Tag Archives: philosophical counseling

QA 58. “But it doesn’t work like that!”

Annals of philosophical counselling/practice with others, or Things I find myself saying to someone like you*

* you |juː|
pronoun [ second person singular or plural ]
1. used to refer to the person or people that the speaker is addressing: are you listening? | I love you.
~ Oxford Dictionary
Who is this “you”? Do you know who you are speaking to? Well no, actually. I don’t. I am responding to a question that someone raised about something I said. It is also a question for me, so “you” also means “I”. (Who, me? Yes, you!) Plus any other Cinderella for whom the shoe fits, vous tous, y’all, second persons plural: all us first-person-singulars who feel correctly addressed when I write to myself as to another and say “you”. Which is to say, it’s an open call. Your call.

“But it doesn’t work like that!” I say this in response to some proposed scheme or strategy of yours. I mean that, in terms of what you want to achieve, what you are doing seems either futile or malicious because you have a mistaken view about what’s going on. (I could be wrong, of course. We can talk about that.)

My basic theory is that, although there’s no saying how something will turn out, the world generally makes sense and we are basically equipped to take part in that. And  we always are taking part in that. Sometimes we get the wrong end of the stick. We can do better. Philosophical practice is how we learn to do that by our own lights. That is why I call it “emancipatory”.

push the pull

I say “futile or malicious” because it seems like a) you are not going to achieve what you want and/or b) you are going to do some damage. I say it when I know you’ve done this same thing enough times that the result is predictable. Your wife is not going to take you back if you send another threatening or pleading text. Re-accessorising your life will not make you happy. “It doesn’t work like that.”

Your efforts will be futile as long as you are mistaken about how it does work and how to work with it. Yes, you are frustrated when things don’t work out for you. Beyond the injury to your vanity, what does that tell you? The pursuit of futility isn’t sensible (is it?) – but look, the scene is full of information that has been created especially for you. What can you learn? Stop and pay attention. You could learn to re-align yourself, your desires and your actions with the world as it is. Things will go better, even if not in the way you imagine now. That’s my bet anyway. (P.S. I’m actually much kinder in person, given a particular you and your particular misery.)

Your efforts become malicious when you forge ahead anyway until you break something, or “repurpose” it to your own designs. Don’t talk to me about unintended consequences! Let’s talk about hidden intentions. Pride and stubbornness won’t serve you well in the long run. Do you imagine you won’t have to answer for yourself? Malice isn’t sensible. Please stop and think.

When I suggest that the world makes sense and can be worked with, it does include the kinds of suffering we can’t do anything about, because that’s just “the way it works”. We get sick, we get hurt, people we love leave us, death awaits. Working with these involves some acceptance or resignation.

But we also find ourselves in unacceptable situations that were messed up before we ever came on the scene. Things that are not the way they are supposed to be. Lies, injustice, callous indifference, unnecessary suffering. We can feel the wrongness in our bellies and bones – that this is “not the way it works”. Maybe it’s a political scene that calls for resistance. Or maybe you should get yourself the hell out of Dodge. Or maybe you have to bide your time so long.

Risky times like these call for us to be even more careful and attentive, to avoid futility and malice. How do you align yourself in this situation? Like we practiced. (Aren’t you glad we practiced?) By working with it and learning its truth, testing it, catching the scent of possiblities. Turn and return. Reach out. Move in the direction of your freedom. Step lively.

The ethics and politics of life: An interview about philosophical counselling

agora interview

“But if they’re interested in being able to work out their life, with someone who is going to keep them company, keep them safe, and not do anything to them while they’re doing that, then they stay. And then we work.”

Ran Lahav interviewed me and several other participants at the recent 13th International Conference on Philosophical Practice in Belgrade, for the Philo-Practice Agora project. You can find my interview here or on YouTube.

New essay: PHILOSOPHICAL COUNSELLING AS A PRACTICE OF EMANCIPATION

This paper has just been published in Philosophical Practice, the journal of the American Philosophical Practice Association. You can find it here  and there …

APPAPHILOSOPHICAL COUNSELLING AS A PRACTICE OF EMANCIPATION

Helen Douglas, Philosophy in Practice, Cape Town

Abstract: This is a second ‘field report’ of a Levinassian philosophical counseling practice. The first part elaborates the practice by means of a ‘threefold logic’ of ground, path and fruition. While the ground and path remain a Levinasian ‘good practice’ of relationship and dialogue, the fruition of the work is now seen as ‘emancipation’, understood broadly as ‘the fact or process of being set free from restrictions’, rather than ‘therapy’, understood narrowly as ‘treatment to relieve a disorder’ (Oxford Dictionary). The turn to emancipation is explored by way of Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Philosophy as a practice of emancipation is the work of equals.

QA 35. Aug 2012. Philosophy for emancipation


It starts off very personally, very intimately. You’re going about your business and then ­– for some unknown reason – you can’t carry on. Maybe there’s a choice you don’t know how to make. Maybe you’ve reached a dead end or the limit of some chain you didn’t even know you wore. You are thrown back on yourself. It’s very close and uncomfortable, painful.

Simon Critchley (2007:1) writes that philosophy begins in “disappointment”: “the indeterminate but palpable sense that something desired has not been fulfilled, that a fantastic effort has failed.” Philosophy begins the moment your intelligence reaches out from within this situation to clarify, to identify and understand, to find a way through. What’s happening? What is the meaning of this? Continue reading