Academic journal article South African Journal of Philosophy

Defining Philosophical Counselling: An Overview

Academic journal article South African Journal of Philosophy

Defining Philosophical Counselling: An Overview

Article excerpt

Abstract

The practice of 'Philosophical Counselling' (henceforth 'PC') is growing. But what exactly is PC? The variety of attempts to define PC can be summarised in terms of three overlapping sets of opposites: practical versus theoretical definitions; monistic versus pluralistic definitions; and substantive versus antinomous definitions. 'Practical' definitions of PC include descriptive accounts of its actual practice. 'Theoretical' definitions exclude such accounts. 'Monistic definitions' refers to definitions of PC that define it in terms of the work of one specific philosopher or approach in philosophy. 'Pluralistic' definitions draw on the work of a variety of philosophers or approaches. 'Substantive' definitions are definitions that purport to say what PC is, while 'antinomous' definitions of PC say what it is not. My aim is not to define PC definitively. The aim of this article is rather to: (i) provide an overview of the wide variety of efforts to define PC; and, (ii) briefly suggest a preliminary understanding of PC that seems to cover most of the other definitions thereof.

For David Fourie (1946-2013)

1. Introduction

The practice of 'Philosophical Counselling' (henceforth 'PC') can be found in a growing list of countries that already includes Germany, the U.S.A., the U.K., The Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, Norway, Italy, Spain, Canada, Israel, Turkey and South Africa. This proliferation of PC practices was sparked by the German philosopher, Gerd Achenbach's founding, in the early nineteen-eighties, of a 'Philosophical Counselling' practice and the Gesellschaß für Philosophische Praxis, though the idea of PC is by no means exclusively the outcome of Achenbach's initiatives. On the contrary, those versed in the Western philosophical tradition will readily trace it back to Socrates's (470-399 B.C.) notion of the philosopher as a 'midwife' who assists others in giving birth to their own ideas (i.e. think through their problems) (LeBon 2001). PC also resonates with a variety of suggestions of how life should be lived by, amongst others, the Pythagoreans, the Cynics, the Stoics, the Epicureans, and the Cyrenaic school of philosophy (Lahav & Tillmanns 1995). It is a contemporary trend with ancient Greco-Roman roots.

But what exactly is PC? Not really knowing what something is makes it difficult to talk about it, let alone recommend it. This may undermine the development of PC as a profession. A vague understanding of PC may also result in a lack of standards to regulate its practice and the training of would be philosophical counsellors. In what follows I would therefore like to: (i) provide an overview of, and thus a handle or grip on, the wide variety of efforts to define PC; and, by way of conclusion, (ii) briefly suggest - with specific reference to a recent South African study (cf. Louw 201 1) - a preliminary understanding of PC that seems to cover most of the other definitions thereof.

2. Attempts to define PC: A literature survey

The variety of attempts to define PC could be summarised in terms of three overlapping sets of opposites: practical versus theoretical definitions; monistic versus pluralistic definitions; and substantive versus antinomous definitions.

2.1 Practical versus theoretical definitions

The word 'practical' here means 'hands-on' or 'concrete'. 'Practical' definitions of PC hence include descriptive accounts of its actual practice. Prins-Bakker's (1995) description of her application of philosophical skills in marriage counselling and Marinoffs (2000) description of his five stage approach may serve as examples.

Prins-Bakker's (1995) marriage counselling comprises six stadia: (a) clients are asked to give a first description of the problem in their marriage; (b) clients analyse their respective personalities or identities in view of the question, 'Who am I?'; (c) clients reflect on their lives in terms of questions like, 'What do I expect from life? …

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