Philosophical Counseling as a Window 1998



James A. Tuedio

Department of Philosophy

California State University, Stanislaus

January, 1998


I. Overview


Philosophical counselors can facilitate effective philosophical thinking in a client by entering into philosophical dialogue with the client's life-world for the purpose of revealing the concrete influence of abstract, life-directing conceptions in the client's everyday life. On this view, philosophical counseling becomes a window on the abstract realities at work in the everyday life-experiences of the client. I argue in support of this conception and raise issues concerning the goal of philosophical facilitation in situations where our clients direct our attention to concerns in their life that may harbor dysfunctional life-directing commitments. I set the context of my paper by proposing that "natural flow" is a practical goal of human living.

I argue that philosophical counselors should strive to help their clients identify and reconstruct "dysfunctional" goals, pictures, values, feelings, or beliefs, but without overriding the client's right to remain in control of the reconstructing activity. The counselor's job is to provide a secure conceptual environment within which clients can enter into the process of reconstructing dysfunctional conceptions central to their worldview. But once the client enters the life-stream of a counseling session, the counselor's questions and responses will surely dominate the philosophical activity. What will determine the philosophical goal of these counseling sessions?

Once clients see how their dominant expectations are influenced by life-directing conceptions, they can begin to evaluate the basis upon which they have built up confidence in these conceptions, and can start to make adjustments in how they "read" and "respond" to the dynamic play of pressures within which they are destined to live out their lives. But is it appropriate to tailor the philosophical facilitation to produce this outcome? I will argue that philosophical counselors should accept the challenge of encouraging their clients to make conceptual adjustments with the aim of reestablishing the "natural flow" of their life. Most people who seek out philosophical counselors are coming for new perspective in their life. They want to look at life differently, and the philosopher's responsibility is to help them reflect on the meaning, focus, and perspective shaping their life so they can learn to live with who they are and who they are in the process of becoming. In particular, philosophers can help their clients live more effectively within the multiplicity of game-pressures comprising their life-world. By learning to recognize and reconstruct dysfunctional life-directing conceptions, clients become more versatile within the range of movement available to them in given situations as they move along their stream of life.

II. Defining the Focus of Attention

Concepts, and relations between concepts, play an influential role in the ongoing constitution of a human life. But how well do we understand the connection between conceptual backgrounds and everyday experience? If our human life is "flowing naturally," we are unlikely to experience any significant detachment from our immersion in "everyday" problems and challenges. With no practical motivation for raising questions about the basic assumptions of our life, we simply take for granted the relation between our "life-directing concepts" and the familiar character of our everyday encounters with challenges and opportunities.(1) But when we encounter disruptions in the natural flow of our life, we could begin to experience detachment from our unfolding life-history. Suddenly our life becomes unsettling. We begin to lose the feeling of being "at home" in the dominant circumstances of our life. This detachment may even start to become a "total part" of our daily experiences. What are we likely to make of this pervasive element of experience? What characterizes the dominant motif of our response? Will we look to transform the problematic aspects of our world, while giving little thought to the life-directing influence of our conceptual background? Or will we find the motivation to reflect on underlying assumptions of our life?

Philosophical counseling can provide assistance to people who seek conceptual clarification in their life, but this assistance will promote an authentic awakening in the client only when the dialogue disguises the practitioner's role as the dominant partner in the counseling session. For while the philosophical training of the counselor provides the impetus for stimulating a client's thought-processes, the point of philosophical counseling should not be to provide the client with new life-directing conceptions. The philosopher's role as a counselor should be to lay open a conceptual space within which clients can pause to analyze, question, and digest the conceptual offspring of their experiences, and where they can pause to make adjustments in the narrative construction of their emergent life-history in response to their participation in a disciplined dialogical encounter.

Two goals provide the main focus for this practical application of reflective analysis. On the one hand, the philosopher's mission is to stimulate reflexive awareness of the history and influence of the client's interpretive schemas. This might help clients begin to see how these schemas influence the formation of their life-orienting values and beliefs. This in turn produces a second, more controversial goal, which is to help clients recognize and adjust dysfunctional aspects of their conceptual orientation in life. This calls for a working sense of "dysfunction".

Philosophical training helps us to spot reliable indicators revealing the influence of a client's background "conceptual vicissitudes" and life-directing conceptions. Effective philosophical dialogue can also open a perspective on how dysfunctional background conceptions influence a client's assimilation and engagement of lived-experience. In cases involving a nihilistic response to traumatic disappointments, clients might begin to see how the abstract conceptual forces in their life preserve or disrupt central core relations of meaning upon which their human life is so dependent for its empowering sense of security, hope and purpose.(2) For instance, by revealing the dysfunctional impact of their client's abstract beliefs about core relationships and career expectations, philosophical dialogue might empower depressed clients to experience their depression as a natural transition to a new stage of life, one oriented in terms of a more fulfilling network of conceptual expectations and assumptions about the meaning and purpose of core relationships. By means of dialogical facilitation, the client might gain important life-affirming insights into why they are passing through depression, and how to use this functional displacement as a catalyst to revising basic beliefs or commitments that have outlived their usefulness and now impede the natural flow of their life.(3) Misleading pictures reinforced by popular culture put considerable pressure on us to conform to unhealthy patterns of life. Some forms of depression might serve as important catalysts in the process by which we eventually break free of captivating pictures, constraining narratives or conceptual biases that impede the natural flow of our life.(4)

An effectively trained philosophical counselor can facilitate a revealing analysis of the client's background interpretive schemas and life-directing conceptions. But the aim of this practice is to empower the client, not to control them. The overriding goal of dialogical facilitation is not to heal the client, but to enter into dialogue with their life-world on a level that reveals to them the concrete role of abstract, life-directing conceptions in their everyday life. On this view, philosophical counseling becomes a window on the abstract realities at work in the everyday life-experiences of the client. The philosopher who facilitates effective dialogical encounters can assist clients who seek reorientation in their life. But what is the key to effective facilitation in the typical case of this sort? The answer clearly depends on whether or not a client already desires reflexive awareness for the purpose of reconstructing their dysfunctional life-directing conceptions. If the client has yet to reach this point, the question of how to proceed as a philosophical counselor becomes much more difficult to address. One must remember here that a philosophical counseling session exists for the sole purpose of addressing abstract life-concerns through philosophical dialogue.

Even so, it is only when a client directs the focus of the dialogue toward concrete issues in their life that it makes sense to engage them in reflective analysis of potentially dysfunctional life-directing conceptions. Even then, the only relevant measure of "dysfunction" resides within the client. One must learn from the client how to configure a helping hand, for the client is from the start the one in control. Only the client can say what it means for them to be "helped" by philosophical counseling, and even then there will be considerable room for discussion.(5) What, then, is the proper philosophical response when a client directs the focus of the consultation toward life-concerns that harbor life-directing conceptual commitments?

It may seem obvious that the goal is to facilitate philosophical questions or responses that begin to shed light on the client's anticipatory understanding. But if the counselor chooses to respond in this fashion, any movement down this path must be monitored carefully. There should be some clear and reliable dialogical indicators motivating the counselor's confidence in their client's readiness to embrace the challenge of reconstructing their life-directing conceptions. If the client expresses a desire to partake in this challenge, care should be taken to move forward at the client's pace. There is always a risk that reconstructive dialogue will trigger existential earthquakes in the client's narrative history.

To insulate clients against losing confidence in the dialogical process, counselors need to stay vigilantly attuned to the dramatic flow of each counseling session. There is always a danger that the counselor will begin to direct the flow of the dialogue. They already have philosophical confidence in the value of bringing the dysfunctional life-directing conceptions of their clients into relief. If they're not careful, this may incline them to dominate the focus of a counseling session. Counselors should never lose sight of the self-privileging nature of their confidence in the value of philosophical insight, and they should guard against letting this confidence override the client's right to remain in control of the problem-solving focus of their consulting session. The client's issue must provide the motivation for directing the focus of the dialogue to conceptual vicissitudes.

Once clients embark on this path, the dialogue should begin to focus attention on how specific life-directing conceptions influence the shifting context of expectations within which their life-history unfolds. But what determines the philosophical goal of this shift in focus? One goal of a counseling practice might be to provide clients with a secure conceptual environment within which to begin the process of reconstructing dysfunctional conceptions central to their worldview. But providing this environment and entering into the reconstructive process are two very different activities. Once the client enters into reconstructive dialogue, there is an immediate shift in power. From here on out, there is no avoiding the fact that a counselor's questions and responses will dominate the philosophical activity. Recognizing that our goal is to provide clients with a secure conceptual environment within which to work, how should we respond? Why not simply embrace the most ambitious goal we can justify on the basis of our professional training?

There is always a risk in becoming a proactive counselor. For one thing, the pace of reconstruction needs to be consistent with the client's philosophical attunement. Every proactive move we make should show optimal respect for the client's autonomy. Because of this, counselors need to think about where to draw the line when working to help clients "engage" the natural flow of their life. But that's not all: why should we encourage our clients to believe in the natural flow of a human life? --and why is it safe to presume that dialogical reconstruction will enhance their quality of life?(6) Is it realistic to think that philosophical dialogue can help our clients experience the natural flow of life?

We will begin by examining how supposedly "dysfunctional" life-directing conceptions might affect the flowing quality of a human life. Then we will focus on how philosophical dialogue can awaken our client's courage to reconfigure the narrative focus of their disconcerting life. Once we see a connection between dysfunctional life-directing conceptions and the "natural flow" of a human life, we can introduce the concept of "reconstruction" and establish a practical role for philosophers in the cultivation of healthier human lives.

In the course of this discussion, I will indicate how a philosophical counseling session can become a "window" on the role of abstract realities in a client's life. Once clients begin to see how their dominant expectations are influenced by life-directing conceptions, they can begin to evaluate the basis upon which they build up their confidence in these conceptions, and start to make adjustments in how they "read" and "respond" to the dynamic play of pressures within which they are destined to live out their lives.

III. Dysfunction, Reconstruction, and the Natural Flow of a Human Life

Most life-directing conceptions are assimilated over time and reinforced by cultural and relational influences. They are generally ill-structured or ill-defined. Even so, aspects of these conceptions are often reinforced to the point where they settle in as dominant pictures, affecting not only our aspirations and personal esteem, but also our general orientation to the struggles and opportunities facing us in everyday life.

Dominant (but ill-structured) pictures tend to establish both who we are and how we are likely to react within the life-defining circumstances of our life. But seldom do we give these life-directing conceptions any careful reflective consideration or clarification. Soliciting a philosophical practitioner for the purpose of engaging in dialogue is an important first step in opening up this reflective, intuitive process. Generally, if we do stop to reflect, it's because we're confused, hurt, or otherwise disengaged from the normal flow of our life. How we reflect in response to these disruptions makes all the difference in the world. If we reflect through the uncritical lense of our dominant pictures and pay insufficient attention to conceptual vicissitudes in our life-world orientation, we are unlikely to spot clues to our dysfunctional assumptions. To reflect on our dominant pictures and shifting conceptions, we must acquire new perspective on the circumstances of our life. This is where philosophical dialogue might enter the picture.

One aspect of the philosopher's role as counselor is to help clients learn to navigate more effectively within their innermost thoughts and reactions. One key strategy is to ask questions that prompt the client to explore tacit dimensions of their abstract operating assumptions. But the goal of this process is neither to establish the winning argument nor to identify the true position from which clients should respond to their expressed life-concerns. Nor is the goal so much to promote therapeutic healingas it is to help clients recognize and clarify relevant links between their life-ordering conceptions and the issues raised in the course of their counseling session. As Nietzsche emphasized throughout his writings, there is no intrinsic benefit to the truthful mode of human existence.(7) We value deception as a condition of living, and in many different forms. So it is clearly possible for us to over-estimate the therapeutic potential of philosophical insight. This is where it becomes important to stress the virtue of selective caution. For it would be a mistake to assume that the natural flow of life is realizable through an entirely truthful mode of life. Instead, we should assume that a healthy, flowing life comprises a delicate balance of truthfulness and deception.

Since each client is a unique person, the counselor must be a careful listener, attuned at all times to the hidden links and contradictions within the client's narrative history. As Gerd Achenbach has emphasized, the philosopher's job is to help clients establish a conceptual voice that allows them to begin fitting together key elements of their diachronic subjectivity. By asking the right questions, a counselor can enhance the extent to which a client becomes attuned to the person they are on the way to becoming.(8) Along the way, the client's focus will need to shift away from preoccupation with the specific form of their life-concerns toward clarification of the abstract conceptual background from which these life-concerns emanate.

For example, we can imagine a broad range of specific concerns about personal relationships that might emanate from ill-structured fallacious assumptions about the "nature" of human beings, the "point" of relational commitments, or the "purpose" behind specific kinds of human behavior. The counselor's objective would be to pose questions that help clients open up a conceptual space within which to focus on how their abstract operating assumptions influence the formulation of their expressed life-concerns. Clients who begin to see "the contingency of the conditions and perspectives from which those judgments and actions proceed," or to recognize the personal investments underwriting their "impersonal judgments," might also begin to see their operating assumptions as fallible constructions.(9) If they also recognize the role these abstract constructions play in framing their anticipations, they can begin to see the potentially dysfunctional influence of these anticipations on the significant relationships in their life.

We must even be ready to question the evidence of direct perceptual experiences. For what we see, hear, taste, touch and feel are experienced under the influence of expectations that have emerged in response to our contact with the life-world -- this is especially true for what we hear. Even the meanings we experience hinge on how we recognize and interpret the crystallizing perceptual clues around which our experiences are constituted. So one of the primary tasks of philosophical analysis in a counseling session might be to direct questions to the client's understanding of the "obvious meaning" of the relevant behavior or events they have recounted from their life. But the point of this exercise is not to provide the client with a correct interpretation of the "true" (unfiltered) meaning of the relevant behavior or events. The point is to set in motion a process by which clients can bring the "obvious" meaning of their experiences into relief. The goal is to facilitate improvements in their capacity to recognize and adjust for the influence of fallible and potentially dysfunctional life-directing conceptions.

For example, a client might have preferences so "obvious" to them, they "must" be natural. From this point of view, the client's evaluative judgments would be organized in relation to the experience of value as "inherent" in the "properties" or "qualities" of the objects themselves, and their "explicit judgments" about the value of these objects would appear to be "objective." These clients are likely to privilege the particular contingencies underwriting their "obvious" preferences, and are also likely to experience another person's deviant tastes as inherently "pathological." These "pathological" contingencies may in fact pose a threat to the harmony and stability required to underwrite the "total economy" of the client's life. Can philosophical dialogue facilitate the client's transformation to a better economy of life, where diversity and ambiguity have a desirable, life-enhancing value?

Suppose our client is committed to a worldview from which it makes no sense to understand "value" as something that is "always in motion," always "contingent," or "a changing function of multiple variables."(10) This would not be such a rare condition. And yet this person is surely involved in significant social or personal relations with other people who have each inherited their own unique background understanding. Each has their own distinctive collage of values, interpretations, theories, and perspectives --some working in tension, others in tandem, all coming together to produce an ever-shifting balance of forces constituting their respective judgments and behavior.(11) Our client may be ill-prepared to digest the differences in respective assumptions about happiness, or to assimilate the dissonance in respective interpretations of meaning and significance, or to recognize subtleties in respective styles of communication, or to be well-attuned to disparities in respective securities and insecurities. But if the client's natural flow of life is disrupted or impeded by the conflicts and corrosive ambiguities inherent in these relations, is it advisable for them to break away and live in isolation? Or should they be looking for ways to navigate more effectively through this maze of diversity? Philosophical dialogue can help our clients sort through (and relate more effectively to) the dynamic complexities in their life-world. If done effectively, this will help them to experience personal judgments and behavior from a more reflective point of view. The goal would be to begin digesting the judgments and behavior of others with greater sensitivity to tacit influences shaping the life-histories from which the discordant views and expectations arise. This in turn would influence the abstractions through which our clients experience and respond to challenges and opportunities in their surrounding world.

The "natural flow of life" will always be a moving target, regardless of whether the client chooses to withdraw from these relationships or decides instead to look for ways to interact with people in more effective and rewarding ways. Our clients might be inclined to assume that withdrawing from difficult relationships will improve their prospect for engaging the natural flow of life. But at this stage of their life, they may actually need to interact with diverse people as a basis for experiencing natural flow. In this event, it might help to direct the philosophical focus of counseling sessions toward revealing our client's tacit goals, values, and assumptions. For surely some of the key obstructions to our natural flow of life derive from dysfunctional assumptions that motivate our spontaneous judgments and behavior. To place ourselves in a position to experience the natural flow of life within an interpersonal context of involvements, we need to monitor for distortions in our orienting pictures and assumptions and become more adept at persistently refining or revising the organizing hypotheses of our life. Philosophical counselors can be trained to facilitate careful development of techniques for achieving this leverage in our lives.



1: This discussion is motivated in large part by two articles appearing in Essays on Philosophical Counseling (edited by Ran Lahav and Maria da Venza Tillmans, University Press of America: 1995). See Michael Schefczyk, "Philosophical Counseling as a Critical Examination of Life-Directing Conceptions," pp. 75-84, and Barbara Norman, "Philosophical Counseling: The Arts of Ecological Relationship and Interpretation," pp. 49-58. This theme has been developed in great detail (but formulated in much more esoteric language) by Martin Heidegger in Being and Time (originally published in 1927 as Sein und Zeit ). One can find this theme in Leo Tolstoy's classic story of The Death of Ivan Illich and, in a wonderfully inverted form, in Franz Kafka's epic tale of "The Metamorphosis."

2: James M. Glass develops an interesting criticism of the postmodern emphasis on the deconstruction and reconstruction of worldviews. See his Shattered Selves: Multiple Personality in a Postmodern World (Cornell University Press: 1993). See also the work of Barbara S. Held, especially Back to Reality: A Critique of Postmodern Theory in Psychotherapy (W. W. Norton: 1995), which develops a critical reaction to the research paradigm at work in the constructivist psychotherapy movement. The view I am advocating is based largely on my own life experiences and discussions I have had with numerous students and acquaintences who were not likely candidates for psychotherapeutic intervention but nevertheless experienced nihilism and depression in their personal lives (most often as a consequence of relational breakdowns or career disappointments). Psychotherapists who adopt the constructivist and social constructionist models of therapeutic intervention appear to share this same orientation. See in particular the theoretical writings of Robert A. Neimeyer (see reference in note 6).

3: See Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, aphorism 307, where he writes of "vital new energies in us that are growing and shedding a skin.".

4: I discuss this point in more detail in "Postmodern Perspectives in Philosophical Practice: Reconstructing Life-Narratives on the Frontiers of Human Development," in Perspectives in Philosophical Practice (edited by Wim van der Vlist, published by the Vereniging voor Filosofische Praktijk: Groningen, Holland: 1997), pp. 182-188. See also the recent writings of Robert A. Neimeyer (cf. note 6).

5: Compare Hans-Georg Gadamer's discussion of our experience of the shift from illness to health, in The Enigma of Health, translated by Jason Gaiger and Nicholas Walker (Stanford University Press: 1996), pp. 52-59 and 103-116.

6: Barbara S. Held discusses objections to this presumption in Back to Reality: A Critique of Postmodern Theory in Psychotherapy (W. W. Norton: 1995). For discussions suggesting positive connections, see R. A. Neimeyer and M. J. Mahoney (eds.), Constructivism in Psychotherapy (American Psychological Association: 1995), and Neimeyer's more recent writings.

7: Friedrich Nietzsche has written extensively on the question of the value of truth (and the will to truth), and emphasizes the view that life is often dependent on deception, that deception is "a condition of life." For instance in SS517 of Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche writes (under the aphorism title "Fundamental Insight") that "there is no pre-established harmony between the furtherance of truth and the well-being of mankind." See also Beyond Good and Evil, SS4, where he writes, "The falseness of a judgement is to us not necessarily an objection to a judgement: it is here that our new language perhaps sounds strangest. The question is to what extent it is life-advancing, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps even species-breeding;" and SS1, where he poses the problem of the value of the will to truth: "Granted we want truth: why not rather untruth?" In The Gay Science (SS110), he writes that "thestrength of knowledge does not depend on its degree of truth but on its age, on the degree to which it has been incorporated, on its character as a condition of life." Cp. GS SSSS344-347.

8: See Gerd Achenbach's talk on "Zur Mitte der Philosphische Praxis," which was presented at the Leusden International Congress on Philosophical Practice (August 25, 1996) and reprinted under the title "About the Center of Philosophical Practice," in Perspectives in Philosophical Practice (edited by Wim van der Vlist, published by the Vereniging voor Filosofische Praktijk: Groningen, Holland: 1997), pp. 7-15.

9: See Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Contingencies of Value, (Harvard University Press: 1988), pp. 181 and 92.

10: These formulations are developed in Contingencies of Value (see note 9), pp. 39-40 and p. 16.

11: The metaphor of a "collage" of values is developed by Jose Ortega y Gasset in lectures from 1940, published under the title Historical Reason (translated by Philip W. Silver, W. W. Norton: 1984). This metaphor is also operating in Contingencies of Value (see note 9).