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A Brief History of Philosophical Counselling


Philosophical counselling is not something new; it is a revival of the old tradition of practicing philosophy. Or, as the American Society for Philosophy, Counseling, and Psychotherapy (ASPCP) states in the preamble to its "Standards of Ethical Practice," the practice of providing philosophical assistance to others "is at least as ancient as Socrates who, in the Fifth Century B.C., made such a practice of philosophy."

In his book titled Philosophy as a Way of Life (1995), the French historian Pierre Hadot points out that many of the philosophic schools of antiquity saw philosophy as "the art of living" rather than merely teaching abstract theory or the exegesis of texts. Seneca, for example, stated unequivocally in a letter to Lucilius what he considered to be important about philosophy: "Shall I tell you what philosophy holds out to humanity? Counsel." He then demanded to know what philosophers are doing to help those facing death, those vexed by poverty, and those tormented by wealth.

Martha C. Nussbaum argues in her book The Therapy of Desire (1994) that Hellenistic philosophical schools in Greece and Rome, such as the Epicureans, Skeptics, and Stoics, did not practice philosophy as a "detached intellectual technique dedicated to the display of cleverness," but "as an immersed and worldly art of grappling with human misery." The philosophers of those schools made themselves "the doctors of human lives."

Philosophy clearly predates psychotherapy as a way of addressing some of the most disturbing and painful problems of human life. The philosophical counselling movement therefore is not an outgrowth of psychotherapy, but an attempt by philosophers to return philosophy to its ancient and practical roots.

The modern philosophical counselling movement is relatively young. In 1980 an article titled "The Counseling Philosopher" appeared in the journal The Humanist . This article, written by Seymon Hersh, compared the counselling philosopher to a coach and a field engineer. He saw his clients viewing themselves not as individuals afflicted with some sort of illness or as looking for a cure for neurosis, but as "intelligent 'investors' who want to get increasingly greater returns on their investment in living." Some say that Hersh was the modern precursor to the philosophical counselling movement proper, and a number of philosophers have recently claimed that they have been practicing what they call philosophical counselling since as early as 1967. But while these uncorroborated claims may be true, none of the activities of these early 20th century philosophers raised the practice of philosophy to the professional status it has today.

Psychological counselors and psychotherapists have also been claiming the use of philosophical inquiry as a significant component of their activities since the early 1950's. Many approaches, such as Carl Rogers' client centered approach, Albert Ellis' Rational Emotive Therapy, Transactional Analysis, Existential Analysis and Humanistic Therapies, claim a strong philosophical element in their psychologically based procedures. But none of their practitioners entirely abandoned the diagnosis-and-cure approach inherent in the medical treatment model. Nor did their methods function substantially beyond the a priori assumptions about normalcy inherent in psychology. Furthermore, at that time none of them ever considered themselves to be philosophical counselors. It wasn't until philosophical counselling became an established practice that some psychotherapists began to call themselves philosophical counselors.

It is therefore generally held that the official birth date of philosophical counselling as a movement, and as a profession distinct from psychotherapy, is 1981. That is when philosopher Gerd Achenbach opened the first philosophical counselling practice in Bergisch-Gladbach, near Cologne, Germany. In 1982 he established the German Association for Philosophical Practice with an initial membership of 10. By 1987 the association had grown to 125 members from several countries, and it published the first edition of Agora , its journal, which later was renamed Zeitschrift für Philosophische Praxis.

In the first published book on the newly established practice, a collection of articles titled Essays on Philosophical Counseling (1995), editors Ran Lahav and Maria Tillmanns report that the concept of philosophical counselling spread from Germany to Holland where, in 1984, students of applied philosophy formed a working group to study Achenbach's writings and discuss various methodologies and theoretical issues. The first philosophical practice in Holland was opened in 1987 by Ad Hoogendijk, and his group began publishing the journal Filosofische Praktijk that same year. In 1989 the Dutch Association for Philosophical Practice was founded. Since then several other individuals have become noteworthy in the development of the movement, including Louis Marinoff, the founder of ASPCP, and Shlomit Schuster, who established the Organization for the Advancement of Philosophical Counseling in Israel. Groups are now organized both formally and informally in many countries, including Canada, England, France, and South Africa.

In 1994 the first International Conference on Philosophical Counseling took place at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. It was attended by well over 100 philosophers and interested individuals from eight different countries. Subsequently, there have been international conferences in the Netherlands, the USA, Germany, and England. National and regional meetings have also been held in a number of different countries often in conjunction with more general philosophical assemblies.

In his seminal writings on philosophical practice, Gerd Achenbach clearly advocated avoiding any attempt to articulate a specific methodology for practitioners to follow. Instead he called his initial conception a "beyond-method method." Today a wide variety of approaches and methods form an eclectic (and often hotly disputed) array under the all-encompassing banner of philosophical counselling. This diversity has led to some interesting and controversial developments in the field. I will examine one of them in my next column.

by Dr. Peter B. Raabe
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