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Allan Powell: Can the preachments of philosophers heal the soul?

March 09, 2012|By ALLAN POWELL

One is bound to be disconcerted when they come across news that a whole new branch of philosophy — wedded to therapy — has been in practice for some time and that they had been totally unaware of its existence. Nevertheless, quietly, and without much fanfare, the profession of philosophical counselor has made its appearance and has advanced to the point where it is possible to earn a Ph.D in this new discipline. It remains to be seen how much traction is in the wheels.

My first reaction was to consider this new therapy as a clever scheme to make money off confused and troubled intellectuals overtaken by angst and in need of catharsis. This was dispelled when the reporter noted that “such therapy is not for everyone” and that “someone with a serious mental issue” might need to see a professionally trained mental health practitioner. In a nutshell, there is room for a limited zone in which philosophical counselors will not be suspect.

There is still a need to define what philosophy does with respect to other fields of study that become linked to philosophy much like a caboose hooks onto a train. Philosophy is primarily a search for wisdom. When reduced to its core meaning, philosophy means, “lover of wisdom.” While philosophy is divided into specific fields of interest such as ethics, logic, metaphysics and science (natural philosophy), the goal is to acquire knowledge to live an “examined life,” according to Socrates.

We intuitively sense that an acquaintance with wise people who share their wisdom will enrich the mind and sooth the inner self. But, does this power extend enough to cure more serious ills? Those who are pioneering this new therapy appear to be concerned about overreach and overspeak because of the possibility for legal action.Their organization, The American Philosophical Practitioners Association, is busy bringing respectability to their professional efforts.

To assist clients in this line of counseling, a selection of readings has been prepared for enlightenment and “healing to the soul.” One counselor offered the opinion that he might be looked at as a “cross between Woody Allen and Sigmund Freud.” This was probably intended as humor since they have stated a lack of interest in more serious therapy.

A caveat might be in order at this point. An association with philosophy for over 60 years has certainly provided much joy and wisdom. But one’s temperament and interests determine which type of philosophy and which philosophers make a profound impression on one’s life. David Hume (Scotland) has been a great source of knowledge while William James, the American promoter of pragmatism has been an inspiration. Still, none of these great thinkers was a source for therapy.

It is quite possible that a concept originating in the mind of a philosopher might be adapted to the field of psychology or psychiatry. Hume, for example, made a profound claim that “reason is a slave to passion.” You might say that, in this respect, he was a Freudian before Freud. When honest, we must admit that passions are so powerful that even the most disciplined conscience or sense of reality might collapse under the pressure of an unruly rush of passion.

When one reads the essays of the Danish writer, Soren Kierkegaard, they might speculate as to whether he was a philosopher, psychiatrist, theologian or candidate for therapy himself. Two of his better-known essays, “Fear and Trembling” and “The Sickness Unto Death,” wrestle with the terrors of existence. This angst can be the result of concluding that life is absurd. Coping with despair follows, and so there is a need for resolution.

This overwhelming sense of despair is illustrated in the play, “Waiting for Godot,” written by Samuel Beckett. One of his characters blurts out: “…one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.”

This pessimism is not completely shared by Kierkegaard, who is a devout Christian. He has a solution for the despair and sickness of the spirit. This despair in the self is generated by the fear of not being one’s self or lacking the will to be one’s self. According to Kierkegaard, there is a source of power that gives one an advantage in a world of universal despair. He argues that “… this sickness is man’s advantage over the beast, to be sharply observant of this sickness constitutes the Christian advantage over the natural man; to be healed of this sickness is the Christian bliss. 

Since philosophers have sometimes been charged with living in an ivory tower, it is refreshing to be a witness to philosophy becoming more of a household guest. Utility has always been a prominent thought in the history of philosophy. If there is another area of useful and appropriate extension of philosophy applied to the improvement of the human experience, we are all well-served.


Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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