Matt Lunquist: I have an undergraduate degree in philosophy, but most of my understanding of philosophy comes from largely informal study well after I graduated. I don’t represent myself as an expert in philosophy by any means. Your training is more formal and extensive, and your path towards an integration of the two seems more intentional than my stumbling-upon way of getting here. All that said, I find philosophy to be incredibly present in how I approach therapy.
I’m curious to learn how you see that. What’s philosophy’s place in the therapy room?
Jordan Conrad: That’s an interesting question. I read a similar question you posed years ago to one of our senior therapists Heather. When asked, “how does art enhance or contribute to your practice?” she responded something to the effect of: “It would be like practicing therapy without an arm–doable…but I would be encumbered.” I am impressed with Heather in so many ways, but not the least of which is in her restraint in her answer. I can sort of imagine doing therapy without philosophy, but I don’t quite know what that would look like.
My confusion, I think, comes from my understanding of what philosophy is. I think there are two understandings of philosophy: First, there’s the philosophy of philosophers like Socrates, Spinoza, Nietzsche, etc. And secondly, there’s the practice of philosophy, meaning examining a difficult subject with intense scrutiny and intellectual honesty with the goal of coming to an understanding of what is true about that subject. In distinguishing between these two understandings, the answer to your question becomes a little easier for me.
Philosophy’s place in treatment is in getting to know someone–how they think, their beliefs, desires, emotions, and so on that creates their personality, how they form relationships, and what all of this means. When I explore a person’s motivations, interests, or beliefs, I almost always find they are a lot more complex and interesting than they would appear from merely surface level. Being able to see those continuities and discontinuities has been incredibly helpful in my practice.
This is not to say the former understanding–the often comprehensive views about the world by brilliant thinkers that came before me–doesn’t influence my practice as well. Many philosophers have raised very hard questions about what we owe each other, the limits of compassion, etc. A familiarity with their thoughts on the matter that can be interesting jumping off points in therapy.
Matt: For me, I would say the place of philosophy in my therapy work is almost entirely your second understanding. I’ve never been interested in (though I’m not repelled by) the framework I see occasionally among a tiny grouping of therapy-philosopher types of, for example, “What Schopenhauer can teach us about depression.” It’s just not my jam. Rather, I see my having studied philosophy as present in the how with which I approach therapy. It’s dispositionally skeptical, loaded with checking assumptions, and considering the position with which I’m engaging a question. I always have a feeling there’s another way to look at a problem, and am always aware, for example, that constructing something as a problem may limit the path to inquiry.
I also see philosophy as an activity–a way of thinking or a way of solving problems. I am drawn to understanding thinking and problem-solving as activities: I think this casts them both socially, but also as messy. I say this as a sort of contrast to the understanding of philosophy as a set of ideas or answers. At its best, I think non-philosophers can do the same sort of activity that philosophers do and use the same tools (and function as tool makers), not just benefit from the doing other smart people have done.
Jordan: Philosophy (in the second sense) is an orientation and a method. It’s a way I go about treating hard problems by attempting to understand the concepts, and the way the concepts fit together. It’s a training in critically thinking through a position, playing with ideas, and exploring new ways to approach them without necessarily trying to “solve” them. Therapy is like that. I really need to understand the person or the whole thing falls apart.
As an example, a lot of philosophy is about working on and tightening an argument so that it becomes as strong and coherent as possible. The practice is essential because there’s a lot of bad philosophy out there in which the points don’t agree and the arguments are see-through. Similarly, in my experience as a therapist, I know having a belief system that doesn’t quite cohere with the rest of one’s thinking can be the source of a lot of distress. There is nothing inherently problematic about thinking or feeling differently about the same thing at different times, but it can be distressing. This happens all the time: being motivated by feelings we wish we didn’t have, acting in ways we wouldn’t like in others, only cultivating one part of ourselves and failing to attend to other, less valued parts, etc. Of course, this is natural enough–we develop our personalities over the course of a lifetime, and pick up traits and beliefs as needed. Being able to see these and unify them into a single coherent value system involves a process of inquiry, analysis, and “tightening up.”
Matt: Thinking about this statement of yours, “I really need to understand the person or the whole thing falls apart,” I’m reminded of the reason so many people cite for disliking philosophy: that they find it abstract and removed from their lived experience. I come to the practice of therapy, just as I came to my brief study of (and ongoing dalliances with) philosophy, namely through a desire to create change in the world, and an appreciation that that change must be one grounded in human intimacy.
I should share that I came to philosophy at a moment when, perhaps a few months prior to my first course, I likely would have listed it as the least likely subject for me to study. I wanted to do politics, social change, and it didn’t appear to me that philosophy had anything to do with that. My first course was an introduction to political philosophy, which was surely for me a gateway drug (Ironically, it’s political philosophy I’ve come to be somewhat less interested in). What got me hooked on philosophy was both a wonderful professor who understood that I needed Marx’s belief in human progress almost quite literally as an antidepressant, and my love for the intense scrutiny philosophy demanded be given to any topic (most relevant to me then were questions of living a good life and doing good).
The double twist here is that for a long time psychotherapy too would have also placed quite low on my list of professional interests. I found (and continue to find) a sad paucity of philosophy’s intellectual rigor or self-examination in psychology. What I found, with many twists along the way, was that the practice of psychotherapy, far more than the study of psychology or the practice of politics, was where I could find the most meaning, and could give the fullest expression to my desire to participate in human development. While I have respect for those who do, I am only interested in either a therapeutic or philosophical practice in as much as it is a part of creating better lives for real people.
Jordan: What philosophy really is about, and where it seems to capture both of our hearts, is in the approach it takes to problems: precise, honest, rigorous, ruthless. I also see some of my story in yours: a truly wonderful professor made me realize the kind of contribution someone like me can make, and why it is worth making it. It was teaching kids and adolescents with intellectual and developmental disabilities that made me want to bring that to a more practical setting. I never thought I would enjoy anything as much as I enjoyed philosophy, but that work brought me into contact with a whole range of other people: kids, parents, teachers, therapists, and speech language pathologists and occupational therapists… It was fantastic.
I kept reading philosophy and over time, I began to see my therapy work and the philosophy I was reading and doing as really integrated. It was about trying to understand someone else’s mind, what they need, and how they learn, all of which seemed similar to what I was doing when I was studying philosophy (parsing out the details of the arguments, figuring out what was relevant, the way in which the author writes and emphasizes certain things).