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Review of "Philosophical Counseling"

By Peter B. Raabe
Praeger, 2001
Review by Alex Howard on Oct 15th 2001
Philosophical CounselingHere is a substantial and useful text that seeks to survey and assess the development of philosophical counseling. It is aimed primarily at the professional reader, including other counselors, though the interested layperson will also find it useful.

Part I is entitled 'Philosophy of Philosophical Counseling', Part II offers 'A New Model', Part III examines 'Practice'.

Peter Raabe cites Gerd Achenbach as 'the founder of the modern philosophical counseling movement' in 1981. Others argue that it began in the USA with Paul Sharkey, Pierre Grimes, and J. Michael Russell in the 1970s. Whatever their disagreements, though, philosophical counselors agree that, in applying philosophy to everyday lives and concerns, they are returning to its early roots and rationale.

Raabe quotes Martha Nussbaum, who argued that Hellenistic philosophy was 'an immersed and worldly art of grappling with human misery', and 'a way of addressing the most painful problems of human life.' He reminds us that John Dewey stated, at the beginning of the last century, that philosophy should be less academic and more concerned with the problems that confront a person in daily life.

Likewise, of Pierre Hadot, 'philosophy did not consist in teaching an abstract theory - much less in the exegesis of texts - but rather in the art of living.'

Philosophical counselors seek to leave the ivory tower of academic philosophy and become more immersed and worldly. How will they do this? What skills and qualities will they need? What theories and methods will they offer? How will they describe themselves? As philosophers that give counsel? As providers of counseling that is philosophical? Raabe's Chapter One 'Survey of Conceptions', shows substantial disagreement among practitioners.

He criticises Gerd Achenbach, I think rather unfairly, as succumbing to post-modern intellectual anarchy. Achenbach can speak for himself concerning the accuracy of this account.

Raabe does, though, provide overall an extremely useful survey of the theories and practices of philosophical counselors. He describes philosophy as, over the centuries, wandering into a 'stereotypical emotionless academic pit.' This leads to the obvious question 'Who would ever think of going to a philosopher for comfort?'

Philosophers do not have a reputation for being 'street savvy', emotionally sensitive, or even much concerned about the plight of ordinary individual mortals. Therefore, do they have the 'people skills' needed to function as philosophical counselors? The question is raised and it deserves more investigation.

Raabe considers that 'Very few philosophers with academic training in philosophy have the requisite personality or ability to apply their knowledge to the alleviation of suffering.' He asks, 'is it even possible to do penetrative philosophy in plain English? For most academics, he suggests, the answer is a simple and resounding 'No'.

He mourns, I think rightly, the divorce of academic philosophy from the language and concerns of society, its compartmentalization, its introversion, its abstraction, and its pedantry.

Philosophy must therefore be applied if it is to be alive and Raabe concludes that philosophical counseling can be differentiated from psychotherapy in four main ways: 1) Intentional teaching, 2) Transcendence of philosophical discourse from immediate problem solving 3) enhancement of client autonomy 4) the preventative or proactive element.

Raabe seeks to draw together the great variety of philosophical practice in a four stage model which he claims 'does a better job at tying together the diversity of "fibers" which constitute the practice of philosophical counseling.' Stage one, is a 'free-floating' listening stage. Stage 2 concerns attempts to resolve immediate problems. In Stage 3 the counselor becomes 'more explicitly a teacher'. In stage 4 'the client is helped to transcend the "mundane" chore of immediate problem resolution.'

I am not convinced that this four stage model ties together the varieties of philosophical counseling, or that they need to be tied together in one 'model'. Philosophy, it seems to me, is about being able to travel cross country, it is a kind of intellectual four wheel drive if you like. Philosophy is about breaking out of the confines of just one model or route. It allows people to 'look in' on modes of thinking. It frees us from the prison of having to 'look out' on the world with just one set of conceptual spectacles. That does not mean that it allows just any old thinking and action to equate with any other.

Raabe concludes with some case study illustrations of philosophical counseling in action. Its value is best summarised, I think, by the common expression Raabe hears from his clients: "I can see so many more options now where I thought I only had two choices before."

© Alex Howard 2001

Alex Howard was a tutor in philosophy, counseling and psychotherapy for over twenty years before being drawn into the management of adult education. He has written five books, and many articles, about psychotherapy addressed to the lay reader as well as to the practitioner. His most recent, Philosophy for Counselling and Psychotherapy: Pythagoras to Postmodernism (2000) is published by Palgrave. In May 2001 he extended to an online practice of philosophical counseling and consultancy.