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Pathways to Philosophy

Practitioners, not Jumpers

by Tim LeBon


"In an impressive display of gymnastics, ho ho, thank you, Professor McFee bends over backwards to demonstrate that moral judgements belong to the same class as aesthetic judgements."

One of the main themes of Tom Stoppard's recently revived philosophical play, Jumpers, is that philosophers are mere mental gymnasts clever people jumping through logical hoops but producing little of value. There certainly is a sort of academic philosophy which is like that, but as a blanket judgement on philosophy it is less accurate now than in the 1970s when Jumpers was written. Pathways itself is dedicated to taking philosophy out of its ivory tower and making it accessible for all. In the last 30 years 'applied philosophy' has also been a growth area, and philosophers have made important contributions to such public issues as war, abortion, pollution, animal rights and euthanasia. Yet there is another leap that philosophers can make, from applying philosophy to theoretical issues to actually practising philosophy with ordinary people, often helping them with issues of personal concern. 'Philosophy in Practice' is the name of the international movement dedicated to promoting this idea. In this article I will begin with a brief description of the three main areas of philosophy in practice, and then comment on what for me personally are some of the most interesting recent developments.

The three main activities that philosophical practitioners engage in are philosophical counselling, Socratic Dialogue and philosophical enquiry in education. In each, whilst the facilitator is a suitably trained philosopher, participants need have no philosophical background.

Philosophical Counselling

Philosophical counselling is a type of counselling that uses philosophical methods and insights to help people reflect wisely on areas of personal concern. The issues that bring people to philosophical counselling include ethical questions, major decisions (such as career decisions), relationship issues and dealing with troublesome emotions. You can see good philosophical counselling in action in the following case study, provided by the Israeli practitioner Lydia Amir in the latest issue of Practical Philosophy. Here is an excerpt from "The Case of The Lonely High-Ranked Merchant Marine Officer."

"A high-ranked merchant marine officer spends long times at sea in painful isolation. He does not want to associate with other crew-members because they do not respect the law... As he refused to discuss tolerance towards digressions or ... the possible benefits of solitude (from which he suffered enormously), I asked ... "Why is it important not to associate with some people?" ... The first answer he proposed was that when one associates with people, it means that one shares their values... I noticed the confusion and after clarifying it, I mentioned Aristotle's three levels of friendship in the eighth book of his Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle differentiates there between friendship based on utility, friendship based on pleasure and friendship based on the sharing of values. As luck would have it, the example he gives for the lower kind (utility) is that of persons at sea, whose friendship lasts as long as the trip. My counsellee was immediately relieved. Disentangling his view of the meaning of association from his opinion of values, he believed that from now on, he could associate with these people for his and their benefits during the trip, without adopting their values. He bought a copy of Aristotle's Ethics and took it with him to sea, determined to learn more about philosophy." (Amir, L., 2003 in Practical Philosophy 6.1)
This short case illustrates perfectly some of the distinctive features of philosophical counselling. The philosophical counsellor used a philosophical text; in this case Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, as a source of possible wisdom. She used two central philosophical methods, conceptual analysis (asking 'what is friendship?') and critical thinking (asking 'does one have to share the values of one's friends?') to help with an issue of real concern (how the officer could avoid loneliness without compromising his values). Finally, it inspired the counsellee to begin his own philosophical journey.

Socratic Dialogue

A socratic dialogue is a structured investigation of a conceptual or ethical question such as 'When is leadership good?' or 'What is wisdom?'. Socratic Dialogues require each participant to recall real examples which supply an answer to the question under discussion. For example, if the question is 'When is leadership good?, each participant chooses a situation when they had experienced, given or observed good leadership. The group chooses the example that seems most interesting and engages in a neo-Kantian method for teasing out the example's implications, called 'regressive abstraction'. Basically this means extracting from the example the criteria that intuitively led the group to think it was a good example i.e. what makes this example an example of good leadership? Having found the criteria, the group then tests it Socratically against the other examples to see if it covers these as well

One point of the dialogue is to answer the question under discussion; another is to learn how to think together constructively. If, for example, civil servants, politicians and journalists could be brought together to dialogue about such a topic as 'When should we keep a journalistic source private?', one would hope for improved ethical guidelines and a better mutual understanding.

Philosophical enquiry in education

Philosophical enquiry in education is more often referred to as 'Philosophy for Children' or 'P4C'. It too is associated with a particular method, the community of enquiry. A stimulus, usually a story, is presented to the class, which then formulates questions about the story. A vote is taken and the most voted-for question is discussed. The discussion is encouraged to be a co-operative venture, with people really listening to what other people say and giving their reasons for agreeing or disagreeing with them. The teacher's role is largely facilitative — they are not there to tell the students the right answers, but to generate a suitable environment for philosophical enquiry to flourish. The method also works well for adults. I recently facilitated a mini-enquiry about the Kafka parable "Before the Law" which continued, unofficially, well into the pub, and was still being talked about at the end of the course.

Two personal examples

Philosophical counselling, Socratic Dialogue and P4C are then the three main avenues at present for conducting philosophy in practice. Reading through what I have just written, I am happy that it conveys the facts about philosophy in practice; what it does much less well is convey the enthusiasm I feel for the discipline. One of the things that excites me most about philosophy in practice is that it offers the opportunity to fulfil philosophy's potential to help people. In becoming a philosophical practitioner you can help people with issues of personal concern and help them discover the joy of philosophising for its own sake. Another very positive aspect is that the discipline is relatively young and fresh, so there is plenty of scope for developing your own ideas, on your own or in a community with other philosophical practitioners.

Here are two personal examples. Philosophical counsellors use 'atomic' methods like conceptual analysis, critical thinking and thought experiments. Philosophical counsellors in the UK are additionally developing integrated methods to help with specific issues. In my book, 'Wise Therapy' I describe RSVP, a method to help with values clarification and Progress, a method developed with David Arnaud and Antonia Macaro, which helps with decision-making (see also http://www.decision-making.co.uk). These methods combine 'atomic' philosophical methods and draw on philosophical ideas — about values, practical wisdom and the emotions for example — in a structured way. For example Progress improves on traditional 'pros and cons' methods of decision-making by incorporating an analysis of relevant values and ideas about how emotions can help and hinder wise decision-making.

The second promising development is the application of these ideas in adult education. I teach courses in practical philosophy at the City Literary Institute and on the adult education programme at City University in London. The central question of the course is 'What is the good life?' which is in itself an extremely interesting — and much neglected — question. Existentialist, Epicurean, Utilitarian, Stoic, Aristotelian and Socratic perspectives are all of great interest to a philosophically-minded public starved of serious debate about this question. We also go into some of the 'meta' questions such as 'Is there is such a thing as 'the good life?', the relationship between prudence and morality, and where virtues come from. But what really makes the practical philosophy course come alive for students is combining this content with some of the methods developed by philosophical practitioners.

In session one we begin by engaging in a Socratic elenchus on 'the good life' (Socrates was arguably the first philosophical practitioner of them all). I encourage students to keep hold of their own personal definition of the good life, revising them each week in the light of new theoretical ideas. We do a mini Socratic Dialogue based on a noteworthy positive experience in their lives, to help inform their ideas about the good life with concrete life experience. The group experiences Progress on a real decision one facing one of them. All this really helps to make philosophy practical — to really 'walk the talk' — to not only experience the methods of philosophy in practice but also to see how well philosophical theories work when applied to oneself.

I think that if Tom Stoppard had been aware of all this he would have been less likely to lampoon all philosophers as being stuck in ivory towers. In the UK there is now a society, the Society For Philosophy in Practice (SPP), which produces a journal Practical Philosophy and runs training courses in philosophical counselling and Socratic Dialogue. The movement is still young, but it has already proved beyond doubt that, if they put their considerable minds to it, philosophers can be practitioners, not mere jumpers.


Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy: Philosophy for Counsellors (Sage, 2001).

There are still some places left on the 2003 Socratic Dialogue and Philosophical Counselling courses run by the SPP in November in near Brighton, UK. Contact DavidArnau@aol.com for details.

The SPP website can be found at: http://www.society-for-philosophy-in-practice.org
Practical Philosophy website is at: http://www.practical-philosophy.org.uk
The Progress website is at: http://www.decision-making.co.uk

© Tim LeBon 2003
E-mail: TimLeBon@aol.com
Web site: http://members.aol.com/timlebon

[Matthew Del Nevo's Continental Community of Enquiry can be downloaded from the Pathways web site at http://www.philosophypathways.com/download.html — Editor.]