One of the most popular buzzwords of Philosophy nowadays, is the one that Philosophy is or could be a therapy. Without doubt, the idea that philosophy could be a kind of psychological therapy is an old one, but still very live idea. During philosophy’s long lasting history, the idea of therapy is inherent in most of the so-called moral philosophical systems or texts. We find a therapeutic aspect in the philosophy of Socrates, in Plato´s dialogues, in the philosophy of the Stoics, and especially in Epictetus. Later, we find the stoic idea of philosophy as a therapeutic tool in Boethius. In the modern era, we encounter philosophy as therapy eminently in the philosophy of Spinoza. In more recent times, Nietzsche’s psychology reminds to us that philosophical psychology could be a liberating force, and, therefore, a kind of therapy. In a differentiated perspective, Wittgenstein and the philosophers of language tell us another story of philosophy as therapy, but still refer to philosophy as a therapeutic enterprise.
Nowadays, the tradition of philosophy as a therapy is still in our minds, in all its different aspects and formulations. We try to revive the Socratic tradition of the philosophical dialogue as a therapeutic treatment, and I’ m referring, here, to the contemporary philosophical counseling or clinical philosophy. In addition, there is an intense research being made in the fast growing fields of the philosophy of clinical psychology, the philosophy of psychiatry, the philosophy of psychotherapy and the philosophy of psychoanalysis, which means that philosophy has something, if not a lot, to say about the most representative therapeutics of the mind in resent times.
It also goes, of course, the other way round. Every psychologist or psychotherapist or psychiatrist has his or her own philosophy, which means that philosophy cannot but interfere and always be present either in its own merit, as philosophical therapy, either in the merit of having a certain role to play in all psychotherapeutic approaches, no matter their origin. From this point of view, one could be inclined to assume that philosophy’s future will have something to do with the philosophy's old and new psychotherapeutic, so – called, mission.
Nevertheless, I’m not ready to take the therapeutic role of Philosophy as granted. The problem is that we perhaps wait too much from Philosophy. As a matter of fact, this has always been the case with Philosophy as a therapeutic enterprise. The philosophical tradition has definitely presented some of the most charming ideas on the subject, but the fact is that none is competent enough, to make itself an undisputed theory, broadly accepted by those interested in this very aspect of philosophy. There are always, of course, personal preferences, which satisfy the criteria of those who make their choice concerning the one or the other philosophical theory. However, philosophy still hasn’t got the status of a reliable psychotherapeutic enterprise. As a matter of fact, it never did!
In my opinion, this is not surprising at all. Psychotherapy itself, of whatever kind, is proven to be a slippery undertaking. The psychotherapeutic action is concerned with emotions. However, even though we talk a lot about emotions, it is not easy to isolate a certain emotion, even though one refers to his or her own emotions.
Concerning the possibility of a philosophical therapy, we have to consider, at first, that, in any case, the means of philosophy is the philosophical discourse. There could be, perhaps, a certain relevance between philosophy and the emotions, if one should take as granted that the origin of the emotions could be found partially in thought procedures.
Such an idea is to be found in Cicero. According to the ancient Stoics, as well, the origin of emotions, at least partially, is to be found in false ideas, which cause a certain suffering. From this point of view, Philosophy could act as a defender of the soul, and as a counterweight to the ideas which are supposed to be connected to an emotional disturbance. Such a view, of course, is always subject to the objection that no one could tell if there is a definite and undeniable causal connection between some idea and a certain emotion. If that was the case, then the efficacy of the philosophical therapeutic treatment in question would be indisputable. However, this is not the case.
Another theory, which could possibly be posed as continuous to the previous one, would be the stoic concept of Philosophy as preparation. Nevertheless, I don’t see why such a theory could be better and such a philosophical stance more effective. Once more, there couldn’t be any certainty regarding the degree of the efficacy of the intervention of the philosophical ideas acquired in advance, that means before one faces the emotions targeted by the philosophical therapy.
In consequence to those thoughts, I’m wondering if there is any meaning at all in talking about philosophy as a therapy. What is wrong with this idea, as I hope I have already made clear, is to think of philosophy as psychotherapy and human emotions as insanity. Philosophy as a therapy could not be a matter of a certain philosophical theory or idea being applied to our psychological and emotional turmoil, in order to make it disappear, just like psychologists or psychoanalysts or psychotherapists tend to do in their own merit. Of course, this is something philosophical counselors do as well.
If I had to think philosophy as a therapy, I would have seen it as a procedure of thinking intended to deal with another procedure of thinking, not necessarily related to any emotion at all. Since philosophy is a certain act of thinking, it could perhaps be referred to as a therapy of thought. The question, here, should be the following: from what point of view our thinking needs a therapy?
Philosophy itself is a matter of thinking with philosophical notions. This is an ability which is inherited throughout the history of Philosophy. So, if philosophy is to be thought as a kind of therapy, it is because thinking with philosophical notions is a way to deal with our own thoughts, even the philosophical ones. This philosophical action is a kind of liberation. Nevertheless, this procedure of philosophical thinking has nothing to do with an ad hoc dealing with our emotions or passions. It is a matter of constant training in philosophical theorizing.
As a matter of fact, this is what the ancient philosophical tradition really dictates. That was the philosophical study itself, as it was conducted in the philosophical schools of Plato and the Stoics, or in the philosophical conduct of Socrates and the Cynics. If philosophy is a kind of therapy, then it is a matter of philosophical study and not a matter of psychotherapeutic healing, which is meant to be derived from the use of the so-called correct and effective philosophical ideas.
This is a misunderstanding, I think, which is due, mainly, to the confusion of the ancient with the contemporary idea of the healing of the soul. The philosophers of the antiquity philosophized not with the intention to treat their souls but with the intention to train their minds. From this point of view, every philosophical text is a narrative of the philosopher’s decision to deal with his own thought.
The case of Descartes is a representative one. Descartes followed the narrative of his thought, finding the way out of the main lines of his life. As a matter of fact, he got rid of his dominating thoughts, which, nevertheless, were not profiting at all, and replaced them with fruitful ones. This is the story that is being told in the Discourse on the Method. Therefore, it makes little sense to talk about the psychotherapeutic efficacy of a philosophical theory or idea. If someone is to be profited by the philosophical tradition, a readiness on his part is definitely needed, in order to be able to follow the philosophers in their concrete steps, word by word, towards the liberation from their own thoughts.