Existentiell terapi

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University Press of America 1995 ISBN 0-8191-9973-7 208pp

Readers may have noticed a growing number of references to something called “Philosophical Counselling”. For those curious to learn more about this approach and its relationship to existential counselling I would unhesitatingly recommend this book.

The book comprises fourteen essays written by leading practitioners. Though written in 1995 it remains, as far as I know, the only book on philosophical counselling available in English. The well-written introduction by Lahav and Tillmans begins by distinguishing philosophical from psychological forms of counselling. Philosophical Counselling “assumes that underlying many personal predicaments are issues which are philosophical in nature. The role of the philosophical counsellor is to help counsellees explore their predicaments and lives, using philosophical thinking tools, such as conceptual analysis and phenomenological investigations.” ( page ix). The historical precursors are said to be the ancient Greeks, most notably Socrates whose saying “the unexamined life is not worth living” has become a slogan for the movement. Philosophical counselling was reinvented by the German philosopher Gerd Achenbach in 1981 since which time it has spread internationally – mainly to Holland, Israel the USA and South Africa ( but not, in 1995, to the UK) judging by the nationality of the contributors to this volume.

The first four essays chart the history of the movement and discuss general issues like the nature of philosophical counselling and the training of practitioners. Ran Lahav’s interesting essay pulls together the common threads of philosophical counselling by suggesting all perform “worldview interpretation”. Worldview interpretation has some similarities with Binswanger and Emmy van-Deurzen’s clarification of personal worldviews but is by no means identical. By “worldview” Lahav means an individual’s personal philosophy, which roughly corresponds to van-Deurzen’s “ideal world”. So do philosophical counsellors ignore the client’s relationship with their other worlds ? Not necessarily , since many philosophical counsellor’s would consider it their job to criticise a client’s worldview if it did not accord with their natural, public or private worlds ( though they would not use this terminology). For example, a philosophical counsellor would point out the inconsistency of a hermit who claimed to value friendship above all else. Nevertheless the impression that philosophical counselling places the individual’s philosophy in the foreground is not misplaced.

As well as describing commonalities, Lahav’s essay pinpoints five major areas of disagreement amongst philosophical counsellors. Philosophical counsellors disagree about whether they should tackle only obviously philosophical issues ( for example ethical problems and meaning-related crises) or whether even apparently psychological problems can be dealt with. Similarly there is no unanimity about whether counselling should address a particular problem or help the whole person, whether it should be open-ended or not, and whether interpretations are autonomous or more directive. Existential counselling could perhaps be characterised as a form of philosophical counselling which imposes no restriction on the presenting issue, is person – rather than problem – oriented, is open-ended and aims at descriptive interpretations.

The second section of the book pursues the issue of philosophical counselling’s relationship to psychotherapy further. Gerd Achenbach, the founder of the modern movement, argues against the view that philosophy exists merely to support science (including psychotherapy) when science faces problems it cannot solve, for example in deciding grand metaphysical truths. He opposes this view not only because it underestimates philosophy’s value but also because philosophy cannot deliver these particular goods. “If there is anything which characterises philosophy, it is that it does not accumulate … stores of truth which only wait to be called up when needed”. Far from concluding that philosophy is therefore useless, Achenbach takes to this to form the basis of philosophical practice. Philosophical counsellors should provide an encounter of the client’s subjective reason with “the other”, rather than telling the clients objective philosophical facts. He cites the example of a bereaved man who did not want to be talked out of his grief, rather he wanted “the opportunity to speak out his questions, to think about them, and to take them seriously” (page 70). Achenbach may be closer to existential approaches than he realises.

One contributor who would not be surprised to find himself categorised as an existential therapist is Steven Segal. His essay is an in-depth account of the crisis faced by Tolstoy who, at the height of his success, could no longer see any meaning in life and found himself contemplating suicide. Segal argues persuasively that Tolstoy’s crisis is best seen as a philosophical crisis rather than a psychological one and distinguishes between various existentialists analysis ( e.g. Sartrean nausea versus Heideggerian anxiety). Segal argues that Heidegger’s analysis is the most penetrating, a view I suspect will be shared by many readers. This chapter reminds us that there is as much danger in psychologists treating philosophical questions as the reverse.

The final section of the book considers specific topics for counselling such as business consultancy, marriage counselling and dealing with suicide survivors. Of particular interest was Louis Marinoff’s description of “ethical counselling”. Marinoff describes how counselling can help people escape “decision paralysis”. The counsellor can help ” the counsellee to determine whether some possible action is consistent or inconsistent with the counsellee’s total belief system.” ( page 177). He gives two case studies where client’s were helped, within a single session, to have a better understanding of their ethical problems. Though Marinoff does not suggest this, it seems to the present writer that such an approach would be of great benefit to counselling supervisors and could usefully feature in their training.

This book is not a manual on how to do philosophical counselling. Rather it is a survey of the field as it stood in 1995. Differences in approach between contributors are real, indeed even the name of the approach is variously called “philosophical counselling”, “philosophical practice” and “philosophical consultancy”. Moreover there are a number of questions raised which are tackled briefly, if at all. For example, is the aim of philosophical counselling truth, rationality, the well-being of the client or some hybrid of these and other aims ? To what extent should practitioners consider psychological issues ( e.g. whether a client is “ready” for a particular intervention) rather than purely philosophical ones ? Nevertheless the book is brimful of ideas andin general very well-written. Essential reading for all counsellors who consider philosophy to be an important part of their work.

Tim LeBon