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.
Last month I was invited by Frances Widdowson, a faculty in the Department of Economics, Justice and Policy Studies at Mt. Royal University, in Calgary, to participate to a panel discussion on the topic of the “indigenization” of the university curriculum. It was a weird experience, to say the least. [Warning: if you think that as a White Male European I am automatically disqualified from offering reasoned opinions on matters pertaining the history of exploitation of Indigenous people by Western nations, you may want to stop reading and take a walk. I’m trying to save you a possible ulcer.]
As some of my readers know, I have an unusual background. I began my academic career as an evolutionary biologist (Master’s at the University of Rome; Doctorate at the University of Ferrara, Italy; PhD at the University of Connecticut), switching to philosophy (PhD at the University of Tennessee) later on. A number of people, even recently, have asked me why. Here’s the answer, which I offer not (just) as a self indulgent piece of personal biography, but as a reflection on the academic world and the role of serendipity in life. It may be of interest to some, especially young students who are considering a career in either field.
Some time ago I related a frustrating conversation I had with one of my relatives, an intelligent and educated person, who however holds onto what I consider hardly rational views not just in politics (where there is usually ample room for disagreement), but also about conspiracy theories, and more broadly the nature of the world. Recently, I’ve done it again. This time spending days on and off having a conversation via social media with a person I’ve never met and will never likely meet. Let me tell you what I learned from it.
Seven years ago I officially began my career as a philosopher, being appointed as Chair of the Department of Philosophy at CUNY’s Lehman College. One of my first duties was to completely restructure the Department’s web site, which looked awful and was hopelessly out of date. So I spent my first summer on the job (well, technically, even before starting my job, which officially began at the end of August) putting together the new site. If you visit the web pages of most philosophy departments, including Lehman’s, you will notice two differences between them and those of pretty much any other academic field (including not just the natural sciences, but also the rest of the humanities): first, they will almost certainly feature either a painting of Rafael’s School of Athens, or an image of Rodin’s Thinker (those accompanying this post, up left). Second, they will have a tab labeled something along the lines of “Why Philosophy?” It is on this latter idiosyncrasy that I want to focus here.
One of the many public controversies about science swirling around nowadays concerns so-called GMOs, or Genetically Modified Organisms. It has become fashionable in certain quarters to bash any criticism of GMOs, regardless of whether it is directed to their alleged health implications, to their (again, alleged) long-term environmental impact, or to the (much less alleged and more concrete) market and labor practice of large GMOs producers like Monsanto.
Over the last several years we have seen a depressing list of prominent scientists or science popularizers (interestingly, almost exclusively physicists) who have made very public statements about the uselessness of philosophy, while clearly not knowing what on earth they are talking about.
Now Bill Nye has, very unfortunately, joined what can only be characterized as a peculiar anti-intellectual fray. (And no, contra popular opinion, one can be an intellectual and yet behave in an anti-intellectual fashion in certain domains.)