Quote of the month:
"Nothing can be imagined which is too strange or incredible to
have been said by some philosopher." –Rene` Descartes, Discourse on the Method
Plato, not Prozac!, by L. Marinoff.
A tour de force on the basics of philosophical counseling, including a chapter
on “philosophy 101” and actual examples of counseling on problems ranging from
how to deal with your coworkers to how to start (or end) a relationship.
Café, by C. Phillips. Ever wandered what it feels
like to dump everything and devote your life to talk to people about the
fundamental questions of existence? This is what the author did and recounts in
this book. Philosophical discussions in places ranging from coffee houses to
schools and prisons.
American Philosophical Association, the premiere society for
professional philosophers in the United States. The site includes many resources
for the philosophically curious.
Society for Philosophical Inquiry, where you can learn how to start your
own Socrates Café.
American Philosophical Practitioners Association, if you are curious
about using philosophy to solve everyday problems.
Philosophy Now, the best magazine
on philosophy for the general public.
of the Rational:
Essays About Nature
& Humanist Web
If you mention philosophy at a party you are most likely to be greeted by
rolling eyes, complacent smiles or embarrassed silence. Philosophy just isn’t
considered a good topic for conversation, let alone for serious consideration in
everyone’s daily life. This wasn’t always the case. On the contrary: philosophy,
as we understand it today, was born in ancient Greece as a tool to improve one’s
life, especially from an ethical perspective, and to find meaning and purpose in
it. Today, so few people understand philosophy that most use meaning and purpose
as synonyms, without realizing the difference.
Let me try to explain. Suppose you enter a restaurant and are given a menu to
pour over. The purpose of that menu is to make it possible for you to eat at the
place. The meaning of the menu is to present you with a series of choices to
fulfill that purpose. If you don’t understand the language in which the menu is
written, the menu has purpose but no meaning. If the menu is made of pictures of
the food items available and you start to eat the menu, you are confusing
purpose with meaning! You get the point.
One of the complaints that pundits of all stripes most often make about
modern life is that it has become meaningless and without purpose (though they
seldom make the distinction between the two), that ethics has become a luxury,
is based on outdated and difficult to defend theologies, or has been drowned by
rampant relativism that makes Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” sound like an ironic
So, why not resort to philosophy? After all, we have the accumulated thought
of 2400 years or more of cogitation about the deep questions of life, explored
by some of the sharpest minds of the Western and Eastern traditions. What’s
stopping us from dipping into this treasure and make philosophy work for us
Despite its general reputation for obscurity or irrelevance, philosophy is
making a comeback. The American Philosophical Association has decided to
celebrate its first centenary this year by promoting a series of activities
geared toward the general public, including a series of radio shows featuring
brief philosophical discussions. Furthermore, the United States has recently
imported from Europe two potentially important new ways to bring philosophy out
of academia and back to the people: philosophical cafés and philosophical
Philosophical cafés are open-ended discussions based on the ancient Socratic
idea that asking questions is the best way to learn about a subject. In the
United States, there is a Society for Philosophical Inquiry which helps people
setting up cafés. The presence of an actual philosopher is a plus (you can get
one on loan from the local University), but it is not deemed necessary. What is
required is the willingness to openly question and discuss just about anything.
No sacred cows allowed.
Philosophical counseling has also been pioneered in the old continent and is
now slowly spreading in the US. The idea is to offer an alternative (which can
be complementary) to traditional psychological counseling. After all, some
people have emotional problems rooted in their past, but most of us simply don’t
know how to tackle immediate problems or crucial junctures in our lives, and
considering the broad picture, i.e. approaching the problem philosophically,
Philosophical counseling is currently controversial, with professional
philosophers as divided on the topic as professional psychologists were at the
beginning of the psychological counseling phenomenon. According to the American
Philosophical Practitioners Association, the role of a counselor is what
Socrates advocated in ancient Athens: to be a sort of philosophical midwife, to
help people understand that they do have a philosophy, but that they usually
don’t think about it and don’t attempt to articulate it so that they can examine
it and decide if that’s the sort of perspective on life they really wish to
maintain. Critics accuse philosophical counselors of being sophists ready to
sell their services for vile money (as if University professors don’t actually
get paid, albeit little), but that’s a different discussion.
No matter how it is delivered, philosophy should be relevant to everyone
simply because we tend not to do much thinking about problems small and large,
and thinking is—allegedly—what distinguishes us from the rest of the animal
world. The problem can be a major ethical dilemma or a relatively minor
inconvenience. It may deal with what to do if one of your parents is physically
incapacitated but mentally alert, or it may be spurred by a coworkers’ complaint
about your taste in decorating your office (these are both actual cases from the
philosophical counseling literature). Either way, it does help to discuss your
views with other people, and to learn what thinkers from Socrates to Peter
Singer have thought about similar problems or situations. Really, the choice is
not to do without philosophy altogether, only to carefully examine the
philosophy you do have or to be ignorant of your own perspective on life.