Pinning down philosophical counseling: Short & long & elliptical answers

One of the questions I get quite often is what the hell is philosophical counseling. To be honest, I probably have this conversation just about every day. Here’s one example from an editor who will be publishing one of my essays on child-rearing and moral education. He tells me that I need to attach a brief bio to the article. And he adds, “At the moment all I know is that you are a philosophical counselor. Never heard of one of those, to be honest.”

The dodo bird. The unicorn. The parakeet. The philosopher.

To be honest, I could say that this website has become one of my longer replies, and that would not be untrue. In fact, it would be quite true,

too true too true.

But perhaps you were looking for a shorter reply. Well, then, I’ve now got an epigram under the Life Work section of my new public bio.

Or perhaps you fancy an elliptical riposte? The answer to the question, “What is a philosopher?,” is the nature and shape of the life one leads. (Oh, my dear, the play’s the thing.)

Or perhaps you ludic fiend, you queen of the fairies, perhaps you prefer an aperitif (so to speak)? Here’s a little bit of (a small bite from) a forthcoming paper called “Letter Writing as Spiritual Exercise.”

Paper Abstract

My conversation partners and I are trying to lead philosophical lives–self-reflective, meaningful, fully integrated existences. For us, philosophy is best understood as a practice undertaken asymmetrically between a guide and a pupil, between one friend and another: we are fellow inquirers and in this sense we are equals, yet the educator is farther along on the path of wisdom than the pupil. As part of our ongoing practice, conversation partners and I engage in what the ancient scholar Pierre Hadot has called “spiritual exercise” (askesis). Spiritual exercises are rigorous ways of thinking, living, and acting, all of which are aimed at transforming the self. Letter writing happens to be a genre that is particularly well-suited to spiritual exercise. The following six letters, which were written approximately six months [i.e., in August of 2011] after A. and I started working together, are a brief but revealing glimpse into our essays at becoming better acquainted with ourselves and each other. In the provisional conclusion appended to the letters, I seek to clarify our understanding of spiritual exercise and to inquire further into the generic relevance of letter exchange for philosophical practice.

[The introduction, letters, and conclusion are included in the forthcoming paper. The Update below is also included.]


October 21, 2011

We might say that the aim of philosophical practice is to put our lives in order. Since August, A. has been showing how to make life work. About a month ago, she and E. decided, amicably, to file for divorce; she has taken it in stride. A.’s children are growing up well. On two occasions, the first time in Central Park, the second time over dinner, I met and played with them: both are warm and sprightly, both look out for each other, and both, on most nights, are sleeping on their own till morning time. And in the past week, A. accepted a generous job offer from a well-respected company. The position pays considerably more than the one she will be leaving, and it will allow her more financial stability, more creative license, and greater autonomy.

I am looking at a pair of swans. They are in the foreground of a photograph A. took of Lake C. a few years ago. It is the last in a series now hanging on the wall. The first swan looks stately, complete and entire unto itself. The second has plunged its long neck into the water. Presumably, he is in search of food, but it could also be that he is trying out a new way of seeing.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “Letter Writing as Spiritual Exercise,” Philosophical Practice, forthcoming.