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The Therapy for the SaneReview - The Therapy for the Sane
How Philosophy Can Change Your Life
by Lou Marinoff
Bloomsbury USA, 2003
Review by Ben Mulvey, Ph.D.
Oct 7th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 41)

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 titles. 

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 business."  Accoring 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).

Much dis-ease, 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 States, Canada, Finland, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, and the United Kingdom.  Appendix 3, offers a "Directory of APPA-Certified Philosophical Practitioners."  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 Philosophy Lite.  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 site.



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 State University specializing in political theory and applied ethics.  He teaches ethics at NSU and is a member of the board of advisors of the Florida Bioethics Network. 


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