Tag Archives: philosophical practice

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.

New article: TO CHANGE OUR THINKING: PHILOSOPHICAL PRACTICE FOR DIFFICULT TIMES

South African Journal of Philosophy, 35 (2), 2016, pp 123–131.

You can find it here or there.

The self-confidence of the human being, freedom, has first of all to be aroused again in the hearts of these people. Karl Marx

ABSTRACT: sajp-coverIf a time of crisis calls for a new mode of thinking, philosophical practice offers the means to answer that call. Contemporary philosophical practice revitalises the ancient Greek understanding of philosophy as a way of life that cultivates personal transformation and new ways of seeing the world. This article describes the development of the author’s philosophical counselling practice as a practice of emancipation, in concert with the writings of Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Rancière. It considers the significance of personal engagement and companionship for the cultivation of practical wisdom, and suggests that the intransigence of our global social and economic crises ultimately indicates an incorrect view of human nature and an ossified or unbalanced relationship between practical and theoretical ways of knowing and wisdom.

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.

QA 48. Think, again (The end of philosophy)

ImageIn 2010, Stephen Hawking pronounced philosophy dead: “Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” But he had not kept up with Martin Heidegger, who already said this in 1964, in “The end of philosophy and the task of thinking”. Philosophy’s dissolution into science, Heidegger says, is a legitimate end. What was begun with questions of being and reality, physics and metaphysics, ends up here. Western philosophy has reached its destination.

“Science” signals a rational, objective methodology of “systematic observation, measurement and experiment, and the formulation, testing and modification of hypotheses”. Heidegger saw this attitude illuminating every area of human life. The fields of psychology, sociology, the arts, economics: everything will be “determined and steered by the new fundamental science which is called cybernetics”. (Cybernetics” as “the science of communications and automatic control systems in both machines and living things”.) “Philosophy turns into the empirical science of man”, writes Heidegger, thus achieving “the triumph of the manipulable arrangement of a scientific-technological world and of the social order proper to this world. The end of philosophy means the beginning of the world civilisation based upon Western European thinking.”

He’s right, of course, never minding the havoc that Western European thinking had already let loose in the world. With all its evident technological and scientific achievement, this new world civilisation has also delivered cascading economic, environmental, political and social crises. All of our institutions of state, political and religious order are now plagued by corruption. Continue reading

QA 38. January 2013. Rocking the foundations of thought

Education systems that render people stupid, mental health treatment that renders people mad, religions that render people wicked, economies that render people poor, political systems that render people powerless. How is it that our social systems break down (render) precisely what they are meant to serve (render to)? Continue reading

QA 37. Dec 2012. Ten years down the road

http://learningdslr.com/365/theme/music/2012 has been my tenth year as a “philosopher in private practice”. I’m a bit surprised to find that what began with a hunch and a leap of faith has developed in unanticipated directions, yet stayed true to its roots.

The hunch concerned philosophy as a way of life. Continue reading

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