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You may think that philosophy and psychotherapy are the very opposite of each other – one dry and rational, the other all about getting in touch with your feelings. In psychotherapy clients are often warned against “intellectualising” if they start getting too entangled in theories and explanations.
But if you were to delve deeper, you’d find that it all depends on how you conceive of the respective projects. If you believe thoughts and feelings are part and parcel of the same phenomenon, you will see that shifts in one are inseparable from shifts in the other. This is what cognitive behaviour therapy is based on. But while CBT focuses on targeting specific unhelpful thoughts, an exploration of your worldview such as you might undertake with the help of philosophy can be wide-ranging, taking in values and assumptions and how it all fits together.
Some philosophies are undeniably more geared towards being therapeutic than others. Ancient philosophy in particular is a gold mine for useful advice on how to lead a good life. Seneca’s letters will yield useful perspectives for everybody. Twentieth-century analytic philosophy is less obviously practical. But even the driest of philosophies may conceal hidden gems that could change your whole outlook on life.
Take the so-called “is-ought gap”. The idea that the way things are does not automatically tell us how they should be can have many applications in daily life. For instance, it can help to avoid endless confusion about male-female relationships, by undermining the “boys will be boys” argument that is used all too often to justify injustice towards women.
But a word of warning: in some cases philosophy is definitely not the answer, and it may even be counterproductive. If you are harbouring unprocessed “stuff” from the past, for instance, involving yourself in a deep exploration of Nietzsche may be the last thing you need. You may simply end up covering your issues with an impressive philosophical cloak. Sometimes old-fashioned psychotherapy is just the thing.
“There is no profit in philosophy when it doesn’t expel the sufferings of the mind,” claimed Epicurus. Some 2,300 years later, plenty of people still agree, most notably Alain de Botton, who in 2000 splashed this quote on the back cover of his book The Consolations of Philosophy. But when I hear this line trotted out, far from soothing my psyche, it provokes a dangerous surge in my blood pressure.
There are two ways in which the claim can be infuriatingly misleading. First of all, Epicurus was not describing philosophy in general, but advocating a vision of the subject particular to a subset of ancient schools, most notably his own and that of the Stoics. To talk as though his pronouncements capture a universal truth is as nonsensical as quoting Marx and concluding that philosophy’s task has been to liberate the proletariat.
Second, most advocates of philosophy’s therapeutic benefits have believed that the reason why it works is because it is true. So you do not become a Stoic because you want to feel better, you become a Stoic because you believe its teachings are true, and because they are true, they help you to live better.
Philosophy’s fundamental purpose has to be the pursuit of truth, or at least a clearer vision of how we and things are. We just have to wait and see whether what we find makes us feel better. Often, it does not. Philosophy is of its nature unsettling and many people do not find the doubts it casts on ideas such as free will or the existence of the soul very comforting at all.
The only kind of suffering philosophy directly treats is the particular tension that arises when we find ourselves confused, baffled or perplexed. Although it often leaves us even more uncertain than before, it can allow us to see the problems more clearly, to map their complexities and so make them more manageable. Call it therapy if you like, but if you undertake it primarily because you want to feel better, its failure to deliver may leave you feeling even worse.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email shrink&sage@shrink&sage.com