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The Socratic Shrink - NYTimes / Braja

Madhava - Fri, 26 Mar 2004 20:51:34 +0530

(Submitted by Braja)

The New York Times Magazine carried an interesting article over the weekend. Entitled, "The Socratic Shrink," it examined the developing area of "philosophical counseling" and Lou Marinoff, a tenured professor of philosophy and author of "The Big Questions: How Philosophy Can Change Your Life" and "Plato, Not Prozac! Applying Eternal Wisdom to Everyday Problems." Although much of the article covers Marinoff's lawsuit against his employer--concerned with liability issues, they prevented him from counseling on campus--and his political battles with other practitioners in this new field, seemingly fueled by ego and business concerns, some of the ideas expressed in the article are very interesting:

[Marinoff's] message, spoken in a defensive staccato, goes like this: Americans are tired of psychologists dwelling on our every painful feeling, we're sick of psychiatrists prescribing a new drug every time we feel confused and many of our most pressing problems aren't even emotional or chemical to begin with -- they're philosophical. To wit: You don't have to be clinically depressed or burdened by childhood guilt to want help with the timeless questions of the human condition -- the persistence of suffering and the inevitability of death, the need for a reliable ethics. "Even sane, functional people need principles to live by," Marinoff told me, his voice lowering without slowing in the sun-flooded courtroom, "so we are offering what Socrates called the examined life, the chance to sit with a philosopher and ask what you really believe and make sure it's working for you."

Of course, the philosophical edge seems to get be blunted by the marketing:

Marinoff and other practitioners hold that we all have a philosophy of life, whether we know it or not, and that we can benefit from identifying that philosophy, making sure it helps us rather than hinders us -- defining success, say, in a way we might actually achieve it -- and then strengthening it through dialogue with the great thinkers. Where Marinoff departs from the others, and sets their teeth on edge, is in the way he packages the journey of philosophical self-improvement. In "Plato, Not Prozac!" for example, Marinoff outlines a five-step "PEACE process" that seems ready-made for daytime TV: identify the Problem, take stock of your Emotions, Analyze your options, Contemplate your entire situation and then -- voila! -- reach Equilibrium.

Besides that fault, critics point out other weaknesses:

Among serious academic philosophers -- even those who address the so-called human-condition questions -- there is an almost visceral revulsion at the very idea of philosophical counseling. Jonathan Lear, a psychoanalyst and philosophy professor at the University of Chicago, considers himself committed both to the therapeutic power of conversation and to the Socratic philosophical tradition of investigating life's pressing concerns. He is deeply skeptical, nevertheless, of any counseling approach that imagines that you can dwell purely in the realm of reason, ignoring hidden motive and unresolved feeling, "That's a fantasy," Lear said by phone. "And you don't have to be a Freudian to think so. One of the most looming problems for Plato about the human soul is that there's a powerful unconscious dimension."

For Alva Noe of the University of California, Berkeley, the problem is much simpler: "While there is every reason to think that philosophical method and rigor, when applied to life's problems, can lead to growth, emancipation, improvement, et cetera, philosophy is very, very hard. How many people really get a life turnaround from practicing kung fu or tai chi?"

Full article here: