Let's Talk: Philosophers Reach Out

By David Holmstrom, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 2, 1998 | Go to article overview

Let's Talk: Philosophers Reach Out


David Holmstrom, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


This is the story of a newspaper article that might not be - how should I say? - of apparent immediate consequence.

Just like philosophy.

Yet, rooted in problem solving, sprinkled with tension, and inherently significant, it could therefore be useful.

Maybe.

Just like philosophy.

There is a new way of practicing it known as "philosophical counseling" now growing in popularity in the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, Britain, and Israel. In shorthand, this is problem solving through applied philosophy.

Let's say you are caught up in a snarly ethical or moral problem at work or home, or you want to marry someone from another faith with differing cultural values and there is tension in the relationship. Basically, nothing is wrong with you in a medical or psychotherapeutic sense.

To avoid being labeled or categorized, you don't want to visit a psychologist. But you know, or hope, that fresh insights would help smooth the bumpy uneasiness of your perceived dilemma.

So, sit down with a philosophical counselor like Vaughna Feary, Paul Sharkey, Thomas Magnell, or Louis Marinoff. Explore the logic of your thinking, or your "self-talk," that might be clouding your moral reasoning or straining the values of your world view. Clarify meaning and values, philosophically speaking.

"We explore the ways in which clients think," says Mr. Sharkey, professor emeritus of community health, philosophy and Religion at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, "and how their own ways of approaching a problem could be contributing to the problem. The main focus is that people are usually more upset than they need to be, and we help them look at the problem more realistically."

Fair enough. As Socrates counseled centuries ago, always proceed empirically, or realistically. Doing so here reveals that the introduction of philosophical counseling in the US has not gone smoothly.

Among US philosophers, arguments have broken out over definitions of counseling, standards for it, motives behind it, and overall intent. How is philosophical counseling better than, or different from, other kinds of counseling? And any kind of counseling can often be unsettling in a finite world, if it raises more questions than it answers.

For philosopher Christopher Phillips, who conducts philosophical discussions known as "Socrates' Cafe" in many venues around San Francisco, academics are attempting to control this fledgling counseling movement with premature restrictions. "They are trying to force certification in a field that has yet to even be defined," he says, "and in my opinion, trying to get a name for themselves."

Just as philosophy demands rigorous logic, some philosophers insist that certification is necessary to protect the public.

'I think it is important to have standards of practice," says Vaughna Feary, a philosophy professor at Farleigh Dickinson University in Madison, N.J., and director of a philosophy program in the Morris County Correctional Facility. "It's not a matter of academics, but competence."

Ms. Feary has seen philosophy at work on murderers, sex offenders, and white-collar criminals. "Inmates usually have poor consequential reasoning," she says. "Cognitive rigidity is a big problem, too, and almost all of them have an absolute inability to envision alternative courses of action."

Feary works with captive, emotionally hungry participants breaking out of egocentric viewpoints. What animates Mr. Phillips is the conviction that pure philosophy is really "co-inquiry," a process where there is more of a sense of inquiry being done together, and not philosophical counseling as an alternative to other kinds of counseling.

Unlike psychology, the emphasis in philosophical counseling for most philosophers is not on exploring past problems, but looking at logic and reasoning here and now. …

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