Wisdom to cure what ails you; Philosophy: From the Greeks to the moderns, thinkers are enlisted in a new endeavor to help the troubled


He was 41 at the time, and by all accounts, a success. He was married, working on a second college degree, looking to the future.

But something was missing. He felt his anxieties mounting and wanted to talk. He didn't want to go back to a psychologist because, in the past, he felt they had only tried to fit him into one or another preconceived pathology.

That's when the man, a New Yorker who asks that his name not be used because of the personal nature of his problems, turned to a philosopher.

That's right. A philosopher. He signed up for therapy with Lou Marinoff, a pioneer in the "philosophical counseling" movement that is trying to establish an alternative to traditional psychological and psychiatric therapies.

After several sessions of Socratic dialogue and discussion in Marinoff's cramped office at the City College of New York, where Marinoff is also an associate professor of philosophy, the man says he felt "more at peace with my options." He is now working as a financial analyst for an Internet firm and studying philosophy on the side.

"He helped me to trust that doing the right thing was the right thing and that feelings don't always lead us in the right direction," the man says. "He is someone who has dedicated his life to finding wisdom."

As Marinoff sees it, many people now undergoing conventional drug or talk therapies might be better off with a stiff dose of wisdom. His book, published last year by HarperCollins, is called "Plato, Not Prozac! Applying Philosophy to Everyday Problems."

It makes a case for restoring philosophers to the position they once occupied at the center of science and culture. When confronted by an ethical dilemma or personal crisis, Marinoff asks, why not utilize 2,500 years of great thinking?

"If you can be referred to a psychologist for a psychological problem, why can't you be referred to a philosopher for a philosophical problem?" he says.

Marinoff, a passionate advocate for the art of thinking, has a bachelor's degree in theoretical physics and a doctorate in the philosophy of science. He is president and co-founder of the American Philosophical Practitioners Association, a group dedicated to professionalizing and accrediting counseling through philosophy. They are designing college curriculums, lobbying statehouses for licenses and trying to cajole insurance companies to pay for philosophical care.

"What we want is recognition. We want to be on a level playing field because we provide a professional service," Marinoff says. His New Jersey apartment is cluttered with books such as "I Ching Clarified," "The World of Buddha" and a collection of plays by Sophocles.

He acknowledges a need for psychoanalysis and drugs in some cases but feels that these tools are overused.

Many times a person's problem, be it a cranky boss or loss of a loved one, has nothing to do with, say, birth order or a repressed childhood trauma. For these patients, Marinoff says, a guided tour of Kierkegaard's views of death, or Seneca on happiness, is more useful than long sessions on a couch interpreting dreams.

He calls it "therapy for the sane" and resists what he claims is the tendency of mental-health professionals to "diseasify" everyday problems. It's an idea that first caught on in Germany, through the work of the philosopher Gerd Achenbach, about 20 years ago, and has spread to other countries.

Through Marinoff and others, it is beginning to attract adherents here. Many have opened counseling clinics and are seeing clients. His book lists 38 practitioners. New York has considered licensing philosophical counselors.

Critics say the idea is simplistic and possibly dangerous. By ignoring the role of the subconscious, or emotions, Marinoff is trying to cure ailments without understanding their causes, they say. If he fails, the results could be undiagnosed illness or even suicide.

"It's a disaster," says Samuel Slipp, past president of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and a professor of clinical psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. "They are walking into a minefield. ... It's like a philosopher trying to do brain surgery."

Research shows that emotional trauma strikes the right side of the brain, and appeals to the intellectual, left side won't reverse the damage, Sipp says. It's akin to telling someone with an emotional disorder to "buck up," a time-honored response that won't work.

"They are going to be dealing with people who are emotionally disturbed, and they have no mental-health background," he says. "It's nonsense."

Sheila Hafter Gray, a psychiatrist in Washington and president-elect of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, says there may be a role for philosophers to play in the constellation of counselors.

"Certainly there are people without mental disorders who could from time to time use professional help to think through things," she says. "But it is not a substitute for serious psychological or psychiatric treatment."

To properly determine what type of care a patient needs, a care provider needs at least the same level of training as a doctor of psychology, Gray says. Otherwise, serious disorders could go undiagnosed.

One unusual form of epilepsy, for example, plunges its victims into periods of deep brooding over the meaning of life, she says -- something a philosopher might view as normal ruminations.

Marinoff agrees that philosophical counseling will not work for everyone or every problem and that recognizing when a psychiatrist or psychologist is needed should be a part of every philosophical counselor's training.

"If you have a problem that is keeping you from functioning, philosophy is not going to help you," he says. "I'm an advocate for appropriate treatment."

But he says he has helped clients -- he doesn't call them patients -- such as a physician who had become financially secure and was considering taking his children to Disney World. The doctor had grown up poor and was feeling guilt over spending the money, fearing conspicuous consumption.

Marinoff talked to the man about Aristotle's theory of virtue as a middle way between extremes. It would be a vice, he told the physician, either to overspend or underspend on his family.

"He wanted a principle. He was not dysfunctional. He didn't have a mental illness," Marinoff says.

Generally, Marinoff seeks to nurture the inner philosophy of his patients, borrowing from the works of ancient and modern thinkers to help clients analyze and solve their troubles. "It has to resonate with them," he says.

In another case, Marinoff was invited to speak to the staff of a New York woman's health clinic that performs abortions. The clinic's director, Merle Hoffman, says that employees often encounter protesters on their way to work, something that adds to the stress of a job that is already ethically complicated.

"What I hope is they will get in touch with their own thinking about the issue and see how other thinkers will look at things and take it to a higher level," says Hoffman, founder of the Choices Women's Medical Center in Long Island City, N.Y.

Marinoff planned a four-hour Socratic dialogue to lead the workers through the questions they face. "They need to be able to do what they do without feeling like killers," he says.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad