Should a therapist, or a philosopher, who you turn to in a time of confusion, aim to make you feel better about yourself or set about a radical deconstruction of your personality, the whole structure of your mind?
There is probably a time and place for both. When Carl Rogers developed what became known as person-centred therapy, he was reacting against what he saw as the excessive negativity of the Freudian school, its obsession with the dark, incestuous and ruthlessly self-gratifying sides of human nature.
He believed that the therapist’s unconditional positive regard for the patient would lead the latter to a benign form of self-actualisation. Freudians would accuse Rogers and his school of seriously underestimating the power of the unconscious and the destructive tendencies of the human personality.
But this is not going to be a column about psychotherapy, except in the wider sense in which philosophy and therapy share a common purpose. I still think the most radical thinker I have engaged with is J Krishnamurti. Selected when he was a boy in south India as a future “World Teacher” by the Theosophical Society (that strange mixture of progressive social thought and mysticism), Krishnamurti broke away from the society to become an independent thinker, speaker, educationalist: a philosopher more in the ancient Greek sense than the modern one. Like Socrates, he loved to engage in dialogue, and he had conversations with some of the most eminent writers and scientists of his time, including David Bohm, Aldous Huxley and Iris Murdoch.
Months go by when I don’t think consciously about Krishnamurti; perhaps I am deliberately avoiding him, because he is undeniably challenging. But when I do engage with his ideas, the effect is always bracing. Now is a good time to go back to him, because in an initiative you could view as either quixotic or inspired, the Krishnamurti Foundation has placed a selection of five quotations from the philosopher on 27 poster sites on the London Underground, where they will stay until November 3.
I like the sober design of the ads, if that’s what they are, which draw the minimum of attention to themselves as artefacts and the maximum to their content. There is sparing use of colour and nothing fancy when it comes to typeface. There is not even any attribution of the quotations to Krishnamurti.
I’m not sure how Tube passengers will be affected by the sight of sentences such as “Truth is a pathless land”, or “We all want to be famous people, and the moment we want to be something we are no longer free”, staring at them across the tracks, instead of the more familiar invitations to sip whisky, visit far-flung islands or take out cheaper car insurance.
One of the peculiar and initially unsettling aspects of Krishnamurti’s teaching is that he seems to leave you with less than you thought you had, not more. This, of course, goes against the logic of capitalism and the implicit reassurance of across-track advertising, which compensates the potential bleakness and deprivation of standing alone in a dark tunnel with promises of earthly comfort. But Krishnamurti’s version of “less is more” goes far beyond interior decoration or nouvelle cuisine and right into the heart of human longing and insecurity.
What if you relinquished everything, not just possessions but mental constructs, ideologies, memories? This is the thought behind the quotation, “Have a complete break with the past and see what happens”. In the original text, these words are preceded by the following ones: “Stop being a Brahmin, a Hindu, a Christian, a Muslim. Stop your worship, your rituals, take a complete retreat from all those and see what happens.”
Krishnamurti rejected all sects, and indeed all formal religions, as deadly accretions of ideology. “Religion is the frozen thought of man out of which they build temples.” He went even further: “When you call yourself ... a Muslim or a Christian ... you are being violent ... you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind.”
That may seem an unacceptably extreme thought. Yet the excuse of belonging to a religious group still seems to condone violence in all too many societies, and an exclusiveness that would never be tolerated in other areas (race, gender, class) in other supposedly liberal ones.
The field where Krishnamurti’s thought is, for me, strongest, most radical and refreshing is education. As the founder of schools in Europe, India and America, it was a subject close to his heart.
Nothing could contrast more sharply with today’s degraded view of education simply as training for jobs and competition for grades, based on the regurgitation of stale knowledge, than Krishnamurti’s open-ended conception of education as self-understanding. That in turn rests on a view of the human individual not as a programmable robot, but as a unique source of goodness and truth, for “within each one of us ... the whole of existence is gathered.”
More columns at ft.com/eyres