Philosophy and Psychotherapy

It is easy to forget that psychotherapy and counselling were once very much the business of philosophers. They also have religious and medical roots, but understanding yourself and how best to live your life was the business of Greek philosophers, such as Socrates, Epicurus and Aristotle. Like many other branches of knowledge, psychotherapy has grown up and become a separate discipline. But some therapists remain closely attached to their
philosophical roots, especially existential psychotherapists.

Philosophy as practiced in many universities in the West and around the world has also narrowed itself, becoming more academic and not much concerned with how people can best live their lives. But this is just one philosophical tradition. What of Indian, Chinese, Japanese and other world philosophical traditions? Have they also become remote from the
concerns of people about how to live?

It was very refreshing to see a new book (2018) “How the World Thinks” by Julian Baggini, introducing western readers to a much wider range of philosophical traditions, and trying to see whether they have anything to teach each other. All philosophical traditions, western included, look back to their founding fathers for key ideas and principles, and in varying
degrees explain and reinterpret their ‘revelations’, in the Indian Vedas, Confucius’s Analects, Buddhist sutras, the Quran, and more. Baggini surveys modern interpretations of these ideas from around the world, and tries to reconcile them: are they talking about the same issues, do they reach similar conclusions? Who is right?

His approach is always polite; he wants to find out what his own western tradition has missed; how different are we in our beliefs? When I discussed the book with a group of people mainly brought up in a western philosophical tradition we were perhaps a little disappointed by his reluctance to say to other philosophers, “You are wrong.” But perhaps that is because, as Baggini suggests, we come from a “truth-seeking” tradition, rather than a “way-seeking” one. We want true beliefs about ourselves and the world (parallel to the western scientific tradition) from philosophy, rather than models of behaviour which will help us to lead better lives. Buddhists, Confucians, Daoists and Hindus are perhaps more interested in what we should think and do to escape from suffering, or karma, and achieve salvation, or unity with nature. Baggini suggests the western tradition has become too narrow.

Baggini’s book is perhaps part of a change in the western philosophical tradition, in which the concern with leading a good life returns to its proper place. Alain de Botton and many others now encourage us to think how our beliefs about ourselves and the world are an essential part of who we are and how we should live. Truth remains vital but so too does ‘the way’, ‘telos’ (our purposes and goals) and practice.

Written by:
Dr. Tim Bunn
Consultant Educational Psychologist

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