Do I need to know anything about philosophy in advance?

It is not necessary for the client to know anything about philosophy in advance. In the counselling sessions themselves, the counsellor may from time to time expand on a philosophical principle or special terms where necessary. The counsellor may, where ever relevant, also recommend some texts which the client will be encouraged to read between meetings. In such situations the texts will be supplied by the counsellor. However, these will not require any special knowledge nor would they be a great burden in terms of time.

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How is this different from other types of therapies?

Among the well-known and familiar talking therapies, Philosophical Counselling differs in a number of ways; the relative absence of a controlling theoretical model, no assumption that the client has something psychologically wrong with them, and the rejection of a predetermined ‘on-size-fits-all’ method. The basic method employed is Socratic dialectic.

The other therapies are based on theoretical models from psychology, e.g. Freudian or Lacanian psychoanalysis, Rogerian therapy, Jungian analysis or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), to mention just a few of the leading models in use at the moment. These begin from a complex set of theoretical assumptions about human psychology which then become basic principles. These principles are used to develop methodologies which are best fitted to their respective theoretical foundations. There are significant differences between these therapies to the extent that some of them are incompatible with each other, e.g. Freudian and Jungian based therapies.

The situation in philosophical counselling is quite different. Individual philosophers do often have theoretical commitments across a range of topics and the counsellors at Phronesis are no different in that regard. However, when it comes to the counselling context, these theoretical commitments do not play any role in the direction that counselling takes. The only theoretical considerations that play any role in counselling are those which belong to objective philosophical problems. For example, the human will is either free, determined or a mixture of the two. There are no other conceivable options. The counsellor might present these in detail along with the arguments for and against each of them because it is relevant to that client’s particular problem. Where the philosophical counsellor differs from the other kinds is that the counsellor will, as far as possible, refrain from “pushing” one of these solutions onto the client, that is, working on the assumption that the particular theory or solution is the true or best one. The other therapies tend to begin from the premise that their particular theory is the true or best one and, very often, would not even discuss these fundamental issues with a client. In philosophical counselling, on the contrary, the discussion revolves around these fundamental assumptions in a way that actively engages the client in an inquiry.

While the other therapies originate in psychological theories, philosophical counselling does not, nor, in general, does it presuppose any particular philosophical theory or solution. Also, the philosophical counsellor does not assume that the nature of a client’s problem is psychological or emotional and therefore he or she does not begin from the assumption that the client is in some way psychologically dysfunctional. For this reason, a leading philosophical counsellor in the US, Lou Marinoff, once described philosophical counselling as a “therapy for the sane”.

Finally, the philosophical counsellor does not use a predetermined method or set procedure. There are a range of methods employed which are determined by the nature of the problem a client presents, their own specific needs, and the kind of person they are. The one-size-fits-all approach is assiduously avoided.

To summarise, philosophical counselling does not operate with rigid theoretical or general methodological assumptions, and does not assume there is something wrong with you. Basically, philosophical counselling is for ordinary people facing extraordinary situations in their lives.

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How come I have never heard of this before?

Actually you have heard of it before, but not under this name. Philosophical counselling is as old as philosophy itself, perhaps even older if we include the advisory role of the village wise-man in prehistoric times. A more comprehensive answer to this question will be dealt with in a separate essay hosted on this site but in the meantime, here is the compressed version.

In ancient times, philosophy was deeply bound up with activities we nowadays associate with psychotherapies and spiritual guidance of the kind given by a clergy or certain holy men and women renowned for their sage advice. Philosophers in ancient times also played an important role in advising kings and emperors, most notably in the case of Aristotle who was tutor to Alexander the Great. With the rise of Christianity, the therapeutic-spiritual guidance side of philosophy was more and more taken over by the new religion, particularly after it became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century AD. So in this way the therapeutic dimension of philosophy became more associated with religion while philosophy became more confined to the theoretical side.

Despite this, philosophers continued to play an important role in advising and counselling monarchs and other rulers, right into the 17th century and beyond. For example, Rene Descartes, often called the father of modern philosophy, was an adviser to Queen Christina of Sweden, Thomas Hobbes was a tutor to the future King Charles II of England, adviser to the Earl of Devonshire, and even designed the constitutions of some of the new world colonies. John Locke, another important philosophical figure from this era, was an adviser to the Earl of Shaftesbury, also helped design colonial constitutions and even served as the Secretary of the Board of Trade, the 17th century equivalent of a modern day minister for industry, and was the single most important intellectual influence on the founding fathers of the United States of America. The list of influential philosophers directly engaged with the problems of the world would be very long indeed, but the picture is surely becoming clear: philosophers were traditionally highly sought after for their advice and counsels by rulers and statesmen since ancient times.

In the modern period, beginning in the 18th century, philosophers were beginning to become more confined to the academy and less involved with the practical affairs of the world. The reasons for this are complex. By the 20th century philosophy had all but become a purely professionalised academic subject, albeit with some exceptions here and there, often with no apparent connection to the life world. Part of this story is the rise of the “expert” and the technical specialist in modern times. However, recent experience has shown that all too often these experts are confined to the preconceptions and the narrowness of their expertise.

Now, the modern renaissance of philosophical counselling as an alternative form of therapy began in 1981 when the German philosopher Gerd Achenbach founded his institute for philosophical practice. Since then philosophical counselling has steadily become better known, most especially in Germany, the Netherlands, Israel and the United States, but also in other European countries. It continues to grow internationally and in Ireland there are a small number of practicing philosophical counsellors, although it still remains largely unknown here.

Achenbach’s renaissance of 1981 represents the beginning of the return of philosophy to its original role as a guide to life and human well-being as well as continuing to be a theoretical inquiry into the most fundamental questions. This does not mean that philosophers have all the answers to the perennial questions of mankind, but it is to say that philosophy can and should provide us with the intellectual tools necessary for us to think out and critically test the kind of answers we come up with to these questions. Philosophy can once again be what it was in its great beginnings among the ancient Greeks, a means by which human beings can make sense of themselves and the world.

While still not so well known under the name – philosophical counseling – even today, and compared to the other talking therapies, more than thirty years after Achenbach’s revival, it is an important and valuable alternative to the traditional therapies and one which will only continue to grow in popularity as evidenced by the growing number of philosophers across the west who are becoming available for counselling. In fact, as I will detail in the longer version of this text, all the other talking therapies including the pastoral methods of religious ministers, are only the modern day versions of the methods and practices employed in ancient Greek philosophy!

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How does this work on the day?

Counsellor and prospective client would arrange to meet at a time and place of mutual convenience for an exploratory session. The purpose of this initial meeting is two-fold. The first part is to give both the prospective client and the counsellor an opportunity to get to know each other. The prospective client will naturally want to discover whether they can relate to the counsellor in a secure and comfortable way to, as it were, see if the chemistry is right. There is no point in attending counselling sessions if the client does not feel comfortable with the counsellor.

The counsellor too, will have to decide whether this is someone they can work with in a way that is beneficial to the prospective client. From time to time, there are situations where the counsellor judges that it might be better for the prospective client to see another kind of counsellor or therapist. The philosophical counsellor can sometimes make specific recommendations or referrals if this is the case. In some other cases it may become clear the client’s problem is not of such a nature that it requires any kind of therapeutic intervention, but some other professional advice, for example legal or some other kind offered by relevant consultants, etc.

The second aim of the exploratory meeting is to give the counsellor an opportunity to discuss the reasons why the prospective client is seeking their help. The counsellor will be interested in the nature and scope of the problem which the client is bringing. As part of this process the counsellor will ask questions of the client which are designed to find out their fundamental beliefs about a range of topics. The idea here is to give the counsellor enough preliminary information to create a kind of map of the client’s immediate concerns – the problem that has brought them to this meeting – and relate this to their basic beliefs and their life experience. In this way the counsellor is able to form a preliminary picture of the client’s beliefs, life experience, and the reason why they are seeking the assistance of a philosophical counsellor.

There is no fee involved in this initial meeting, nor is there any commitment required of the client at this stage.

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Are you trying to change my beliefs?

No, the counsellor is not making any attempt to change your beliefs. One of the aims of philosophical counselling is to help the client clarify their own thinking and so be able to analyse their basic beliefs and to understand how they might be playing a role in their current situation. Often the client will come to revise some of their beliefs as a result of this process. The counsellor should not make any attempt to influence a client in the outcome of this process. The counsellor’s task is to assist this process, which might involve challenging the client’s beliefs, pointing out inconsistencies or even contradictions, some of which can often be of a very subtle nature, but not to guide the client in a particular direction.

Let’s take an example to see how this might work in practice. A client may be religious, an agnostic, or an atheist. The client may also hold other beliefs which are logically incompatible with their religious faith or lack of it. The philosophical counsellor will have to point out these incompatibilities for the sake of the client’s progress. Clearly, if there is an incompatibility, the onus falls on the counsellor to help remove it, but, it is no part of the counsellor’s job to try and influence the client to change their basic commitment to religious faith, agnosticism or atheism. Only the client may make such changes. This is because our commitment to our most fundamental beliefs is an essential part of our human dignity and individual sovereignty and this has to be respected at all times.
(Please see the Code of Ethics for more on this.)

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How long does it take?

It is impossible to say how long the process takes in advance of the exploratory meeting as everyone is different and everyone comes with a different kind of problem or requirement. There is no one-size-fits-all approach in philosophical counselling. However, the philosophical counsellor will not prolong the sessions beyond what is necessary for the client to have made sufficient progress as to finally conclude the meetings. One of the aims of philosophical counselling is to give clients the tools to solve the kind of problems that brought them to counseling in the first place.
So, a client may only need one or two sessions, or they might need half a dozen or more. From experience, the moment when counselling has achieved its main objective is usually always readily apparent to both client and counselor. We know it when we see it!

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How much does it cost?

There are no fees associated with one-to-one Phronesis activities. However, we would always welcome an honorarium – a gift, or donation.

Naturally, any expenses arising out of our work together will be passed on to the client, but these tend to be minimal; transportation, lunch etc.

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Who will be doing the Counselling?

Phronesis personnel who practice philosophical counselling must hold a higher degree in philosophy, or a Bachelor degree in philosophy and a postgraduate degree in relevant therapeutic theory and practice. Currently only one member of the Phronesis staff meets the criteria.

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