Is this the right way?

Late one August evening in a small provincial town, a woman steps out her front door. In her hand, she holds a slim leather briefcase, probably containing a laptop. When she steps down from the small landing in front of the door, a mild breeze fills the air, gently tousling her long blond tresses. She tries to pull her hair back behind her ears without any luck. From the back pocket of her jeans she pulls out a bandeau and ties those unruly locks into a simple ponytail. Now, with no hair interrupting her vision, she looks first to the right and then to the left before turning around to lock the door behind her. After checking twice that the door really is locked, she rotates to face the street for the second time. 

This time she looks to the left first. Actually, at this point, her whole body shifts as she evaluates the possibility of going in that direction. 

Is this the right way? 

Read the rest of the essay in Terse Journal.

Philosophical Counseling

Some years ago, I was teaching a course in Philosophical Counseling. To my surprise, all that the students wanted to know was “What is the right thing to do?” Having that knowledge, they assumed, would make life easier. “Perhaps,” I said, “but not better or more interesting.”

Their request is part of the obsessive achievement eagerness of today’s society to perform well according to fixed ideals. It creates dullness when it comes to mental exercises. The unfortunate norm is the faster the better. I told them that philosophy is about developing problems, not delivering solutions. It’s a slow practice. It’s for life. My answer made them fidget with impatience. To philosophize, I emphasized, is to dwell on the fundamental questions, and these questions are developed in problems, just as the problems are enveloped in fundamental questions.

Yet, my students insisted: “So, what is the right question?”

I told them that this particular question was related to the problem embedded in the question. For example, how do you draw a clear distinction between right and wrong?

The ones who weren’t paying attention looked up from their screens.

In sports, where the rules are given, I said, it is rather obvious to tell whether a player is “doing it wrong.” Similarly, in business, where profit seems to guide every decision, knowing what is right and wrong may be easier. Life, however, is neither a game nor a business, although there is a tendency to classify people into winners and loser as if life were that simple. Such labeling is part of today’s achievement society. Everyone’s performance is measured according to an ideal–and ideal that is often related to the staus, prestige, power, and, of course, money that is associated with being a winner.

They went silent, so I went on. Of course, there are things in life that are rather obvious. For instance, no one needs philosophy to tell you that it is wrong to kill, discriminate against, or repress other people. Instead, philosophy begins when we start to questioning the obvious. Could I live another life? What is also possible? How may I also live?

A part of philosophy is to accept that some problems remain without solution; some questions can’t be answered once and for all.

Such a question is Which life is worth living?

Of course, one of my students then asked me: “Which life is worth living?”

This is how A Philosophy of Mindfulness – A Journey with Deleuze begins.

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Wittgenstein and therapy

Psychotherapist John M. Heaton has written an interesting book about practical philosophy and the use of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s thoughts on psychology. The book is called Wittgenstein and Psychotherapy. From Paradox to Wonder. In a way, it moves from the paradoxes of the early Wittgenstein to the wonder of the latter, although the book addresses the paradoxes of many theories in psychology.

The aim of the book is to move psychotherapy away from its particularly Freudian doctrines and dogmatic norms toward the therapist acting “like a mirror.” An eventual cure, Heaton points out, doesn’t only depend on theories and techniques, but much more on the relationship between therapist and patient.

The therapist, therefore, doesn’t guide the patient toward what the therapist believes to be an accurate picture of reality; rather, he or she pays attention, and then mirrors how the patient makes sense (or fails to make sense). Therapy becomes a way of allowing the patient to see and hear what he or she is saying. Encourage the patient to express him or herself. Heaton is pleading for a more humble and curious approach. The author uses his practical experience to emphasize how the therapist will achieve a better result if one has a better understanding of language (e.g., how language can produce false appearances that may separate the patient from the world).

The book is scattered with illuminating quotes from Wittgenstein, just as it raises a serious and severe critique toward Freudian so-called scientific psychoanalysis. “A philosophical problem has the form: “I don’t know my way around,” says Wittgenstein.

The paradoxes in psychoanalysis are that a too rigid theory leads to less acceptable suggestions. Our relationship with life becomes limited. For example, “We tend to picture thought as representation that reality must fit or fail to fit. . . . It is assumed that what the analyst thinks must be true.” However, sometimes our capacity to use language is sufficiently limited. And yet, just because we can’t articulate it, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. This experience can lead to wonder and how to make sense of these.

Unfortunately, “Our disease is one of wanting to explain,” Wittgenstein is quoted for saying. Therefore, the therapist’s ear and vision is clouded by the theoretical ideals. How does one open his or her senses?

“To recognize something as true,” Heaton writes, “is to make a judgment and this involves making sense.” Make sense of sense, that is. How? Heaton, in continuation of Wittgenstein, suggests that in order to understand people, we must be able to read and understand the context because then, we can better understand their intention of saying or doing what they do. His approach is based on compassion for the others’ form of life. For this reason, the relationship between therapist and patient is crucial, not the theoretical armor that a therapist hides behind. It’s the relationship that facilitates the possibility of living in the world with the patient.

A happy person lives in a happy world because of his or her form of life. Similarly, an unhappy person lives in a different world–so it seems, although the world is the same, due to his or her form of life.

The book is for everyone who is interested in psychology or practical philosophy (including therapists, students, and the many consultants who implement Wittgenstein’s teachings). Heaton encourages the reader to unfold the process of sense-making–that is, to see it as a process without an ultimate reference. If one can do that then the patient will be free to find or create the form of his or her life.

The book is a well-composed mixture of theory and practice with a slant in favor of theory. It doesn’t require knowledge of Wittgenstein, but it helps if the reader is familiar with Freudian theory and practice in order to qualify the critique that Heaton raises. It’s a highly welcome approach that challenges a growing tendency–perhaps due to a growing insecurity–to see psychological experts as infallible.

This review was first published in MetapsychologyVolume 19, Issue 47, 2015.