Plato not Prozac

A new movement in America uses philosophy instead of Freud as a basis for therapy.

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When Megan, 29, goes to see her therapist, she never has to talk about her mother, lie on a couch or engage in an hour-long dialogue. What she does do is elbow her way past dozens of college students to the cluttered office of Lou Marinoff, a guitar-playing philosophy professor-cum-therapist. “I went to talk to him because I was in a lot of debt. So we talked about the political and economic history of the last 20 years. It was very cool,” she says.

Marinoff is at the forefront of a movement called “philosophical practice” — philosophy professors setting up shop as therapists. A professor at City College of New York, Marinoff has been in practice since 1991 and recently published “Plato Not Prozac!” (HarperCollins). He is also the president of the American Philosophical Practitioners Association, which has certified about three dozen people in the United States. While using philosophy as therapy is relatively new in the U.S., Europeans have been doing it since 1981. The trend is huge in Europe, especially in Germany, which claims more than 100 counselors.

So what exactly is philosophical practice? Marinoff calls it “therapy for the sane.” In a nutshell, it’s using the 2,500-year-old tradition of philosophy to solve everyday problems, like work, relationship and family issues. His point is that philosophy wasn’t meant to be confined to dusty academics, or a bunch of bearded, sandaled, toga-wearing Athenians. It’s a return to what philosophy was meant to be — a guideline for a way of life.

Marinoff became a therapist by accident. “Honestly, I never envisioned myself doing this,” he says. In 1991, he was working at the Center for Applied Ethics at the University of British Columbia. He spent a large part of his day fielding calls from members of the media seeking his opinion on sticky social issues like abortion and euthanasia. “Pretty soon, ordinary people would call up asking questions, or just walk in the door. So we counseled them,” he says. The rest, as they say, is history.

Marinoff describes his role as that of a philosophical midwife, where he helps clients (never patients) extract their philosophical views — not with forceps, but with the Socratic method. So Socrates, who was put to death for corrupting the youth, is helping to set them straight again. “The whole point is to make people become philosophically self-sufficient,” Marinoff says.



What also fueled Marinoff was his dissatisfaction with traditional therapy. “It’s normal to have problems, it’s normal to have emotional distress. But doctors treat it as a disease and medicate people to oblivion,” he says. He is also quick to point out that philosophical practice may not be for everyone, and stresses that he is not striving to replace medicine. “If you’re dysfunctional, can’t work, can’t think, then no, your first stop shouldn’t be to a philosopher. And sometimes the best course of medicine can be Plato and Prozac,” he says.

What also sets Marinoff’s brand of counseling apart is its emphasis on personal responsibility (he’s a big fan of Ayn Rand and her “virtue of selfishness.” While Rand may not be the cuddliest of the philosophers, she does deliver a good kick in the pants when needed.) “We’re not delving into the past but looking into the present. Traditional therapy can become an endless dialogue, where you feel you have to tell everything about yourself to your therapist. I don’t care what you did when you were 4,” he says. Likewise, the course of treatment for philosophical practice is usually short, a few sessions or a few months.

Reaction from the psychological community has been mixed. Many applaud the use of philosophy in treatment but pepper their praise with strong caution. They point out that training to become a philosophy professor has nothing to do with training to counsel patients, and worry that a philosopher could misdiagnose or harm a patient. “A lot of problems come from people having screwed-up values, and since philosophers are people who think a lot about values, in that sense I think it’s a good thing,” says George Howard, a psychology professor at Notre Dame and past president of the theoretical and philosophical counseling division of the American Psycholgical Association. “My mom has common sense and good people skills. That doesn’t make her any more qualified to be a therapist than a philosopher. If someone is decomposing in front of your eyes, you really need a skilled clinician, not a philosopher, to deal with it,” says Howard.

Dr. Jeffrey Schaler, a psychotherapist and adjunct professor at American University, appreciates that philosophical counseling, like psychotherapy, is a discourse that involves secular ethics. But he has other bones to pick with Marinoff. “First of all, I don’t think it should be called ‘Plato Not Prozac!’ — ‘Socrates Not Prozac’ would be better,” he says. “Plato’s views on human relationships are bad. He believed in the goodness of eugenics and achieving an ideal caste of people who could govern others. Socrates, on the other hand, advocated self-governance and autonomy.”

Schaler is also opposed to licensing philosophical practitioners, which could lead to them being covered by health insurance. “Would you expect your insurance to pay for you to speak with a pastor? It’s a bit of doublespeak, isn’t it? Are these people suffering from a medical condition or a philosophical one?” he asks.

But philosophical practitioners argue that what makes their brand of counseling better is their emphasis on personal responsibility and values, which few counselors (apart from priests and rabbis) would address. There is also a heavy emphasis on the present. Thomas Magnell, professor of philosophy at Drew University and a practitioner himself, says, “Philosophical practice isn’t counseling in the traditional therapeutic model. It’s critical thinking and a process of reflection. Philosophers can contribute to this area because they have expertise in drawing out people’s beliefs. They have skills they may not even be aware of.”

So back to Marinoff and the philosophers (the dead ones). There’s no need to worry if you can’t tell the difference between Hobbes and Hegel, Pythagoras or Protagoras. “Your only homework is to bring your problem to me,” he says, although he occasionally sends patients home with prescriptions for books. The ideal candidate is someone who is open-minded and ready to explore his or her life philosophy. Marinoff once said in an interview that he’d have a better chance working with an ex-con than a philosopher, because “they think they already know all the answers.”

In many ways, “Plato Not Prozac!” reads like a traditional self-help book, with case studies and easily digestible sound bites. It also includes a crash course in philosophy, warning readers: “Don’t sue me over the D on your term paper if you are taking philosophy 101 and rely on this chapter for all your information. Think of it more as a crib sheet for cocktail parties.” And unlike a typical self-help book, it contains a Hit Parade of Philosophers in the index, which includes each one’s theme, refrain and greatest hit. For example, Marinoff’s description of Albert Camus includes a nod to Spike Lee:

Theme: existentialism

Refrain: Do the right thing even if the universe is cruel or meaningless

Greatest Hits: “The Stranger,” “The Plague”

This all sounds reasonable but how does it really work? If I’m down, how consoling can a gloomy philosopher like Sartre or Neitzsche be? I tell Marinoff that I just broke up with my boyfriend. “So what’s Plato going to do for me?” I ask.

Marinoff pauses for a moment and lowers his voice. “Plato may not be the best person for breakups. I would consider Heraclitus and Buddhist philosophy on the impermanence of all things. We should never pin all of our hopes on one thing, or one person. You are only doing yourself a disservice if you think that any relationship will last forever.”

OK, that helps, somewhat. But I still feel crummy about the whole thing. What can I do about that? I ask.

“Life is like that. When you’re in pain it means you’re involved in life. You must accept the joys with the sorrow. It’s like what Heraclitus said: ‘You can’t step in the same river twice,’ meaning that life is flowing and the waters are constantly moving,” says Marinoff.

“And uh, if you just stand there, you drown?” I ask hopefully.

“Yesssss!” he crows. “Exactly!”

Heraclitus is also the one who said, “Disease makes health pleasant and good” so I’m not sure he’d make my Top 10 list of favorite philosophers.

If I were a patient of Marinoff’s, he would guide me through what he calls the PEACE process, the five stages of analysis. First, identify the Problem. Then take stock of your Emotions (Marinoff argues that this is where most therapists stop). Third, Analyze your options for solving the problem. Fourth, step back and Contemplate your entire situation, and how it fits in with your life philosophy. At this point, you understand the problem, take action and reach Equilibrium.

You also have to reach for your wallet. Marinoff charges $75 for an initial consultation, and then $100 per session (I think, therefore I bill?). Health insurance companies don’t cover it, although that may soon be changing in New York. Democratic Assemblyman Ruben Diaz Jr. of the Bronx has introduced a bill to create a philosophical practitioners licensing board, which may lead to third-party reimbursement. So why the interest? Part of it is that Diaz is the son of a preacher man (his father is the Rev. Ruben Diaz).

“He grew up in an environment where grappling with metaphysical questions is normal,” says Paul DelDuca, Diaz’s chief of staff and proud holder of a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. “This is something that could help a lot of people.” Right now, the bill is in the higher education committee with other alternative-therapy bills. If it does pass, who knows what could be next — Voltaire not Viagra?

Christina Valhouli is a New York writer and the co-producer of an upcoming documentary about plus-size models, "Curve."

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