Radical Psychology

Summer 1999, Issue 1, Vol. 1.

Philosophy Practices as Alternative Ways to Well-being [1]

Shlomit C. Schuster


Outlined are several ways in which philosophical knowledge can contribute to personal and social well-being. In the introduction, "What is Philosophical Practice and Counseling," I describe how the ancient philosophical tradition of care for the soul or self has been revived among philosophers and others in the last twenty years. The sections "The Philosophical Counseling Hotline" and "Personal Well-being and the Philosophical Café" are accounts of specific applications of ideas of the contemporary German philosopher Gerd B. Achenbach, the founder of the international philosophical practice movement. In the conclusion "Philosophical Benevolence" I argue for benevolence as a skeptical touchstone for philosophy in practice.

What is Philosophical Practice and Counseling?

When Socrates stated that the unexamined life was not worth living, it seems that he meant not just his own life or that of his family members, and not just the lives of the elite nor his fellow philosophers, but the lives of the timeless, universal crowd of people called humanity. Whereas it is customary for most of the world population today to have their lives and selves examined by psychologists, the idea that one can examine oneself with the help of a philosopher as counselor is still as revolutionary today as it was in Socrates' day. Socrates' example has been in many ways a guide for philosophers throughout the ages. In the examination of life philosophers have always been in one sense or another imitating him. However, person to person exchange in examining life has curiously enough disappeared, and instead academic discourse and the scholarly paper have become the accepted means to such analyses.

In the last fifty years psychologists have come to believe either that philosophy is dangerous in and for their profession or that they should use it in their various treatments. During the 1970s, more psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health workers became interested in doing philosophy, especially existentialism and phenomenology, as an integral part of their therapeutic vocation. Perhaps encouraged by this interest in philosophical knowledge and skills, some
philosophers have finally taken a stand and have begun to help people to think through matters of daily life.

In 1981, the German philosopher Dr. Gerd B. Achenbach (Achenbach, 1984 ; Achenbach and Macho, 1985; Schuster, 1989, 1991, 1995, 1999 ) was the first one who opened a philosophical praxis. In a pleasant office, in the forest-surrounded Bergisch-Gladbach, near Cologne, Achenbach, began receiving those searching for a certain kind of  guidance. Some of  his clients -- or visitors in Achenbach's terminology -- had already tried everything that today's society offers as solace for anxieties, suffering, and existential questions. After the psychoanalyst, guru, astrologer, and the New Age workshop, they arrived for help at the praxis of a sympathetically listening skeptic. Achenbach's aim is to offer the public an alternative to psychotherapy, but not an alternative therapy.  He explicitly states that philosophical practice is no therapy at all (Achenbach, 1984, p. 29). Clinical diagnoses and treatment, along the lines of the medical paradigm of therapy, are absent in Achenbach's approach; even so, philosophical counseling can have therapeutic results as well.

Achenbach resists turning his praxis idea into a method, and prefers to keep the style of conversation indeterminate and open-ended. Nevertheless, one can present descriptions, "road signs," that give directions to other philosophers aiming to imitate his successful and responsible advice to people searching for meaning or solutions in problematic situations. Of  these road signs, four basic ones are as follows:

  1. The sincere communication between the philosophical practitioner and the  visitor, based on a "beyond-method" method.
  2. The importance of dialogue, as that which enlivens and flows from being.
  3. "Auslegen" -- a looking for explanations -- in which the practitioner becomes united with the problem, not by imparting his own  understanding of it, but by giving the visitor a fresh impulse to explain him or herself.
  4. The innovative component of dialogue, the element of wonder in philosophical practice, which does not allow for fixed viewpoints, standard attitudes or permanent solutions.
After the initial success of his praxis, Achenbach founded a society for philosophical praxis in 1982. Through press, radio and T.V. reports, Achenbach's counseling practice became so well known in Germany and beyond, that philosophers inspired by his example opened offices in Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Austria, Switzerland and Israel. Philosophical practice is now a growing international movement with practitioners in Britain, France, Luxembourg, the USA, South-Africa, Japan, Taiwan and Australia. Societies for philosophical practice flourish not only in Germany, but also in the Netherlands, Britain, Canada, USA, Norway, Australia and Israel. The fourth International Conference on Philosophical Practice was held last August in Bensberg, Germany, and the fifth is planned for July 1999 in Oxford.

With the growth of interest in philosophical praxis, so alternative perspectives have emerged. Most significantly, the last few years have seen the emergence of a form of  philosophical practice which challenges the critical and humanistic principles of  Achenbach's original practice. Some psychologists and other mental health workers, with supplementary degrees in philosophy, seem to be trying to recover "lost territory" by calling their therapy "philosophical counseling". Moreover, a few US philosophers have deconstructed the Achenbachian approach to such an extent that they now proclaim themselves as the founders of a new method in which applying philosophy to the problems of daily life suddenly has turned into therapy. At one hand they confess themselves to be unlicensed therapists, while at the other hand they cling to the vogue identity of philosophical practitioners and counselors.

Counselees would therefore do well to ask their philosophical practitioner or counselor what he or she means by "philosophical counseling." After all, why should counselees unknowingly place themselves into another kind of therapy if they look for something else? For therapy one may better consult a licensed therapist. Although there are some differences and debates about philosophical counseling in the few philosophical counseling societies, the general conception of philosophical counseling accepted by these societies is more or less the same and mostly or in some part inspired by Achenbach's. Since philosophical counseling is not a branch of psychotherapy, but an independent dialogue between a philosopher and any person who is interested in philosophy as a way of life, it is -- so long as they are able to talk rationally -- a practice for everybody. One's interest in it does not depend upon one's state of health.

Philosophical counselors and the public have good reasons to disregard most psychotherapeutic theories concerning the dangers of self-disclosure and intimate discourse between people when not supervised by the "expert" in this field, i.e. the professional mental health worker. Most of these theories claim "research" as evidence, but often research is contradictory, so one must be doubtful about any of the conclusions which are drawn. Take, for example, the disputes that
surround transference theory. Behaviorists traditionally reject the theory on the ground of their scientific findings, whereas in the psychodynamic inspired therapies, the belief in transference is still justified inpresumable scientific/observational terms. Another controversial subject is, of course, therapeutic diagnostic labeling.

Since 1981, Achenbach's approach has proven itself a beneficial and secure philosophical way of aiding persons in thinking through the predicaments of daily life. Though some philosophical practitioners may find it desirable to practice and develop philosophical counseling differently, I find that Achenbach's basic ideas contain all that is needed for practicing philosophy in a responsible and professional way.

The Philosophical Counseling Hotline

For over forty years now, the British charity "The Samaritans" has made evident with its work in befriending people, that ordinary, friendly relationships between one who looks for help and a helper is very effective and not dangerous or destructive at all. Thus, in my work as a philosophical counselor, I have adapted and utilized the experience of the Samaritans in suicide prevention. Soon after I started practicing in Israel in June 1989, the Jerusalem weekly Kol Ha-Ir offered me the opportunity to place a small, free ad every weekend which read: "Philosophical First Aid" or "Philosophical Counseling for Existential Problems and Ethical Dilemmas." Over the years also the International Herald Tribune (the Israel Edition) and the Jerusalem Post joined in this philosophical outreach to the desperate and/or confused (Lichtman, 1993).

The philosophy line is a telephone-first-aid-line for people of all ages. Questions and problems on all subjects may find a first outlet through this channel. However, existential problems and ethical dilemmas are the basic subjects for which the philosophy line offers its free services. The idea of the "philosophy line" developed from my work as a philosophical counselor and is not only the first of this kind in Israel, but in the world.

Promoting friendship is an important aspect in the philosophy line and in my philosophical practice. In the philosophy tradition, friendship is an ethical ideal that influences the way of life and well-being of the individual. Aristotle understood friendship as fundamental in the good society. Friendship as practice is an idea that is not often found in philosophical or psychological text books today. However, the founder of the suicide prevention telephone line, Chad Varah, discovered that it was the friendship that he offered, rather than the advice which he gave, that was helpful in preventing suicides. This observation caused "befriending" to become the main task in The Samaritans' contacts with desperate people.

I offer persons calling the philosophy line, friendship (philo) combined with wisdom (sophia). Sometimes people are happy with just one of these possibilities, and that is acceptable too. For example, a young mother, who wanted to kill her child and herself, started out telling me: "I am not interested in philosophizing." (No identifying details in this example or in following examples are provided: philosophical counseling has to be confidential.) She did not believe in philosophy or in anything else. Nevertheless, through her perception of my friendly attitude and empathic listening
she came to reconsider her decision from an ethical point of view.

A few hours after our phone conversation she called back to say that she had decided not to kill her child and would think about not killing herself. I quickly approved of her decision and encouraged her to continue to contact the philosophy line. However, she remained hesitant to identify herself and would not accept my invitation to visit.

Just as in philosophical counseling sessions, in the telephone sessions, I use no technique to alter clients' thoughts or intentions. Achenbach's "beyond-method" dialogue is in some aspects similar to Buber's I-Thou relationship (Buber, 1970). For Buber, an I-Thou relationship exists in all genuine encounters. In philosophical counseling, as in the therapies inspired by Buber (e.g. Roger's person-centered approach), the genuineness of the encounter is very important.

Buber considered that there is a demand by patients on the therapist to step out of his or her secure world, which is based on professional training and knowledge. The patient needs to meet the therapist in an "elementary situation between one who calls and one who is called." In such elementary situation self is exposed to self. The meeting of self-with-self, the meeting with the dark domain of the therapist's passions, anxieties, etc. fortifies the patient.

In the essay "Healing through Meeting" (Buber, 1963) Buber considers that in the immediacy of one human standing over against another, the encapsulation of an isolated self  is broken through, and transformed.  Healing relationships can be opened to those persons sick in their relations to otherness. There is no knowledge or method for the genuine encounter in the Buberian dialogue: it happens, it is given. Genuine dialogue and encounter are not bound to particular routine
timing or a specific place.  Accordingly, a hot-line conversation is also appropriate in this context.

I invite very desperate people to meet me as a friend, not as a professional charging for visits. After such a first visit, I advise continuing the newly established relationship or suggest that the person considers embarking on philosophical or another type of counseling. This approach is especially successful with people who reject or are critical of the psychological establishment.

Personal Well-being and the Philosophical Café.

The French philosopher Marc Sautet (Sautet, 1995) began what has become known as the Cafés-Philos or philosophical cafés movement. Taking Achenbach's private philosophy practice as an example, Sautet opened up a "Cabinet de Philosophie" in 1992. The little interest he encountered in his private practice inspired him to take the idea to the "home" of the French: the Café.

The first Café-Philo found place in the Paris Café des Phares (Iggers, 1997 ; Galant, 1997).  Since then, philosophical cafés have become popular worldwide. Sautet founded an organization "Association Les Amis du Cabinet de Philosophie" and the society's journal "Philos" (Association Les Amis du Cabinet de Philosophie, 1999). Sautet only saw the beginning of his international fame. Unfortunately in March 1998 he unexpectedly died at the age of 51.

Sautet presented no methods or techniques on how the dialogue should be held, but there are a few guidelines:

1. The philosopher asks the café visitors which topics they would like to discuss.

2. One of these topics is chosen by the group.

3. The philosopher contributes to the discussion by asking questions or by giving a philosophical interpretation; essentially his or her task is to facilitate the dialogue.

Every session is strongly influenced by the group participants. The group is an open group; attendances change from meeting to meeting, which make each session different in character and content. In 1997, when I started to conduct
philosophical cafés at the Jerusalem Café Tmol Shilshom it amazed me that sometimes people present their personal problems as a topic for philosophical group discussion. Although the one-and-a-half hour of group discussion can hardly touch on the complexity of a specific personal problem, transcribing a personal issue as a general subject, however, can in itself create a new perspective on the matter.

Some of these personal topics were the following:

Sam, a secular Jewish Israeli male has a long-distance affair with Selma, a fundamentalist Christian girl, living in Oslo. They only had met each other over a couple of  years on short holidays. The coming summer, however, they would be
together for several months for the first time. This seemed to be a source of uncertainty, confusion and anxiety for Sam, who proposed this issue for discussion. The general theme formulated from it was: "The pros and cons of cross-cultural relationships and the ethical dimension of mixed marriages." Most of the partakers of the discussion were very generous in illustrating their opinions with real life experiences.

These experiences taught that if the couple would see religion in a rationalistic, humanistic or existential light (for example, Spinoza's, Rousseau's or Buber's) they would share a particular view of God, in spite of their different backgrounds. However, a comparable unity in world view might already be theirs in different areas of conviction and ways of  living (e.g. in arts, sports, ethics, etc.). It might not be necessary for them to share all their cognitions and life situations. Though the abstract discussion was not precisely circumscribed to the personal condition of the confused questioner, it nevertheless provided different ways of considering his situation.

Sometimes persons present a general question that turns out, somewhere in the middle of the discussion, to be related to a traumatic personal experience or problem. For example, an elderly gentleman brought up a question concerning the relation between memory, joy, and suffering. His subject was chosen. During the discussion it became clear that he wanted to investigate his own experience of deep sadness, which he related to his war time experiences. This sadness always emerged when he felt as if on top of the world. Although there was no proof that his sadness indeed originated in war trauma, it made sense since he had fought during World War II in the Russian army and encountered much suffering. He thought that he had to accept living with sadness as a fact in his life. Still he asked: "Why?"

Other participants in the discussion had more optimistic views, pointing out that he might not know the real source of his sadness. To discover the real source might  free him from this sadness. Or that he did not try well enough to overcome this feeling by turning away from it. Or he was told to transcend his sadness through music, or some other art or activity.

A thought that came to my mind was from Nietzsche: ascending great heights is always followed by a comparable "great" descent. From Nietzsche's perspective "bi-polar" ups and downs are only too human. The many different perspectives on the nature of memory and its possible effects on the emotions that the discussion participants came up with gave us all a fascinating evening. And, it might have added a skeptical, and even a hopeful dimension to the senior-citizen's "eternal" gloom.

Another question concealed much emotional pain; this I only discovered afterwards. The question was about the continuation of self. This question was chosen from a wide range of other good questions such as "what is justice", "the meaning of life", "can one create emotions or are these (genetic or historical) givens," and "is ecology a philosophical subject". I always point out at the beginning of  the discussions that thinking about a subject to discuss, and formulating and sharing the question, is as important as the dialogue following. May be even more important, since questioning issues appears to be at the center of philosophy.

The young woman, who proposed to discuss the topic "the continuation of self," only explained that evening at the café that she had felt lately a desire, a need, to believe in the continuation of self or a form of life after death. However, she had not yet found reasons convincing her to believe. During the discussion most of the participants agreed with her that so-called scientific reasons such as accounts of near-death experiences might rightly not satisfy her. Some of the dialogue partners suggested philosophies which consider trans-personal existence through recognizing one's spiritual or mental homogeneity with the infinitive realm as a logical excuse to believe. Also the idea was brought up that after death there is just nothing and there are no good reasons for considering the self eternal; that is only an illusion.

Somebody else presented a pragmatic argument: the continuation of self was just a matter that one should accept since so many people today and throughout the ages believed in it. Moreover, they seemed helped by their faith. As in most of these philosophical café discussions we did not come to a final conclusion. It was a surprise for me that after a few days the young woman phoned me and wanted to explain the background of her question. Apparently the death of a close friend had put her on this track of inquiry in the possibilities of a future life. She experienced that such inquiries were comforting her in the sudden loss of her friend. She made an appointment for a private session in philosophical counseling, in which we studied sections of Aldous Huxley's Perennial Philosophy (Huxley, 1959).

Philosophical Benevolence

Is it possible to conclude that philosophy practices can offer beneficent alternative ways to well-being? I think one should be careful to make such an assumption as if this is a proven fact. But, likewise one cannot deny the fact that at least for some people philosophy recreated or changed their lives in a positive manner. Additionally, some philosophers have been able, by their methods, ideas, and exemplary lives, to help others.

Bertrand Russell  in Unpopular Essays (Russell, 1950) observed already that some ideas were harmful, while others were beneficial for mankind. One may, of course, differ in opinion to which ideas were advantageous and which damaging. In another essay, "Moral Standards and Social Well-being" Russell (Russell, 1987) claimed that scientific knowledge and art make life worth living. However, art and the art of philosophizing as a skeptical intellectual curiosity has to come first, instead of the prevailing priority of the applied sciences. Since Russell, the beneficial art of skeptical enquiry is still crying out to find greater recognition in a world in which technological and scientific knowledge -- particularly in the realm of human well-being -- is idealized as our supreme good. Hopefully, now, with the arrival of the philosophical practice movement, the balance will tip in the right direction.

(c) 1999. S. C. Schuster. All Rights Reserved.


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[1] A section of this article was first published -- with some changes -- as: Schuster, S. C. (1998) "Everybody's Philosophical Counselling," The Philosophers'  Magazine, 1 (3), 44-45.

Biographical note

Dr. Shlomit C. Schuster is a practicing philosophical counselor, and director of  the Sophon Center for Philosophical Practice and Counseling. She has written several scholarly articles on philosophy practice and is the author of Philosophy Practice: An Alternative to Counseling and Psychotherapy.

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