Philosophy, Therapy and the Search for Meaning

The rise of philosophical therapy

The number of people accessing psychotherapy is on the rise. While most therapy focuses on emotional well-being, for many people philosophical counseling may lead to better outcomes by putting meaning-seeking and meaning-making at its core, writes Katerina Apostolides. 


Philosophical counseling is an emerging field of counseling whose origin differs both from traditional forms of psychotherapy and from life coaching, although it may overlap to a certain extent with these. Philosophical counselors are trained in the practice of philosophy and their mission is to spread this practice to people who are interested in learning it and applying it to their own lives. Although philosophical counseling is an emerging field of counseling, its roots are ancient as it is inspired at least partly by the example of philosophy as a way of life that was developed in ancient Greece.

It could be said that the guiding view of philosophical counseling is that each individual life is, above all, a journey of meaning-seeking and meaning-making. It proposes to create a space in which an individual can become more aware of the inward journey they are on and empowered to take steps forward in it. The everyday experiences of most people are saturated with questions about good or bad or right or wrong which, while unanswered, can imbue the experiences with a sense of angst, guilt or uncertainty. However, the sense of angst, guilt or uncertainty is not in itself necessarily the problem; from a philosophical perspective it may be preferable to experience uncertainty than false certainty, and it may be preferable to experience angst or guilt than to dissolve these through an effective pharmaceutical. Philosophical counseling attempts to exhume our persistent, unanswered questions from the inarticulate, dark place in which they normally lie hidden, to make them clear and articulate, and thus open us to the possibility of finding answers to them.

Of course, philosophical counseling cannot guarantee that a person will arrive at complete certainty in whatever answers they come to. Nor do all philosophical counselors agree in the answers they have found. However, what philosophical counseling can perhaps promise is that an individual’s decisions will, in general, be more likely to be wise and good if they emerge from a process of sustained and open-ended inquiry. Moreover, it can promise that each individual will in some way realize their human possibility better through engaging in this kind of process.

It may be asked how philosophical counseling differs from psychotherapy or life coaching, since among Westerners in particular these are nowadays seen as default approaches to addressing negative feelings and perceptions about oneself and one’s life. Quite briefly, it may be said that philosophical counseling is centrally concerned with the search for meaning, and views both emotional wellness and forms of worldly advancement as taking second place. To put emotional well-being or forms of worldly advancement first is to put the cart before the horse and may even compromise the search for meaning and truth. One who privileges simple emotional well-being risks devolving into a mindless and shallow seeker of instant gratification. As Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist who tried to introduce “logotherapy” (or “healing through meaning”) into the field of psychotherapy, argued: “happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.” Frankl wrote his 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning in the wake of his own harrowing experience of internment in two Nazi concentration camps, where he witnessed the moral degeneration many of his fellow inmates suffered. He and other writers with similar experiences, such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, showed that the commitment to a deeper sense of meaning not only guards better against the decline into a shallow, hedonic existence, but also provides more resilience when enduring life’s greatest hardships than the single-minded focus on emotional well-being could.


The field of philosophical counseling aims not only to restore individuals to the path of philosophy, but simultaneously and by the same token to restore philosophy from being (as it is predominantly today) an academic subject-area, to being what it was in ancient times: a way of living


With respect to the achievement of worldly goals, with which life coaching tends more often to be concerned, the philosophical perspective would perhaps applaud the aspiration to exercise one’s abilities and contribute things of value to the world, but simultaneously caution against viewing the achievement of any external outcome as paramount. Its standpoint is captured by Victor Frankl’s fundamental insight while in a concentration camp that the meaning of life cannot depend on whether one succeeds in getting out of the concentration camp – “for a life whose meaning depends on such a happenstance – as whether one escapes or not – ultimately would not be worth living at all”. In other words, true meaning must ultimately consist not in something external but in something internal. While life coaching can be empowering to people, the books popular in the field (e.g. Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace D. Wattles, or the classic How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, to take a small sampling) testify to the materialism it can tend towards without an undergirding emphasis on the intrinsic value of thought and action.

Returning briefly to the case of psychotherapy, one can acknowledge that here, too, the field has offered many things of value to people; indeed, where would we be without those nifty terms like unconscious, taboo, superego, ego, id, trauma, fetish, Oedipal complex, Napoleonic complex, OCD, co-dependent, empath, autism, and so on! Yet it has evident shortcomings as a method for moving forward in the journey of finding meaning. From a philosophical perspective, the best way to help a person is to restore them to an original sense of unity, by which they can integrate the different parts of themselves. Perhaps an extreme case of someone lacking integration (as we have been on the subject of Nazi war crimes) is that of Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief organizers of the Holocaust, who revealed when he was brought to trial in 1961 in the nascent state of Israel that he on the one hand did not have anything against Jewish people, but on the other hand felt no guilt at all about the genocide he had organized, as it was simply “his job,” leading political thinker Hannah Arendt to claim that evil had proven to be banal, as it arose from mere thoughtlessness about who one is and what one is doing. This may be an extreme example, but most of us suffer from some degree of thoughtlessness about our roles and actions in the world, and compartmentalize competing versions of who we are (e.g. the creed we hold to vs. what we in fact practice) according to the different contexts we find ourselves in.

Philosophy’s power to integrate us lies in its flexibility to inquire into any area of relevance to us. In fact, philosophy is said to be the mother of all sciences because it precedes the compartmentalization of sciences into different fields. Psychotherapy, which originally presented itself (qua psychoanalysis) as a science of human consciousness, is already compartmentalized by comparison with philosophy; this is why the subject of ethics is mostly untouched by it. As a result, psychotherapy tends to create a space in which the discussion of harm or mistreatment suffered is separated off from considered discussion of personal responsibility in one’s life. But to separate these areas of discussion off from each other is to erode the capacity for integration or unity in a person. It also means that one of the most basic questions of philosophy, which inspired Plato’s Republic, i.e. “Is it worse for a person to suffer injustice or to commit injustice?” will unlikely be raised. However, it is just possible that finding the answer to this last question would be the most personally empowering thing of all.

In the field of philosophical counseling, it is thought not only that discussion about mistreatment suffered should not be split off from discussion of personal responsibility in life, but also that discussion about subjective experience should not be split off from discussion about the nature of reality. In each case, to separate the former from the latter creates a kind of “safe space” that is unlikely to be fully nourishing or empowering to a person. More empowering is to hold one’s self to a standard of truth or universality, and to be able to ask such questions as “How do I understand the world and my place in it?” Through uniting inquiry about the self with inquiry about the world, a person is better enabled to achieve integration and unity on the personal level.


To put emotional well-being or forms of worldly advancement first is to put the cart before the horse and may even compromise the search for meaning and truth.


Stylistically, the practice of philosophical counseling is characterized by the fact that discussions in sessions are especially active and focused. Through a process called dialectical reasoning – that is, exchange between individuals of equal status in the spirit of examining beliefs and seeking clarity or truth – the “counselor” (who is essentially another seeker) helps a counselee to pose and pursue answers to questions in order to resolve the dilemmas and inner conflicts they may be facing. In this way, any crisis a person is going through can be turned into what it ought to be (and what the word krisis, that is, “judgment” in Greek, might suggest): an opportunity for examining, deepening and purifying the self.

Finally, the field of philosophical counseling aims not only to restore individuals to the path of philosophy, but simultaneously and by the same token to restore philosophy from being (as it is predominantly today) an academic subject-area to being what it was in ancient times: a way of living. Philosophy was meant to be practiced in the agora (or “marketplace”), where people were deliberating on everyday decisions, rather than to be restricted to a realm where well-read and jargon-proficient scholars alone could engage in it. Philosophy, as the mother of all disciplines, ought to be spoken in ordinary language by ordinary people.

The famous Socratic dictum «Ὁ δ' ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ», typically translated as “The unexamined life is not worth living,” but perhaps more accurately translated as “The unexamined life is unlivable to a human being,” expresses rather simply the purpose of philosophical counseling: to make human life livable by illuminating the journey of meaning-making and meaning-seeking that it constitutes for each person.

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