Philosophy as a Therapeutic Process

The word therapy is primarily used in the field of medicine. The word in this field usually means that an individual needs treatment to remediate their health problem, whatever that may be. The field of philosophy has the aim of helping us live our lives better, thus it acts as a therapy.  Disturbances in the Field (Lynne Sharon Schwartz) and When Nietzsche Wept (Irvin D. Yalom) are two works of literature that explain how philosophy does exactly that.


Schwartz shows us how philosophy acts as a therapy in the philosophy study group. “Therapists” – Gaby spoke the word with contempt –  “are the real sophists of the age. They travel around and give lectures – those marathons – just like Protagoras. They also take money for their teachings. … The only difference I can see is that in Greece they manipulated words and emotions to succeed in politics, and here the action is all in the private arena. You know, ‘relationships.’ Being with people is a technique” (164).  In therapy, individuals sometimes don’t realize that they are communicating with other individuals. Through this interaction, they can often come to the realization that their problems are often problems that others experience as well.


Yalom expands on this concept of therapy with explanations of how we think and formulate thoughts in order to communicate effectively with people. One of these explanations is found in the discussion between Nietzsche and Breuer about Nietzsche’s unexplainable illness. It begins with Nietzsche saying that the mental psyche of humans “does not function as a single entity,” and he goes on to say that there are subdivisions within our minds that “may operate independently of others. Perhaps ‘I’ and the body formed a conspiracy behind the back of my own mind. The mind is, you know, fond of back alleys and trapdoors.” What this means is that the minds of humans have varying degrees of complexity. The body is a physical object of an individual, and when we use ‘I,” we refer to our perceptions of our individual identities. Breuer then responds, “You suggest that there are independent walled-off mental kingdoms within our mind?” (97). Breuer means here that each of the subdivisions of our minds are universes of their own, because they each control our abilities in different ways, to think and generate multiple thoughts in one moment in time.


Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence is another thing that people can come to a realization about in the midst of completing therapy. This is first discussed in-depth during his first therapy session with Breuer in which they discuss the duty that a doctor has to his or her patients. Nietzsche says that Breuer’s duty to offer comfort to his patients “obliterates a more fundamental duty: each person’s duty to oneself discover truth,” (66) which he says is “arrived at through disbelief and skepticism” (68). This puts forth the possibility of a search for meaning, which is further implied when Nietzsche says that “those who wish to pursue the truth must forsake peace of mind and devote their life to inquiry” (178). These lines show how much of a struggle it is for us humans to find a common ground in the meaning of our lives.


However, we can’t establish that common ground without first making certain that we all know how we should actually live. In therapy, people may often say that something is wrong with them, or that they don’t like how they are acting. Nietzsche says, “Here you say that you are over-concerned with the opinions of your colleagues. I have known many who dislike themselves and try to rectify this by first persuading others to think well of them. Once that is done, they begin to think well of themselves. But this is a false solution, this is submission to the authority of others. Your task is to accept yourself – not to find ways to gain my acceptance” (174). In this passage, he is saying that it is not how you convince others to accept you that is valuable. For it is in learning to accept that the human flaw of not knowing how to live will always remain in existence that you will start accepting yourself for who you truly are.

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