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More Philosophy, less Counseling: A Method for Philosophical Counseling

על השיטה המוצעת לדיון בפילוסופיה: הערכה מחדש לאחר כמה שנות פרקטיקה.

מאת פרופ' לידיה אמיר. 07-12-2006
 More Philosophy, less Counseling: A Method for Philosophical Counseling

More Philosophy, less Counseling: A Method for Philosophical Counseling

Lydia B. Amir

In Philosophy and Practice: From Theory to Practice, Jose Barrientos Rastrojo, Jose Ordonez Garcia, Francisco Macera Garfia (eds.), (Sevilla: Ediciones, X-XI, 2006), 33-39.

Ó 2006. All rights reserved Lydia Amir.

 

The workshop was conducted in two languages simultaneously. Beginning with some introductory remarks, it was followed by a first exercise in which the participants were free to practice the kind of counseling they are accustomed to, and a discussion assessing the efficacy of these practices. I then sketched the method I am using, tested it in a second exercise, compared the results we got with the results of the first exercise, and finished the workshop by a fuller explanation of the main steps of the method I am proposing, its rationale, and its goals.

Introduction:

I got the idea for this workshop from supervising cases from the United States for APPA. In reading those case, I got the impression that some practical philosophers were relying more on good advice, psychological insights and inspirational devices, in order to compete effectively with Psychotherapy and New Age technique. Yet, this is not what counselees come for, nor what we are trained in. Following my lecture in this conference, one of the ways of not taking philosophy seriously is to turn to other disciplines as if philosophy were not enough. I never thought I should teach practical philosophers a method, especially not experienced practitioners like the persons who did me the honor to attend my workshop. I always assumed that, practical philosophy being a creative discipline, each and every one of us has been developing his or her method, or structured and transparent way, of conducting the discussions we conduct. But after supervising the cases and thinking about our papers and conferences of the last decade, I thought that I should perhaps share the method I published some years ago (Amir, 2003), in order to propose that we engage in "less counseling and more philosophy."

First exercise:

The group divided in triads, comprised by a counselee, a counselor and an observer. I asked each counselee to present a problem to the counselor, each counselor to address this problem as s/he is accustomed to, and each observer to watch without interfering.

We then discussed the results by asking the counselee whether the process was helpful, the counselor, how much he succeeded in conducting the discussion, and the observer, what he thought of what he witnessed.

Sketching the Method:

I proposed a method, based on the following steps: first, one formulates the problem at hand in a question, preferably one with multiple answers. Second, one presents the alternative answers to the question. Third, one assesses each answer critically. One is ready, then, to formulate a second question, which has usually some connection (logical or other) to the first one. And so on. (A fuller explanation is given below in "a method for philosophical counseling)

            The main steps were sketched as follows:

I. Question

Counselee: background, problem(s), etc.

Counselor: "formulate a question".

Counselee: "...?"

Counselor: if the question is not acceptable as formulated, help the counselee in one of the following ways:

First way - a "better" philosophic question related to your problem/interest will be "...?.". By "better" I understand a manageable question (not too large, not to narrow, not too speculative), preferably with more than two alternative answers. 

Second way - your question assumes that "....". I propose to formulate a first question about this assumption. The first question should, therefore, be "...?".

If the initial question is accepted, make sure it is understood by pointing out its presuppositions and questioning them. If the presuppositions are acceptable to the counselee, you may proceed to step two.

II. Alternative answers and Critical evaluation

Counselor: formulate your answer to the question.

Counselor: formulate alternative answers.

The counselee attempts to find alternative answers on his own, the counselor helps only if necessary, becoming more active in refining and précising each answer, relating it to a philosopher and, if necessary, referring the counselee to bibliography.

Counselor: Formulate pros and cons for each answer.

The counselee attempts to do it on his own, the counselor pitch in ideas only if the counselee has none. The counselor is active in the critical process, through which he teaches good reasoning and philosophizing. 

III. Implementation

Discussion: Do you understand the presuppositions and consequences of preferred answer? Is there a better understanding of other possible views? Is there a change of attitude?

Go back to personal problem/interest. Was the process helpful?

Appropriate understanding and implement change: in feeling, in will, in action. Follow up the process of appropriation and implementation, help with its difficulties.

IV. End of discussion and possible beginning of a new one

Counselor: Good bye/Formulate new question.

Counselee: "....?"

Counselor: How is it related to your previous question?

The question need not be related to the first one. But if it is, the relation should be made explicit.

Then back to step one.   

 

Second Exercise:

We practiced the method proposed in the same triads, followed by a discussion. Most triads did not complete step two (critical assessments of alternative answers), but all completed step one (formulation of a question, assessing its viability, and discussing its presuppositions). Counselees were asked: did it help you? If yes, in what way? Was it more helpful than the first exercise? Counselors were asked the same questions, and observers were asked to compare the processes of the two exercises.

            The results were astonishing: all groups (12 or 13 groups) related that using the method I proposed made the discussion clearer, easier, and more effective, both for counselee and counselor. This was true of the English-speaking teams as well as the Spanish-speaking teams. Let me therefore elaborate on the rationale that led me to that method, its main steps, and its goals.

A Method for Philosophical Counseling:

The question of the progress of philosophy is a much debated question. One possible answer to the question whether philosophy progresses has been formulated, among others, by John Passmore: "We need only grant that that there can be advances in philosophical understanding, in the sense of philosophers coming to see more clearly what their problems are, why certain seemingly promising solutions will not suffice, and how such problems are affected by new developments..." (Passmore, 1967, p. 229). When I thought of a method for philosophical counseling, I wanted a way that would parallel the progress of philosophy, if only in order to have a "feeling of progress".

Granted that the principal objective of philosophical counseling, at least in my view, is to dissipate confusion (false clarity or erroneous evidence counting as confusion), I wanted a method that would incorporate side stones in an elegant way. I felt that elegance was needed for the following reason: I was seeing myself more as a tutor in philosophy than anything else, whether I was teaching philosophy to big classes or counseling on a private basis. When done on a private basis, however, I thought that tutoring should be less didactical but not less clear in its outcomes than teaching big audiences. Elegance was needed, thus, in order to follow the argument, so to speak, without a blackboard.

            The method I found is the method I am using in many things I write and in everything I read that is written for my eyes (seminar papers, for example). First, one formulates the problem at hand in a question, preferably one with multiple answers. Second, one presents the alternative answers to the question. Third, one assesses each answer critically. One is ready, then, to formulate a second question, which has usually some connection (logical or other) to the first one. And so on. 

            The questions and alternative answers determine very clearly what we are doing at each moment of the counseling, and allow the counselee to evaluate what we have done till now. Though the client can leave the counseling sessions at any time, the method of questions and alternative answers allows for easily detectable exits, usually accompanied by a feeling of satisfaction because one recognizes what has been achieved.

How does one advance from one question to the other? Sometimes the relationship is logical, one question presupposing an answer to the previous one. (Belnap and Steel, 1976). As an example, take the question: does God exist? The question: how do we know that God exists? presupposes a positive answer. The second question has alternative answers (a. through revelation; b. through mystical experience; c. by logical proofs; d. other...) which open the discussion. In that sense the second question is "better" than the first one, which, having only two answers based mostly on each other's criticism, is very narrow.

Sometimes the relationship between the two questions is not logical. There can be a leap, for example, from an epistemological question to an ethical one (in the general sense of Ethics, that is, having to do with values, the quality of life, meaning, etc...). Most counselees' primordial interest lies, in my experience, in the ethical and the personal. In the example above, to recall, the second question was: how do we know that God exists? After critically assessing the various answers, a possible third question may be: how does the existence of God affect the quality of life? The alternative answers could be the following: a. it does not; b. it makes for an excellent life; c. life looses all meaning without it; d. other, etc.

Sometimes the relationship between the two questions is not logical, nor is it relating the epistemological with the ethical; it emphasizes, rather, the relationship of the abstract with the personal. After being asked does God exist? You may ask: why is it important, or interesting? A possible answer is "my sister believes in God and I think that she is mistaken". Thus, the discussion might focus on ethical questions of tolerance, acceptance and differences, rather than on epistemological questions. That is, the discussion can concentrate on key concepts that pertain to the good life, values and meaning.

After the counselee explains why he came to see me, I ask him to formulate a question. If he cannot or if the question is not a "good" one (it is too narrow, or too big, or unclear), I may take one of his assumptions and question it (Cf. Popper, 1963), that is, formulate a question about it, if possible, with multiple answers. Or, I may ask the counselee, why does he think that the question is interesting or important? If he cannot find a reason, we change the question. If he gives me reasons, I get a better feeling of what interests him. (There is one assumption, though: we do not discuss questions that the counselee deems unimportant or uninteresting).

            A last point regarding questions is worth mentioning. Some questions are more abstract, some more personal. The right succession of questions according to their level of abstraction might be decisive for the success of philosophical counseling. For example, when the initial question is formulated in personal terms, taking the next question to a more abstract level may sometimes prove beneficial. By disconnecting the client momentarily from his more personal concerns, the abstract allows for a space (sometimes a necessary hiding space) for understanding and maybe change, to take place. To take an opposite example, when the initial question is abstract (non-personal) and also non-ethical, it nevertheless has ethical and personal implications that usually are of the utmost importance and of the greatest interest for the counselee. The counselee does not differ in this aspect from most people who are interested in philosophy (Cf. Scharfstein, 1980). 

            The abstract as an inward space where thought can be expanded and freedom gained without the tyranny of personal fear is one of the great therapeutic inventions of philosophy. But any solution to any problem that would remain at the abstract level is useless. Self philosophical counseling and well as philosophical counseling for others presuppose some knowledge of the art of shades and light. Some people will perish from too much light, according to Plato (Plato, 1948; Amir 2001); all neurotics, that is, all of us, need the shade, according to Freud (Amir, 2006); and the value of an individual might well be the quantity of truth (light) she can bear, according to Nietzsche (Nietzsche, 1974; Amir 2008).

Some last remarks are required regarding the goals of philosophical counseling, as I see them. In my practice, I attempt,

1.      Not only to clarify thought or minimize confusion (by detecting presuppositions, correcting faulty inferences, etc.)

2.      But to expand options and broaden perspectives (through alternative answers; references to books and to philosophical systems of thought)

3.      To gain inward space (using the abstract as a mean)

4.      To emphasize autonomy and responsibility (but adapting the level to the client's capacity) (Cf. Amir, 2004)

5.      To teach the trade, the art; to give tools for a future independent access to philosophy.

These goals are fully explained in the paper "taking philosophy seriously" published in this book. Let me explain them shortly here: First, furthering abstract thinking, by the movement from the concrete to the abstract and back. By appropriating the insights gained in the abstract, I am faithful to philosophy's means (abstract thought) as well as to practical philosophy's goals (the concrete).

Second, promoting intellectual virtues with the ultimate goal of furthering intellectual courage and autonomy, for I think that intellectual virtues are what philosophy is about. This is more closely related to my questions and alternative answers method by the following: knowledge, as "intelligent development" is connected to the capacity of adopting additional or different points of view, in Jean Piaget's psychology (when he describes the development of thought), and in the history of sciences (Cf. Holmes, 1976). Adopting different points of view further such epistemic virtues as impartiality, or openness to the ideas of others, assessing critically different answers further intellectual sobriety, or the virtue of the careful inquirer who accepts only what is warranted by evidence, and the whole process of philosophical practice which is faithful to philosophy furthers the virtue of intellectual courage, which include perseverance and determination.

Third, promoting moral virtues with the ultimate goal of furthering one's solidarity, for wide thoughts are not enough for wisdom, wide feelings are needed too. Indeed, promoting moral virtues is not a separate endeavor form promoting intellectual virtues; for feelings are involved in intellectual virtues, and intellectual virtues are involved in handling feelings, but their operation shows how blurry the distinction between intellectual and moral virtue really is. Spinoza made understanding, which is an intellectual virtue, the key to all the virtues (Ethics, pt. IV, prop. 26), and understanding different points of view brings forth pluralism, tolerance, acceptance, which further solidarity with our fellow human beings.

John Benson sums my main goal by defining autonomy in a way that makes it both a moral and an intellectual virtue: "The virtue of autonomy is a mean state of character with regard to reliance on one's own powers in acting, choosing, and forming opinions" (1987, p. 205). He argues that "autonomous moral thinking is closely parallel to autonomous theoretical thinking, the one being concerned with what should be done, the other with what is the case... (p. 208). The virtue of autonomy is closely allied to courage, as well as to humility, and it shows the connection between cognitive and volitional processes, for, as Benson argues, "to be autonomous in one's thinking calls for intellectual skills, including the ability to judge when someone else knows better than yourself. But it calls also for the ability to control the emotions that prevent those skills from being properly exercised" (p. 213). 

Those goals taken together with their hopeful outcome of a greater autonomy for the counselee help minimize the tension between freedom and equality, which is the ultimate objective of a democratically oriented philosophical practice. (1)

Notes

 

(1) Those readers who are interested in specific cases, in which the method I use is exemplified, as well as assessed through the objectives I failed or succeeded in achieving, are invited to consult my "Philosophical Practice: A Method and Three Cases" (Amir, 2003).

References

Amir, Lydia B., "Plato's Theory of Love: Passion as Rationality" in Practical Philosophy: The Journal of Philosophical Practitioners, 4.3, 2001, pp. 6-14. (reprinted in Philosophers as Philosophical Practitioners, J. Barrientos Rastrojo

(ed.), vol. I, Sevilla: Ediciones X-XI, 2006, pp. 77-90.)

Amir, Lydia B., "Philosophical Practice: A Method and Three Cases", Practical Philosophy: The Journal of Philosophical Practitioners, 6.1, 2003, pp. 36-41.

Amir, Lydia B., "Three Questionable Assumptions of Philosophical Practice", in The International Journal of Applied Philosophy, 2.1, 2004, pp. 9-18.

Amir, Lydia B., "The Unconscious: Sartre versus Freud", in Philosophical

Counseling and the Unconscious, Peter Raabe (ed.), (Amherst, NY: Trivium

Publications, 2006), pp. 23-78.

Amir, Lydia B., "Autonomy, Sovereignty and Generosity: Nietzsche's Ethics in Management", in Reason in Practice: the Journal of Philosophy in Management, (2008, forthcoming).

Belnap J. and B. Steel, The Logic of Questions and Answers, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1976).

Benson, John, "Who Is the Autonomous Man?" in Krutschwitz, Robert and Robert C. Roberts, (eds.) The Virtues: Contemporary Essays on Moral Character, (Belmont: Calif.: Wadsworth, 1987).

Holmes, Richard, The Politics of the Knowable, Routledge: London: 1976.

Nietzsche, Friedrich, Ecce Homo, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1968.)

Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1974.)

Passmore, John,  "Historiography of Philosophy" in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, P. Edwards (ed.), (New York and London: Macmillan and the Free Press, 1967), vol. 6, pp. 226-230.

Plato, the Republic, in The Portable Plato, Scott Buchanan ed. (New York: The Viking Press, 1948).

Popper, Karl, Conjectures and Refutations, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963).

Scharfstein, Ben-Ami, The Philosophers: Their Lives and the Nature of their Thought, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980).

Spinoza, Benedict, "Ethics" in The Collected Works of Spinoza, ed. and trans.  Edwin Curley (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985).

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