Toward an alternative business model for philosophical counseling

The following is the proposal of a paper I will be presenting at the APPA Annual Meeting at Columbia in June. I welcome your queries, comments, and suggestions.

The paper is consistent with the conception of philosophical counseling I outline under the Philosophical Counseling tab.

Update: You can read a summary of my talk at the APPA Annual Meeting here.

The obstacles to setting up a viable philosophical counseling practice are well-known. Conversation partners who might benefit from philosophical counseling remain largely unaware that such an animal exists, philosophical counseling lacks the legitimacy that the state has conferred upon psychiatry, psychotherapy, and psychoanalysis, and “scalability” remains an ever elusive desideratum. During my time as a philosophical counselor, the striking thing I have observed is that these obstacles have been exacerbated by what I shall term the “traditional business approach” that philosophical counselors have taken to well-being. And yet these problems, I want to argue, can be surmounted but only after we adopt a “whole person approach” to our philosophical practice. That is, before we can even hope to be successful in our philosophical practice, we will need to re-examine our place in the modern world.

The “traditional approach” to setting up a philosophical counseling business is modeled on the mental health profession and is governed by the ideal of expertise. To establish one’s credentials, a philosophical counselor believes that she needs to have a brick-and-mortar office, place advertisements in psychology listings like Psychology Today (something that I have done), seek out physician referrals, and develop a marketable set of specialties (addiction, stress, mindfulness meditation, existential distress, and so on). The main assumption behind this approach is that, like health care practitioners, we are providing a comparable service in a world defined by expertise. Suffice it to say, in theory as well as in practice, this outlook is self-defeating, not least because there are considerable financial barriers to entry and not just because we cannot hope to compete with mental health experts on their own terms. Indeed, even as we seek to differentiate ourselves from the medical professionals by claiming that we do something altogether unique and important, we nonetheless ape their behavior when it comes to setting up shop. Quite the puzzle this: philosophers for an hour, followers of common sense for the other 23.

Through experience, I have come to regard the “traditional approach” to starting a philosophical counseling business as not only quixotic—why would anyone want to see a “doctor” who is not a medical doctor?—but also philosophically wrongheaded. My provisional conclusion is that we cannot even begin to broach the problems I mentioned at the outset—public ignorance, legitimacy, and scalability—until we understand that what we provide flows directly from who we are. What our clients desire is not to be fixed or cured but to lead an integrated life.

In this paper, I shall seek to do three things: first, to change the topic of conversation from the “traditional” to the “whole person” approach; second, to discuss briefly a case where the latter has proved edifying; and, third, to offer some practical guidelines on how we could go about re-conceiving our approach to philosophical practice in “whole person” terms. What we philosophical counselors have to offer, I shall conclude, is an exemplary way of life, a way of being in the world that is manifested in our public writings, our speaking engagements, our collaborative efforts, our educational mission, and, above all, our philosophical counseling. If my experience is any indicator, such a twenty-first century model for living and for growing a business is financially sustainable as well as philosophically enriching.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “A Few Essays on Philosophy as a Way of Life”

—. “On Prescribing Aristotle: Show Transcript and Clarifications”