Editorial Note

Tudor B. Munteanu is an independent scholar of philosophy who works in the computer industry and will soon graduate in Computer Science from the Polytechnic University of New York.

I am informed that Lou Marinoff "is actively pushing for the introduction of a bill to authorize NY State certification (licensing) of 'philosophical counseling'!" So "philosophical counselors" join the crowd of others wanting a "monopoly of commerce" granted by the state.

Mr. Munteanu recommends the ceiling medallion representing Philosophy from Raphael's Stanza della Segnatura.

Plato not Prozac! Applying Philosophy to Everyday Problems

by Lou Marinoff, Ph.D., HarperCollins Publishers, 1999

Reviewed by Tudor B. Munteanu

Some pieces... are simply incompetent; for quality control is spotty in the burgeoning philosophical press -- Willard Quine, as quoted by Lou Marinoff [page 78]

From the outset, this book represents a dubious trivialization of philosophy under the guise of "Philosophical Practice." Pretending to draw from such great philosophers as Socrates, Lou Marinoff tries to legitimize what he calls "Philosophical Counseling." This bears an uncanny resemblance to the sophist movement that Socrates, Plato and Aristotle despised so much:  "philosophical counselors" have a paying clientele to whom they provide "wisdom" using a pragmatic, casuistical method that would presumably lead to enlightenment through the strange combination of tolerance, coherentism and an assortment of prêt à porter worldviews.

Thus, philosophy becomes merely useful:  the overall presumption seems to be that it can help almost anyone lead a happy and fulfilled life by managing everyday problems and dilemmas of many types. This businesslike variant of eudaemonism (Marinoff does not mention the term) is suspect, and quite far from Socrates, who aimed much higher.

In the first chapters, Lou Marinoff, the president of the APPA (American Philosophical Practicioners Association) tries to provide the groundwork by mercilessly attacking, for good reason, the dominating establishment of psychiatric therapy and counseling -- its premises, views and accomplishments. He rightly believes that this pseudo-scientific occupation has no reasonable credibility left for anyone, not even its self-serving practitioners who have become so influential in our society.

After pointing out the practical failure and dangerous framework of this type of counseling, Marinoff retains its form and supplies it with a new content, readily drawn from philosophy. One needs to take a step back and ask:  is this really warranted? Should we accept the substitute called "philosophical counseling," if we never really needed the psychiatric flavor? What happened to academic education, to disinterested teaching and applied research followed by rigorous thinking and public debate? Marinoff thinks that philosophy as an academic discipline became distant and inconsequential, but we are still left with these important questions:  is it the fate of academic philosophy or just an unfortunate, reversible accident? If contemporary American education happens to be "ethically impoverished and morally bankrupt," then are counselors meant to supplement teachers? What about the incompatibility between counselors' client-oriented principles and philosophy's academic standards? (This is one of the reasons Plato founded the Academy in the first place).

Lou Marinoff painstakingly tries to bridge the gap between philosophy and psychology so he can substitute one variant for another, but philosophical counseling seems to be a false choice that relies on his market-driven opportunism:  Marinoff even thinks that insurance companies should pay for such "philosophical counseling" [page 24]. Philosophers become some sort of preventive health professionals, determined to alleviate suffering. To this "therapy for the sane" [page 11], I still prefer Socrates' ascetic discipline, and true love of wisdom.

In some of the following chapters, Marinoff describes the most important currents and personalities who, in his opinion, have influenced "the philosophical counseling movement," and later he attempts to introduce some of the principles they developed -- which, Marinoff believes, could constitute an useful inventory for counseling. Unfortunately, the most important ideas and the great thinkers themselves are thoroughly and repeatedly misrepresented. Even if there is some disagreement over certain classifications, we cannot possibly consider Plato "the foremost naturalist" [sic! on page 186]. After reading what follows this disturbing statement, it is obvious that Marinoff does not distinguish reality from nature; Plato does -- therefore he is a realist, not a naturalist! It gets worse: "And religions, too are naturalistic, for they attribute Goodness to God, who presumably confers it on us" [page 187]. Even G.E. Moore, characterized by Marinoff as an "important antinaturalist," who formulated the naturalistic fallacy, emphasized that something can be good, although nothing found in nature is Good itself -- but Marinoff again fails to see the distinction (something can be good by participation, that is koinônía, "communion," as Plato would say, and nothing is Good except God Himself, who is supernatural).

In another section [page 65], Marinoff writes: "The eighteenth century rationalists, headed by Immanuel Kant..." Kant considered himself a "transcendental idealist," standing apart from rationalism and empiricism. His detailed criticism of Descartes, Leibniz, Wolff and Baumgarten, or just the simple fact that Kant's Magnum Opus is called Critique of Pure Reason shows clearly that he is not, strictly speaking, a rationalist (strangely enough, no other rationalists are mentioned in that section, called "The Rationalists", not "Rationalism"...).

Marinoff's exposition of Kant's concept of the noumenon will surely raise a few eyebrows [page 65-66]:

...Kant held that things are one certain, particular way but that all we can know are appearances. Whether you're looking at atoms, rocks, relationships, or societies, you can observe things in many ways. For example, look out your window at a tree. Now do the same in the middle of the night. Try it on a rainy day. Then use an infrared device to look at it. Imagine what it looks like to a bat, an elephant, or to someone who is color-blind. What does the tree really look like? One of these ways? None of these ways? Kant would argue for the sum of all possible ways plus all unperceivable ways as being the noumenal way.

Marinoff uses the word "way" in an equivocal manner, which betrays his confusion over the noumenon, which is not a way of "really look"-ing (appearing), but a mode of being. That's why, after Kant, the noumenon cannot be known by us, because existence is "in itself," while our cognition is strictly synthetic, a synthesis of intuitions (sensations) and the categorial forms of the understanding. Therefore, the presupposed thing in itself cannot be an aggregation of perceptions and "all unperceivable ways", whatever Marinoff means by that; the noumenon is used by Kant in a hypothetical and scrupulously negative manner. The consequences Marinoff draws from his interpretation of Kant are predictably wrong.

On the same page, where he also mentions Kant's deontology, Marinoff conflates teleology and consequentialism -- he makes this confusion again later, on page 192, where, more specifically, teleology is identified with philosophical utilitarianism. This is impossible to accept unless, for example, one confuses the good with the useful! Teleology is a theory of ideal final causes and values which cannot be reduced to their outcomes. Even in Marinoff's context all these are important theories which have a strong impact on the result of any philosophical undertaking, and one has to ask what can be the result of any investigation if the most basic characterizations are so hopelessly confused.

This book contains a lot of sloppy writing (or editing?) and too many matter-of-fact statements which are plainly wrong. I was quite surprised to read, on page 183:

In the Republic, Plato posits a dialogue in which Socrates asks him to define the Good 'Is it knowledge, or pleasure, or something else?' He'd already pinned down several virtues, including temperance and justice, but faced with this challenge, Socrates replies, 'I am afraid it is beyond my powers'

Plato is not a character in the Republic, but even if the reader was not aware of this, it is not clear at all who asks whom; the quote above would make sense if "asks him" was replaced by "is asked."

Marinoff also seems convinced that the only source for Socrates and his philosophy is Plato, when even a superficial search could turn up references from Diogenes Laertios or Xenophon, Libanius, if not Aristophanes or even Aristotle. Of course, not all these sources are as reliable as Plato, whose philosophical and literary genius gave us the opportunity to understand such a unique intellectual and moral personality as his teacher.

In all fairness, I have to mention that there is more to "Philosophical Practice" than counseling. Marinoff also describes various forms of "group practice," such as "Philosophical Cafes," Philosophical Forums" and "Socratic Dialogues." The latter presents us with issues that have to be analyzed very carefully.

Marinoff misunderstands the Socratic Method and what he emphatically calls "Nelson's Socratic Dialogue." Leonard Nelson sees Kant's critical philosophy and her Friesian heir as the fulfillment of the Socratic inquiry in a rigorous, scientific method which relies on a series of empirical judgments followed by a corresponding operation that consists in an abstract, logical regressive analysis (of the "quid facti" of reason) and a psychological deduction (of the "quid juris" of conscious thinking) -- and finally, the subsequent verification. Contrasting the so-called "Socratic Dialogue," which he attributes to Nelson, with Socrates' negative elenchus, Marinoff states:

Note that it reveals only what something isn't, not what it is. At the end of the day, this method will reveal any number of unserviceable definitions of justice (or whatever's on the table) but not one serviceable one. By contrast, Socratic Dialogue aims directly at what a thing is" [page 262]

also [on page 284]:

When properly applied, Nelsonian Socratic Dialogue provides definitive answers to such universal questions as 'What is liberty?' 'What is integrity?' and 'What is love?'

However, revelation is not conceptual. Socrates' elenchus only eliminates what a "universal" is not, in order to make possible the ultimate revelation of forms. This was the purpose of Socrates' philosophical life, which explains his dignified composure, even his eager enthusiasm before dying. Socrates was a sculptor, and the "definitions" were just like his material to be used and wasted, if necessary, for the purpose of preparation, which is learning through anamnesis. Marinoff misses the forest for the trees; to use an analogy, how "serviceable" could be one's "definition" of a uniquely sublime work of art in a circle of friends who have seen it together when they were five years old? It could only prepare them for contemplation when they go to the museum.

In contrast with Marinoff, Nelson is interested in the constitutive principles of philosophical knowledge, which in his view are to be grounded in the pre-conscious immediate knowledge, in the anthropological experience of pure reason which "reaches our consciousness only through reflection"... [Nelson, "The Critical Method and the Relation of Psychology to Philosophy", in Socratic Method and Critical Philosophy, Yale University Press, 1949 p. 153].

We have discovered philosophy to be the sum total of those universal rational truths that become clear only through reflection. To philosophize, then, is simply to isolate these rational truths with our intellect and to express them in general judgments. ["The Socratic Method," translated in Socratic Method and Critical Philosophy, p. 10]

This is the proper justification of what Marinoff thinks are "definitions" (which, as we see, are really judgments, and not just analytical judgments which are properly called definitions -- for these must also be grounded in the synthetic, non-conceptual knowledge that the Socratic Method is searching for; if the result were to be only a definition, then the Socratic Method would have no value for knowledge, and the much-touted dialogue would be akin to socializing). The ultimate purpose of Socratic Method must be, in Nelson's view, grasping the universal ground of the judgment - the overall insight, not the crafting of a particular, robust, "world-class definition" [Marinoff, page 266] that would aim at expressing exactly what "something is." Nelson points out that only the accompanying tacit, non-discursive reason contains the truth that we can bring into awareness, awakened by experience. He believes this can be reached through the Socratic Method only by the careful exercise of our will (in my opinion, this is a very important conclusion), and that it can be objectively guaranteed by criticism in the Kantian sense. Even if Marinoff mentions the "philosophical understanding" that could be taken to mean the result of this insight, he is much too concerned with things and definitions. After all, anyone who is in the business of selling must pretend to offer something that seems tangible...

Another explanation for Lou Marinoff's lapses may be an exclusive reliance on secondary sources. Anyway, after noticing such obvious carelessness that results in numerous misconceptions, it is difficult to take too seriously his poised casuistry, which features the typical "five-step PEACE (Problem, Emotions, Analysis, Contemplation, Equilibrium) process," applied to countless case studies. Marinoff's mannerisms and vulgar comparisons ("the 'Great Leap Forward of Hellenic Culture' " on page 59, or "Philosophical Practice is an ancient idea -- perhaps the world's second oldest profession" -- whose time has come again", page 79, also paraphrased on the back flap by the publisher) don't help practical philosophy, and it really looks like Lou Marinoff is trying very hard to dress down a goddess and sell her to the first buyer.


Home Page

Copyright (c) 1999 Tudor B. Munteanu All Rights Reserved