On prescribing Aristotle: Show transcript and clarifications

Here’s a transcript of my live chat on philosophical counseling, “Prescribing Aristotle: Philosophical Counseling 101.” It is pared with the Washington Post story by Emily Wax,“Philosophical Counselors Rely on Eternal Wisdom of Great Thinkers.”

First off, thanks to Haley for guiding me through the chat. Thanks also to Emily for writing such a positive story about philosophical counseling.

Regarding Emily’s story, I’d like to make a few clarifications.

1.) Tbeory Application. In my philosophy practice, I speak of philosophy as a way of life, not as a theory to be applied. Conversation partners and I don’t take big ideas or eternal wisdom and then apply them to our lives. Rather, I work with conversation partners on developing models for living. As I write elsewhere,

For the ancients, logic was the living-out of right thinking, metaphysics the living-within the natural world, politics the living-alongside others, ethics the living-out of virtues… Epicureans, Aristotelians, Stoics, Platonists, Cynics: all built competing schools with the aim of making philosophy an art of living, an art to be practiced, reflected upon, honored, and refined.

The split between thinking and doing is a modern invention and one that I don’t follow in my life or in my work. Wisdom is not an object to be possessed but a path to be followed.

2.) Book Prescriptions. In my philosophy practice, I don’t typically prescribe this or that, especially not books. I’m not sure that the concept of prescribing makes much sense in a philosophical context. “Prescribing” carries certain legal and medicinal connotations that don’t apply to my philosophical practice. I like to essay, invite, and converse.

Note also that the basis for our conversations is life in general and your life in particular. The aims of our conversations are wholeness, clarity, and meaning. If we read books together, it is a question of kairos: just the right thing at just the right time for all the right reasons. And, let me add, in just the right way.

3.) Relation to Psychology. For the past 20 years or so, this question has been getting raised again and again. However, it seems to me that the relation of philosophical counseling to psychology and psychiatry is, quite simply, not a very interesting topic of conversation. Not to me anyway and not to those I work with. I’ve addressed this somewhat in the FAQs section on Philosophical Counseling, but here, perhaps, I manage to take a clearer line.

In my work, I start from the premise that man is a social animal. Taking this thought seriously involves conceiving of each individual as enmeshed in and as living out a certain model for life. An analogy may prove instructive.

Imagine you’re a swimmer and that you’re following the example of an excellent guide. If something in you is deficient or unworkable or untenable, your guide should examine this problem not in isolation but as something that arises within a larger practice and takes place within an established institution. Perhaps your shoulder is not rotating properly and that, in turn, is causing structural problems with the rest of your stroke. And that stroke is being repeated time and time again, showing up in other places and at other points. Indeed, this structural deficiency is working its way–poorly at that–through the rest of your body, your mind, and your world. Still, we’ve not gone far enough, not by a long shot. Have you noticed that you’re swimming in a certain pool, surrounded by certain swimmers, at a certain historical moment, in a certain kind of world? Well, you are, and all this matters to the shape and success of your overall practice.

Like a swimmer’s practice, an individual’s model for living can be either sound or unsound, workable or unworkable, sustainable or unsustainable, resilient or collapsable. The same is true of our culture’s models for living, which are currently, I gather, in the midst of slowly collapsing. Attending to one problem, such as family or love, work or home, sorrow or strife, therefore involves attending to how that problem relates to the whole: the whole of one’s life and the whole of one’s culture.

My conclusion is that many of our problems are not just in our heads. They are in our practices–and only, as it were, in our heads in part. They may show up there but they reside elsewhere.

As we get older, we must learn to look wider in order to live better.

Further Reading

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