As Joe noted yesterday, our friend Jordan Ballor called attention to and discussed this article about philosophical counseling. In part, Jordan emphasizes the way in which this developing niche (a kind of secular version of pastoral counseling, though I suspect that the latter often has a bit more in common with the therapeutic professions than this does) represents a creative and entrepreneurial response to the diminishing prospects for “traditional” higher education.
But I was struck more by the ad hoc character of the counseling portrayed in the article:
Trying to overcome the grief of losing your job in a bad economy?
“Read the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism, who taught that every loss comes bundled with gain, for they are inseparable manifestations of yin and yang,” offered Marinoff. “In other words, instead of focusing on the loss, focus on the gain: Losing a job, you have just gained an opportunity to develop a latent talent and to enter a more suitable career path.”
Those mired in depression and anxiety over weight gain should turn to the French existentialist philosopher Sartre, who has much to say on the art of self-deception.
Suffering from a midlife crisis? Try a dose of Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote in his autobiography of creating an inner 25-year-old superhero in middle age.
To be sure, a philosophical conversation has to begin with where the interlocutor is. But the goal, I take it, is not just to deal with the circumstances of the moment, as if the right mix of aphorisms or arguments, like the right mix of meds, will cure what ails the, er, patient. Rather, it is to find our place in the cosmos, to inquire into the best way of life for a human being. It is more coherent, more systematic, and more universal than what the article portrays.
And I doubt that it will, even in its own terms, provide the kind of answers that those who go to counselors seek.
Leaving aside for a moment the Augustinian critique of the entire enterprise—that it is a mark of “astonishing vanity” to seek to be happy, here and now, by one’s own efforts—the undertaking the article describes sounds to me a whole lot more like sophistry than philosophy.
This brings me back to Jordan’s “entrepreneurial” gloss on this emerging profession. If the “creative” response to the collapse (probably too strong a word, but I can’t think of a better one right now) is to seek a sort of relevance in the marketplace, then do we not run the risk both of abandoning the tradition we’re seeking to preserve and/or bowdlerizing it? (Don’t we make the same sort of argument about attempts to capitalize on the “religious marketplace”?)
Let me offer a different model for philosophy. The conversations described in the article ought to be conducted among friends, and not for pay. The common search for such wisdom as human beings can find ought to be a leisured activity, not a profession. There are plenty of other ways to make money, and not just in the fast food business (though, with a brother-in-law who does quite well in that business, I have nothing against it).
Indeed, we perhaps should turn to Rome for an example of what I have in mind—Cicero, who attempted to balance a life or service to the republic with a life of leisurely contemplation. We don’t all have to be statesmen; we could work in wireless communications (one of my favorite former students), behind the parts desk of an automobile dealership (the best darn church deacon I ever knew), or work in nonprofit management (another former student of whom I’m fond). But we can still find time to be friends, to think, to read, and to converse. For free. Outside the demands of the marketplace.