Philosophical Counseling and Rationality*

Shlomit C. Schuster

(c) 1999 All rights reserved.


In this article I explore whether philosophical counseling is conceptually related to Albert Ellis' Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). I find few similarities between Ellis' approach and the particular type of philosophical counseling I advocate, except for the importance of rationality. I indicate here essential and obvious differences in REBT's and philosophical counseling goals. In philosophical counseling one may understand and present different types of rationalities and consider irrationality as meaningful as well. The practice of manifold rationalities in the course of living is illustrated by the Confessions of Augustine.

Two recent articles in the International Journal of Applied Philosophy relate philosophical counseling to Albert Ellis' Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). Roger Paden argues that PC should be made even more similar to REBT. In Paden's paper "Defining Philosophical Counseling," philosophical counseling is considered therapy, yet it is argued that it differs from psychotherapy and pastoral counseling. It is very similar to REBT; nevertheless, it lacks a fixed paradigm.[1]

Paden seems to agree with Thomas Kuhn who finds that a new scientific discipline comes into existence when a group of scientists adopt a common paradigm within which to conduct research. However, Paden also signifies that within the helping professions, psychotherapy and pastoral counseling, though well recognized as social sciences, are difficult to define. "Indeed, one might argue that--to their detriment--these two professions have yet to develop fully and to institutionalize their own paradigms."[2] Paden then applies a comparative-reductive method for defining philosophical counseling; through comparing different therapies (though they lack an own paradigm!) with philosophical counseling he obtains a definition for philosophical counseling: "'Philosophical counseling' refers to a process in which a counselor (note: apparently not necessarily a philosopher!) works with a client to critically reflect on the ideas and world-views associated with the specific life-problems ... preliminarily defined by the client .... These life problems must arise from philosophical problems in the implicit world-view of the client." Once this definition of philosophical counseling is released from Paden's Kuhnian hat, it seems obvious that it is very similar to REBT. Nevertheless, to induce change in the lives of clients, philosophical counselors still have to learn a great deal from the techniques developed by Albert Ellis. How far Paden's definition of philosophical counseling is actually compatible with Ellis' goals will be considered in the following section. Not only does philosophical counseling need additional modification to make it more like REBT, but Rogers' approach too needs modification to be able to contribute its counselor-counselee relationship as the proper relationship in philosophical counseling. The Rogerian type of "unconditional positive regard" seems to hinder critical reflection and rational therapy both in Paden's and Ellis' points of view. Ellis presents his own type of true "unconditional positive regard" as a corrective to what he finds problematic in this concept coined by Rogers. That is, Rogers attributes value to a persons' being: people are good. Ellis' philosophical assumption is that value is "a meaningless term when applied to a person's being." People should give up self-assessment, be freed from self-images and consider themselves neither good or bad.[3] Ellis rejects the Rogerian type of self-regard because he does not find it unconditional: Rogerians are said to induce their clients "to regard themselves as 'okay' through having a good relationship with a psychotherapist," provided the therapist behaves uncritically toward them.[4] However, to me this appears to be a misunderstanding of the Rogerian approach which does allow for authentic dialogue and genuine differences in opinion between the therapist and client.[5] Philosophical counseling as Achenbach envisions it indeed has unconditional respect for the counselee, but this does not prevent both sides from expressing whatever truth they wish to express. However, it does prevent philosophical counselors from imposing their truth or considerations on the dialogue partner.

Unlike the REBT therapists, who confront their clients with a particular world-view and philosophy of life (professing one ought to live rationally) Achenbach's practice can be characterized as an open-ended inquiry, which can be characterized by:

1. Sincere communication between the philosophical practitioner and the counselee, 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 client a fresh impulse to explain oneself.

4. The innovative component of dialogue, the element of wonder, which does not allow for fixed viewpoints, standard attitudes, or permanent solutions.[6]

In his paper "Philosophical Counseling, Philosophical Education and Emotion," Warren Shibles bases his overall conception of philosophical counseling on existing literature and on some e-mail discussions at the phil-counsel listserver. However, does such an "all-inclusive" account provide a serious common dominator? To find a definition of this profession, one may instead consider looking to the existing schools within this young profession, or to what established philosophical practitioners have in common. In contradistinction to the assumption that philosophical practice is still without a definition, so far two schools of thought have crystallized a practice concept and can refer to numerous fellow practitioners and many years of practical experience: Gerd Achenbach's school of philosophical praxis and Pierre Grimes' Academy for Philosophical Midwifery.[7] Whether philosophical counseling as a mode of REBT or as an application of Shibles' Cognitive Emotive Theory will become a distinct school of philosophical counseling is an issue still to be decided through future developments. So far a few scholars have advocated such comprehensive logical and rational directed practices, i.e. Elliot Cohen, Paden and Shibles.[8] I described the difference between Elliot Cohen's approach and that of Achenbach in "Report on Applying Philosophy in Philosophical Counseling." In a recent communication with Elliot Cohen, I was referred to some additional papers in which Cohen shows the deference between his own approach and Ellis's. The last seems to lack a solid logical foundation, while Cohen uses deductive logic to order belief systems.[9]

Albert Ellis developed REBT through applying to himself the ideas he encountered when reading psychology and philosophy. He found that he was less miserable when he read Confucius, Gautama Buddha, Epicurus, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and other ancient philosophers. As self-help ventures he also explored modern thinkers such as Spinoza, Kant, Hume, Emerson, Thoreau, Santatyana, Dewey, and Russell.[10] He found that he did very well with his own neurotic behavior and when in 1955 he initiated his own approach based on those self-help experiences, he postulated the following definition: The main source of human neurosis is irrational beliefs consisting of explicit or implicit "musts", "needs", and "demands." Everything people believe they absolutely must have, be, or do, are, according to Ellis, only self-defeating and irrational beliefs, and give rise to negative feelings. Ellis acknowledges that his therapy differs from most cognitive behavior therapies. REBT crystallized in his mind when in 1950 he read Karen Horney's Neurosis and Human Growth, which emphasizes the "tyranny of the shoulds."[11]

One may question whether the phrase "irrational beliefs" is the correct description for thoughts giving expression to absolute and excessive desires or other feelings. Is the strong desire to look like a Barby doll if one is much overweight the reason for irrational thought processes? Is not the nature of desire often colored by excessive imagination, without being per se irrational? Although taking a walk on the moon may be impossible for most persons at this time, the strong desire to do so is in itself not irrational. But the strong desire to walk from one crater to another on the moon, while remaining motionless, is irrational indeed from a down-to-earth logical standpoint. It seems to me pragmatically helpful to speak of all absolute, strong desires such as musts, needs or demands as being based on irrational thoughts, but it is not necessarily philosophically or logically correct. Like Ellis and Horney, Aristotle too advised against the tyranny of excessive desires and prescribed moderation as the correct mode for living. Aristotle considered that "Any excessive state, whether of folly, of cowwardice, of self-indulgence, or bad temper" is distressing for the human soul (Nichomachean Ethics BK VII; Ch. 5 1149a.5).[12] Unlike Ellis, Aristotle seems to reject excessive folly as negative, not folly or irrationality per s. A bit of folly, irrationality, and the right type of wittiness were all advocated by Erasmus in In Praise of Folly as appropriate ways of philosophy for daily living. It might be a good idea to apply such "moderate" rationality to approaches with a strong rational orientation and distinguish between healthy and unhealthy irrationality as the counterparts of healthy and unhealthy rationality. So far Paden's definition of philosophical counseling as a critical reflection on ideas and world-views related to the particular problems of a client, seems to have little in common with the kind of practical Aristotelianism Ellis advocates.

One may question why it is so important for Ellis to denounce particular negative feelings as being unhealthy and irrational. (As an aside: Ellis allows for two kinds of negative feelings: healthy ones and unhealthy ones. Actually only the so-called unhealthy ones such as depression, despair, rage, panic and self-hatred seem to him related to irrational thinking. Mild forms of the above aberrations, such as sorrow, regret, frustration, and annoyance are accepted in REBT "when something goes against your personal interests and tastes."[13]) I hazard a guess that this might be ingrained in him from the years in which he trained to become a psychoanalyst. Jonathan Lear points out in Open-minded that irrationality is a psycho-philosophical problem per se, a problem that psychoanalysts believe can only be explained through the existence of the unconscious. "Human irrationality is not merely a failure to make a coherent set of choices. Sometimes it is an unintelligible intrusion which overwhelms reason and blows it apart."[14] Lear describes irrationality as a "reflective breakdown." Irrationality is meaningful and not an issue that needs only logical correction. It can be understood, and by honoring it with its own sense a person can sublimate the puzzling sides of the self.

It seems logical that when Ellis came to believe that psychoanalysis is harmful and cannot help people change, he looked for an alternative explanation for irrationality as something that can be explained without referring to an unconscious.

It seems to me that the philosophical counselor's position on rationality and irrationality, the conscious and unconscious, should be neutral. Though philosophical counselors themselves may or may not believe in a relation between irrationality, negative feelings, and the assumption of an unconscious, this should not cause them to try to persuade their clients about one or the other. This does not mean that the beliefs of philosophical counselors will not have any influence on the conversation; nevertheless, philosophical counselors should refrain from trying to convert clients to their personally treasured beliefs. The irrational seems a proper subject for philosophical counseling, as long as people can talk rationally about irrationality.

Donald Davidson considers that the idea of irrational action, belief, intention, inference or emotion is paradoxical. "The irrational is not merely the nonrational, which lies outside the ambit of the rational; irrationality is a failure in the house of reason."[15] In particular "the failure, within a single person of coherence or consistency in the pattern of beliefs, attitudes, emotions, intentions and actions .... Examples are wishful thinking, acting contrary to one's own best judgement, self-deception, believing something that one holds to be discredited by the weight of evidence."[16] In his listing Davidson does not want to include disagreements about differences over what people deem to be reasonable feelings or beliefs.

Neither do I want to elaborate here on different definitions and conceptions of logic and rationality, and only refer to some of the literature clarifying this matter: e.g. Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations and Harold I. Browns Rationality.

In philosophical counseling, if appropriate, one can indeed investigate patterns of coherency or consistency in a person's life. Further on in this paper I present as example the summary of my investigation of such patterns in St. Augustine's life.[17]

Warren Shibles proposes changing the title of philosophical counselor to philosophical educator and advisor (PE); philosophical counselors can thus avoid being looked upon as philosophical therapists. Philosophical therapy as an approach in therapy and philosophy seems to him to share in the worst of both worlds: turning philosophy into therapy makes it limited and uncritical.[18]

Shibles recommends philosophers to assume the role of educators in the realm of emotions. REBT is considered the counterpart of the approach adopted by Shibles, i.e. the cognitive-emotive theory. To be sure, though Shibles' approach seems to have common characteristics with that of Ellis, Shibles is only a critical fellow traveler.[19]

Whereas Ellis accentuates irrationality as the origin of negative feeling, for Shibles "emotion (E) is a cognition (C) which causes a bodily feeling (F)." Whereas Ellis recognizes a dynamic interaction between emotion and thought, Shibles even denounces the dichotomy between emotion vs. cognition, and between the irrational vs. the rational as false. This makes his theory of emotions basically different from Ellis'. Unlike Ellis, he does not seem to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy negative feelings. "Negative emotions are virtually all fallacies, for example, argument from anger, argument from revenge, argument from blame, etc."[20]

In common with Ellis, and unlike Achenbach's concept of philosophical counseling, Shibles promotes a particular philosophy concerning emotion and cognition, and the application of this theory is in his view the task of the philosophical educator or philosophical counselor.

Achenbach's concept of philosophical counseling includes the investigation of the nature of irrationality and rationality, or the investigation of coherency or consistency, in the life of a client, if this seems appropriate to the client. Accordingly, poetic and religious expressions of feelings and concepts fall within the context of philosophical counseling, no matter if the poetic--or other artistic expressions--and the spiritual are considered rational or irrational subject matters.

I will now briefly exemplify through Augustine's life story (as found in his Confessions) changing concepts of rationality in Augustine's search for consistency, and his final acceptance of a particular form of irrationality (faith that cannot be explained).[21] Augustine described his philosophical development as progressing through five stages. During the first stage he becomes a seeker for wisdom and God, after reading Cicero's Hortensius. Cicero's Hortensius persuaded Augustine to examine himself. In this self, he explained, he found a need for his childhood faith. But the Catholic faith, as he hknown it in Thagaste, his home town, did not blend with his philosophy-converted soul. He then turned to the Manichaeans, who clto have rationally obtained knowledge of the divine truth, i.e. the Biblical Scriptures. Being a new member of this anti-Catholic sect, Augustine nevertheless continues his readings in philosophy. After a while, Augustine found the Manichaeans less rational than they at first appeared to be. After nine years of Manichaeanism Augustine decided finally to make a new start in Rome, continuing his search for "Wisdom itself, whatever it was," although despairing of ever finding it. Augustine's third stage of philosophical development is skepticism.

After a year of teaching rhetoric in Rome he was promoted to a better teaching job in Milan, where he came under the influence of the Neoplatonic Catholic Bishop Ambrose. His recently adopted skepticism, however, prevented him from embracing new promises of truth. How could he know that this was not another deception? Although this Catholic-Neoplatonism, as a further philosophical intervention, helped him reconcile many contradictions in his reading of the Biblical Scriptures, the disappointed Augustine needed some "strong" proofs before he could come to terms with his childhood faith. He realized that he wanted a philosophy that could enable him to live an exemplary life. A pragmatic insight, that truth can be known through its results, brought about an inner crisis. Where up to then rationality had guided him to believe, now faith became a prerequisite for philosophical understanding of truth: Augustine first had a divine revelation of what to do and when he faithfully obeyed this revelation he was instantly enlightened on a matter that had troubled him for many years, i.e. his weakness in overcoming sexual desire. The fifth and final stage is that of Augustine's own pragmatic Christian philosophy. Through this pragmatic spiritual philosophy Augustine counteracted diverging parental influences on his development, and harmonized Christian devotion with classical erudition. Augustine's eventual submission to the doctrines of the Catholic Church and his maturing in Neoplatonist-spirituality is evident in all his writings.

Just as Augustine's writings are consistent with his way of living, so is continuity a characteristic of his life and writings, which he envisioned respectively as a journey towards his own philosophical-spiritual maturing. It is clear from the Confessions that Augustine's search for consistency was an essential element in his final transformation.

Though it might not be possible to everyone to reach the particular consistency achieved by St. Augustine, nevertheless, we can question ourselves and others concerning the role of consistency in personal development and in daily living. How important is it to be rational and consistent within oneself? How to achieve such consistency? Or can we find rationality outside the framework of personal consistency? Can one permit the existence of irrationality in being and living? These and many other questions concerning rationality and irrationality can be raised by philosophical counselors and their clients.

Approaches that don't include irrationality as a possibly meaningful option in living, or as material for philosophical reflection, seem to me to ignore a vital part of the human inner world and the often so absurd reality of life.

[1] Roger Paden (1998) Defining Philosophical Counseling, The International Journal of Applied Philosophy, 12: 1, pp. 1-17.

[2] Ibid. p. 3.

[3] Albert Ellis, The Albert Ellis Reader, eds. Ellis, A. & Blau, S. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1998, pp. 121-123.

[4] Ibid., p. 148.

[5] For a comparison between Achenbach and Rogers see: Shlomit C. Schuster (1996) Philosophical Counseling and Humanistic Therapy, Journal of Psychology and Judaism, 20: 3, pp. 247-259.

[6] Ibid., p. 249.

[7] Grimes proposes a Platonian method for dissolving false conceptions (pathologos) as a mode of therapy and as a mode of philosophical counseling. See Pierre Grimes and Regina L. Uliana, Philosophical Midwifery: A New Paradigm for Understanding Human Problems. Costa Mesa, CA: Hyparxis Press, 1998. For a comprehensive description of Achenbachian philosophical practice see: Shlomit C. Schuster, Philosophy Practice: An Alternative to Counseling and Psychotherapy. Westport, Conn: Praeger, 1999.

[8] See Elliot D. Cohen (1988) "Detecting and Disputing Prejudiced Beliefs Within the Counseling Process" International Journal of Applied Philosophy, 4: 2, pp. 31-36; Elliot D. Cohen (1990) "Logic, Rationality and Counseling" International Journal of Applied Philosophy, 5: 1, pp. 43-49; Elliot D. Cohen, Philosophers at Work, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1998.

[9] Shlomit C. Schuster (1995) "Report on Applying Philosophy in Philosophical Counseling" International Journal of Applied Philosophy, 9: 2, p. 52.; Elliot Cohen (1987) "The Use of Syllogisms in Rational-Emotive Therapy," Journal of Counseling and Development, Vol. 66.; Elliot Cohen (1992) "Syllogizing RET: Applying Formal Logic in Rational-Emotive Therapy," Journal of Rational-Emotive Therapy, Vol. 10, No. 4.; Elliot Cohen (1995) "Philosophical Counseling: A Computer-Assisted, Logic-Based Approach," Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines, Vol. 15, No. 2.

[10] Albert Ellis, op. cit., pp. 331-332.

[11] Ibid., pp. 338, 341.

[12] Richard McKeon, ed. The Basic Works of Aristotle, New York: Random House, 1941, p. 1045.

[13] Albert Ellis, op. cit., p. 341.

[14] Jonathan Lear, Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1998, p. 30.

[15] Donald Davidson, Paradoxes of Irrationality, in Philosophical Essays on Freud, ed. Wollheim, Richard & Hopkins, James, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1982, p. 289.

[16] Ibid., p. 290.

[17] The section on Augustine is based on the second chapter of my Ph.D. thesis: "Philosophical Autobiography: A Commentary on the Practice of Philosophy," Jerusalem, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1997.

[18] Warren Shibles (1998) "Philosophical Counseling, Philosophical Education and Emotion," International Journal of Applied Philosophy, 12: 1, p. 23.

[19] Warren Shibles, "A Critique and Defense of Ellis on Emotions," in Rational Love, Whitewater, Wisc., The Language Press, 1978, pp. 1-17.

[20] Shibles, "Philosophical Counseling, Philosophical Education and Emotion," p. 31.

[21] Augustine, The Confessions, Trans. Watts, W., Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1950.

*. This paper was first presented at the Fifth International Conference on Philosophical Practice, 27-30 July, 1999, Oxford, UK. I would like to thank Professor Warren Shibles and others for their helpful comments during the discussion following its presentation. Likewise I thank Professor Elliot Cohen for adding some comments to it.

Back to the Selected Bibliography

Back to Texts and Documentation