Philosophical Coaching and Its Role in the Modern World
Philosophical coaching draws on the teachings of ancient scholars and religions for solving life’s problems in the twenty-first century.
What is Philosophical Coaching?
Philosophical coaching offers an alternative route to conventional psychotherapy and is appealing to people who seek secular yet direct life-guidance. Philosophical coaches work with clients based on a therapeutic relationship, much like traditional therapists. But rather than offering solutions based on the mental health or psychology of the clients, philosophical coaches offer guidance drawn from the writings of philosophers.
A philosophical practitioner helps clients to clarify, articulate, explore and comprehend philosophical aspects of their belief systems or “world views.” These include epistemological, metaphysical, axiological, and logical issues (E. Cohen, 1993).
Philosophy is the study of human life – how a person views themselves and their relationship with the world. Translated literally, philosophy means ‘the love of wisdom.’ Over the last century, philosophy has been relegated as a predominately academic topic, something that you read about more than practice. It is not viewed as a subject with practical applications in everyday life. However, ancient Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Aristotle, Epicurus, and Plato, whom you may call the founding fathers of the subject, viewed philosophy as a stream of knowledge that could guide people to make better life choices and alleviate internal agony.
Philosophical coaching is a ‘renaissance’ of the original purpose developed by the ancient thinkers. The movement emerged in the 1980s in Europe and the U.S., almost as a zeitgeist phenomenon, as people began to struggle with the challenges of modern living.
Philosophical Coaching is logic-based work. Perhaps as an emotional person, you have always thought a ‘logical approach’ would not work for you, but Philosophical Coaching is not a cold, harsh model that aims to banish your emotions. What it does instead is to encourage us to summon our rational mind— a privilege of being human— so we can become our best selves.
A Philosophical Coach will provide you with the critical tools to help you identify and put to rest irrational premises that cause suffering, and help you to construct philosophically sound antidotes to those premises. This helps you to build virtues such as respect, empathy, courage and temperance.
In Philosophical Coaching, behavioural assignments, rational-emotive imagery, and bibliotherapy (prescription of books and readings) are commonly utilised.
In contrast to traditional modalities of cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy, Philosophical Coaching integrates a theory of “guiding virtues” which gives you positive direction beyond merely overcoming faulty thinking.
As a model for self-development, Philosophical Coaching is not just psychological but psycho-spiritual. The aspiration for us to reach our full potential goes hand-in-hand with other models of therapy, healing or self-development that emphasise the idea of a ‘highest self’. For example, in Psychosynthesis or Internal Family Systems, it is said that everyone has a true self or a spiritual centre known as ‘the Self’. This part of us is always wise, compassionate, unperturbed by our day-to-day human conditions, and not traumatised by our past experiences. Our Self has realised the virtues of compassion, patience, peace, etc. The goal of personal development is not to banish our more vulnerable and dysfunctional parts. After all, it is unrealistic and perhaps unhealthy to not acknowledge our shadow. Our goal is instead to practise, every day, diligently and patiently putting our best Self in the ‘driver’s seat’. As a result, we shall increasingly think, feel and act according to our highest virtues.
Philosophical Coaching is an effective vehicle to help us do just that. People who like thinking in terms of systems and categories will enjoy the structure. With investigation, we can see that almost all of our challenges find their roots in ‘fallacies’— invisible ‘emotional rules’ we have set for ourselves, beliefs we have subscribed to, or behavioural reasoning that we act upon without conscious deliberation. Some examples might be ‘I need to be perfect all the time’, or, ‘the world needs to run according to how I wish it to be’. Each fallacy is then prescribed one or more antidotes based on philosophy. The entire system works like a well-organised medicine cabinet. The beauty is that we are borrowing from tried and true wisdom from across time and space. If the Stoics could run a Roman Empire or withstand being tortured in prison by employing these antidotes, I am sure we could benefit from them in dealing with our modern woes, as well.
The systematic nature of Philosophical Coaching allows us to come up with a set of actionable strategies that we can apply to a wide range of situations in our daily lives. We can now categorise our human experience, emotional triggers and unwholesome behavioural prompts by realising what logical faults they relate to. When we are triggered by a situation, we can draw from what we have studied. In the heat of the moment, it would be difficult for us to not react via our innate fight, flight, or freeze reactions, and therefore the ‘background work’ we do with reading and counselling is key. On a ‘good day’, the reading of philosophy and discussion with our counsellor can serve as mental heuristics that are stored in our mind. Then, when something happens unexpectedly, instead of reacting instinctively, we can go with mental heuristics or formulas that have been thought through; we can think about who we want to be instead of blindly following our animalistic nature. Through diligent practice, philosophical counselling can serve as a core foundation for working towards our most virtuous Self.
Philosophical Coaching, despite being logic-based, is not at all a cold or unrealistic model. It is aspirational and humanistic in every sense. A Philosophical Coach would not ask you to banish a thought because it is irrational but would instead walk alongside you to investigate the core reasoning that drives your surface behaviours. This process empowers you to become a change agent rather than a mere victim of circumstance. It allows you to regulate emotions, sharpen your thoughts, and live in an increasingly congruent way.
“Philosophy is at once the most sublime and the most trivial of human pursuits”
– William James
Would Philosophical Coaching Help You?
In Philosophical Coaching, the coach uses knowledge of philosophy to help you delve into your feelings, beliefs, thoughts, and behaviours. A trained practitioner takes you on a journey of emotional self-examination with the intent of giving you a better understanding of yourself, your relationship with others, and the actions that you may take to experience a fuller life.
A Philosophical Coach is trained to listen, to analyse your views of self and the outside world, to identify your assumptions, implicit truths, and values, faulty reasoning, and fallacies, to ask open-ended questions and then use the principles of philosophy to empower you to better understand yourself. The work does not just aim to solve your immediate problems – it also trains you to think, evaluate, and understand your life. Depending on the philosophical bent of a client, the Philosophical Coach may recommend reading the works of one of the great scholars of a particular subject.
Therefore, clients who qualify for Philosophical Coaching must be capable of critical thinking, self-evaluation, self-discipline, and self-awareness. Philosophical Coaching can be used in combination with traditional psychotherapy methods but is not the recommended therapy for handling severe mental illness. It is most suitable for people whose emotional struggles do not fit the classical definition of mental illness.
Some of the classic existential questions that Philosophical Coaching can help answer are
- Why am I here?
- What is the purpose of life?
- Am I a good person?
- What are my core beliefs and values?
- Why am I so needy in my relationships?
- Why do I find it difficult to control my mood swings?
- What would it take for me to feel truly happy?
- Is innate sadness a symptom of unexpressed grief?
- Why is it so difficult for me to trust someone?
- How can I have more meaningful relationships with people?
- How do I make the most of my life?
- How do I regain control over my life?
- How do I make peace with all that has happened to me?
- How can I heal my relationship with my parents/children?
Everyday life situations that can merit the assistance of Philosophical Coaching include
- The loss of a job
- Failed romantic relationship
- Being diagnosed with a serious medical condition
- Dissatisfaction with a chosen occupation
- Family discord
- Emotional hurt and stress caused by repeated rejection (e.g., an out-of-work actor)
- Coping with major life changes (e.g., loss of a loved one, having to care for aged parents, or giving up work because of parenthood)
- A general sense of disillusionment with life (e.g., midlife crisis)
- Dealing with empty-nest syndrome
Are Ancient Philosophies and Religious Teachings Still Relevant?
Much of the modern literature on philosophy is derived from the works of ancient Greek philosophers and religious teachings such as Buddhism. The Greeks viewed philosophy as ‘soul-medicine’ and believed that the mindful practice of philosophy was essential for a happy life. The Greek scholars addressed philosophical issues that have burdened humans for as long as we have existed. These include –
- Excessive negative emotions
- The essence of our existence
- Interpretation of life’s experiences
- The projection of fantasies onto real-life
- The limitations of our thinking
- The desire to acquire (wealth, fame, luxury) without questioning the motivations
- The inability to control thoughts
The ancient Greek philosophers believed that our emotions are dependent on our beliefs. For instance, for a wife, the idea of romance could be a candle-light dinner at a fancy restaurant and roses, whereas to her husband, watching a movie at home is just as romantic. If spouses continually compare their different wants and desires, they may begin to think that they are incompatible. Such thinking can lead to anger and misunderstandings within the couple.
Stoicism is an ancient philosophy that encourages us to minimise negative emotions and maximise joy through gratitude. The word “Stoicism” leads many to a false perception that stoic people are incapable of emotions. This is not true. A Stoic does not repress or deny his emotions; in fact, many prominent Stoic thinkers such as Marcus Aurelius demonstrate great love and compassion for humanity. Stoicism helps us to live out the wisdom captured in the Serenity Prayer: “Please grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.” By being aware of how we react to a situation, and accepting that there are aspects we cannot control, we can live a fuller life and have more loving relationships with other people.
Teachings from ancient religions such as Buddhism also have a lot to offer in Philosophical Counselling. Buddha gave 84,000 instructions over his lifespan of eighty years. According to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, many Buddhist teachings are a philosophical approach to leading a good life. Buddhism encourages us to accept the ups and downs of life. If we can accept that, in essence all phenomena are empty and transient, and that neither happiness nor unhappiness will last forever, we will be at ease. We often blame our life’s problems on external circumstances, events, and even on other people. Like the writings of the Greek philosophers, Buddhism teaches us that most of our problems can be resolved if we look internally and analyse our thoughts, actions, and choices. We must delve deeper and deeper into the true causes of our problems.
We can find happiness if we can learn to manage our compulsiveness in thought, action, and speech. Our compulsive desire to be perfect and seek perfection in others (children and romantic partners) can cause stress and disappointment for all concerned. Sometimes, our compulsive tendencies lead us to say hurtful words to others or lead us to indulge in harmful behaviours like consuming too much alcohol.
Metaphysical Security and the Idea of Free Will
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, developed by psychologists Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck, has its origins in the Greek philosophies of Stoicism and Epicureanism, and the works of Socrates. However, there are differences between ancient philosophies and CBT. In keeping with religious beliefs of the times, most ancient philosophers accepted fatalism as a part of life. The universe and its designs are bigger than us all, and therefore, we are not in control of our future. In some ways, such thinking can ease an individual’s mental strife – whatever must happen, will happen, we have little or no control over the future. Modern therapies, such as the CBT, do not incorporate this metaphysical aspect to help clients cope with life’s challenges. Instead, CBT focuses on the client’s present and past life situations, experiences, and emotions.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit”
An Invitation to Philosophical Coaching
If you want to take just three things from the works of the great philosophical scholars and apply those three things to your life, it would be :
1. Use logical thinking. We must view events as they are and not interpret them irrationally.
2. Accept the present circumstances. Feelings of pain, disappointment, and hurt, coupled with our limitations, are all part of life.
3. Know what we can and can’t control. For instance, you cannot control your child; what you can control is your own behaviour around your child and hope that they learn from you.
Whatever negative emotions or challenges you are experiencing today have been experienced by someone before. Philosophy combines the knowledge of the collective experience of humanity and offers time-tested guidance for controlling negative thoughts and emotions. Philosophical Coaching aims to make the works of the great thinkers of philosophy relevant to those of us struggling to find answers to life’s problems in the twenty-first century.
Today, the influence of religion has deteriorated, and many people are feeling lost, going through existential crises or have resorted to an empty, nihilistic attitude towards life. In our collective chaos, there is a hunger for meaning and direction. Many philosophies, such as the work by the Existentialist and ancient philosophers such as the Stoics, have modern utility because they prescribe a way of life,. As a secular tool, philosophy can stand in as a source of moral guidance and a vehicle for spiritual development. The non-dogmatic nature of philosophy allows it to be combined with a wide range of belief and value systems, and it has a potentially large role to play in our human flourishing.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”