The concept of philosophy as therapy goes back as far as Socrates, whose maxim “the unexamined life is not worth living” threw down the gauntlet for philosophy from that time forward. Descartes and Spinoza seem to have benefited from this approach to philosophy, while Wittgenstein and Nietzsche seemed to have been dragged into a psychological abyss by it. The search for meaning is at least as old as the availability of leisure time; that is to say, once the free time became available, we started wondering what it was for. When our life is spent avoiding the pain of starvation or of being eaten by predators, the meaning of life is more or less obvious. Once we no longer had to worry about such things on a day-to-day basis, we began the philosophic quest.
Bernstein writes of the “Cartesian anxiety,” the subject/object dichotomy which, he believes, underlies most of Western Philosophy. If Bernstein is right, then we can attribute most of Western Philosophy to what Wittgenstein calls a “language-game.” Descartes answered the question “Do I exist?” by positing “I think, therefore I am.” Since the sentence says “I think” Descartes concludes that there must be an “I” that is doing the thinking. One may wonder what his conclusion would have been if he had written in, for example, Hopi, where the distinction between nouns and verbs is not as clear. This kind of verbal chicanery in philosophy continues to this day.
The question of personal existence has many forms: is there a soul? Is there life after death? What is consciousness? All of these questions are based on the error of reification; we take our stream of experience, mentally weave a continuous thread through it, and call this thread “I.” This explains the psychological and sociological emphasis that we put on being consistent. If one begins to act in an inconsistent manner, one starts to question the existence of the “I” which is acting. This lack of existence of the personal “I” is like a dirty secret that we all share; tacitly we suspect it, but no one wants to talk about it.
Does science have the answer? Modern society has come to equate what is scientific with what is true; and thus the quest for the essence of science is really the quest for Truth, and those of us with too much free time on our hands think that this is our main function in life. The approach used in the philosophy of science is sort of a combination Socratic method and Occam’s razor: we take a position, analyze the position, and dismiss the position. We are guaranteed to be able to dismiss any position taken because every philosophic position is inherently self-referential; we are therefore free to “take it or leave it.” Once reduced to its fundamental issues, any argument turns into a form of “yes it is – no it isn’t” and we are left not knowing anything.
This is not to say that the task is pointless. Drawing from Gadamer, Bernstein tells us that the value is in the playing of the game itself. If one enters the philosophic world in search of answers, one will be sorely disappointed. What philosophy teaches us is to get better and better at asking the right questions; to see the depth of an issue; and to enjoy the dialog (dare I say dialectic?). This is how we grow.
But in a dialog, one has to play the game by certain rules. This word is a red flag for some people; they will immediately begin to shout about free speech, “I have a right to my opinion”, and begin circling the wagons. But rules define the boundaries within which we can play – something is lost in a game of charades if one of the players starts lopping other players’ heads off. Similarly, there are rules of fair play in such areas as courting, chess, and philosophic argument. This is why current political discourse is so aggravating; the sneering and snide side-bar commentary breaks the rules of serious-minded philosophic discourse. At its worst, it becomes political maneuvering, pandering to our basic instinct to turn on someone who is being belittled, least we ourselves be belittled. This kind of attitude has no place in serious inquiry, and this current style of “discourse” masks anything of interest people might have to say.
But not everyone is suited to playing every game, and the philosophy game is no exception. Take for example, the kind of dialog described by Gadamer: “When one enters into dialogue with another person and then is carried along further by the dialogue, it is no longer the will of the individual person, holding itself back or exposing itself, that is determinative. Rather, the law of the subject matter is at issue in the dialogue and elicits statement and counter-statement and in the end plays them into each other.” Many people consider this kind of conversation to be an example of Nietzsche’s will to power, making domination the goal of the conversation. I believe that some people actually do enter into conversations for this reason; unfortunately, they ruin the experience for the rest of us.
But, then, what is the point of the dialog? If you ask a Zen master what is the point of meditation, he will probably tell you that the point of meditation is to meditate – if he doesn’t hit you with a stick instead. Similarly, the point of philosophy is in the doing. If one is looking for answers, one needs to pursue religion instead. Religion holds answers for the anxious. Not everyone can accept the answers given by religion, nor do I claim that all or any one religion holds valid answers for these anxieties. But if one is looking for answers, philosophy is not the road to travel.
The “furniture of the world”
As mentioned, it seems to me that all forms of anxiety really boil down to the one anxiety: everyone wants to know if, and in what manner, they exist. Anxiety over finding the “furniture of the world” is a variation of the question “What am I constituted of?” Anxiety over finding a justification for science is a variation of the question “If I can’t count on science for the answers, what am I to rely on?” I have already mentioned that anxiety over being consistent is tantamount to questioning one’s very existence.
Is philosophy therapy? One must be very careful when bandying around the word “therapy.” Like chess, philosophy may indeed be therapeutic for the existentially bored; but philosophy has the potential to aggravate deep psychological wounds and thus one must be careful in its use. For example, discussing Sartre’s concept of meaninglessness to a person considering suicide is unconscionable; this “if the truth will kill them, let them die” attitude is a leftover vestige of the Protestant ethic which we would be better off discarding. We must be careful in the use of “therapy” as a metaphor, lest we start to confuse the search for Truth with actually helping someone. This brings us to the concept of phronesis.
Is philosophy therapy?
Phronesis, or practical wisdom, is central to Bernstein’s and (purportedly) Gadamer’s program. It is phronesis that would enable us to know that a discussion of Sartre is unlikely to help in talking someone off of a ledge. It is phronesis that tells us that, despite the fact that I’d rather be reading Wittgenstein, I must instead finish grading papers. Phronesis tells us that, although we should continue asking ultimate questions, it’s a good idea to get something done today. We can use phronesis to decide to chance getting in an airplane to go on a business trip, even though we question whether there is a justification for the scientific method. In short, phronesis helps us to know when an answer is good enough and therefore get on with living.
Moses continued, “Then the LORD said to us, ‘Get moving.'”
Deuteronomy 2:13 (New Living Translation)