Plato Not Prozac

What are the practical applications of philosophy?

Professor Lou Marinoff is a Commonwealth Scholar originally from Canada, Professor and Chair of the Philosophy Department at The City College of New York, and founding President of the American Philosophical Practitioners Association (APPA). He is also Editor of Philosophical Practice: Journal of the APPA. Lou has authored two international bestsellers: Plato Not Prozac, translated into 27 languages since 1999, and Therapy for the Sane, into 12 languages since 2003. Both books apply Asian and Western philosophy to the resolution of everyday problems.

Lou is also a three-time Canadian Open Table Hockey champion.

Beatrice Popescu: Where does your love for counselling stem from? Who was your first inspiration?

Lou Marinoff: My first inspiration was my talkative extended family, most of whom were capable of dispensing advice almost continuously, and on any topic. In such a climate, one must think for oneself, dispense advice in self-defence, and ultimately take one's own counsel.

Beatrice Popescu: From a philosophical practitioner’s standpoint, philosophy needs to be demystified and made available in the service of people for whom it was initially created. Can philosophy (the discipline that discusses anything and attempts to treat any ailment of the soul) become a resource for common people, from the perspective of philosophical counselling?

Lou Marinoff: Yes, and no. I have come to believe that while many people can and do benefit from philosophical counselling, it is not a panacea and may never attract as many people as does psychological counselling. Why? Partly because many people find philosophy difficult, which it certainly can be, and find psychology more accessible, which it often is. For the most part it is fair to say that psychological counsellors work mostly with affect, whereas philosophical counsellors work mostly with reason. Naturally this distinction is not black-and-white, but it is nonetheless conspicuous.

While everyone is prone to emotional turbulence at one time or another, not all are willing or prepared to make cognitive breakthroughs into the imperturbable realms of the Stoics, the Taoists, and the Buddhists, whose philosophical theories and practices conduce to transcending emotional turmoil, and to converting psychic suffering into serendipity. Most people inherit burdensome psychological baggage from their families, and are further deformed by life’s inevitable trials and tribulations. During the 20th century, governments and universities invested heavily in psychology, which developed many schools and modalities for helping people cope with problems of affect. But at the same time, this investment left the masses stranded in their emotions, with nowhere else to turn except to religion or pharmacology. Indeed, one might observe that much of contemporary psychotherapy has itself assumed the status of a secular religion – replete with unexamined premises, unchallengeable dogmas, and institutionalised corruptions.

What we philosophical counsellors have discovered empirically is this: a good many people are both desirous and capable of intellectual maturation, to an extent that leads them beyond psychotherapy and psychopharmacology alike. Just as Freud castigated organised religions for appealing to and prolonging infantilism in adults, so some philosophers have similarly critiqued psychology and pharmacology for maintaining their patients in arrested states of intellectual development, engendering emotional dependencies and preventing people’s “inner philosopher” from emerging.

Moreover, as philosophical practice is now burgeoning in East Asia (i.e. China, Japan, Korea), we see Asian practitioners rejecting Western psychology and pharmacology alike as “Western cultural colonialism”, and resuscitating indigenous Asian philosophical practices in their stead.

So let’s conduct the following thought-experiment: If during the 21st century governments and universities were to invest in philosophical counselling only 10% as much as they invested during the 20th century in psychological counselling, what would be the outcome? Predictably, more and more of the masses would avail themselves of philosophical services. Services need to be developed and marketed in order to be accessed. I believe that the potential market for philosophy is much larger than most people imagine; yet there will always be people who are neither willing nor ready to explore philosophical pathways. In the best of all possible worlds, people would be made aware of their options, and be able to exercise their preferences.

Beatrice Popescu: What prompted you to create your own philosophical scheme, PEACE (Problems, Emotions, Analysis, Contemplation, Equilibrium)?

Lou Marinoff: The blunt truth is that HarperCollins, the American publisher of Plato Not Prozac, insisted that I come up with a “method” and an acronym in order to make philosophical counselling more “user-friendly” for an American readership. “Self-help” books are often formulaic for just this reason. In response, I came up with the “PEACE” process during an inspired long-weekend. While it does not describe the specifics of any particular case, I would say that at least 80% of my cases fit its contours in a general way.

Numerous colleagues have remarked to me that the PEACE Process describes, in a general way, a large majority of their cases, too. At the same time, it regularly fails as a purely “self-help” method, as clients usually get stuck at the contemplative stage, and need a philosopher to help them progress beyond it.

The connotation of the acronym is somewhat ironic, in so far as the well-known “Peace Process” in the Middle East appears to be another name for interminable strife. Then again, I firmly believe that all external conflicts are manifestations of inner conflict. Only those whose inner conflicts are resolved can truly be at peace themselves, and therefore with the world.

Beatrice Popescu: Do you still recall your first experience as a counsellor?

Lou Marinoff: Yes, I recall it vividly. It happened in 1992, at the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Applied Ethics. One morning the Centre received a phone call from a high school principal, who sought a practical resolution to an ethical quandary that was causing him and his community considerable distress. Legal advice had succeeded only in making matters worse, while Prozac (self-evidently) would not have resolved the issue either. I took the call, and helped the principal resolve his dilemma via philosophical means – in one session.

The case was a revelation to me – it illustrated that even in a social democracy like Canada, with universal healthcare and a wide social safety net, people may be suffering from unresolved ethical (among other philosophical) problems, and therefore need access to philosophical counsellors.

Beatrice Popescu: How do you think we can match today’s pressure to be highly specialised in a certain domain with the need of a more intense and “holistic” paradigm? In other words, how can I be a clinical psychologist trained in cognitive-behavioural therapy working with autistic children and still be able to see this problem in a different, more global, context? Aren’t we in a “dangerous” need of always having to change what we have already learned, with the risk of eternally redefining the things we know?

Lou Marinoff: What an important and earnest question! It serves only to deepen my concerns about the Sciences-Humanities divide, and the need to bridge this chasm. Had you, as a student of clinical psychology (nominally a “science”) been exposed to a course in the Philosophy of Science, you might have been introduced to Neurath’s metaphor, which speaks directly to your concern.

Here is a summary.

Thanks largely to the work of the late Sir Karl Popper, we now conceive of scientific endeavour as something that progresses not only by discovering truths via experimental verification of hypotheses, but also (and sometimes more importantly) by experimental falsification of mistakenly-held beliefs. Progress in science often depends on identifying and rejecting mistaken theories and false precepts that previous generations had accepted as true. The history of every single science is rife with examples. This is why we have to keep re-writing the scientific textbooks.

What follows is Neurath’s metaphor: Scientists are like ship-builders whose vessel is already at sea, and thus they lack the possibility of making repairs in a “safe” and “controlled” dry-dock. Sometimes they must find a way to replace planks, bulkheads, keels, rudders, and propellers while afloat in deep or even turbulent waters, an enterprise that you rightly characterise as “dangerous” or “risky”. The alternative – jeopardising the vessel by allowing it to become unseaworthy – is arguably worse. So scientists must be courageous and skilful enough to constantly repair their ships at sea.

If instead they succumb to inflexible or unchallengeable dogmas, they start looking like religionists.
Beatrice Popescu: Stepping in a young counsellor’s shoes, do we still have time, nowadays, to take a walk in the antique gardens and contemplate the meaning and scope of life, while the clients await us at the doorstep? Is it possible to write, think and also to have a daily job, all in the same time?

Lou Marinoff: If the young counsellor in question is a scientist, then indeed she must keep up with her science, and learn to repair her ship at sea. But this in no way precludes (and actually it justifies) her creating space for contemplation. Most of my counselling psychologist colleagues are able to see around five clients per day. If they stretch their caseload to six or seven clients per day (which some of them do toward the end of the week) they become exhausted or even burned out.

Anyone who spends hours at a time being present for others needs to recharge their own batteries – healers also (and sometimes especially) need healing themselves. A wonderful way of achieving this is by strolling through those “antique gardens,” partaking in exquisite philosophical blossoms from Aristotle, Epictetus, Lao Tzu, or Shakyamuni. Or perhaps by engaging with music, painting, dance, or writing. Becoming a complete and fulfilled human being requires so much more than being chained to a desk, even in the service of helping others!

Beatrice Popescu: Is the fight with death becoming a daily confrontation in modern society? Do you feel that the collapse of religious institutions in the secular society makes the fear of death more palpable than ever?

Lou Marinoff: As you may know, philosophers like Hobbes and Spinoza, and later, psychologists like Freud and Riviere, accused dogmatic organised religions of preying upon people’s infantile fears of the unknown, and especially of death. The “flip-side” is that strong religious convictions can indeed help some people assuage such fears (and at the fanatical extreme, provoke them to murder or suicidal murder). Marx was undeniably correct that religious beliefs function like cultural “opiates,” numbing people’s primordial fears with faith and hope.

But since mainstream Judeo-Christian traditions are indeed collapsing, hundreds of millions of Westerners must seek comfort in secular society. This is no mean feat, and difficult to attain without a guiding philosophy.

Beatrice Popescu: Practical philosophy seems to be working mostly for people with a sense of education and culture. What about the persons who don’t understand the paradigm, the simple people who have a narrower understanding of life, how can we touch their souls with philosophy?

Lou Marinoff: If we suppose that philosophy, for the mainstream population, is something of an “acquired taste,” then we will not feel obliged to foist our paradigm wholesale upon the masses. Such restraint will happily distinguish us from religious missionaries and from secular dogmatists.

That said, human virtues and human decency remain part and parcel of a commodious life, and these lie within reach of most people, external conditions permitting. I shall never forget my Russian grandparents, who escaped the horrors of Tsarist pogroms, the Bolshevik revolution, and the ensuing Civil War. They were born and raised in shtetls, and they never read a word of philosophy all their lives. Yet they were courageous, kind, honest, forthright, and hardworking people. One might even venture to say that they did not need philosophy, as their virtues shone brightly without it.

Beatrice Popescu: In Plato not Prozac, you somehow minimise the idea of depression as a brain neurochemistry-induced disorder. Could we take the risk of simply neglecting the idea altogether?

Lou Marinoff: The current pharmacological mantra of “chemical imbalance in the brain” is nothing but a vacuous sales-pitch, used to justify licit drug-dealing on a global scale. The fatuous but unstated background assumption is that brains are “sealed containers” accessible only to pharmacologists, and that consumers are passive and powerless victims of their circumstances and neurochemistry alike. This is a widespread and disempowering swindle.

Consumers need to be reminded that brain-chemistry is affected by a host of factors, including lifestyle choices. Different ways of breathing, eating, working, exercising, recreating, sleeping, thinking, reading, attaining goals, and relating to others all affect our brain chemistry. While indeed there are psychoses and clinical depressions that need to be controlled or diminished by medications, the vast majority of people who depend on mood-enhancing formulations have abdicated their sovereignty over their own mental states. Lasting happiness and enduring joie de vivre are among the outcomes of a healthy philosophy of life, and correspondingly healthy lifestyle.
Beatrice Popescu: In the search of solutions for contemporary man’s problems, it is obvious we cannot rely exclusively on certain “recipes”, pre-packed answers, but more on self-exploration and self-defining efforts, leading to a profound individual construction of the meaning of life. And if the meaning is so intrinsically individual, how is it still possible to communicate to others, how can we still be a “community”? To what extent the individualised meaning of life may be an alienating factor in today’s society?

Lou Marinoff: While it may be perfectly obvious to you that a formulaic “paint-by-numbers” modus vivendi cannot be relied on to solve contemporary human problems, such approaches are in fact exacerbating the problems themselves, rather than solving them.

The individual has been all but obliterated, not only by dehumanising totalitarian governments (political and theocratic alike), but also by the “velvet totalitarianism” of bureaucratic nanny-states, and by the debased technocracies that have colonised education and healthcare. When people encounter nothing but computer-automated telephone queues or indifferent and incompetent bureaucrats on a daily basis, and when every encounter is quantified according to pre-determined data-sets, and when one’s humanity is deemed irrelevant by the system, the meaning of life itself is mocked. We inhabit a Brave New World, in which too many people feel like the last human in a society of robots. Nothing can be more alienating than to have one’s individuality and humanity disregarded.

Beatrice Popescu: Talking of communities, did running a Philosophical Café in New York make you more aware of the problems of humans?  

Lou Marinoff: Yes, running a Café-Philo in New York was a great experience. I did it monthly, at a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Chelsea, for about seven years. It taught me a lot about human problems, and never failed to surprise me. Most importantly, it convinced me of the wholesale need to open up a creative and reflective public space, wherein people can air their views and engage in debate with enthusiasm and without fear. The most rewarding aspect was addressing tough issues openly and honestly, without political correctness and the agenda-driven mainstream media.

Beatrice Popescu: At a recent international conference on philosophical counselling in South Korea you started your presentation on “Well-being in an age of culturally induced illness” with an ironic and iconic outlook on McDonald's dubbed “Hamburger University”. Could you develop the subject a little?

Lou Marinoff: This “Hamburger University” campus, located in the outskirts of Chicago, is none other than a McDonald's think-tank. I tried to audit some of its “courses”, but was denied entry. I was free to wander around the grounds, and at liberty to pay to stay in the hotel that sits on the campus. This hotel serves very healthy food – e.g. salad bars and Mediterranean-style meals – and there is no McDonald’s restaurant (i.e. neither Big Macs nor other fast food) anywhere on the site. So while the mission of “Hamburger University” may well be to help sell another 99 billion Big Macs, its faculty evidently has no intention of consuming such toxic waste themselves. It’s an exercise in flagrant hypocrisy, among other things.

At the same time, obesity is now America’s number one health problem, and the fast-food industry is the problem’s biggest instigator. Moreover, juvenile obesity is becoming widespread in all Westernised nations, precisely because of appalling nutritional habits foisted upon children by this industry. Juvenile obesity is a crime against humanity, perpetrated by fast-food and junk-food manufacturers, whose accomplices are none other than parents, schools, and governments.

Beatrice Popescu: Have you ever been tempted to switch from academia to the corporate world in an engaged and engaging manner, not only as a public speaker on certain events?

Lou Marinoff: I have not yet been tempted to switch, but that’s only because of an absence of sufficiently tempting offers. And any temptation factor would have to be correspondingly strong to impel me to make such a change. One of the most rewarding aspects of academic life is its comparatively generous allotment of time to reflective and creative pursuits. One is paid (albeit modestly) to think, to read, and to write. For a philosopher, that’s a wonderful way to earn one’s keep. The corporate world’s rewards are far richer materially, but at the inevitable cost of time. I would rather have less income and more time to pursue my interests, rather than more income and less time, unless the two could somehow be combined. For many years, IBM had a resident Fellows program, where a few bright people were paid simply to think about matters of interest to them, under IBM’s roof. That kind of investment is bound to pay off sooner or later. So nothing has yet “stopped” me from switching to the private sector, except for the absence, to date, of an offer I couldn’t refuse!


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