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What is Philosophical Counselling?

Updated: Mar 17

As of today the reaction philosophical counselling usually invokes is "Oh wow, is that a thing? I didn't know philosophy could be useful." Two assumptions are implied here: 1) philosophical counselling is a new thing, and 2) philosophy is useless. Both are, hmmm, wrong.

The Love of Wisdom is Practical

Philosophical counselling is an old old thing, as old as philosophy itself. Philosophers have long served as the instructors and counselors of princes; kings and emperors have enthusiastically patronized various philosophical schools. Not just the nobles, but commoners alike have sought the counsel of philosophy, because it is the exploration of life's ultimate questions that concern every mortal on Earth: ethics, identity, truth, death, and more. In the first place, philosophy means the love of wisdom, not the love of logic.

Epicurus, a contemporary of Aristotle, reminds us:

“A philosopher's words are empty if they do not heal the suffering of mankind. For just as medicine is useless if it does not remove sickness from the body, so philosophy is useless if it does not remove suffering from the soul.”

A little later, Seneca condemns:

"Mouse is a syllable, and a mouse eats cheese; therefore, a syllable eats cheese. What childish nonsense! Is this what we philosophers acquire wrinkles in our brows for? Is this what we let our beards grow long for?”

He continues to assert

“Shall I tell you what philosophy has to offer to humanity? Philosophy offers counsel. One person is facing death, another is vexed by poverty, while another is tormented by wealth – whether his own or someone else’s; one man is appalled by his mis­ fortunes while another longs to get away from his own prosperity; one man is ill-treated by men, another by the gods. Why, then, do you frame for me such games as these?”

Hmmm, looks like the corruption of philosophy into intellectual game is as also old as philosophy itself (in the West.*)

We can say a university degree in philosophy is useless (even this table is turning, I suspect, as we are entering the Age of AI. I may write about this in more detail in another blog), but philosophy is never useless. In fact, in every era philosophy is urgently needed, ours included. That's beecause every era has critical problems, and philosophy is the attempt to critically reflect and give critical response in the style of that time. Philosophy becoming fossilized in academic settings and irrelevant to daily life is a recent phenomenon. It may well be that, the philosophy that can be institutionalized is not the true philosophy (intending a Tao Te Ching pun).

Therapy for the Sane

It is extremely useful to understand the issue of mental health metaphorically with physical health. In fact, “mental illness” is a metaphor to begin with, which regretfully got reified and treated as a “real” medical condition, as psychiatrist Thomas Szasz has argued in his book The Myth of Mental Illness.

While it is dubitable whether insanity is medical in nature, I think it is reasonable to acknowledge insanity as a dysfunctional mental state — a “real” condition that requires special attention, just as a dysfunctional physical state does. However, medical treatment is not all to health, but the last resort. It is often too late to go to the hospital. When you come in with a severe illness, most likely what the physician can do is just to contain the symptoms and alleviate pain expediently. Hence the folk wisdom: prevention is better than cure. We shouldn’t seek health only after we’ve fallen ill, but instead take early actions to address early signs and to maintain our existing health.

The good news is, for physical health, nowadays, you can see a dietician, a massage therapist, an acupuncturist, or even a personal trainer if you wish to further enhance your physical fitness. Similarly, for "metaphysical" (beyond the physical) health you now have the option to see a philosophical counsellor, if you’re mindful enough to recognize your need for counsel before you become officially insane. In other words, drive yourself sane before you’re driven insane. A self-help book author has likened seeing a philosophical counsellor to hiring a personal trainer for the mind that whips your thinking into shape. Anyhow, there is nothing taboo but absolutely beneficial for you to do therapy for the maintenance and strengthening of sanity.

a statue of socrates, the ancient greek philosopher

The Essence of Human Struggle

Moreover, I argue that treating every human struggle as a mental illness to be fixed is more dangerous than helpful. Struggle is an essential part of human life through which we become more mature. Growing up is painful. The masculine way of putting it is: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” The feminine way of putting it is: “One day you’d look back and feel nothing but thankful to the suffering you have gone through because it makes you who you are today 😊💛✨ ” I like both. Killing the struggle by popping prescription drugs "before it kills you" is a fight or flight response. It is killing the opportunity for you to grow bigger as a spirit, grow wiser as a person, to grow beyond what you’d imagined yourself to be. It is almost inhumane to deprive any one of such a right to grow.

In Chinese Buddhism there is a saying: “Affliction means wisdom.” Within the very affliction you’re wrestling with contains the wisdom you need. If you find this too mystical, and rather resonate with Socrate’s opinion that the unexamined life is not worth living, consider your problems an invitation to a deeper examination of your life. Now this process can be quite difficult in the sea of distractions by work, entertainment, ideologies, bureaucracy etc. where we find ourselves, so a philosophical counsellor or a sophotherapist (as I’d like to call myself) can offer a helping hand (as someone who although may not be free from entertainment and bureaucracy, is at least above ideologies and out of work.)

Professional Ethics

Lastly, there are simply people who seek counsel but do not have brain diseases, nor are they emotionally dysfunctional or socially handicapped. It could be someone who feel sad due to the loss of a loved one; or someone torn between traditional duties and personal aspirations; or someone dreading their own thought of divorce for fear of becoming a bad person; or someone who is frustrated at failures, questioning whether it is their fate. These people are not mentally ill but nonetheless have pressing issues for which they seek counsel.

If you have mental problems, go see a psychiatrist/psychologist. If you have philosophical problems, go see a philosopher. As simple as that. If a client mistakenly goes to the psychiatrist/psychologist for philosophical problems, the psychologist/psychiatrist should recognize that this is out of their scope of practice and refer the client to a philosopher. Similarly, if a client mistakenly goes to a philosopher for mental problems, philosopher should recognize that this is out of their scope of practice and refer the client to a psychiatrist/psychologist. To practice one’s profession outside its scope is a violation of professional ethics.

Professionalism is not just about competence in a given field, but also the understanding of what one’s profession is really about, the ability to recognize one’s limits and the conscience to refrain from abusing one’s authority, for the good of the client. From the philosophical standpoint, a professional’s moral character perhaps matters more than their competence in the interest of the client, but those who hide themselves entirely behind their professional frame would not see this.

Now, the line between spiritual, moral, psychological and existential problems is yet more embarrassingly blurred. Historically, these problems are one. It is only a recent phenomenon that they have become separate (in the West**), and this fragmentation of worldview is perhaps the root of our mental illness pandemic. Within the European tradition, the most important philosophers were either theologians or mathematicians, which can be rooooughly mapped to today’s continental school and analytical school. I personally lean towards the theological line, of course. I’d say my service is more akin to pastoral care than logic-based therapy. With my training and research in spiritually-integrated psychotherapy, I guess the actualization of my professional self is complete (or I think it would be).

Anyhow, it’s (still) a free market with all kinds of service available to you. Each service provider will claim to offer the best service, listing as many alphabets as they can behind their names to prove competence. What perhaps matters more is however the philosophical orientation, style, methods/approaches and personal experience of that counsellor. Ultimately it is your responsibility to find the service that matches your needs and benefit you the most.

Feel free to send me a message or email if you have any questions regarding my service. If you feel like I might be a good match for you and wish to see me for counselling, please request service here.


*The Chinese never liked intellectual games; the Indians liked intellectual games but remained strongly focused on transcending human suffering.

**As I will explain repeatedly in the future, psychology, religion, philosophy and ethics still remain one in Chinese and Indian civilizations as they are at recipient end of industrialization-modernization, serving as important references for Western civilization if it is to heal itself.

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