, whose job is to counsel and help people with distress, has such strong views.
As Aftab said, there are legitimate discussions to have about the practices of psychiatry and psychology: the application and use of diagnoses in the DSM, for example; resisting pathologizing what might be normative behaviors; and examining critically the role and influence of for-profit pharmaceutical companies in the mental health space.
Many, if not most, mental health practitioners (including psychiatrists) understand emotional distress to arise from a messy mix of environment, biology, and interactions with others, and are just as concerned about the role of for-profit interests as others are. This is where philosophy could step in to aid psychology, rather than be an alternative that dismisses it outright.
“Our psychological lives can be approached through a variety of different perspectives, and sometimes approaching them through the lens of philosophy can be helpful,” Aftab said. “However, offering philosophical counseling as a professional comes with a certain responsibility, and the responsibility in this case is for the philosophical counselor to be aware of and recognize the limits of what philosophical counseling can and cannot do.”
It’s also problematic that part of the appeal of philosophical counseling, to some, is that it bypasses the stigma attached to getting help for mental health issues. Bypassing this stigma doesn’t do much in the way of eradicating it. Some descriptions of philosophical counseling promote it as a way of seeking help without ever getting a mental health diagnosis—which implies that it’s a horrible thing to receive one. Raabe said that he’s had clients who said they didn't mind seeing him because it was less stigmatizing to tell friends or family they were talking to a philosopher.
The stakes are higher since philosophical counseling isn’t part of the medical infrastructure, so there are no checks and balances and no accountability. Marinoff said he’s not worried about that. “In the 30 years that I’ve been doing this, I’ve never been sued by my clients,” he said. “And in 30 years of acquaintanceship with the movement and knowing people worldwide who do this in a growing number of countries, there has never been a lawsuit against the philosopher who dispenses counseling, to my knowledge. Nor has there ever been a suicide, for example, because believe me, it would have been reported.” This may be true, but there’s no way to know: Since philosophical counselors exist outside medical regulation, there are no topics, like suicidality, that they are required to report, like therapists are.
Philosophical counseling's positioning also presents some ethical issues about access. The practice proposes there’s a gap between clinical issues and problems of living, and that philosophical counseling can rise to meet the demand of people who don’t need to be diagnosed but are having a philosophical normative issue. But as a service outside of the mental healthcare infrastructure, this form of help-seeking will never be covered by insurance and will only be accessible to people who have the free time and money to elect to do it. Philosophical counseling sessions vary in price, but from what I saw, they can range from $80-$250 a session.
As Robert D. Walsh from Montana State University wrote in 2020, there's an irony that such a service would benefit only those who can pay to do it, because it runs counter to Socrates' views. “In the dialogues of Plato, this commodification of wisdom was defined by Socrates as one of the most obvious characteristics of sophistry in ancient Greece,” Walsh wrote.
“For a fee, a sophist would instruct you how to get what you want in the world by using clever, seductive, persuasive speech reinforced by rhetorical and oratorical techniques to produce what seemed to be true,” Walsh wrote. “Socrates criticized this commercial, sophistic practice because it was not an authentic pursuit of seeing and speaking the actual truth of what was happening, although it tried to appear as such; an insidious mimesis.”
Despite some of APPA’s publicly critical views, Marinoff assured me he believes in the need for cross-education between mental health practitioners and philosophers. He also thinks that philosophers need to learn how to correctly recognize psychopathology.
The truth is, there will always be a gray area between psychology and philosophy, so the attempt to treat them entirely separately would be in vain. Meaning-making doesn't belong solely to philosophers, and it's a generalization that all therapists want to do is diagnose you and move on. There are many kinds of philosophically informed psychotherapy, like logotherapy, for example, developed by Victor Frankl and centered on a person’s search for meaning. Marinoff agreed he sees overlaps everywhere. Positive psychology? That’s virtue ethics. REBT: stoicism. Existential therapy: existentialism. Mindfulness: Buddhist philosophy.
But in emphasizing the need for crossover and interaction, there still might be places where philosophy is not the appropriate path (and vice versa). I saw a psychodynamic psychotherapist for around five years in my early 20s, someone who was very philosophical in nature and reticent about “diagnosing” me officially outside of her obligation to do so for reimbursement.
I adored this woman, and thought she was brilliant. She referenced the works of psychological and philosophical giants, recommended reading to me, and we explored my family, my past, and my beliefs about the world. It was intellectually fulfilling, and I still feel very close to her. But she failed in five years to do the one thing that has made the most impact on my mental health journey: to diagnose me with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. When I was diagnosed, basically by accident, at an intake for a clinical trial at Columbia University, I was stunned. Spending the following five years in CBT and exposure therapy led to improvements in my daily functioning I never thought possible. My CBT therapist was not philosophical in the least. We just got to work, not through interrogating the meaning of my obsessions but by simply confronting them.
Now that I’ve made so much progress in regards to OCD, I can see the appeal of returning to something like philosophical counseling. This is how these practices can serve different, yet complementary, roles—one negating the other sacrifices the opportunity of getting the most fulfillment out of a life with both. At my worst with OCD, the question of a personal philosophy was out of my reach. I was dealing with the emergencies of day-to-day living, and the confusion and shame of why I couldn’t complete basic tasks.
Marinoff said that philosophical counselors won’t tell you that there’s something "wrong" with you. That’s a nice sentiment except in the cases when there is something "wrong" with you. I didn’t feel ashamed by my diagnosis; I was freed by it, and, ironically, it opened me up to have a deep personal interest in philosophy. Of course, my story is not everyone’s, and many people are limited by mental health institutions in ways that aren’t empowering but traumatizing. In these cases, philosophical counselors could offer a helpful tool. The dogmatism of so many in the field, though, raises a question: Can philosophy be helpful without demonizing mental health?
I asked this question of someone who operates in another philosophical grey area, the philosopher and author Jules Evans, who began to offer one-on-one philosophical tutoring during the pandemic. It began when a reader of his newsletter reached out and asked him, “Can I pay you for a philosophy conversation?” Initially, Evans said no because it sounded too much like therapy.
Then, he reframed it to be what he called a "philosophy safari," where he would be a tour guide to different philosophical ideas. “Me driving the Land Rover and saying we will go look at the ostriches, or the utilitarians, and next we will go look at the rhinos, or the Stoics," he explained.
Tutoring still comes with the underlying premise that an examined life, a philosophical life, is a better one, but it's not as much a fixed doctrine. “I do have that Socratic faith that the exercise of self-knowledge and self-examination, understanding what beliefs you're holding, and trying to be more conscious about it, will make you hopefully better and happier,” Evans said. “But I also quite like the way that some philosophers reject that idea. I'm quite open to criticism as well. Like Nietzsche says, maybe the examined self is actually kind of miserable and neurotic.”
When more people started to sign up, Evans started to face many of the issues philosophical counselors might encounter. One person needed help with a spiritual emergency from a difficult psychedelic trip, and he later regretted taking them on because they likely needed help from someone with a different background. Evans does think that philosophy can help people when they’re in very vulnerable situations, but he still thinks that when people are in a lot of emotional distress, their first stop should be a therapist or psychiatrist—and they can complement it with philosophy later if they want to. “I have an appreciation for the training that therapists do,” he said.
He also noticed that most of his clients tended to be wealthy. “After a while, I was like, ‘Am I becoming a court philosopher?’” he said. Many famous philosophers did serve the elite predominantly. In the 18th century, many lived in the country houses of the aristocracy and the rich. John Locke lived with the Earl of Shaftesbury, Thomas Hobbes worked for the wealthy Cavendish family. “That didn’t sit well,” Evans said. “So I basically made a conscious decision to offer some sessions to people who couldn't afford it for free.” That’s when Evans met Connor Fountain, a 25-year-old in the UK.
Fountain played soccer for Arsenal Football Club in Northern Ireland as a teenager until an injury ended his career at 17. He said he began to take drugs to self-medicate, was depressed, and attempted suicide in 2017. He moved to Manchester, where he got involved in illegal activity, then was unhoused for about a year.
Fountain managed to get a job in building, and he started working with a therapist who introduced him to CBT and mindfulness. One day, Fountain heard the song “Truth,” by Alex Ebert, on the radio. Fountain said the lyrics, which were about self-awakening, felt like they could have been written by him. When he looked Ebert up, he came across a YouTube video of Evans on the dark side of spirituality and was taken with Evans’ perspectives. He started studying Stoicism, inspired by Evans' book Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations.
“It allowed me to shift and rearrange my morals, values, and beliefs and made me clearer as to what I wanted from life, what was important,” Fountain said. Fountain decided to message Evans and tell him his story, and thank him for his work. Evans offered to give Connor philosophy tutoring free of charge.
Through their tutoring sessions together, Fountain said, philosophy has completely changed his life. Evans is very strict that what he does is tutoring and not counselling in any way. "But unbeknownst to him, it is for me just as important as a counseling session,” Fountain said.
Some of the frustrations regarding psychology and psychiatry reflect the individuation of distress on one person and their “disorder.” By introducing more philosophy into the practices, or setting up complementary philosophical counseling service, there can be more meaningful interrogation about what diagnoses mean to a person, and about a person; what kinds of treatments reflect a person’s values; and what it means to have distress in the face of a difficult world. To achieve those goals, philosophical counseling need not assert that mental illness isn’t “real” or that philosophy should replace antidepressants. Those are black-and-white positions that frankly aren’t very philosophical in their lack of nuance.
Fountain agreed that it's unnecessary. He said the philosophy on its own is powerful enough to be helpful. His dream is to create a nonprofit where he can expose others in tough spots to philosophy. And he firmly believes in the complementary nature of philosophy and mental health treatment.
“I completely understand and value the importance of medication, because medication has helped me get through—just lift the fog, lift that smoke screen that's in front of you to be able to be clearer," Fountain said. "Once you get to that stage, philosophy is the most important thing, in my opinion, because once you get there, it's learning how to keep yourself there, even with or without the support of the tablets.”
It's a comforting notion that the ideas and dialogue themselves can lead to improvements, though it makes the issue around access even more important. Fountain said if Evans hadn’t offered him the free philosophy tutoring sessions, he’s not sure he would have made as much progress as he did. He’d still be interested in philosophy, but he would have been on his own.
“I was on the street for nearly a year, and I was lucky if people said hello to me, let alone someone come and introduce me to something like this,” Fountain said. “Why should someone that has money have any kind of fast track to this over someone that actually could could really use it but cannot afford to access it? In my own personal opinion, philosophy is the right of everyone.”
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