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.

On speculative philosophical biography: A conversation with Antonio Dias

On April 5, in a post on the work and life of the artist Eric Gill, I wrote that “philosophical biography is the  study of how well a philosopher’s ideas are realized in his life, in the core of his being, in his thoughts, habits, and actions.” I suggested that speculative philosophical biography would thus be concerned with testing “whether a philosopher’s way of thinking [though, as yet unrealized] could be realizable at some time or other and in some form of life or other.” There is one further condition that I should like to add to this statement: realizable with the aim of leading to a successful human life. I say more about this rider in my reply below.

This morning, Antonio Dias wrote a  remarkably thoughtful comment. It reads,

You open up provocative questions when you attempt to reconcile Gill’s writings and his “work” with a broken life of damage and physical and psychological destruction. This isn’t in the same league as a statement like Heidegger’s philosophy leading necessarily to Nazism. Philosophical work is a particular kind of work, as you’ve said and say here. It has an internal consistency that ties its statements directly to actions across the spectrum of what it means to be alive.

Gill’s case, and that of so many other fractured people who manage to hold parts of their lives together in spite of whatever damage that has led to committing reprehensible actions, is outside of that type of work, that en-training of intention, of philosophical consistency, and of actions throughout a life focused on the construction of a total edifice.

It begins to seem that this is too much, too narrow even for a philosophical life. The expectation that anyone, even a philosopher should be able to control their lives to such a degree seems unrealistic if held as an absolute standard. We can celebrate those lucky enough to achieve it, while still acknowledging the humanity of those who fall short. I think the Romans believed in the force of Fortuna within their philosophies.

Something like incest is so deeply enmeshed in a person’s history and the aftermath and consequences of actions in their family’s past, present, and continuing reverberations into the future that they cannot be held to a simple straightforward accountancy. Their actions are inexcusable, yet their circumstances are as complex as any human activity could be. This is the realm of Tragedy.

Gill’s work was inextricably linked to all of the circumstances of his life, as are everyone’s. That he posited such a role for work life equaling life work could very well be a compensatory construction as he wrestled with his demons and wished/hoped, such a focus could be maintained, Inshalla!

I think there needs to be room for a #5, maybe even a #6 added to the list. Finding them, and articulating them a worthy process.

And here is my reply:

Let me begin sideways or, rather, slightly far afield. Martin Amis takes what I would call the Party Line in a recent LRB piece on the poet Philip Larkin. Yes, Larkin was a crank, Amis admits, but I’m only interested in how well his work endures. This I call the Party Line because it expresses the assumption I find almost everywhere when I speak with writers. Geoff Dyer, for all his stylistic brilliance, unnerves me because he takes the work-over-here and life-over-there thought on board without question. He therefore makes a fundamental philosophical error and, in so doing, gets his priorities about the aim of life all wrong.

So I’m clearing a new path or, what is the same thing, making way for a very old one. Only yesterday I updated my Writing tab on my website to reflect this: “Writing is an outgrowth of living–and not the other way around. To live well is what matters; to write well only matters to the extent that living well does. Dying well without writing well: that would still be enough, more than enough.”

The joke I’ve been making of late: If I die and don’t finish my book, that’s OK. But if I die and don’t finish my life, that’s not OK.

I see your points about Tragedy and Fortuna. The Greeks were profoundly concerned with tuche (poorly but loosely translated as luck). My reply to your suggestions would be to make a modification: “What does it mean to lead a successful philosophical life?” So I want to rule out #5 and #6 simply on the grounds that, alas, these are not successful philosophical lives. Sad, yes. And the proper response is mourning and compassion.

There’s one further problem which I want simply to allude to here. It is that we take ideas to be on one side on the equation and doings on the other. (I said something about this in my short section on Theory Application from yesterday’s post). Then, once we do this we get in mind to pull out the glue and paste our ideas onto our doings and see whether they match up. (And here I want to add: Then we get into moralizing talk of “hypocrisy” and so forth. I find this moralizing talk unhelpful, wrongheaded, untragic. In short, gotcha journalistic.)

I’m afraid my talk of “consistency” may lead us to that conclusion as well. I’d prefer that it didn’t. More recently, I’ve taken to some more poetic language in order to capture this thinking en actu, this ideas-in-and-only-insofar-as-they-are-lived-out. It’s not for nothing that I keep talking about philosophy AS a way of life. (Probably my first go at this was a post I wrote for New Public Thinking on “trying things out.”)

Speculative philosophical biography, then, was an essay to test whether ideas en actu as potentialites could be ideas en actu as actualities.

P.S. Just saw this entry on footle, v. in my Inbox. Meaning: “To talk or act foolishly, to trifle or potter.” If we could press the definition a little further, we might say, “To talk-act foolishly.” Or, even, “To play the part of a fool.”

Readers, feel free to join in. These thoughts are all in process: yes, aiming at something but as of yet unfinished.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “Eric Gill on Holy Work”

—. “On Drudgery and Artistry.”