Foundations for Philosophical Practice

2018-09-24

Recently I've revisited a field that's intrigued me for some time: philosophical counselling, or more broadly philosophical practice. Most of those active in this field are almost anti-method, and what methods they do employ are derived from hermeneutics, phenomenology, existentialism, Stoicism, and Socratic questioning - some of which I find interesting but none of which I find deeply congenial. Philosophical practice emerged in Europe around 1980 among thinkers influenced by hermeneutics and existentialism, and even the American philosophers in this area are mostly existentialists (associated with the American Philosophical Practitioners Association) or Stoics (associated with the National Philosophical Counseling Association) - for instance, Elliot Cohen, the progenitor of logic-based therapy, was a disciple of Albert Ellis (inventor of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy). By contrast, my philosophical orientation is toward eudaimonia (the ancient Greek term for happiness, flourishing, living well) and the focus of my writing and living is on solving problems that hinder the pursuit of happiness. Upon reflection, I'm starting to see the possibility of developing a more joyous approach to philosophical practice that takes its inspiration from positive thinkers - especially the six I'm writing books about: Rand, Nietzsche, Aristotle, Thoreau, Epicurus, and Lao Tzu.

Thus while I read deeply in Aristotle for my forthcoming book Complete Yourself, I'm pondering how to apply a more Aristotelian methodology to philosophical practice. In many of Aristotle's books, he starts with what he calls aporia - perplexity, getting stuck, reaching an impasse. Plato's early Socratic dialogues all end in aporia but never "break on through to the other side" of solving the problem. Aristotle goes beyond Socrates using a methodology of asking questions, describing prior opinions and theories, analyzing alternative explanations, and synthesizing his findings. Perhaps a similar methodology can be applied to solving the problems of life, too. Consider the following cycle:

  1. You hit an aporia, feel perplexity, get stuck, reach an impasse - this is what drives you to seek counsel in the first place (whether your own or that of a wise person).
  2. You and your counselor formulate the right questions - i.e., questions the answers to which might enable you to break through the impasse.
  3. You gather information (which includes evidence from your own experience) and come to understand philosophical theories that could help answer the questions.
  4. You sift through and analyze the information and theories to draw distinctions, eliminate paradoxes, harmonize accounts, find explanations, and gain insight.
  5. You synthesize what you have learned in the form of a new or modified worldview that is more true to your experience, nature, and goals.
  6. You use this worldview to inform your plans and guide your practice of life in ways that lead to greater eudaimonia.

Eventually you might reach another impasse, sending you back to the first step (however, if you've been guided through the process before, this time you might be able to serve as your own counselor instead of working with someone else).

This is the merest sketch of a method that might serve as an Aristotelian foundation for philosophical practice. Naturally I need to think about it, research it, and try it out before I consider it valid. But I feel it has some promise.

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