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Move over, Freud

Philosopher-therapists are using their abstract discipline to help people lead more meaningful lives

By Ian Coutts

Who am I? What is right? How should I live my life? Everyone asks these questions at some point or another. Joanna Polley helps her clients answer them.

But Polley is not a psychotherapist, nor does she use the techniques of any particular school of psychology or follow Carl Jung or Sigmund Freud or other giants of psychoanalysis. Instead, Polley’s tools are the writings and ideas of the great thinkers in the eastern and western traditions, stretching back to the ancient Greeks and ultimately to Socrates, whose directive “Know thyself” might make him history’s first therapist.

A philosophical therapist, Polley is part of a small movement of philosophers who are turning their abstract academic discipline into a method of helping people lead happier, better, more effective lives. They perhaps draw inspiration from Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher, who said, “There is no benefit in philosophy if it does not drive out diseases of the soul.”

Superficially, Polley’s work does resemble conventional therapy. She meets with clients in a Toronto office furnished with a sofa and a couple of comfy chairs. “I don’t see a clientele that’s very different from a regular psychotherapist,” she says. “They’re struggling with depression and always anxiety.” They’re experiencing “a general kind of malaise, and they want to work things through.”

Her approach to these issues is where the difference lies. “I don’t focus on childhood. I don’t work on the traditional things a psychotherapist works on. . . . A lot of people who come here have already worked through that stuff.” Her clients face many of the problems we all have, not necessarily because there is “something wrong,” she says, but “because we are human.”

When she meets with clients, she says, “I like to discuss what’s going on, and then I like to step out and look at it from a more philosophical position. What is the point of a human life or a career or a relationship? What is love? What is work?”

After exploring the big picture, she’ll “zoom back in on how can we apply these [questions] in making really concrete changes in their lives.” It’s an approach she characterizes as both “more abstract and more practical” than conventional therapy.

In her work, Polley draws on a range of philosophers, whom she often advises her clients to read as well. Friedrich Nietzsche, she says, is “very good for helping people to see that a lot of what they think is because our culture thinks it. They have never reflected on it or thought about it.” Aristotle is good, too. “He’s the one who really shows us that ethics is about practising ethical acts and becoming the kind of person who does ethical things.” Twentieth-century philosophers such as Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze (the subjects of Polley’s doctorate) are also useful, as are examples taken from literature, including, perhaps improbably, Henry Miller, whose novels were banned in the United States for obscenity. “He encourages people to take risks and to see that life is an ongoing experiment, not in ‘What am I?’ but in ‘Who might I be?’”

On a more fundamental level, philosophical therapy challenges people’s thinking. “I support my clients, and I offer them compassion, but I also tell them when they need to check their inferences,” Polley says. “I tell them, ‘No, your reasoning is faulty.’ People need to be told they’re thinking incorrectly or not carefully enough. Or in a very limited way.”

Some of Polley’s clients seek her out with specific ethical dilemmas — whether to terminate a pregnancy, for example — and stay with her for as little as three sessions. Others work with her for a year or more. The bulk of her clients are women in their 20s. “When I first started this [six years ago], I thought I would get a lot of people in mid-life crisis . . . people who are a little bit older and starting to reflect on their lives and wondering what it’s all about.”

Michael Collister, whose name has been changed, is a client of Polley’s who is in his mid-60s. A retired lawyer, Collister says he had “completed a fairly successful career, if you define success by how society defines success.” But he worried. “I didn’t want to just have the rest of my life evaporate with no purpose.” Over the course of three months, Collister and Polley met regularly. Readings included Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant and Viktor Frankl.

For Collister, the biggest difference between philosophical therapy and conventional therapy is orientation. “Psychoanalysis is all about you,” he says. “That has its place, but there’s this quote from Bertrand Russell that goes basically, ‘Until I looked outside myself, I wasn’t happy.’” (In his book The Conquest of Happiness, Russell writes that his own happiness came “very largely . . . due to a diminishing preoccupation with myself.”) Thanks to his work with Polley and his own reading, Collister has found a new purpose: researching inequality “and how we, as a society, need to think about how we’re organized to address what I think is going to be a very significant problem in the future.”

Contemporary philosophical therapy has roots in early-1980s Europe, where individuals trained in philosophy began working with clients outside university departments. Today, it has a complicated relationship with its institutional counterpart, with some academic philosophers speaking critically about the therapeutic branch of their discipline.

In an article in The Point, Tom Stern, who teaches philosophy at University College London in England, writes that a therapeutic approach to philosophy, taken too far, “finds it difficult to tell you that you are wrong about something. You are told . . . that you are ‘the expert’ about what matters to you, that there’s ‘no intrinsically good or bad thing to do,’ that what matters is the ‘meaning and purpose’ that you put on it. . . . You can be misled, on the wrong path, disoriented, hindered, distracted. But you can never just be wrong.” Ultimately, Stern asserts that “philosophy questions” and “life questions” — the search for truth and the search for fulfilment — aren’t so easily combined.

Mark Kingwell, a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto, admits most graduate students in his department lack interest in anything but academic jobs. They feel, Kingwell says, that “if you don’t achieve that outcome, somehow you’ve failed.” It is also unlikely, he adds, that philosophical therapy “could be taught in the kind of philosophy department that’s currently the mainstream.”

Interestingly, Peter Raabe at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, B.C., does teach what might be called philosophical therapy. But while his course is offered by the philosophy department, it is specifically intended for future mental health-care workers.

Polley is undaunted in her mission to encourage more philosophers to consider offering counselling. Ultimately, she’d like to see the creation of a Canadian professional organization for philosophical therapists. (At present, she and many of her counterparts are certified by the American Philosophical Practitioners Association.) Then, she thinks, they could co-ordinate with the university departments and say to the students, “Here is an option for you.”

It wouldn’t represent a radical new direction so much as a return to philosophy’s roots, to Epictetus and Seneca, so-called Stoics who saw philosophy not as an abstract pastime but a concrete, hands-on tool to help make sense of life and the world.

“The Stoics were the ones who believed in philosophical practice,” says Polley, “and then it sort of got lost.”

Ian Coutts is a writer in Kingston, Ont.

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