Radical Psychology
Winter 2005

Philosophical Counseling, Not Personal New Age Therapy*

Shlomit C. Schuster

A review of Plato, not Prozac; Applying eternal wisdom to everyday problems, by Lou Marinoff. HarperCollins, London and Philadelphia, 1999 (308 pages. ISBN ISBN 0060931361, $13.00 hardcover). Translated into Hebrew as Aplaton Bimkom Prozac, Keter, 2004.

Lou Marinoff, professor of philosophy at the City College of New York (CCNY), and author of the bestseller Plato, Not Prozac, is not only a controversial figure among his counseling colleagues, but at his university as well. According to a New York Times article, and other sources, Marinoff was required to cease all his “therapy for the sane” activities on the CCNY campus. In response he sued CCNY for six million dollars on the claim that his right to free speech on campus had been violated. A final settlement with CCNY is still pending. Among his counseling colleagues some consider him dangerous. This not least because of his attempts to control the market for this new type of counseling through State legislation, as proposed by the American Philosophical Practice Association (APPA), over which Marinoff presides.

Marinoff claims that State certificated APPA members could more easily obtain employment. These “Certified Philosophical Counselors,” in addition to a graduate degree in philosophy, have followed a weekend course in “Philosophical Practice” with the APPA chief. However, the New York State Commissioner of Education, has not yet recognized these certified philosophical counselors as equal to the State certified marriage-and-family, or creative art therapists. So far, the substantial differences in training between marriage-and-family, and creative art therapy, and Marinoff’s “therapy for the sane,” and other legal factors, make legislation of philosophical counseling quite unlikely.

I am not an APPA member and I have opposed Marinoff’s attempts to legislate philosophical practice since 1997. A group of American and European philosophers have also found Marinoff’s legislation activities and his way of popularizing and marketing this new profession professionally unacceptable. Surely, philosophical counseling is not this type of New Age instant therapy Marinoff tries to sell around the globe.

Like many other philosophical counselors, Marinoff found inspiration for his practice mainly in the pioneering work of the German philosopher, Gerd B. Achenbach. In 1981 Achenbach opened the first philosophical counseling practice in the world. He is briefly mentioned a few times in Plato, not Prozac. Marinoff’s approach has nothing in common with Achenbach’s, except for using the term “philosophical counseling.” Philosophical counseling is something completely different from the Philosophical New Age Therapy constructed by Marinoff.

Gerd Achenbach and most of the European practitioners began practicing philosophy as a critique of and an alternative to psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. Achenbach’s books Philosopische Praxisand Das Prinzip Heilung provide elementary outlines that became the foundation stone in the practice of many beginning philosophical counselors. I will describe some of these basics. Philosophical counseling entails sincere communication between the philosophical practitioner and the visitor or client, not based on any particular method. It is a free dialogue, somewhat similar to what Buber described in I-Thou. The philosophical counselor becomes united with the question or problem of his or her client, but does not apply his own understanding of it to. The client is given a fresh impulse to explain him or herself. This is instead of the often hidden explanations, and suggestions, given by psychotherapists (or others!) to their patients’ problems. In the philosophical dialogue, there has to remain an element of wonder, which does not allow for fixed viewpoints, standard attitudes or permanent solutions. Consequently, philosophical counseling is not about applying philosophy, as if placing a poultice of Kant on the soul, but it is creative philosophizing itself. Unlike Marinoff’s Zen-Buddhist and Ayn Rand inspired therapy, Achenbach’s practice is derived from critical, and skeptical sources, and philosophizing with the client remains the only ultimate goal of the practictice.

Plato, not Prozac, has as its aim to reach the masses. At his publisher’s request Marinoff invented the acronym “PEACE” for a five step program: “ Problem identification,” “Expressing emotion,” “Analyzing options,” “Contemplation,” and “Equilibrium.” The bestseller was written with the aid of an expert ghost writer, Colleen Kapklein, who translated, as Marinoff himself confesses, his own “elliptical ramblings into accessible prose.”

I have no objections to prose that simplifies philosophy and makes it accessible for the philosophically uneducated, as long as the content and the rationale of philosophy remains intact. Bertrand Russell did so in his days, and many others do so today. Unfortunately, Plato, not Prozac contains so many errors of fact and argument that one has to conclude that this simplification, or popularization, did lead to distortion and misunderstanding. For example, Marinoff uses the term “contemplation” for “philosophy”: all philosophizing is contemplation, as if the dialectical argumentation so characteristic of philosophical debates has come to an end. The great majority of philosophical counselors and their organizations focus on different forms of practicing philosophy, but not therapy. Marinoff does not differentiate between the two. He does, however, find differences between philosophical counseling, psychological counseling and “psychiatric counseling,” but this does not obstruct his own adventures in therapy. The word counseling is used in an unfeasible manner for psychotherapeutic and psychiatric treatment alike. Marinoff considers that the three first stages of his PEACE process are equivalent to what is done in psychological counseling, and only the last two stages, “contemplation” and “equilibrium,” are philosophical. Marinoff’s claim that psychotherapy is about identifying a particular problem for which a person goes into therapy, about expressing the emotions that relate to this problem, and then finally analyzing the options to solve this problem, seems to be based on inadequate knowledge of how most psychologists and psychotherapists work. Marinoff ferociously attacks the DSM-IV and the superfluous use of psychotropic medications, but he is ignorant of the fact that not only psychiatrists work with the diagnostic manual and believe in suppressing emotions, and thoughts, by medication. After all, the great majority of the mental health establishment follows in its own specific ways the psychiatric blueprint for “curing” the soul. Marinoff likes to compare his method with that of Existential psychotherapy and other psychotherapies that use philosophy. Philosophical psychotherapy is nothing new, it has existed for more then half a century now. Existential therapy’s accomplished approaches cannot at all be compared to the quickie solutions found through Marinoff’s manner of applying philosophy to everyday problems of life.

Marinoff encourages the application of any school of thought, and as in most New Age approaches, critical reasoning is absent. Mystical mind-trippers such as Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh, formerly a Puna-based guru, are considered meaningful thinkers for philosophical counseling sessions. Indeed, Marinoff advises his readers and clients to visit gurus, astrologers, and all other sorts of confidence tricksters. This advice is grounded in his own perception of pragmatism: if something works for you, it is philosophically justified.

Marinoff himself has been practicing I Ching for more than thirty years and helps his counsellees and readers to get acquainted with this ancient Chinese method of divination. He explains: “The coins may simply even out the odds. But no matter which chapter you hit, your active conscious mind will find something meaningful and useful in the text, which is actually a reflection of what is meaningful and useful in your submerged thoughts. There will be a resonance between its wisdom and yours, for the I Ching mirrors what is in your heart” (p. 301).

To philosophize about anything, including religion, spirituality, mysticism, and the occult is not contrary to philosophical counseling, but philosophizing is altogether different from throwing coins to obtain knowledge on how to conduct one’s life. I believe that philosophers should take care not to lower themselves to the level of second-rate gurus by actually using occult means such as I Ching, Kabbalah, Tarot cards, astrology, and similar practices.

Most philosophical counselors and other professionals worldwide are not very enthusiastic about Plato, not Prozac, to put it mildly. Nevertheless, Marinoff’s works — his two latest writings are of the same content and quality — might be interesting to persons impressed by New Age self-help books. The rest of the reading public would be better off considering books by other authors on the subject of philosophical counseling. A list of such books and articles can be find at http://www.geocities.com/centersophon/pc- bibl.html

Correspondence —Email: counsel@actcom.co.il

*A Hebrew translation of this article is forthcoming in the bookreview section of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, at http://www.haaretz.co.il

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