On putting life in order

My article on philosophical practice, “Counselling: Putting Lives in Order,” can now be viewed at The Philosophers’ Magazine website. It appears, appropriately and ironically, in TPM 57, “Philosophy’s Empty Ideas,” after Alain de Botton’s essay on secularists’ need for religion and before Julian Baggini’s interview with Patricia Churchland, a proponent of eliminative materialism. It’s nice to have a piece appearing in the first issue of TPM’s redesign.


In the revision to my article, the Editor James Garvey asked me to provide a formulation for what I do. I hemmed a bit at first, scratching the dead earth with my chicken feet, because I was concerned with “pinning” my practice down with a definition at the outset and because I wanted to avoid all comparisons with psychotherapy. After hawing some, I went with a formula that I hoped would be a reminder of Ordo: a principle of order, an idea of arranging our lives according to the general layout of the world, a Benedictine image of a trellis.

The formula–“putting life in order”–is meant to resonate in many keys, but there is one key in particular that I want to listen to today. It is the ancient philosophical understanding that my life must be lived according to the way of the world. The skeptics, Epicureans, Stoics, Confucians, and Daoists–just to name a few–all insisted that my life couldn’t possibly go well unless it had been put in touch with reality. If you happen to be unversed in modern philosophy, then you might find this general thesis rather uncontroversial. Here, I would only add that you would be wrong.

One approach to understanding the fundamental orientation of modern philosophy would be to focus on the fact/value split. For Kant, for instance, facts were one order of being (an order to be investigated by modern science) while values were quite another (values having been created by human beings). This may sound to you like a rather mundane thesis until you reckon with the ‘vitalist’ implications, a major one being that human beings are “cut off” from the world of facts which is investigated only by modern scientists.

Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities underscores this disenchantment of the modern world. Locke claims that primary qualities are properties intrinsic to material objects–properties such as mass and extension–whereas secondary qualities are extrinsic properties like redness, roundness, and firmness, properties, that is, that are perceived by the senses. On Locke’s understanding, however, only primary qualities are real (which is to say, really real) and secondary qualities–in other words, our experiences of everyday objects–are not actually real. In other words, our sensory experience of rocks and stones and trees and fish does not put us in touch with the world as it is.

Many trends in modern philosophy have taken on board the fact/value split with the consequence that religion, aesthetics, and morality have come to be construed as value-laden activities whereas science (most notably, physics, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology) have come to be concerned with facts and physical laws. The further result is that many philosophical problems–e.g., how can we can have a free will despite being material creatures governed by the laws of nature–emerge, become “fraught,” and come to seem insolvable on these terms. It also comes to appear in our daily lives as if we can’t possibly be put back in touch with reality unless we grant scientific naturalism its due.

I am not so keen on this disenchanted picture of facts and values, so I would like to return to the ancient thesis that our lives must be guided by the Way. For a Daoist, it would make no sense to speak of de (the virtues) as being other than dao (the Way); rather, de reaches its full actuality only by following Dao. To live accordingly is to have our lives in order. To make this last point more perspicuous, I would like to tell a story about the early work I have been doing with one young woman whose life is coming to order.


Not long ago, a young woman came to me saying she had been diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). As regular readers of this blog will know, I am highly skeptical of the idea that a human life is the kind of ongoing activity that can be captured in terms of ‘mental health’ or ‘mental illness.’ I am equally skeptical of ‘diagnosis’ and ‘treatment’ of ‘mental illness.’

Quite apart from the many doubts I have concerning this dispensation, I doubt very much that a human life is subject to ‘analysis’: that is to say, I think it a non-starter to follow any methodology that would be guided by the idea that a part should be understood as isolable, as set apart from the rest of a life and grasped on its own.

I am far more sympathetic to philosophical holism. On this approach, a life must be understood as a whole and thus anything amiss in a life’s faring well can only be understood once whatever is amiss is put in relation to the rest of a way of life. Considerations would “circle” or “spiral” in increasing levels of generality–from an individual’s life to the social order to the general shape of the modern world. As prima facie evidence for this approach, I would simply point out that someone’s coming to me and saying that her relationship with her lover is now over soon learns that the rest of her life is also ‘out of order.’ Her understanding of family, relationships more generally, home, work, civil society, leisure all seem not to be in order, all seem to be related in this not being in tune with social reality. It seems I have heard this kind of story countless times during the past couple years.

I want to consider this young woman’s way of life further. Yet rather than begin with a general theory that would explain a particular kind of activity (in quotes: “OCD”) by shoving it into a Procrustean Bed, I want to start off with a fairly simple scene: a child who feels bored at school.

Imagine: the child is bored because she does not see how she could participate fully in this classroom activity. So, we might see her rolling her eyes, snorting, scribbling, murmuring, doodling, saying “whatever,” daydreaming. Let’s say that she gets into the habit of daydreaming. The daydream serves the important purpose of ordering her desires, affording her aesthetic pleasure, allowing her imagination free reign–and this is the crux–to create an alternative, more interesting reality than the one to which she was born, an alternative reality into which she can fit. Over time, she might create all kinds of daydreams with intricate plots, interesting characters, and pleasant experiences. Daydreaming, which may resemble her lived reality in many salient respects except that it may also contain important idealizations and revisions, seems to afford her a sense of contentment in a world all her own, in a world of her devising. We could say that she finds it necessary to reject the world she has been given and, in so doing, to construct a world in which she can be free, can imagine being herself.

Let’s go a bit further with this fairly simple scenario. Suppose, over a long enough period of time, the young child has had many experiences of boredom or displeasure with a social reality that has come to seem increasingly as if it were foisted upon her by her parents, educators, and social groups. In due course, we would expect to see her confabulate all kinds of creative activities, such as fantasies, dramas, performances, and the like, many of which would be repetitive, symmetrical, and ritualistic in nature in the hope that they could create a sense of harmony to be found in an alternative reality.

The trouble would come sometime later, when the child–who, by now, is an adept at creating these alternative reality dramas and who had come to relish the eternal time (time out of clock time) opened up there–would have to make the transition back into lived reality. As she got older, she would come to see lived reality as inhospitable to the life she loved, the life in which she could bask without interruption, could revel without disturbance. Perhaps her parents would require her to conform to an overly narrow conception of the good life, one filled with particular roles she deemed unsuitable, a narrow conception that was filled with “should’s” and “must’s,” with demands and high expectations. Perhaps she would begin to dawdle, dragging her feet, always or often late for appointments, because she saw clock time as an embodiment of other people’s commands, demands, expectations, and punishments. (But I am not that, she would surely say, so what now?) Perhaps, too, she would begin to see others as always being in a hurry because social reality, she would come to find out, would be the milieu in which people did on time what was demanded and expected of them. There is cruelty in this, I think.

So, this transition from alternative reality to social reality would come to feel “fraught” and another drama, occurring in the transition, might very well ensue: a drama concerned with delaying or deferring the claims and calls of social reality; with evading or escaping it; with drawing out the time she spent in these daydreaming activities; with making fun of it (a facility with humor would be the trace of her continued social alienation); with resisting all forms of authority embodied in this suspect social reality; with searching for others–friends and lovers especially–also who failed to conform to this understanding; and so forth.

On this elementary account that I am giving, we would expect the young woman to have learned many kinds of “OCD”-like strategies for remaining at arm’s length from an overly restrictive social reality, one to which she feels she cannot possibly be at home. The danger would be that she would isolate herself further from her social peers; that she would have trouble conforming to or complying with the rigid demands of bosses and employers who represented social reality and who lived according to the dictates of clock time and deadlines; that she would have no reason for manifesting her creative talents in social reality because the latter would be, she would think, very unlikely to welcome them; that her ritualistic exercises would afford her less pleasure over time and through experience; that…

Admittedly, this is a fairly crude first attempt at constructing a “local theory” that would show how all these activities served certain purposes and “hung together” in this young woman’s particular configuration of social reality. Even so, it gives us a clue as to how we might proceed with putting her life in order. For what would be necessary, in part and among other things, would be to investigate how a different conception of lived reality could be hospitable to a human life. If the one she has inherited is overly restrictive (and I have no doubt that it is), then it doesn’t follow that the social world en toto, the social world in which all of us dwell, cannot also admit of different, more hospitable conceptions of lived reality. Indeed, it can. I know this because I live it.

The fact that other kindred spirits and I actually inhabit a rich and wondrous reality tells against the claim that the unsuitable, inhospitable one my conversation partner has inherited and feels compelled to reject has to be the only one there is. The case I will be urging with her is that she can belong to this beautiful, inviting, friendly reality. The further claim will be that her creative gifts will have to be refocused, re-channeled on manifesting themselves not as over and against an inhospitable social reality but within this radiant form of existence.

We radiant ones have plenty of room for her here; her creativity is always welcome.

A Final Word on Hermeneutic Circles

The account above is generated from some of the particulars I know already about this young woman. To the extent that it fits the particulars, to that extent it is workable. And yet, the more experiences we share, the more unlikely this first account will ‘snugly fit’ the particulars in question. As a result, the account will need to be modified, adjusted, revised considerably, possibly replaced with a more robust account. Conversely, the more the “local theory” comes to fit the particulars, the more certain particulars come to be seen in the light of this “local theory.” That is, we come to see this novel occurrence as being illuminated properly by this account. The fitting of theory to facts, the ongoing interpretive activity, goes on until we reach good enough walking clarity together.