Take a moment to consider some of the influential names in counseling. People who have guided our field through creating theories, techniques, and approaches. I would imagine that you of course considered Carl Rogers, maybe Ellis, Glasser, or Bandura and perhaps some figures from psychology such as Erikson, Jung, or Freud. However, it is unlikely that the names of Heraclitus, Plato, Nietzsche, Sartre, or Kierkegaard arose for you. Yet these individuals have provided fantastic perspectives and conceptions of the human condition and allegories to understand ourselves as human beings. I was fortunate enough to be able to choose philosophy as one of my majors during undergrad and was not only exposed to the information, but also transformed by it. I find that I frequently draw on a number of philosophical ideas in my work with clients and share with them a number of ideas and allegories to aid them in the change process. I work frequently with teenagers and find that they are at a developmental age where these ‘thought experiments’ can be particularly salient and engaging.
One of my favorites is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave - I find it helpful for engaging clients who have limited buy-in into therapy or insight into the scope of their problems and therefore an acceptance of them. The Allegory is simple - consider that a person has been chained and facing the wall of a cave for their entire life. The world that they experience is one of shadows projected onto the wall - they have no knowledge or experience of the outside world or things casting the shadows. Then, one day, they are able to break through their bonds and escape the cave, finally experiencing the external world where they become much more knowledgeable and fulfilled. I then ask clients to consider that perhaps they are this person in a cave, what their shackles may be which prevent them from escaping, and to think of counseling as a tool to help break those and to move them out of the cave.
Another that I often have clients consider is the problem of Theseus’ Ship, a problem which has been grappled with for a few thousand years. I often use this with clients who may be experiencing secondary gain or identity issues as they are working to develop or discard personality traits. The problem, which best reflected on but does not have an answer, engages our conception of self, identity, and change. It describes a ship that has arrived in port for repairs. Throughout its stay, it has all of its pieces replaced to which we ask clients to consider whether or not the ship retains its identity and/or name. Which side they end up on is less important than the fact that it sets up an exploration of themselves and the ability for me to support a conclusion that is helpful or argue against one which isn’t. I may follow up by asking “So the name stays the same throughout the parts changing, what parts have you been through and what ones would you like to bring on board?” or conversely, “So the ship is no longer the same after going through all its parts, how do you see yourself changing throughout our work?”
Though the above two ‘thought experiments’ come from Ancient Greeks, more recent philosophers also have a wealth of wisdom and knowledge. So much so, that we consider it their thinking to contribute to a theoretical orientation - existential counseling. This approach takes lead from existentialist thinkers, some of whom are named above. Some common tenets of existential philosophy include balancing decisions between freedom and responsibility and that anxiety, striving for human connection, and searching for or making meaning are all central to the human experience. Nietzsche may consider anxiety as a manifestation of the will to power, while Sartre might understand it as stemming from our own inherent freedom, and Kierkegaard describes it as unspecified fear, perhaps driving us to create. While existentialism does not necessarily come in the neat packets that may catalyze thought, it most certainly provides a way to deepen our understanding of ourselves and our place in the world.
The above is only a short quip of how philosophy can help inform our counseling practice, with other valuable areas including philosophy of mind and cognitive science. They may help us understand why CBT works by describing how emotions are subject to being manipulated by our thoughts and actions. Each of our counseling theories ascribes to a set of beliefs or philosophy about what makes us human, which parts are valuable and worth tweaking. To see this, consider how behaviorism ascribes to a materialist philosophy. While it is unlikely that most of us have the time to deeply study Ancient Greek philosophy or existentialism, I do hope that some of us may find time to dip a toe into these waters, and encourage this frequently, because as Heraclitus said “One cannot step into the same river twice”. You may learn something new each time.
Ben Hearn is a new professional who is currently working as a school-based counselor. He is passionate about working with trauma and enjoys applying the fields of neuroscience, philosophy, ethics, and psychopharmacology to counseling practice.