Four economics students have four different problems. One finds it hard to work efficiently while also pursuing their extracurricular interests. One is concerned that their studies are preparing them for a life of service to Mammon rather than God. Another is demotivated, lacking confidence. The fourth wonders whether they’ve just drifted to university because it seemed the done thing and that a very different life might be better. Each one would like help working through their problems. Who should they see?
The most obvious answer is that the first should probably seek some kind of coaching, the second a chaplain and the third a counsellor or therapist. (Henceforth I will simply talk of ‘therapist’ and ‘therapy’ but what I say applies equally to counselling and counsellors.) The fourth is trickier. In practice, the only options would appear to be a chaplain (religious or humanist) or a therapist. If such a service were available, however, would not a philosopher be better than either?
If so, the student is out of luck. There are such things as consultant philosophers or philosophical counsellors (most notably in a few parts of the US and the Netherlands) but they are rare breeds in the UK, where there is no such recognised profession. This leaves a gap which neither therapy nor chaplaincy can easily fill.
The gap opens up whenever a problem of living is linked with a set of commitments bound up with a comprehensive worldview, implicit or explicit. Comprehensive worldviews can be religious beliefs or secular philosophies. However, our society lacks means of exploring these in a systematic, critical, philosophical way. Chaplains are explicitly partisan, upholding the ethics of a particular religion or in some cases secular humanism. Therapists tend towards respectful neutrality, believing it to be inappropriate to challenge fundamental commitments. They may well identify tensions within a worldview, or problems created by a dissonance between worldview and way of living. But for the most part it is not their role to interrogate the worldviews themselves, to invite clients to explore their coherence and validity. Thus a whole set of issues fall into what we might call the ‘philosophy gap’.
Take the economics student who wondered whether they had chosen the right path in life. It seems more than possible that the client is neither depressed nor simply in need of good careers advice. The client could be asking grown-up, existential questions: what is my life for? What gives life meaning and purpose? What does it even mean to say life has, or lacks, meaning or purpose? Historically, to ask such questions would be seen as part and parcel of being an educated, thoughtful person, not just a philosopher. Someone gripped by these questions would not be suffering from a pathology but functioning properly as a reflective, responsible, intelligent agent.
It would also be natural for someone deeply concerned about these issues to have emotional difficulties, even to display some of the ‘symptoms’ of depression. When we are questioning the value of everything, it is easy to temporarily display ‘Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities’ and to have ‘persistent “empty” moods’. A state of existential questioning can leave one a little ‘anxious’, ‘hopeless’ or ‘pessimistic’.1 One might even have ‘thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts?’1 Albert Camus famously said in the first sentences of The Myth of Sisyphus: ‘There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.’2
Such feelings are not symptoms of a pathology but normal signs of a legitimate questioning. These can create emotional difficulties, but they are existential, not emotional, problems. This makes the standard tools of therapy ill-suited to address them. A therapist would aim to alleviate the symptoms, either by removing their causes or enabling the client to work around them. This is the exact opposite of how a philosophical approach to the problem would proceed. Here, there would be no attempt to deal with the symptoms at all. The aim would be to investigate the questions that give rise to them. Nor would it be assumed that at the end of the process the client would feel better. Philosophy pursues the truth, not subjective wellbeing.
This point is worth stressing because it is occasionally claimed that philosophy is essentially therapeutic. This view was popularised by Alain de Botton’s 2000 book, The Consolations of Philosophy,3 and television series. His guiding principle was summed up in a quote from Epicurus, the only words to appear on the back cover: ‘Any philosopher’s argument which does not therapeutically treat human suffering is worthless.’ More recently, several have claimed that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in particular is little more than applied Stoicism. Both Aaron Beck, founder of CBT, and Albert Ellis, founder of rational emotive behavioural therapy (REBT) were influenced by Epictetus’s idea that ‘It is not events, but our opinion about events, that cause us suffering’.
Such claims are misleading, for several reasons. Beck and Ellis were influenced by one of the central ideas of Stoicism, but their actual methods owe little or nothing to them. In any case, neither the Stoics nor Epicurus speak for philosophy as a whole, where only a tiny minority of the cannon is therapeutic in the contemporary sense.
Indeed, philosophy is potentially more useful as a challenge to what ‘therapy’ could be than as a tool of therapy as it is. The main goal of therapy is not to remove all negative affective states but to enable normal functioning. This idea goes back to Freud, who famously wrote: ‘...much has been gained if we succeed in turning your hysterical misery into common unhappiness.’3 Positive psychology is more ambitious in that it is interested in what enables optimal levels of subjective wellbeing. Even here, however, it is assumed we know what normal functioning is and that happiness and subjective wellbeing are the goals. Philosophy, however, questions what normal functioning is and how desirable it ought to be. One of its aims is to articulate what a good life should be. Socrates even chose to accept his death sentence, killing himself by drinking hemlock, rather than violate his principles by seeking exile.
Of course, both therapists and chaplains can provide some space to explore these existential issues. Neither, however, is typically ideally suited to doing so. The chaplain is too invested in one worldview to lead a genuinely open enquiry. The therapist will typically lack knowledge of the storehouse of philosophical discussions of these issues and will often also be under pressure to focus on more measurable wellbeing outcomes. Once we become aware of the philosophy gap, it can be seen even where other guidance and support professionals would seem to have a well-defined task. Think again about our economics students. One seemed clearly to need a kind of life coach. But wouldn’t it be good to sit and question your goals before rushing to find out the most efficient ways of achieving them? Similarly, someone who would seem to need referring to a careers advisor would often benefit from thinking through what they take their life to be about before committing years of their lives to a particular form of work.
Another student seemed in need of a chaplain. But if your worldview is in tension with your life choices, shouldn’t you at least consider whether it’s your worldview that’s the problem? A chaplaincy would provide little or no opportunity to question the religious commitment that is at the source of the issue. A therapist would be no more willing to go down that particular road. But this is to ignore the heart of the problem. A philosophical investigation could allow the client to either understand their faith differently or even abandon it. The student who was demotivated and lacking confidence would seem obviously to need a therapist, but if you lacked a worldview that gave meaning and value to life, wouldn’t you feel somewhat unenthusiastic about living? And wouldn’t that be entirely reasonable? After all, in CBT, people try to counter automatic negative thoughts, not well-reasoned, well-grounded negative thoughts.
The philosophy gap also contributes to the trend for existential problems to be approached in a medicalised way, even when therapists do not overtly adopt a medical paradigm for their work. When we do not address the philosophical assumptions that underpin worldviews and simply accept them as part of the client’s valid personal, ethical commitments, any problems of living the client faces that are not explicable entirely by external circumstances can only be understood as dysfunctions. We ought to consider whether they might, in fact, be signs of good functioning, seeing things all too clearly.
For those convinced the philosophy gap is real and that therapists can play some part in filling it, I would commend two broad types of practice (in the awareness that some already follow them). The first is to get into the habit of questioning whether apparently standard psychological problems have important philosophical dimensions. For example, anecdotally it seems that students are increasingly having problems related to perfectionism. It seems that they are surrounded by media and social media presenting life for young students as being more wonderful than it could ever be and so are worried that there is something wrong with them because their own social, sexual and emotional lives do not live up to this. A therapist could challenge the unrealistic nature of some of these expectations. In examining how the client would realistically like to be, however, I would argue it is not enough to consider only the client’s own wishes and the limits of what is possible. It is necessary to go back to philosophical first principles and ask what a good life would actually look like, questioning the implicit answer society offers.
The therapist can do this too, of course, but is hampered by two limitations. The first is a professional aversion to discussing issues that might involve making value judgments, rather than simply elucidating what the client’s values are. It should be possible, however, for a philosophically minded therapist, like a consultant philosopher, to present and explore philosophical ideas about what is good and bad, better or worse, without imposing any particular conclusions philosophers have reached on the client.
How far should a client be challenged? A genuine philosophical exploration of ideas should challenge us, pushing us to assess the arguments for each position. In a short therapeutic context, practical constraints alone limit how far we can go. Given those constraints, it would be tempting for anyone keen to introduce a philosophical dimension to simply conduct a kind of ‘pick and mix’ exercise in which different viewpoints are expressed and the client chooses which is more congenial.
Such an exercise could be useful but it would not fill the philosophy gap. Philosophy embraces the value of the ‘examined life’. This evocative phrase, first uttered by Plato’s Socrates, superficially describes the value of therapy too. But the self-examination of therapy is different from that of philosophy. In therapy, clients seek greater self-awareness so as to be able to move on from problems interfering with their lives. In philosophy, truth-seekers examine not just themselves but the nature of human life in general, not merely to overcome present difficulties but to understand how best to live at any time.
That there is a relationship between the examined lives of philosophy and therapy should be uncontroversial. To go back to the perfectionism example, to understand what it means to be good and the limits of our perfectibility, would clearly inform any reflection on how good we think our own lives are and how problematic it is that they fall short of perfection. It would be good if more therapeutic encounters would make space for the philosophical side of this problem.
Many other issues faced in therapy also have philosophical aspects that are often under-explored. Low self-esteem, for example, invites the question of what the appropriate level of self-esteem actually is. Philosophy can be challenging here, since many thinkers have believed that human beings are deeply flawed and that it is an ongoing challenge to be truly good. Rather than learning to ‘accept ourselves as we are’, which is a typical therapeutic aim, we are asked to try to become something better. In doing so, however, we need not feel bad about ourselves. Falling short is human, all too human. It should therefore be possible to be in some ways dissatisfied with ourselves without being debilitatingly hard on ourselves.
Even issues of anxiety and depression have philosophical dimensions. Philosophy can help us to see that a lot of our negative emotions are rooted in tragic realities rather than mistaken cognitions. Many philosophies do not comfort us that all our more pessimistic thoughts are mistaken. Rather, they tell us that it is pointless to wish the world to be other than it is and that, with acceptance, it needn’t be as hard to live in as we sometimes make it. The philosophical approach to problems of living does not offer any treatments, let alone cures. Life is difficult and full of problems, and there is no cure for living. This message is arguably needed more today than ever before. I believe most therapists would be uncomfortable talking of ‘cures’, yet one of the least helpful expectations clients have is that this is what they will get. The creeping medicalisation of therapy only reinforces this false idea. Learning to live with the more sober reality could build resilience, a character trait which has become much more valued in recent years. When you accept that life will be full of setbacks and imperfections, it should be easier to bounce back when they arise.
It is one thing to accept that the philosophy gap is real, quite another to fill it. We have to start from where we are, and within the current remits of service provision, therapists cannot be expected to be allowed the luxury of exploring philosophical commitments at length. Nor can they all be expected to go away and study philosophy in depth. Time is a finite resource and I am not suggesting philosophy should always top the list of continuing professional development (CPD) priorities. I would recommend, however, that it is seen as a valuable CPD option.
At present, there are few courses of philosophy for therapists available. (The most notable exception to this is that philosophy is integral to the training in existential psychotherapy.) Therapists interested in drawing on the resources will often therefore need to curate their own training. The further reading is a good start. Even if you do not incorporate any philosophy into your practice, you might find it fills some of your own philosophy gap.
Dr Julian Baggini is the author, co-author or editor of over 20 books, including The Ego Trick, Freedom Regained (both Granta) and, most recently, A Short History of Truth (Quercus). He co-wrote The Shrink and The Sage column with Antonia Macaro in the FT Weekend magazine for five years and the book of the same name, published by Icon. www.microphilosophy.net
This article was in large parts the fruits of my collaboration and discussion with my partner, Antonia Macaro. Much of its contents are owed to her, although responsibility for its final form is entirely mine.
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