Philosophy as Therapy

23 October 2014


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.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Comments (10)'s picture

Thursday, October 23, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Are you familiar with 'Plato,

Are you familiar with 'Plato, Not Prozac: Applying Eternal Wisdom to Everyday Problems" by Lou Marinoff? 
Looked him up (Googled him I should say) and I see he is still at it. You can arrange a counseling session with him via Skype!

Guest's picture


Thursday, October 23, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Our Roving Philosophical

Our Roving Philosophical Reporter spoke to Lou Marinoff as part of her piece for this episode!

N. Bogdanov's picture

N. Bogdanov

Friday, October 24, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

John, I?m really looking

John, I?m really looking forward to hearing this show on Sunday! Before it goes out though, I want to put down some thoughts based on your above post. The first thing that comes to mind when I hear ?philosophy? and ?therapy? is a phrase that I?ve started using more and more frequently: I?m fairly certain that the instance of mental health issues among philosophy majors is higher than amongst most other majors. I can speak from my own experience only, of course, but from this experience as well as from conversation with fellow philosophy majors, philosophy seems to play some causal role in mental illness, whether that be creating problems where they didn?t exist, or in pushing predispositions into actual manifestations. (Where philosophy is understood both as a method and as something that can influence our approach to life at the most fundamental level.)
There are two ways in which I see this happening, corresponding to the above understandings of philosophy. The first is that philosophy, as a discipline, requires the extended and rigorous use and development of one?s reasoning abilities. Arguably disciplines such as math and physics do so as well, but I think the rigor in philosophy is particularly relevant because it operates exclusively through language, and not (generally) through mathematics. Soon enough, it seems like thinking philosophically creeps out of the classroom and into other aspects of one?s life. But to think deeply about everything is not only exhausting, it also leads to stress and mental health issues.
Second, as you point out above, philosophy has the power to alter one?s beliefs, to guide one to an ultimate truth, if such a truth exists. But for many of us, to arrive at truth is to eschew those false beliefs upon which most others and we generally operate. ?Ignorance is bliss,? as they say, is particularly apt at describing this situation. And if philosophy is to inform more than just our understanding of the society in which we live?if it is to inform our view of how the world is organized?it has the power to shatter more than just our beliefs. I?m thinking specifically here about how it can inform our view of the meaning of life. What if everything is meaningless? Why go on? Tim Ruggiero captures this sentiment particularly well in his Philosophy and Depression.
But for those struggling from an existential depression, perhaps it is the philosopher-therapist alone who can succeed in meaningfully conversing with them?
Looking forward to hearing more soon!'s picture

Friday, October 24, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Wow! Can't wait to hear this

Wow! Can't wait to hear this one!

Guest's picture


Sunday, October 26, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

There was an interesting

During the broadcast there was an interesting email from Jo that we didn't have time to get to on the air:
"It seems that many Americans are currently using Buddhist and Daoist philosophies in a therapeutic way. The core ideas--that suffering is inevitable in life, and that our attachment to our stories of who we are simply increases suffering in the world--are in some ways directly opposed to the Western therapeutic tradition, yet are clearly attractive to many."

Or's picture


Wednesday, October 29, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

A belief and its relationship

A belief and its relationship to a therapeutic outcome cannot ever be at the same level as philosophy. Beliefs, whether rational (based on previous experiences) or irrational (no evidence sustaining that belief), don?t challenge your mind to think beyond the belief itself, as philosophy does, and encourage that one stick to the commonality of the situation that encounters that belief. This therefore maintains that belief is per se the activity that actually reduces the anxiety, fear, and other such feelings because it comes to be the known situation. Philosophy would disrupt that. 

MJA's picture


Thursday, October 30, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

You can learn a lot from the

You can learn a lot from the old Greeks, but not everything.
It was the search for truth that led me to philosophy that helped me immensely along the Way. From Democritus and Plato's cave, and Socrates' questions, to Descartes and the search for I. Who am I? which led me to the great Eastern Masters and the Oneness of All. From there I headed to physics where Einstein taught me simplicity and his search for unification, and Heisenberg, about the uncertainty of measure. Ye must have faith in science too, don't you know? Speaking of faith I tried religion and found their roof was in need of repair, so I turned over their money tables and went on to mathematics instead. And there it was, the equation much more simple than thought... Seneca taught me about Fortune and Marcus even more. Then Jefferson, Lincoln, and Franklin came along with freedom and equality, thank you so much Mr. Gandhi and Reverend King. It was Michelangelo that lead me to the river where the truth was there to see, and then on to Stanford and Berkeley, education, where some beautiful fallen leaves gave me the proof is All I need.
Thanks philosophy and every One else, you were good therapy for me,  =

Guest's picture


Thursday, October 30, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

I think that definitely

I think that definitely philosophy can be a therapy.  The word therapy is what's in question, really.  The research that lead to therapists is in a realm somewhat outside of and based on philosophy, and we know that psychology and it's advances does tie into problems of neuroscience and the medical field. 
If your mind were to be changed, I would have to wonder if philosophy might have to align itself with the progresses of it's own progress.  It may be crucial in life areas like bipolar illness and depression, in autism; and maybe it would be preliminary work for a psychologist, and maybe to a psychologist, philosophy does very little.  I would think that a very narrow expression (an irrational fear or triumph for a singular event, and the reasons behind it, or some other narrow range of expression, identification...) would lead one to assume the progress one psychologist could make is incredible and can span outside of problems. 
I bet there's an open market for philosophers to encourage a specified outcome.  I would think that placebos would be an amazing, profitable, and rewarding aspect of development lead by philosophers.  Guiding attentions. 

adham's picture


Friday, June 26, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

hello i wanted to know how

hello i wanted to know how can i get what i want? i seem to be a failure at this point even tho i have been successful in the recent time but still it isnt enough for me i want more i feel constrained by god i need to know how can i fight god :(

Berangaria Martineau's picture

Berangaria Martineau

Sunday, December 16, 2018 -- 10:36 PM

Philosophy as a therapy has

Philosophy as a therapy has helped many people that are going through depression, anxiety or stress. People going through depression does not necessarily need medications, also it is not good for health. One of my friend was in depression from a long time and the treatment he was taking was not effective at all. There are many practical and different ways for everyone to deal with depression. One can also consult to some Professional like Voyante Sérieuse ( ) for help, like my friend did. This helped him a lot.