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Is philosophy therapeutic?



A lesson from Wittgenstein has it that we have to appreciate philosophy as a kind of therapy. Even in Wittgenstein's day, however, therapy wasn't uniform and singular. There was psychotherapy (Freudian), electro-shock therapy, and behavioural therapy. Nowadays, there are vastly more alternatives: cognitive therapy, holistic-integrative therapy, gestalt therapy, humanist therapy, existential therapy, or client-centred therapy. If there are this many different therapies, then which one is philosophy? What does it mean for philosophy to be understood in this way? The lesson from Wittgenstein isn't nearly as straightforward as one might believe.


Let's talk about what's common to all forms of therapy. Therapy usually involves a therapist, a patient, and a problem (from which the patient usually suffers). A natural question to ask is whether I am supposed to be the therapist or the patient? If I am the patient, what is my ailment? If I am the therapist, why am I justified in giving advice to patients? What's my problem? Is there a cure for my problem? According to Wittgenstein, the point of the therapy is to let the fly out of the fly-bottle. That's consistent across all different kinds of therapy. So, that won't help.


Suppose Wittgenstein wants us to think of ourselves as the patient. One might argue that the purpose of therapy will be to reveal to me the error of my ways, and the therapy will be a lesson in self-discovery. I will learn who I am through the therapist's interrogation. That presupposes the therapy works correctly for the patient, and, I suppose, for the therapist too. If it doesn't reveal to me who I am, then I will not have succeeded in discovering myself. So, this discussion appears to imply that either I will learn who I am through therapy or I won't. In either case, I've attended the therapy sessions. But in the latter case the purpose of therapy has not been met. It seems fair to think that Wittgenstein wants us to appreciate the value of therapy through self-understanding, but maybe he doesn't want to suggest this at all. Maybe, it is attending the therapy sessions and failing to implement what one has learned from the therapist that is important.


Suppose, on the other hand, that Wittgenstein wants us to think of ourselves as the therapist. The therapist's role is as much about coming to understand him/herself as the patient. We have to presume that the therapist had some reason for choosing his/her career. We could say that s/he chose to become a therapist "to help people." If helping people is what a person wants to do in life, then everytime the therapist actually helps a person with an ailment s/he feels satisfied. Feeling satisfied seems to be a way of coming to understand oneself. So, it seems legitimate to think that the therapist - even though s/he may have greater command of the problem - too engages in the therapy.


Perhaps Wittgenstein's discussion of "philosophy as therapy" is not meant to raise the therapist/patient dichotomy; instead, he may have wanted us to focus on the actual therapy - the practice of therapy. I think this is important, but one's role in therapy seems no less important. One's role in the therapy - I think - will have a bearing on how one comes to understand him/herself.

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