Thursday, March 25, 2004

Philosophical sidenotes: Zeno, not Zoloft?

There was a piece in this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine about Lou Marinoff and his American Philosophical Practitioners Association, which discusses the phenomenon of 'philosophical counseling.' Having not cracked open the magazine (it was waiting quietly to hit the recycling pile), I probably would have missed it if my neighbor over at greenideas hadn’t brought it to my attention.

I’m glad he did. I have to confess to owning a copy of Marinoff’s book, Plato, Not Prozac!. What’s more, as the struggling possessor of a philosophy Ph.D. myself, I had to admire Marinoff’s entrepreneurial chutzpah. Who wouldn’t want to parlay all that hard work going through grad school into something, well, profitable?

Unfortunately, I have serious doubts about the good doctor’s approach to philosophical therapy and his dubious, foolhardy and possibly even dangerous positioning contra mainstream psychology and psychopharmacology. (The whole book, from the inflammatory title on down seems like one of those harebrained schemes cooked up by some publisher to sell books. I guess it works. I bought it, after all.)

What’s missing from Marinoff’s approach is some well-reasoned foundation upon which to build a therapeutic model. Now, for some philosophers I suppose “foundation” is a dirty word, but certainly every successful therapy has one. For example, where would we be in the medical world today without the germ theory of disease?

Marinoff instead advocates just picking willy-nilly from the history of philosophy those nuggets of wisdom that will supposedly help someone through hard times here and now. He seems oblivious to the fact that many of those nuggets are mutually antagonistic to one another. Different philosophers and different schools of philosophy have radically different ideas about the meaning of life, the good life, what counts for happiness, well-being, success, the ethical and so on. Marinoff just trivializes all of these vital arguments.

I’m still drawn to this whole idea of philosophical counseling, though. But I would start out with a theory of health, of pathology and of the good life on which to base any advice I might give someone. Just about anyone can hang out a shingle and propose to coach or advise or counsel, but I don’t think I would want to be so rash as to claim to be an alternative to medicine, social work or psychology. Marinoff’s chutzpah goes just a little too far.

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