Philosophical counseling as pseudoscience?

Philosophical counseling (PC) is the idea that people may benefit from discussing their everyday problems or long-term goals within a framework offered by one or another philosophical approach. Although the term “philosophical counseling” has been in use only for a few decades, this is what (some) philosophers have been doing for literally millennia, from the ancient Stoics and Epicureans to modern Existentialists, from Buddhists to Confucians, both ancient and modern. It’s a philosophical genre that for good (according to some) and ill (according to others) has given us Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy and Alain De Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life.

One of my colleagues at City College, Lou Marinoff (interview with him by Julia Galef and myself here), has been catapulted to fame thanks to his, shall we say spirited defense of PC and his best-selling book, Plato, Not Prozac! (In which, I hasten to say, he immediately clarifies that if you do suffer from a mental condition, by all means take Prozac or whatever medical help is available; but keep in mind that what that will do is to bring your mind back into a normal functioning range, after which you will still face the same small problems and large existential questions as before — hence Plato.)

Before turning to Stoicism as a general framework to live my own life, and to teach others who might be interested, I practiced PC for a couple of years with a number of clients, so I have first hand experience of what it means to be a PC counselor. I found that experience rewarding, and so did my clients, without exception — at least judging from their own comments. Whether it “worked” or not, however, is a complex question that requires a lot of careful thinking. Which brings me to the current essay.

A few months ago Roxana Kreimer, a writer and researcher in practical and experimental philosophy (who is also a PC practitioner herself), sent me the draft of a paper she has co-authored with Gerardo Primero, entitled “The future of philosophical counseling: pseudoscience or interdisciplinary field?” The paper is to be published as part of a collection entitled Practicing Philosophy: New Frontiers, Expanding Boundaries, edited by Lydia Amir, Cambridge Scholars Publishing. Roxana asked me to read it and publicly comment on it, both because I’m interested in practical philosophy myself, and because I’m a scientist with experience in issues surrounding the so-called demarcation problem, i.e., the distinction between science and pseudoscience.

Roxana and Gerardo’s paper is very critical of current PC, raising a series of important issues. It also attempts to make constructive recommendations in order to move the field forward. In the following I will summarize and discuss the main points of the article in the interest of furthering open debate on the issue.

Before we begin, however, I will present two different ways to conceive of philosophical counseling, which the reader will want to keep in mind throughout the rest of the discussion. It will soon be clear which way I prefer, and what I make of Roxana and Gerardo’s criticisms, but my main conclusions will be acceptable or not almost entirely depending on how one sees PC and what its practitioners are trying to do.

Model 1: philosophical counseling as a type of therapy. One way to think of PC is as a type of talk therapy, analogous to, say, Freudian psychoanalysis. This is the model adopted by Roxana and Gerardo. It is expressly rejected by Marinoff, but it is an open question whether, and how many, PC counselors actually behave in accordance to this model. If PC is a type of psychotherapy, then it makes claims to be a scientific, or quasi-scientific practice, with medical import. Those claims should accordingly be backed up by systematic evidence, just as we require (or should require) of Freudian psychoanalysis, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and the like. (Incidentally, let me note that of the latter two, CBT’s efficacy is abundantly empirically verified, while a number of people consider Freudianism to be pseudoscientific. A lot of other psychotherapies fall close to one or the other of these extremes.)

Model 2: philosophical counseling as advice or life coaching. A second way of looking at PC is that it is closer to life coaching, or pastoral or rabbinical counseling. (Yes, I’m aware that life coaching does not enjoy a high reputation among intellectuals, but this is just an analogy.) Its practice is therefore more humanistic than scientific, and it is not accompanied by general claims of efficacy, because “efficacy” varies from individual to individual, with the specific philosophical approach deployed, and with the different goals of both the client and the practitioner. Some PC counselors, like Marinoff, use the word “art” to highlight that there aren’t specific methods or set outcomes to the practice.

Let me now go through each of Roxana and Gerardo’s objections to PC, with associated personal commentary. At the end I will return to the two models and to a broader discussion of what I think may be going on.

(Further) preliminary note: as the authors of the article themselves acknowledge: “Some of the assumptions and beliefs that we want to discuss are not usually mentioned in academic publications, but they can be found in more informal sources (e.g., personal communications, blogs, conferences). This is the reason why we’ve used videos and blogs to approach those kinds of issues.” This is somewhat problematic, because it doesn’t distinguish between the academic practice of PC and what some of the counselors may say in an informal setting. It also means that a study that criticizes PC for lack of rigor and evidence based methodology suffers, in substance, from similar issues. This, however, does not mean that Roxana and Gerardo don’t make good points, so let us proceed.

Criticism 1: we lack evidence that PC works, and is not instead ineffective or even harmful.

Roxana and Gerardo maintain that PC has “empirical aspects,” and that therefore it ought to be subjected to systematic investigation to make sure that an “incorrect choice” on the part of the counselor doesn’t cause direct or indirect harm to the client. They add: “In both clinical and non-clinical psychological problems, it’s relevant to assess whether the interventions and encounters have positive, null or negative effects.”

Broadly speaking, I agree. One of the problems is that literally anything humans do has “empirical aspects,” and that therefore the question is what, exactly, one should test, and why is testing relevant or desirable (and who’s going to pay for it!). For instance, if I claim that I’m writing this while sipping some excellent Cabernet Sauvignon (which I am), that claim is obviously empirical. But it is both hard to test (I’m along at my desk in my apartment, on a Saturday night — there are no witnesses; also, I will soon clean the glass and put it away — no residual traces of my activity), and a test would be irrelevant (why would you doubt what I’m saying? And even if I’m lying, who cares?)

Of course, if PC practice falls under model 1 above, then Roxana and Gerardo have a very good point, though they are pretty vague about the sort of “harm” that may derive from exposing someone to Stoicism or Confucianism. But if PC falls under model 2 above then their criticism loses a lot of its force, and it comes closer to someone insisting to see evidence for any claim made, regardless of reasons or context. As you will see, the issue of model 1 vs model 2 will recur throughout the remaining points raised by the authors of the paper.

Criticism 2: PC counselors lack training in assessment skills.

The main critic of PC mentioned by Roxana and Gerardo is Angelo Fasce (who, by chance, was a visiting student with me at the Graduate Center in New York a couple of years ago). At a 2015 conference (from which a lot of Roxana and Gerardo’s material originates) Angelo “quoted several web sites of philosophical counselors that offer their practice as treatment of several psychological problems, like anxiety and depression.”

During an exchange with a defender of PC at the same conference, Fasce was asked “why would fear be a clinical problem?” To which Fasce answered: “How do you know if it’s fear or phobia?”

Again, good point, and yet. To begin with, if some counselors are indeed claiming that they can treat conditions that are clearly considered psychological pathologies, then they are stepping outside of their proper boundaries and should be called on it, or even threatened with legal action, whenever possible. This, however, is (in part) precisely why trade associations like the American Philosophical Practitioners Association keeps asking for official recognition and regulation, so that more precise (if always somewhat fuzzy) boundaries between PC and psychological treatments can be defined and patrolled.

Second, while Fasce is right, of course, that some fears may raise to the level of phobias and thus require psychological or even psychiatric intervention, there are two obvious problems that come into play: i) the psychological and psychiatric professions themselves have been accused — not at all without foundation — of medicalizing perfectly normal human behaviors, both in order to arrogate to themselves a larger number of patients and to gain financially from the move. ii) Psychology and psychiatry in turn have received heavy criticism for poor replicability of their findings (psychology) and for basing their notions of disease on the highly questionable methodologies that produce the different editions of the DSM. The latter has in fact been discarded altogether by the National Institutes of Mental Health as a reliable guide to conduct research in the first place, and DSM-type psychiatry has been called by some a pseudoscience. Seems like the problems of PC, whatever they may be, are actually small potatoes compared to those of both psychology and psychiatry — especially, again, if one classes PC as an activity falling under model 2 above.

Moreover, people with mental disorders often decide for themselves whether to seek treatment or not, and they don’t find out if they actually have a condition until they are seen by a psychologist or psychiatrist. This isn’t going to change regardless of the future of philosophical practice, which numerically speaking accounts for a small number of clients anyway.

Criticism 3: PC practitioners are guilty of professional intrusion, i.e., unlicensed practice of psychology.

Roxana and Gerardo state: “Some philosophical counselors have argued that the word ‘therapy’ has different meanings. Mónica Cavallé has proposed that ancient philosophy presented itself as ‘soul therapy,’ but this meaning is unrelated to the contemporary meaning of the term ‘therapy,’ which is linked with the health sciences.”

Well, to begin with, my dictionary gives as one of the meanings of the word therapy: “any act, hobby, task, program, etc., that relieves tension.” Thus, it is simply not the case that the term is characterized only by a medical connotation. Besides, the point is entirely semantic. Marinoff talks about PC as a kind of “therapy for the sane,” and it is perfectly clear what he means by that. If the objection is that only medical practitioners (and psychologists, who are not actually doctors) should use it, then fine, but nothing of substance hangs on it, and I suspect that lawyers will sort this out in the courts.

Criticism 4: PC practitioners have misconceptions about psychology and psychotherapy.

Roxana and Gerardo accuse PC practitioners of having misconceptions about psychology and psychotherapy, which is of course entirely possible. Yet, the sort of misconceptions they list seem to me to reflect the intended demarcation between philosophical counseling and psychotherapy (PT). They include:

  • PT makes diagnoses, PC doesn’t.
  • PT focuses on symptoms, PC on worldviews.
  • PT is committed to a theory, PC is not. (Though to be fair, PC practitioners do deploy a number of philosophical accounts when they advise their clients.)
  • In PT patients are under the influence of their symptoms (i.e., they suffer from a medical condition), while in PC the counselee is an active agent (i.e., he is a normal person seeking advice on specific or existential problems).
  • In PT the symptom’s intensity is judged by the patient (who has to tell the therapist how he feels), in PC the criterion of validity is an ideal of consistency and communicability (not sure what this means, actually).
  • In PT the goal is to alleviate the symptoms, in PC emotional relief is judged by conceptual satisfaction. (Actually, people seeking philosophical counseling don’t necessarily seek emotional relief, they want advice concerning their problems.)
  • In PC, philosophical positions remain open to question, while in PT any given therapist adopts a particular school of thought. (While often the case, this is not necessarily true: in the last part of my active career as a counselor I shifted to an exclusive focus on Stoicism, which of course may or may not work depending on the individual client.)
  • PT conceives of symptoms as caused by dysfunctional experiences in the past, while PC is atemporal. (So are CBT and other related cognitive therapies, which, however, did in fact originally derive from types of philosophical counseling, like Stoic practice.)
  • In PT, symptoms cause occupational and/or social distress, in PC philosophical concerns don’t usually impair social/occupational functioning. (The key word here is, of course, “usually.”)

Essentially, Roxana and Gerardo are trying to say that there is no sharp demarcation between PT and PC, and that therefore PC should be subjected to the same approaches, methods and standards of PT. But it is well recognized in the philosophical literature that most complex concepts do not admit of sharp boundaries, without this leading to the erasure of all meaningful distinctions. For instance, there are clearly borderline cases along the science / pseudoscience continuum, but nevertheless most sciences are very clearly and unequivocally sciences (physics, biology, chemistry, geology), and most pseudosciences are clearly and unequivocally pseudosciences (homeopathy, astrology, ufology, creationism). The occasional fuzzy boundaries (evolutionary psychology, parapsychology) are interesting and deserve serious discussion, but their existence does not undermine the broader distinction between the two areas or types of activity.

Criticism 5: PC practitioners have misconceptions about science and empirical testing.

Roxana and Gerardo report another bit of dialogue from the above mentioned conference, this time between Fasce and another attendee: “She asked: ‘Shouldn’t we take in account the counselee’s feeling as a criterion of validity? Do we always need an external validation? Fasce answered: ‘They can feel whatever they want, but this is not evidence that philosophical counseling is helping with his problem.”

Angelo, again, has a point here. A counselee’s feelings aren’t necessarily indicative that the treatment is working, which is why psychotherapies (which do present themselves as scientific in nature) ought to be independently validated, or at least subject to reasonable empirical protocols of confirmation. But that is precisely what is under dispute here: is philosophical counseling a type of psychotherapy? If it isn’t, then Fasce’s objection misses the mark, or is at least significantly blunted.

For instance, one my of clients was in search of a new way of interpreting what was happening in her life, in terms of a number of practical everyday problems, such as the lack of a relationship, mixed feelings about not having had kids, and her lack of satisfaction at work. None of these issues are pathological, and I don’t need an expert psychiatrist to tell me that. (Indeed, I would be highly suspicious if one did!) Moreover, the exploration of Stoicism that we began together over a number of sessions led her to: i) develop a new framework through which to see and analyze her problems; ii) accept some of the things that she had no way to influence at the moment (lack of a relationship, kids); and iii) work on the things she could influence in the here and now (behavior at work, and long-term career plans).

It seems to me obvious that PC worked in that specific case, by any reasonable, subject-oriented conception of “work.” But of course it may not have worked with a different counselee, one who may not have responded to Stoicism. Regardless, if the criterion of “working” has explicitly to do with how the counselee feels and how her views change, then the counselee is, indeed, the only one who can tell whether her PC experience worked or not. External validation can only play a role in terms of behavioral changes — such as those targeted by CBT. But even there, it is exceedingly difficult to do long-term systematic studies on whether PC, say, leads people to develop better relationships or find better careers. (Much of the empirical evidence about standard psychotherapy only targets short term behavioral changes, for reasons of both costs and logistics.)

Moreover, those external outcomes are not necessarily, or primarily, the goals of counseling. Counseling aims chiefly at helping the client to think differently about her problems, which may or may not lead to action or behavioral change. Sometimes all we want is a different way to perceive things. Indeed, strictly speaking, at least Epictetus’ brand of Stoicism aims precisely at this: changing not the external thing, but our perception of that thing: “Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: this is the path to peace.” (Enchiridion 8) Of as Nietzsche put it, Amor Fati. How, exactly, would one go about testing the efficacy of Epictetus’ (or Nietzsche’s) advice, since it has to do with internal attitude, and since the Stoic philosopher in particular explicitly says elsewhere that this requires a life time of practice? It would make just as little sense to test the empirical adequacy of the Buddhist precept of non-attachment, or the Christian injunction to offer the other cheek — hence my analogy above between PC and pastoral or similar counseling.

In the dialogue reported by Roxana and Gerardo the above mentioned Fasce, predictably, gets accused of “scientism.” He answers in this way: “I’m not saying that the only thing in the world that has value is science. Literary criticism, ethics and other disciplines that do not belong to the sphere of science are very valuable, but when it comes to health care, you need to test things, and science takes precedence. Socrates didn’t do pseudoscience because he lived before the appearance of science.”

While it is nice to see Angelo making the distinction between disciplines where a scientific approach is appropriate and those where it is irrelevant, he is massively begging the question when he automatically defines the issues addressed by philosophical counseling as “health care.” Since when are one’s doubts about whether to have or not to have kids, or whether to quit her job, a matter of health care? Again, I think we should actively resist the medicalization of normal life. We simply shouldn’t go to a psychologist or, worse, a psychiatrist, every time we encounter a problem in life, no matter how normal it is.

As for Socrates, no, that’s not the reason he didn’t engage in pseudoscience, and it’s astonishing that anyone with a modicum of philosophical training would even suggest that. Socrates was interested in epistemology and ethics, and even according to Fasce himself at least ethics doesn’t fall under the purview of science, and I would claim that epistemology (as a prescriptive discipline, distinct from the study of cognitive biases, which is descriptive, and properly belongs to non-pathological psychology) doesn’t either. Just read the Euthyphro, for instance, where Socrates questions the character that gives the name to the dialogue about the nature of “piety” and whether the gods approve of something because it is good, or rather something is good because it is approved by the gods. What sort of systematic empirical validation of Socrates’ claim could one possibly seek? How would that not amount to a profound misunderstanding of the entire Socratic project?

Criticism 6: philosophical counselors lack training in critical thinking and cognitive biases.

Roxana and Gerardo write: “During the sessions, both counselor and counselee are exploring and trying to make sense of different situations and experiences, by constructing and improving their respective hypotheses and framings. In this process they are exposed to many cognitive errors, immunizing strategies, and epistemic defense mechanisms, including the confirmation bias and the confusion of correlation with causation.”

As a general warning this is perfectly sensible. But it is hard to imagine (and so far as I can tell, Roxana and Gerardo do not provide empirical evidence for the claim) that: i) psychologists and psychiatrists are somehow immune from those biases; and ii) PC counselors, who are, after all, credentialed philosophers, have not studied logical fallacies and cognitive biases. Critical thinking courses are usually mandatory in philosophy programs, so if a counselor — or a psychotherapist, or a psychiatrist — has not been exposed to one they probably shouldn’t practice. But this hardly counts as a general criticism against philosophical counseling, or psychotherapy, or psychiatry.

Criticism 7: problems with the arbitrariness of methods and goals.

The last broad criticism moved by Roxana and Gerardo to philosophical counseling has to do with what they perceive as the arbitrariness of PC methods and goals. They again quote Fasce from the same conference as above, as to say that “philosophical counseling has no method, and each counselor chooses his own one.”

That’s right, and that ought to be clue number one that PC is not meant to be a scientific type of psychotherapy. I began my own practice by using the full range of philosophical traditions with which I am familiar (i.e., mostly Western philosophy) and chose which one I thought might be more helpful to a given client, depending on the problem and the client.

For instance, if the issue is love and relationship, Stoicism and Buddhism have relatively little to say, but the Existentialist literature is very rich in that regard. If the issue is friendship, Epicureanism comes to mind; but if it is social and political engagement then Epicureanism is close to useless (except as a general advice to avoid such engagement).

That’s what Marinoff means when he says that PC is more akin to an art than a science, in the broad, humanistic sense of “art.” Aristotle would have called it a techne, a skill, an Ancient Greek word that is often translated as “craftsmanship, craft, or art,” distinguished from episteme, which referred more properly to “knowledge, science or understanding.” This distinction is yet another example — as I have recently discussed with my colleague Dan Kaufman, of something that the ancients got right and that we modern get confused about.

Toward the end of my practice, as I mentioned earlier, I began to focus only on Stoicism, because I found it the most useful for a broad range of problems, and because I was personally interested in it. Another counselor may have made an equally valid choice and zeroed on Buddhism, or Existentialism. That’s because in philosophy there is no truth, but only a range of more or less adequate or useful accounts, or ways to think about stuff. To some this makes philosophy somehow inferior to the natural sciences. To me it simply makes it different.

Roxana and Gerardo, however, believe this is a problem, which they label the issue of “the [proper] selection of intervention and conceptual frameworks.” Interestingly, they claim that such selection ought to be based on the hypothetical-deductive method, which they claim to be characteristic of the natural sciences. Except that philosophers of science have given up on the idea of the existence of the scientific method, and the hypothetical-deductive solution in particular, which was offered early on by the logical positivists, was one of the first candidates to go down the drain, for very solid reasons. So it is strange to fault philosophical counseling — which explicitly claims not to be a science — for not adopting a framework that the sciences themselves demonstrably do not adopt.


In the end, the disagreement comes down to how one thinks of the nature of philosophical counseling in particular, and the nature of philosophy in general (an issue, the latter, about which I have written a whole book, available for free on this site).

Roxana and Gerardo’s position is clear: “We agree with Mosterin’s proposal when he writes: ‘Science and philosophy are continuous. Philosophy is the most comprehensive, reflective and speculative part of science, the area of discussion that precede and follow scientific developments. Science is the most specialized, rigorous and well contrasted part of philosophy, the part that is incorporated in standard models and textbooks and technological applications.”

I too think that science and philosophy are continuous with each other, as I see them as different aspects of the broader approach that I call scientia. Yet continuity doesn’t mean only gradation, but also the existence of distinct areas of expertise and applications, as well as of distinct methods. If one denies that, then one is only talking of continuity, but in effect advocating a unification or, in the specific case, a subordination of one field to the other.

I think that philosophical counseling is not a type of therapy, and does not deal with human mental health pathologies — unlike much of psychology and the entirety of psychiatry (fields, as I’ve pointed out, with plenty of serious problems of their own). It is, instead, more akin to life coaching or pastoral or rabbinical counseling, though even those are of course imperfect analogies.

If PC counselors want their practice to be paid for my health insurances, or if they do claim that what they are doing is therapy in the medical sense of the term, then they are mistaken and professional organizations like the APPA should discipline them. Moreover, when proper laws are applicable, such claims should be prosecuted as fraudulent.

But when practitioners of philosophical counseling explicitly say that they are not engaging in medical practice, and that it is a defining characteristic of what they do that their goals are not to cure anything, but rather to offer a variety of potentially useful perspectives on existential problems, then they should be taken at face value and allowed to practice their art, or, more precisely, their techne.

154 thoughts on “Philosophical counseling as pseudoscience?

  1. garthdaisy

    Oops, pastimes not past times (bloody autocorrect) though some people really are looking for past times. 😉


  2. SocraticGadfly

    Garth, I disagree back with you.

    I don’t “have” a purpose.

    I may create a purpose, but that’s far, far different.

    And, how is existentialism “factually wrong”? Your claim about Aristotelean teleology is an opinion, not a fact.


  3. SocraticGadfly

    Massimo, indeed back. And maybe, as with pharmacological medications, there was a monetary angle behind declaring homosexuality a mental illness?

    (And, there’s still big bucks for that among the Religious Right and gay conversion therapy. Two years of weekly sessions at $140/hour? Hey, $14,000 is nice money!

    Also, here in the US, the DSM is also the “bible” for insurance billing. Internationally, whether in single-payer or private-insurer countries, I venture the ICD serves some similar purpose.


  4. garthdaisy


    “And, how is existentialism “factually wrong”?”

    Because we come with an essence. Any parent with more than one child can tell you that. Kids come with a personality that neither you the parent, nor their friends, nor they themselves create. You are born with your personality. It will fully realize itself differently in different environments but you are born with a personality, this is pretty undeniable IMO.

    “I don’t “have” a purpose.”

    I think you do.

    “I may create a purpose, but that’s far, far different.”

    Agreed it is far far different. That’s why existentialism is factually wrong. You need to follow your bliss not create it from scratch.

    “Your claim about Aristotelean teleology is an opinion, not a fact.”

    Agreed. Sort of. I believe it is a fact that we are endowed by natural selection with a strong sense of purpose to use our particular inborn talents and personality to make life better for our society, family, friends, tribe. Aristotle noticed this without the help of knowing about natural selection. He was so damn smart! He noticed that people are happiest when they are doing what they were meant to do, which is to use their special inborn gift (talent/ability) to it’s fullest potential, which is to improve life for their tribe. I don’t think he quite got to this last part but only because he didn’t have the knowledge (wisdom) of evolution by natural selection.

    Man I would love to go back in time to explain natural selection to Aristotle and watch his eyes light up.

    Just opinion. Tear it apart if you must but go easy please. I’m a fragile snowflake. 😉


  5. SocraticGadfly

    Garth, your last paragraph is right; that is just opinion. And, your comments on essence are just as much opinion as on teleology. And, per the bon mot, you’re entitled to your own opinion, but NOT your own facts. Whether from you, or General Jack D. Ripper, those his take is quite funny:

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Massimo Post author

    Angelo, your “few remarks” seem to be just as long as my “few comments.” Still, hopefully others will benefit from the exchange, though I’m positive neither one of us is going to change the other’s mind.

    I don’t believe (anymore) in informal logical fallacies, see this paper on the topic I co-authored with two collaborators: So perhaps we can drop all talk of fallacies and focus instead on whether a particular argument does or does not apply in a particular case, and why.

    Taxi drivers: I have explicitly said (and so has Marinoff, and the APPA) that PC counselors should be regulated and certified by the State. The APPA has been lobbying the New York Legislature for a while now, without success. So I don’t think we disagree on that point.

    We do disagree on what such certification should amount to. Again, I think it is entirely misleading to talk of PC as a type of medical therapy. It is far closer to life coaching (which, by the way, at least in the US does not, in fact, require certification of any sort).

    Your insistence in saying that PC counselors work “as psychotherapists” would be maddening, if it weren’t for the fact that I’m training as a Stoic (without a license).

    You also misunderstands the nature of PC in another fashion. It is very explicitly NOT the job of counselors to offer ready-made answers to counselees based on specific philosophical precepts. What they are supposed to do is to expose the counselee to different ways of thinking about their problems and then work it out by themselves.

    The only positive thing you can suggest is that PC disappears? So let me ask you. I teach a course in practical Stoicism at City College, which introduces students not just to the ideas but to their practical application in everyday life. My Department has approved it. Should it disappear?

    Or, along similar lines, I publish a blog at that is meant to help others understand and apply Stoicism to their problems. It even comes with a regular (and very popular!) advice column. Disappear also?

    My new book, How to Be a Stoic, is essentially a self-help book written from a philosophical perspective. It comes out May 9th. Should I call the publisher and tell him to forget about it?

    And while we are at it, should we stop publishing reprints of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius? Of Boethius? Of De Botton? If not, why not, exactly?

    Oh, so you think it is possible to demarcate between psychology and pseudopsychology — even as you admit that this abysmally fails in practice — but not between the much more clear distinction between PT and PC? And shouldn’t PT take your own advice and “disappear” until they have cleaned their own house, a house that is actually affecting millions of people and raking in billions of dollars annually?

    Logotherapy is related to CBT, and it’s not a derivation of psychoanalysis, though it is sometimes claimed by Existential psychoanalysts. Frankl explcitly wrote that the ideas come from Stoicism, not from Kierkegaard.

    I know that REBT is psychology, not philosophy. That was part of my point. But check out Debbie Ellis’ talk at last year’s Stoicon (on YouTube) to see just how closely she (and Albert) thinks the two are.

    Your alchemy-astrology analogy misses the mark so widely that I’m not sure at this point that we are having a serious argument. And accusing me of engaging in pseudoscientific tactics is laughable. Meanwhile, I will reiterate that your accusations, rather ironically, are entirely based on anecdotal evidence. Shouldn’t you, Roxane and Gerardo have done serious systematic investigations before raising the issue so vociferously?

    You keep coming back to “it is measurable.” Everything is measurable, including the number of bricks on my wall. the question is why one would want to do it, and according to what criteria. PC is more like literary criticism, or, in fact, literature. It works for some and not others. Are we going to set up a certification program, and experimental protocols, for the “efficacy” of writers and poets as well?

    I know you reject the analogy, but that, quite bluntly, is your problem, not mine, or PC’s.

    Thank you for the clarification about misiology, though it’s still not clear why you brought it up in this context. And yes, my record would “seem” to indicate that I’m a good scholar. I believe that’s why you spent some time visiting me at the Graduate Center. Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. SocraticGadfly

    Interesting sidebar that Massimo doesn’t believe anymore in informal logical fallacies. Looking at the abstract/precis, this is probably another issue I’d put on a continuum and say the fork’s tines are on a gradient. The idea may not be totally useful, but I don’t think it’s totally unuseful by any means.

    Of course, modern informal logic, at least what I studied, has that gradient with “inductive” reasoning between “deductive” and “fallacious.”


  8. SocraticGadfly

    That said, as I start to read through, in the Introduction section, Massimo et al call for “a more modest role” for informal fallacies, rather than the elimination of the idea.


  9. Massimo Post author


    Right. The idea is that cries of “informal fallacy!” have become easy shortcuts for both skeptics and believers to take cheap shots at their opponents without actually doing the hard work.

    Maarten, Fabio and I argue that a particular reasoning pattern may be fallacious or not, depending on the specifics, so that cases need to be argued, not just labeled.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Robin Herbert

    Hi Massimo

    Let me stress again that I am not taking their part against PC, just pointing out an area where care would need to be taken.

    Let me say a word about the claim by Jerome Wakefield that implies that depression is just normal sadness. This is just wrong. My Mum struggled with depression for years with everyone saying that all she needed was support and comfort or to be told to pull herself together. I was against her going on medication because I felt that it was treating sadness as a medical condition. But she got her life back.

    And contra Wakefield there is no loss of sadness, quite the reverse. Depression drowns out normal sadness. My Mum got normal sadness back, she said “Now when I ‘m sad I’m just sad”.

    Liked by 5 people

  11. Massimo Post author

    Thanks Robin. Jerome may go overboard in his criticism, and you are right, we should be careful not to ignore or trivialize people’s mental problems. They are real, and they hurt. But there is so much uncertainty and questionable practice in psychiatry that I find it weird to uphold it as a model for PC to follow.

    And that’s without mentioning (again) that I simply consider the treatment of PC as a kind of medical therapy to be a category mistake.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Robin Herbert

    Also, the statement about the DSM is perhaps not much comfort to someone with mental illness.

    But if I had cancer then an honest statement about the state of cancer research would not give me much comfort either.

    So what would I do? The doctors would be doing nothing wrong by giving me a clumsy treatment which may or may not help me. That is the best they can currently do.

    The same goes for treatment of mental illnesses. This is the best we can currently do and it is far better than doing nothing.

    Incidentally, one of the criticisms of the NIMH’s new research approach is that it may skew treatments toward pharmacological approaches.


  13. SocraticGadfly

    Massimo, thanks again for posting that. I pretty totally agree with what you all say on the “ad hominem” class, and a fair degree on the “generic” class.

    I’m halfway, at least, with you on the straw man, on the idea that at times it can be used as a rhetorical tool. Of course, “denying the counterfactual” is itself a tool of logic, so there maybe a separate demarcation issue there, where it’s best to use that other traditional label in these cases?

    The part on the conjunction fallacy is quite interesting, especially the notes on Kahneman/Tversky. You don’t quite mention this particular angle, but quite arguably, denotative vs connotative meanings of words and phrases are at play here.

    Otherwise, folks, give it a read yourself.


  14. Alan White

    Massimo, do you think that informal fallacies at least are short-cut markers (grouped by family resemblances) that collectively indicate a failure of argumentative relevance? I don’t spend much time on them in teaching logic–maybe a week–but that is how I characterize them and their limited uses.

    One reason I include them is that it’s clear that marketing and advertising often intentionally use fallacies for their psychological and emotional force. Students need to know about that.

    I apologize if this strays too far from the OP.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. SocraticGadfly

    Oh, one more note: Per the whole idea of informal logic, beyond the use of “fallacy” as a rhetorical tool itself, I think Massimo is suggesting that beyond the issue of “fallacy forks,” we approach the idea much more inductively than classical Aristotelean informal logic did with its original categories of fallacies.


  16. davidlduffy

    Contra Angelo Casce’s comments, I don’t have a problem with philosophers carrying out counseling. There does seem to be a misconception in some comments regarding licensing and legal constraints on counseling – in most countries there are no constraints on people setting themselves up as a counselor just as long as they don’t pretend to be a registered psychologist trained in a state-recognized program. The medical profession is quite aware that various alternative therapies thrive at least partly because of the longer, less expensive consultations they offer ie they spend time listening to their clients and they offer comfort and narratives. In medical general practice, much of what one sees are classified as “problems of living”. Even for depression, guided self-help courses (eg internet based) are as effective as other therapies in RCTs, so it’s not much of a jump to see the approach incorporated into the practice of a non-formally-trained PC.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. SocraticGadfly

    Alan, I think they’re heuristics, and back home from work now, I think Massimo et al mentioned that in the paper. Correct me if my memory is wrong, Massimo; I haven’t reopened the link yet here.


    That said, based on that reading, here’s where I’m currently at. Massimo, you may not be entirely here, but it’s my thought.

    Let’s take each of these fallacies, whether classically created or more modern ones.

    Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we can construct a broad, generic but not idealized version of each one.

    Per my liking for continua, as noted repeatedly with psychological constraints and volition, let’s say we can do similar here. For illustrative purposes only, just as I did with volition and psychological constraint, and not because I believe we can actually be that precise lest that red herring [sic] get raised again, let’s see if we can’t, for the generic versions of each fallacy, without making case-by-case claims, put an inductive reasoning percentage on it.

    Let’s say the fallacy of composition, which Massimo doesn’t really discuss, we say is still 80 percent valid. Inductively good, and fairly solid.

    Let’s say that the ad hominem, which was discussed, is only 30 percent valid. It is itself fallacious.


  18. Massimo Post author


    Right, there is no problem in using the informal fallacies as heuristics, or as Socratic puts it, along a continuum. The problem we are pointing out is that this has now become a game of “ah! You just committed fallacy X!,” which then excuses people from actually considering the specifics of the situation.


  19. davidlduffy

    Briefly continuing my thought above: undoubtedly friendship is protective against mental illness (numerous cross-cultural studies). It is good when a friend recognizes severe psychiatric illness in another, and refers them appropriately (consider public education campaigns re suicide prevention), but it is not an essential part of the net benefits of friendship to well-being. You may well suggest everyone should have some exposure to psychology and the recognising mental illness in high school (this is sensible, and is undertaken in some programs at least), but absence of this doesn’t mean that you can’t successfully practice the art of friendship.


  20. Robin Herbert

    Hi garthdaisy

    Man I would love to go back in time to explain natural selection to Aristotle and watch his eyes light up.

    Agreed. It would not have taken very much either,

    You would just need to point out a few things about the reasons he rejected natural selection in the first place, to go through with him and say ‘Look, you are exactly right here, here, here and here, but see your analogy about mistakes in art being thrown away, consider that occasionally mistakes are better than what was planned and are kept. Can’t the same thing happen in nature?. Also, forget that idea of Empedocles about arms and legs going about on their own, that is wrong for just the reasons you point out – but consider very small stepwise changes of just the kind you draw attention to, things that would happen, as you aptly put it, “due to corruption in some principle in the seed”‘.

    I think that his eyes would indeed light up.

    Incidentally, did you know that Aristotle’s animal classification system is based on the best guess at how they might have evolved?


  21. Robin Herbert

    Aristotle might have been very surprised that it took the rest of mankind two and a quarter millennia to take the final step onto the peak he had led them to.

    “These fellows in what you call the 17th century, they have the advantage of a microscope and yet they come to an obviously wrong conclusion – we already knew that features such as heads, limbs etc do not appear until later in the development of the embryo and so they cannot be contained complete in each of the bubbles of the sperm. Didn’t they read my work on this? Didn’t they try those experiments I did themselves? And why do they blame me that they took so long to get here, if they will take 100 steps backward from my work before they get there?”.

    I would say “Ah, but they distrusted your work, they magnified the mistakes you made and the wrong conclusions you reached and they buried the rest. A man called Aquinas did your reputation irreparable damage”.

    “He hated me so, then?”

    “No, he venerated you”.

    “Ah, I see. So much the worse”.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Roxana Kreimer (@RoxanaKreimer)

    Dear Massimo:
    Thank you for writing such a detailed article. Although I don´t remember asking you to write it, I would have done it and think it is an excelent idea to be able to talk about this subject in your popular blog.
    I do think that philosophy contains many true and false propositions. This does not mean that every philosophical proposition can be clasified in terms of truth and falsehood. But the mere fact that an idea belongs to Epictetus doesn´t turn it unfalsiable. Epictetus argued that for the good life it is enough to have a correct vision about things, rather than pretending them to happen as we want. Buddhism also holds that happiness comes from the inside, that we shouldn´t have emotional attachments to people and events, because they are unpredictable and uncontrollable, and that we should cultivate an attitude of acceptance and renunciation, since changing the mind is more effective than changing the world. Today we know that this is basically true, but that for most people, other objective conditions are necessary, for example, having two or three near affections and not being indigent (Haidt, 2013) . So according to evidence what Epictetus says is partially true. Three great visions of human beings that were originated in philosophy have been refuted by contemporary scientific research: dualism (Plato, Descartes), blank slate (Locke) and the noble savage (Rousseau). They are false. So philosophy can claim falsehoods.
    It is definitely not your case (I know your work and I appreciate it a lot) but philosophical counselors all over the world are not big fans of science. I am in the movement since 2002, went to many conferences and know phil counselors all over the world (I never saw you in the conferences). Most of them are continental philosophers and wouldn´t mind if the idea of a philosopher (“We are born as blank slates”) has been refuted by science. They don´t read science, they only read dead philosopher´s books. They are like widows that honor the memory of their dead husband. So it is not the case that psychology is in one side and philosophy is in the other, just with good ideas for life. In many issued they overlap. PC is an interdiscipline, as X-Phi. Many of the ideas suggested by philosophers are uncertain (people with sense of humor are melancholic, as Kierkegaard says?, genius men are melancholic, as Aristotle says?) What is the evidece? I am not saying that all philosophical ideas can be tested, but as many of them refer to reality, these ones should be tested, and they are being tested, and we should write a new history of philosophy trying to know which of those ideas are based in evidence. If we don´t do that, we will be as medieval monks honoring the bible. Of course, you work with lovely ideas of stoics. I love your work with stoics, and stoicism is one of the best philosophies for life, but that does not mean that just because an idea belongs to a philosopher, that idea is “art”. Many of them are not art, they are empirical claims and should be tested. So this is one of my proposals: not only we should test PC itself, but the ideas that are used in the practice.
    -People come with their problems to PC and to PT. Even if you don´t call that therapy, we should have minimum guarantees that it is effective and that it does not harm. People depressed and with many disorders go to PC and we have no minimum guarantee that a hegelian philosopher will be able to help him.
    -I know philosophical counselors that mix PC with astrology, telepathy (Maria Joao), psychoanalisis (Schlomit Shuster and Brennifier, the most popular of all, he uses the “resistance” argument, is anything more opposite to philosophy?), and bulling (Brennifier, the one that has more disciples, he bullies children and adults, young people and philosophers, everyone can see his “sesions” in Youtube) If you went to a PC conference, you would run away horrified. Of course, many of these things are not in the heart of PC, but I mention them just to show how PC can harm.
    -You suggest that PC can be as counseling and as religious advice. I think that both can be harmful (as ontological coaching can be), present ridiculous ideas or work as a placebo (philosophy should be more than a placebo, and I am sure that we agree with this)
    -Ancient stoics did not do PC. They had good ideas, and shared them in pre-scientific times.
    -You are surprised with point 6 because you probably only know philosophical counselors of the US. Most of them are not of the US but european. Their scientific education, as the one we have in Argentina, is terrible.
    -The tu quoques have been pointed out by Angelo. I agree, and though you may not believe in fallacies, I still think that they point out bad arguments. All the problems that psychology has, don´t diminish the need to improve PC. We do give suggestions to improve it, contrary to what you say.
    -I also agree with Angelo´s argumet about testing CBT. Not only behaviours are tested, thoughts are also tested in many experiments, and not only the ones of CBT.
    -Last but not least, Zoran Kojcic says that he does not see my work as “scientific nor philosophical”, but he gives no arguments. It is a mere attack. I think that interventions like those should be erased from the blog of a philosopher. If mere agressions take part of a debate, we are saying to the ones who read that this intervention deserves to be published. I suggest to leave only the arguments.
    Although we may disagree in many issues, I have listened to your podcasts and agree with you in much more topics than the ones this lines may suggest. So I want to thank you once again for your valuable work in favor of (1) practical philosophy and (2) skepticism. We share these two great loves and when I look around in philosophy, I realize how infrequent it is to bring them together. Lejaim for philosophy!
    Roxana Kreimer

    Liked by 4 people

  23. SocraticGadfly

    Roxana, and Angelo (and Massimo) are some of these issues due to continental philosophers being “in the saddle more” in Latin America than in the US? Roxana, by the end letters on the URL for your website on your Twitter page, I presume you’re from Argentina? (I don’t know where Angelo is from.)

    Otherwise, your paper, and Massimo’s analysis, has provoked some of the most stimulating — and generally on-topic, eh, Massimo? — discussion here.

    And, to you, l’chaim.


  24. Thomas Jones

    Massimo: “The problem [with regard to solely relying on informal fallacy retorts] we are pointing out is that this has now become a game of ‘ah! You just committed fallacy X!,” which then excuses people from actually considering the specifics of the situation.’ ”

    Yes, that’s true particularly today on social media sites. It is also common in panel discussions where political issues are being aired. A host may pose a specific question or concern and solicit comments from panel members only to have one or more deflect or clearly change/redirect the issue without acknowledging the tactic they’re employing; and instead of challenging a question as perhaps erroneous or “loaded,” engage in equivocation or fail to articulate the ways in which the original concern is in some way misstated or inadequately characterizes an issue.

    But, as you know, there is a reason why such fallacies are signified as “informal.” That doesn’t mean recognition of them isn’t helpful to a viewer/listener. But they do suggest that perhaps one or more participants is not acting in good faith, or to be more charitable, that a question or issue has been originally ill-posed or misunderstood, and/or might require additional clarification.

    I don’t think you would substantively disagree with what I’ve said here. But I do think that there is value in challenging a retort by pointing out an informal fallacy in a response. Of course, someone may reject a question as ill-posed or a concern as reflecting an implicit bias; in which case, she should acknowledge and address these considerations in her response from the start rather than subjecting the viewer long-winded sophistic subterfuge intended to confuse the subject.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Markk

    Looks like there are at least 3 fans of Aristotle here, including myself.

    I agree that discussions of natural selection and other topics with Aristotle would be fascinating.

    Of course, Aristotle and I would agree about everything in any such discussion, and we would ride off into the sunset together.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Markk

    I’d imagine the conversation thus:

    Me: And there’s this amazing thing called quantum physics.
    Aristotle: What might that be?
    Me: I don’t understand it, to be honest.
    Aristotle: Fat lot of good you are, then.

    Liked by 1 person

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