Donald Robertson explores the links between Psychotherapy and Philosophy

Psychotherapy and Philosophy


What can philosophy tell us about therapy?  There are many opportunities for dialogue between philosophers and psychotherapists.  In the past, there’s been interest in the potential relevance of phenomenology, existentialism, and other continental philosophies, particularly for psychodynamic and insight-oriented therapies.  However, there’s been a growing interest in the practical side of ancient philosophy over recent decades, particularly in the philosophy of Stoicism.  Why ancient philosophy?  Isn’t it a bit, well, dated?  The curious fact is that originally philosophy was very much a practical concern.  Most of the ancient schools of Western philosophy were about as concerned with one’s lifestyle and the use of contemplative exercises as Oriental traditions such as Hinduism and Buddhism were.  However, in the West, this practical tradition of philosophy as “care of the soul”, was virtually extinguished when the ancient philosophical schools were closed and their books destroyed, something partly due to the growing dominance of Christianity and its opposition to pagan philosophy.

The growing popularity of cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and modern self-help literature has triggered renewed interest in the practical side of ancient philosophy.  Although most ancient philosophical traditions had concepts and practices that prefigure aspects of modern psychological therapy and self-help, Stoicism is widely-recognised as the school of thought with the most explicit “therapeutic” orientation.

stoic1There are many concepts and techniques in Stoicism that should interest modern therapists and many people are initially drawn to these “exercises”, in particular.  However, there are two other features of Stoicism that I think are perhaps easily overlooked but ultimately of more importance:

  1. The beauty of the extant Stoic writings, particularly the prose of Seneca, regarded as one of the finest writers of antiquity, who far exceeds most modern psychotherapists in terms of his sheer eloquence.
  2. The philosophical nature of Stoicism, by which I mean the fact that the “techniques” are justified by a larger system of thought, that attempts, first and foremost, to define the “chief good” in life, or the purpose of human life, through applied reasoning.

The latter may seem futile to many people but most readers of Stoicism are struck by the earnestness of their endeavour to “figure out” the meaning of life, and many people over the centuries have found their arguments convincing.  Socrates once described philosophy as, to paraphrase slightly: “A battle of titanic proportions over the very nature of existence itself.”  Modern therapy and self-help lack that grandeur of vision, and for many people restoring the connection with the Socratic philosophical tradition, particularly Stoicism, answers a need to place therapeutic strategies and techniques within a wider and more fundamental sense of purpose and philosophy of life.

Having extolled the virtues of Stoicism, I will soon write another post with a short summary of what Stoicism is about.  For those who are interested in reading more at length about Stoicism, there is a recently published book by Arthur Still and Windy Dryden called The Historical and Philosophical Context of Rational Psychotherapy: The Legacy of Epictetus (2012).  I also have a book due out in 2013 called Teach Yourself Stoicism, which is intended to provide a practical introduction to Stoicism for the general public.

Donald Robertson

Author of The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy (2010) and The Practice of Cognitive-Behavioural Hypnotherapy: A Manual for Evidence-Based Clinical Hypnosis (2013)

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