Battle in Print: Is philosophy becoming therapy?

Dennis Hayes, 4 November 2009

In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom draws our attention to a contemporary irony in Othello’s famous cry, on losing his sense of personal honour, that ‘Othello’s occupation’s gone’ (1). The irony is that for most contemporary audiences Othello’s profession has gone before the play begins. Military values, the honour and the glory of war, of being a general in the Venetian army, or any other, are ones that elicit no sympathy today. 

I want to cry the same about the occupation of philosophy, but for entirely the opposite reason. Philosophy now seems to have become very popular. The spate of philosophy books being published for the ordinary reader, and an increased interest in teaching philosophy from primary school to university, encourages the thought that the profession of philosopher is at its zenith. However, it would be an act of self-delusion for philosophers to think that everyone wants to be a Socrates now, and I want to claim that ‘Plato’s profession’s gone!’

The basis for this claim is a straightforward and simple sociological critique of contemporary philosophy, particularly but by no means exclusively, applied or popular philosophy. Plato’s profession has gone because of sociological and cultural changes. When philosophers sought to question rigid assumptions and fixed truths and to act as under-labourers in the pursuit of knowledge, the unspoken sociological assumption of philosophy was that there was a socio-cultural necessity to shake people out of their unquestioning, confident beliefs and unreflective opining, and turn them into critical thinkers. This was always a dangerous business for philosophers and their willing or unwilling students. More dangerous for the philosophers, though, who might suffer opprobrium, or be forced to take the hemlock, whereas students could expect at worse the ‘offence’ of the aporia.

When I was a student my tutors complained that I illegitimately crossed disciplines and brought philosophical analysis into the study of literature and sociology. ‘So much under-labouring to do,’ was my response. Like Socrates listening to Protagoras’s lengthy rhetoric I wanted to ask ‘What did you mean by ‘x’ in the first sentence?’

Unrepentant about my illegitimate crossing of disciplinary boundaries, I want to make three sociological observations about key aspects of philosophy in defence of my claim, and no doubt now, as then, I will be marked down!

Scepticism

Philosophical scepticism, questioning the alleged foundations of knowledge, is perhaps the basic job of the philosopher. Do we know what we think we know? Do our moral values stand up to challenge and counter-example? Such questioning used to cause friction and ferment in the agora, but in the shopping mall it will be met with ready agreement. No one will defend any knowledge or value. Roger Scruton, in his Modern Philosophy, called moral relativism the ‘first refuge of a scoundrel’ but this is too facile (2). It doesn’t seem like that anymore. The new therapeutic relativism demands the non-judgemental moral high ground. Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind reminds us that ‘Only Socrates knew, after a lifetime of unceasing labour, that he was ignorant. Now every high school student knows that. How did it become so easy?’ (3) The contemporary openness to all viewpoints is an expression of therapeutic relativism, and although it covers up a deeply cynical lack of commitment to any knowledge or morality, it condemns those who are not so open, or those who think they are right about anything, as epistemological tyrants. Philosophers can await the first charge of epistemological bullying.

Even in more academic environments the situation is the same. When the late Terry McLaughlin spoke to Faculty of Education at Canterbury Christ Church University, he gave a traditional speech about questioning the concepts and definitions we use. Instead of this being a wake-up call to analyse ideas, it reinforced the cynical idea that everything must be questioned and that no knowledge or value was ‘absolute.’ ‘Absolute’ is the adjective that now suggests the best epistemological state is the know-nothing state, not ignorance but constant therapeutic questioning. This ‘question therapy’ is often called ‘Socratic’ by colleagues who do not see that endless questioning becomes an end in itself. Even some philosophers see the elenchus and aporia as therapeutic devices. (4)

Knowing

Complementary to therapeutic scepticism is another basic philosophy teacher’s staple, the Kantian distinction between ‘knowledge’ and ‘opining’. Stanley Fish is a model of the old-style philosopher with this rant: ‘I told my students I hadn’t the slightest interest in whatever opinions they might have and didn’t want to hear any. I told them that while they may have been taught that the purpose of writing is to express oneself, the selves they had were not worth expressing, and it would be good if they actually learnt something.’ (quoted in Times Higher Education 11 December 2008). Fish’s students are supposed to do some reading and research and, when they have some knowledge, to come back with informed comment. They must find this hard when they have been taught that giving opinions is what ‘thinking’ means in the non-judgemental classroom. Isn’t opposing ‘opinion therapy’ in this way worthwhile, then?

I used to find the distinction useful, but its employment in this way, without being explicitly part of a critique of therapeutic philosophy – a critique of being so ‘open-minded’ that your brains fall out – does not merely silence stupid, thoughtless and ill-founded opinions, but all opinions. There is a whiff of such a critique in Fish’s rebuke, but not much. What he offers in its absence is merely a more demanding therapy that silences students because they are ignorant. It resembles a form of ‘directive therapy’, but in the end it will just reinforce self-doubt and makes it less rather than more likely that students will come back as robust and assertive knowing beings. They will be more ‘open’ either as a device to ward off another ad hominem attack or because they have discovered that it is morally better to be open than opinionated.

Criticism

The job of the philosopher is criticism. But now everyone is critical of everything. Criticism is welcomed. Training in ‘critical thinking’ is popular everywhere. For the most part this involves techniques and games that are not related to any particular context and therefore encourage a view of ‘criticism’ as a simple set of techniques that can be an aspect of an individual’s psychological framework of character. Criticism, literally, has become an attitude. This can only exacerbate societal problem such as the rejection of adult or any other authority. Criticism of this ‘cool’ kind is not criticism but cynicism.

Recently, when I was talking to a group of students about the university as a place to think the unthinkable and say the unsayable, and made a defence of criticism, one insightful student told me that the lecturers she most disliked were those that were exclusively ‘critical’ and never offered anything. She was right, and that comment started to change my view of the role of philosophy.

Philosophical tradition tells many stories of philosophers who were unpopular because they were sceptics, challenged conventional knowledge and wisdom, and taught the art of criticism. In the present sociological and cultural context, however, these three attributes turn philosophy into therapy and makes it a saleable commodity. It should come as no surprise then, that in the increasingly therapeutic workplace environment, philosophers are thought of as flexible and creative employees, and candidates with philosophy degrees are wanted by the top employers.

If philosophers are not to continue to sell philosophy as therapy they have to do three things that will challenge contemporary attitudes. They must negate their own working principles and argue for knowledge, for the assertion and defence of opinion, and make a stand against idle criticism.

In a special issue of the Philosophers’ Magazine published in 2007, its anniversary year, Stephen Law noted in his contribution to a forum special on ‘the making of minds,’ that the rise in wacky and dodgy religious and other beliefs now left him only cautiously optimistic over the Enlightenment belief in reason (5). I am more sanguine, with this caveat. A belief in Enlightenment values is not a philosophical but a social and political matter. If Enlightenment values are to be defended, then philosophers must learn from sociology and regain their profession by becoming once again difficult and dangerous individuals.

Author

Dennis Hayes is Professor of Education at the University of Derby and the author, with Kathryn Ecclestone, of The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education, (Routledge, 2009).

Footnotes

1) Harold Bloom (1998) Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, New York: Riverhead Books.
2) Roger Scruton (1994) Modern Philosophy, London: Sinclair-Stevenson.
3) Allan Bloom (1987/1993) The Closing of the American Mind: how higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books: p43.
4) see Higgins, C (1994) Socrates’ Effect/Meno’s Affect: Socratic Elenchus as Kathartic Therapy
5) Stephen Law (2007) ‘The Making of Minds,’ Philosophers’ Magazine, 38: 55-7.

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