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Editorial note: This book was originally published under the title The Big Questions but was re-released in paper back under the title Therapy for the Sane.
In his Gorgias Plato has Socrates
explain that his philosophical discussion concerns "a matter in which even
a man of slight intelligence must take the profoundest of interest--namely,
what course of life is best." In
the Apology Socrates justifies his mission by claiming "life
without this sort of examination is not worth living." Thus, there is little doubt that from its
earliest recorded history the discipline of philosophy has been deeply
concerned with how people are to best live their lives. This is also the concern of the nascent
philosophical counseling movement, of which Lou Marinoff
is a leading light. Marinoff's
The Big Questions: How Philosophy Can Change Your Life is the
third in a series of books on this subject.
The first, Plato, Not Prozac! Applying Philosophy to Everyday
Problems (Harpercollins, 1999), was reviewed
here on August 11, 1999. The second,
Philosophical Practice (Academic Press, 2001), was reviewed
here on March 11, 2002.
The Big Questions might best
be placed in the "self-help" section, as opposed to the philosophy
section, of your local bookstore. The
book is clearly targeted at a general audience and is meant to show that
audience that philosophy has something of value in that it addresses "the
concrete problems of living" (5).
There have been a number of books published in the last decade or so
recently that target not academic philosophers, but the lay public, which their
authors believe can benefit from the application of important philosophical
ideas to people's lives. Consider The
Relevance of Philosophy to Life, by Lachs; The
Art of Living, by Nehamas; Philosophy as a Way
of Life by Hadot; to mention but a few recent
The book is divided into four parts
of varying length and purpose. Part One
consists of one chapter and sets the stage for what is to follow. Those familiar with Marinoff's
earlier works will see a recurring theme here, i.e., a certain disdain for the "business"
of contemporary therapy, that "isn't science; it's
to Marinoff, managed health care demands "diagnoses, or
health insurers will not reimburse them for their services. So they'd better
find some disease if they want to earn a living" (7). The primary insight of The Big Questions is
to make a distinction between what Marinoff calls dis-ease and disease.
Dis-ease is a troubling concern regarding a
concrete problem of living that any of us can have from time to time. If "our beliefs cause you to feel dis-ease, and if you lack the philosophical guidance to
deal with your dis-ease constructively, then you are
liable to suffer unnecessarily yourself and possibly to spread your dis-ease destructively to others, like some virulent
contagion of the mind" (15).
claims Marinoff, can be alleviated simply by "modifying
one's beliefs, disowning one's prejudices, and altering one's habits." And this, he says, "amounts to
philosophical practice" (21). Thus,
The Big Questions is designed to assist people in avoiding two sorts
mistake. "Treating disease as
though it were dis-ease is one kind of mistake;
treating dis-ease as though it were disease is
another" (7). "You can't
always change your circumstances, but you can change the way in which you
interpret them" (9). The role of
philosophy, philosophical counseling, and The Big Questions, then, is to
assist in interpreting those circumstances.
Part Two is divided into ten
chapters, each of which addresses one sort of common concern or another that
seems to trouble a number of people. The
"therapeutic" response to these concerns is to first understand it as
a manifestation of some sort of simplistic dichotomous thinking and then to
achieve some insight and, it is hoped, relief through a more sophisticated
understanding of that dichotomy, usually with the help of a well-known
philosopher or philosophical idea. Part
two, making up the bulk of the book, in one way or another
deals with the following dichotomies: pain/suffering, need/want,
offense/harm, reason/passion, appearance/reality, universals/particulars,
war/peace, competition/cooperation, individual/group, male/female,
mechanisms/organisms, matter/spirit, and change/constancy.
Part Three consists of one
concluding chapter, "Building Your Philosophical House." This chapter is designed to help the reader
get his or her philosophical house in order.
In other words, as Marinoff puts it, "The
important question is whether your philosophy of life is working for you or
against you, or not at all" (319).
To make this assessment Marinoff offers what
he calls a "blueprint or a design to follow." He labels it the MEANS method. "The MEANS I'm suggesting is an
acronym. I will walk you through Moments
of truth, Expectations, Attachments, Negative emotions, and Sagacious choices..."
(320). If one
has some knowledge of the basic tenets of Stoicism and Buddhism one will likely
find this "method" somewhat familiar.
Part Four, "Additional
Resources," consists of four appendices.
The full title of Appendix 1 is "Hit Parade of Ideas: Ninety-Nine
Useful Thinkers in Philosophical Counseling." Here Marinoff
includes brief entries of philosophers from Aristotle to Zeno of Elea. Each entry
includes a one sentence or so "theme" capturing the spirit of the
philosopher, a well-know "refrain" or quotation or idea for which the
philosopher is known, a brief listing of the philosopher's "greatest hits"
or most famous works, and a brief summary of the philosopher's importance and
or biographical/intellectual context.
Appendix 2, "Organizations for Philosophical Practice," offers
contact information for philosophical counseling movements in the United
Israel, the Netherlands,
and the United Kingdom. Appendix 3, offers a "Directory of APPA-Certified
Appendix 4 consists of a helpful listing of "Further Reading." The book contains no index.
As I said at the outset, The Big
Questions is meant for a general audience, not for specialized
philosophers. Professional philosophers
will likely consider this book too philosophically simplistic and an example of
Certainly philosophy has always been about advice for living, in
part. Professional philosophers will
likely think this a trivialization of their chosen field regardless of whether
a general audience may benefit. The
Big Questions is about giving advice.
But as a method of counseling, it is not clear how it represents a
distinct method, as distinct from schools of psychotherapy.
The general advice making up the
theme of each chapter quickly wanders from a specific philosophical idea,
author, text, into simple advice-giving.
It's not that the advice offered is wrong-headed or bizarre. My concern is that there is no clear
foundational methodology, Marinoff's MEANS method
notwithstanding. The MEANS "method,"
it seems to me, is more of an organizational tool than a foundational method.
Priests, rabbis, and ministers,
give advice and counsel. They may not
employ a particular method or school of psychotherapy either. For them it may well come down to an
interpretation and application of scripture.
The extent to which this is accepted and proven helpful to members of the
congregation is the extent to which the therapeutic "method" is
validated. The humanistic psychology of
Carl Rogers and his followers provides a similar situation. Rogers
pulled from a number of sources, eastern religio-philosophical
sources among them. And perhaps that was
its strength and appeal. Should
professional psycho-therapists be concerned with the position that The Big
Questions represents? Not in my
opinion. As Marinoff
says, "we are not trying to replace or supplant psychiatry or
psychology. We are
simply restoring philosophy to its rightful place, in partnership with other
helping professions" (11).
There seems to me to be room for a self-help book targeted at literate
individuals that seek insight into their concerns and who may not need more
established, accepted forms of psycho-therapy.
© 2003 Ben Mulvey
Link: Lou Marinoff's web
Ben Mulvey, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of
Philosophy and Director of the Division of Humanities of the College of Arts
and Sciences at Nova Southeastern University. He received his doctorate
in philosophy from Michigan
specializing in political theory and applied ethics. He teaches ethics at
NSU and is a member of the board of advisors of the Florida