From Plato and Sextus Empiricus to Wittgenstein, many important thinkers have thought of philosophy as a type of therapy.
A lot of philosophers I know need therapy. I can’t think of too many I know I would want to be my therapist, however. What do philosophers know about therapy? But leave philosophers aside for a minute. How about philosophy itself?
We must grant that people have a lot of irrational beliefs, and that these beliefs can lead to unhappiness of all sorts: anxiety, fear, depression, and the sorts of things for which therapy is needed? So if philosophy can undermine those irrational beliefs, and thereby remove the anxiety, fear, and depression, we have philosophy as therapy. This doesn’t mean every philosopher is suited to be a therapist. But the activity getting rid of irrational beliefs can be therapeutic.
The Stoics thought their philosophy could remove irrational fears and be therapeutic. I knew Admiral Stockdale, the fellow who spent the longest time in a North Vietnamese prison during the Viet Nam War. He was a hero, enduring incredible hardships with courage and aplomb, and organizing and encouraging other prisoners. He credited his courage and resolve to the study of Epictetus’ Enchiridion, which taught him, among other things, the importance of realizing what is in your control and what isn’t, doing your best with the former, and not worrying about the latter. I guess for him Stoicism was therapeutic, lifesaving in fact.
So philosophy can be therapeutic. Certain beliefs about the world and your place in it --- philosophies, if you will --- can, given your situation, exacerbate your anxieties and fears. Other beliefs might have the opposite affect. So those philosophies will be, for you at that time, therapeutic.
But when this occurs, isn’t it just good luck? Philosophy is the love of and search for truth, right? But who is to say that this search will lead you to the helpful beliefs rather than the ones that make things worse? There are lots of unhappy agnnostics who were perfectly happy religious people, until they started doing philosophy and lost their faith. Was philosophy therapy for them?
Philosophy should help make our beliefs more rational. Won’t that be essentially therapeutic? It’s an old idea that it is great to know the truth, for the truth sets you free. And the unexamined life is not worth living, according to Socrates. But I have doubts about that. Are there any good arguments for it? I’ve seen a lot of people with unexamined lives that seemed perfectly fine. And sometimes the truth sets you free to be miserable. Who is to say that illusions can’t do as well or better a lot of the time, when it comes to ridding us of fear and anxiety?
Suppose we grant that, at least for most people most of the time, their fears and anxieties are more likely to be alleviated by understanding their true situation, so philosophy, as a help in discovering that, can be helpful. There is still a big step to the idea that philosophers should hang out shingles as therapists. But that’s happening! There are at least two professional associations now for philosopher therapists. I'm skeptical. It seems to me if these people are doing more good than harm, it’s by accident. But maybe my mind will be changed by discussing things on the program with Ken and our guest David Konstan.