First, some facts: the Macedonian king, Philip II, sends for Aristotle (who was 42 at the time) asking him to come to Asia Minor in order to educate his son who’ll grow up to be Alexander the Great. The king of England hires Hobbes to teach math to the young Prince of Wales. Queen Christina of Sweden invites Descartes to Stockholm so he’d teach her philosophy. Frederick II of Prussia begs Voltaire to come and be a guest at his court so that he’d have a discussions partner in philosophical debates.
Aristotle, Hobbes, Descartes and Voltaire are important names in philosophy and the fact that they were invited by royalties to be around them and to help them with advice or to educate their offspring proves that philosophers can achieve more practical tasks than they are usually given credit for. The picture of philosophers immersed in mystical contemplation or deep abstract thought is, to say the least, a slanted picture.
As it can be seen, philosophical counselling is not something new or something that appeared over night in the garden full of wonders of philosophy. Au contraire, it existed for centuries. In its modern (or, if you want it, postmodern) form this discipline can be defined as applying the knowledge offered by philosophy to practical life, in the attempt to solve problems, unwind complicated threads and analyse the dilemmas which confront the usual person in their usual, daily life. These problems can either be related to the search of sense in life (specially in moments of crisis), or taking important decisions, or clearing troubled interpersonal relationships, etc.
Of course, one could object that this sort of situations are common to the area of interest of psychoanalysis. Why would philosophy be a better choice? Why would philosophy constitute a more suitable kind of investigation? Well, in order to answer to this questions, it can be said that the aspect of philosophy which is discussed here does not have to do with the ‘analysis’ of psyche but with something completely different. A philosophical counselor neither digs for subtle processes that go on at unconscious level, nor tries to bring forth traumatic events buried in one person’s past but yields to a philosophical analysis whose main aim is to shed light on some presuppositions or to emphasize some ideas or concepts which have to do with the crisis situation or problem experienced by the ‘client’. By so doing, the philosophical counselor helps his ‘client’ to better face his own ideas about the world, his own Weltanschaaung, thus giving her a chance to have better knowledge of her own position in the world. Moreover, this way one has the chance to better understand one’s feelings (like helplessness, for example, or antipathy or depression, angst, etc.) with the purpose of making them more accessible.
Why should psychoanalysis weigh more and be regarded better compared to philosophical counselling? Psychoanalysis, as Wittgenstein pointed out, does nothing but invents a new mythology. In order to arrive at some results, in order to be ‘healed’ the patient needs to believe that notions such as the Ego, the Unconscious, the Subconscious, repressed emotions, etc. are not empty notions. In a way, here, things happen as in a scenario with serious religious implications - there must be a conversion in order for absolution to be possible. But is it correct to talk about ‘healing’ here? Does psychoanalysis have therapeutic powers? It is not my goal to analyse this matter here. What could be said, however, is that psychoanalysis, in order to make things simple, in order to arrive at a desired end, goes through a process of complicating them first. This is precisely what philosophical counselling tries to avoid. The idea of therapy is less important here. The only person taking decisions is the person seeking advice. The preliminary discussion has the role of making clear one’s relationship with one’s consciousness, with the others and with the world. A philosopher has the advantage of being somehow familiar with a few world views and thus can detect on which direction his ‘client’ tends to go. Unlike the psychoanalyst who would introduce the ‘story’ of the patient into a rigid system, the philosopher has the liberty to compare and analyse what he receives with the multitude of systems or philosophical ideas belonging to some of the most impressive minds known to humanity.
Now, I am fully aware that the discipline of psychoanalysis is much vaster and more interesting than I seem to make it appear here. However, one must be aware of some limitations of psychoanalysis that are usually forgotten. To begin with, psychoanalysis does not deal only with clinical treatment but it has a theoretical dimension too, which is usually disregarded. What is emphasized nowadays is the part that relates to treatment only although it cannot and should not be disassociated from the theoretical part. Then, inasmuch as it is a scientific inquiry into the world of the psyche, it should be mentioned that psychoanalysis fails to meet Karl Popper’s ‘criterion of demarcation’ for scientific theories. Popper, in The Logic of Scientific Discovery, suggested that a scientific theory must be testable and therefore, should be falsifiable (at least in principle). If a theory brings explanations to all possible observations then that theory is not scientific. A theory of any kind cannot be verified by reference to experience because it is purely impossible for all possible cases to be taken into account. Thus, a genuine scientific theory works by prohibiting, by implication, particular events to occur. If there are no such events that ‘are not allowed to happen’ it means that the theory is not scientific and that it does not leave room for any kind of improvements and for a better theory to emerge. In Popper’s view, psychoanalysis is a pre-science, containing useful and informative truths but until psychoanalysis theories are formulated in such a manner as to be falsifiable, they will not attain the status of scientific theories.
Psychoanalysis’ system attempts to explain every human behavior. There is nothing that is left out of its range of exploration. The way psychoanalysis works is, at least prima facie, scientific, as it is only concerned with giving causal explanations. For example, the thesis that neuroses are caused by unconscious conflicts buried deep in the unconscious mind in the form of repressed libidinal energy would appear to offer an insight into the causal mechanism underlying these abnormal psychological conditions as they are expressed in human behavior, and further show how they are related to the psychology of the ‘normal’ person. Now, the phrase ‘causal explanation’ should be taken cum grano salis, because psychoanalytical investigations do not clearly show how this happens. The causes and the effects are not independently identifiable. Freud’s theory deals with unobservable causes that trigger this or that form of behaviour. These causes are hidden in the unconscious and thus it would be impossible to be pointed out at all. By postulating the existence of the unconscious Freud tried to account for the fact that usually in the conscious mind there is nothing that could explain neurotic or other forms of behaviour.
J. P. Sartre proposes an interesting variation on the Freudian theory. Sartre rejects the idea of the unconscious on the basis of the fact that consciousness must always be aware of itself. This awareness, however is not constantly made explicit in reflection; Sartre calls it a pre-reflective consciousness which does not take the self as an object. For Sartre, thoughts, dreams and feelings depend on consciousness, and consciousness is where one should look for explanations for them. Mental events are intentional events; they are always meaningful and they are always directed towards objects of their own. Thus, Sartre moves from Freud’s perspective: “The Freudians are held to be wrong because they overlook the intentionality of mental events, and think that there can be an inductively determined causal relation between my dream, let us say, and some external object… a relation of which I, the patient, am not aware since the connection is made by me subconsciously. So the argument against bare causal explanations of mental phenomena and against the unconscious come to the same” (Sartre, Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions, Methuen & Co. Ltd., p.9). Sartre sees our emotional and psychological behavior not as an accident, but as a “mode of our conscious existence, one of the ways in which consciousness understands (in Heidegger’s sense of Verstehen) its Being-in-the-World” (Ibid., p. 91).
Now, if Sartre is right, philosophical counselling should be given its due since it focuses exactly on the idea that a better understanding of ourselves takes place consciously. This way we become more aware of our place in the world and of us as human beings.
However, one can reproach to a philosopher the lack of academic training in the field of inter-human relationships, something which a psychoanalyst would have plenty. But is this a serious objection? Is academic training the only way (or the best one, for that matter) that would allow one to reach a high level in communicating and being sympathetic towards the others? (Here you should try to imagine, on the one hand, the proverbial psychoanalyst with his eyes on the watch and, on the other hand an avatar of Socrates, ready to listen and provoke discussions, curious about human nature but not trying to impose a point of view).
Constant Lavallée once wrote that “L’université, cette mère des crétins, est encore, sinon toujours, enceinte”. This is not supposed to mean that the university only reduces the identity of those who go through it to merely nothing. We are not talking about lack of knowledge or anything of the sort; of course not! What is pointed at is the fact that the learning process, the way knowledge is conveyed happens more or less automatically, the student being somehow lost in the whole system. In these circumstances, academic training in inter-human relationships should not be sought as the one and only way to achieve good communication with and understanding of the other. Moreover, if the philosophical counselor would have a good knowledge of existentialism, for example, and would be able to easily foresee the struggles through which the ‘client’ goes in order to assert herself in the world, then the sympathy and the chances for opening up new perspectives that would lead to more possible choices, can only be welcomed.
As a conclusion, I could say that one is shaped by the way oneself responds to life’s provocations. A philosopher does not try to ‘heal’ any wounds but to make this self-shaping activity more coherent. In other words, a philosopher tries to raise the level of self-awareness and understanding of one’s place in the world which is a much cleaner and more consistent approach than that of psychoanalysis.