Instead of going to traditional psychotherapists for advice and support, growing numbers of people are turning to philosophical counselors for particularly wise guidance. These counselors work much like traditional psychotherapists. But instead of offering solutions based solely on their understanding of mental health or psychology, philosophical counselors offer solutions and guidance drawn from the writings of great thinkers.
Millennia of philosophical studies can provide practical advice for those experiencing practical difficulties: There’s an entire field of philosophy that explores moral issues; stoic philosophers show us how to weather hardship; the existentialists advise on anxiety; and Aristotle was one of the first thinkers to question what makes a “good life.” All these topics make up a good chunk of any therapy session, philosophical or otherwise.
Philosophical counseling has been available since the early 1990s, when Elliot Cohen came up with the idea and founded the National Philosophical Counseling Association (NPCA) with around 20 counselors. The NPCA’s website suggests writer’s block, job loss, procrastination, and rejection are all appropriate subjects for philosophical guidance. (However, counselors will refer clients to a psychiatrist if they think they’re suffering from a serious mental health issue.) Clients pay about $100 a session for philosophically guided advice, and each session lasts roughly an hour.
“I saw so many people who had all these problems of living that seemed to be amenable to the thinking that students do in Philosophy 101 and Introduction to Logic,” Cohen says. He often draws on French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre, who believed that you are nothing more than your own actions. “If you don’t act, you don’t define yourself and you don’t become anything but a disappointed dream or expectation,” he adds.
Cohen often gives patients philosophy books to read as assignments. The philosophical reading isn’t an attempt to convert clients to a particular perspective, but to broaden their reasoning. “You don’t try to tell people what philosophies to adopt,” Cohen says, “but you show them what the competing ethical interests are.”
In one instance, his client had a particularly domineering husband, so Cohen asked her to read The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill. The 19th-century British philosopher wrote on women who become “willing slaves” and acquiesce to their aggressive male counterparts, and the reading had a powerful effect on Cohen’s client.
“She looked me in the eye and said, ‘No more willing slave,’” he says.
Philosophical counselor Nathan Nobis says that several of his clients came to him after a frustrating experience with psychotherapy. “They’ve often been to traditional counselors and felt misunderstood,” he says. “They have the insight that what they’re dealing with is a philosophical issue.”
Nobis says he became a philosophical counselor after attending therapy himself and noticing the correlations with philosophy. He uses philosophical logic to help his clients reason clearly, which he says is fairly similar to cognitive behavioral therapy. “It’s the techniques often [applied] in ethics classes to moral problems, but you’re applying them to personal problems or relational problems,” he says.
Finding a philosophical counselor is still a bit of a challenge. The field is still fledgling, especially compared to the thousands of therapists that practice regular counseling, though there’s been a significant increase in the number of counselors over the past five years.
Cohen says the NCPA currently lists 300 philosophical counselors, up from 75 counselors five years ago. Meanwhile, the American Philosophical Practitioners Association (APPA), another popular philosophical counseling organization, says it has certified 200 active practitioners, a 30% increase from 2011. The NPCA requires its counselors to have at least a master’s degree in mental health and to train in philosophical practice, typically logic-based therapy. Those practicing at the APPA must have a master’s in philosophy to get certification as an associate.
In recent years, both groups report growing interest from young philosophers who want to put their academic knowledge to practical use as counselors. And the demand for philosophically minded therapy matches the rising supply. “There’s more awareness among people that there’s a reason to think philosophically about problems, ethical problems especially,” Cohen says.
Cohen believes the recent uptick in interest coincides with the increasing awareness of how philosophy can be applied to advancing technology such as AI, modern ethical issues such as surveillance, and even the number of professors working on applied philosophy such as bioethics or philosophy of mind. “Philosophy’s getting involved in areas of practice and it’s spilling over in multiple areas, not just philosophical counseling,” he says.