The Therapist: Scientist, Philosopher, or Priest?

Looking back over the centuries, philosophy has often served society as the proto-discipline par excellance.  It was the name given to the community of the wise, before that wisdom become specialized enough or technological enough to become some professionalized academic discipline.  But sometimes, those professionalized offspring grew into philosophies of their own – usually marked by the telltale suffix “ism” – often to the detriment of both originary philosophical thinking and scientific acuity.  The awkward gait of these philosophies on stilts  moved clumsily through the radical questioning of philosophy and the objectivity of science.

Psychotherapy offers a case in point.  In a brief narrative of the history of psychology, Ronald Dworkin claims that psychotherapy has finally come back down to earth.  This grounding has not brought it back to being a science, but more accurately a “technology of friendship” (my words.)  My question to Dworkin is whether this evolution will continue, whereby the therapist in the end will shed the technology and become once again simply the wisdom of friendship, philosophia.

The article, titled “Psychotherapy and the Pursuit of Happiness” begins:

“Freudianism sits alongside Marxism and Darwinism in the pantheon of modern theories held to be so revelatory that they not only gained the adherence of Western intelligentsia but shaped the broader culture. During the first half of the twentieth century, an air of intrigue and mystery hovered around Freud’s newly anointed practitioners. Psychotherapists occupied a strange universe, speaking in a language so incomprehensible but seemingly authoritative that it alternately awed and scared the average man on the street.

Psychotherapy is no longer an intellectual movement today as it once was. But in the form of modern professional “caring,” it has assumed a new role, which is to provide a peculiar sort of substitute friendship — what we might call “artificial friendship” — for lonely people in a lonely age.

To understand why this occurred and what it means for American culture, we must study the fractious history of the mental health field over the last six decades. It is a complicated story, with a staggering variety of terms, schools, leaders, and techniques, so any overview must necessarily leave out many important details. But from even just a synopsis of the conflicts that gave rise to today’s culture of psychotherapy — battles over who would hold the truest title to physician of the mind, tensions between scientists and clinicians, academics and professionals, elites and the public — we can see more clearly how psychotherapy has profoundly shaped the American conception of what happiness is and how we can achieve it.”

4 thoughts on “The Therapist: Scientist, Philosopher, or Priest?

  1. Pingback: The Therapist: Scientist, Philosopher, or Priest? | virtualborscht

  2. I think interesting to consider link between philosophy and therapy. I found an article where Richard Rorty is reviewing Henry W. Johnstone, arguing that philosophical arguments have to be ad hominem – to the person – and following that argument I guess one could then also say philosophy has to be therapy:

    Quote from http://recollectingphilosophy.wordpress.com/2012/12/26/rorty-and-the-game-of-philosophy/

    “In Johnstone’s eyes, philosophizing is not a transaction between a man and a non-human reality against which he checks himself, but essentially and primarily a transaction between two or more human beings.”

    “If the truth or falsity of any philosophical statement is relative to the argument that establishes or disestablishes it, then, unlike the truth or falsity of a scientific statement, it is not relative to objective facts. Hence there is no argumentum ad rem [to the thing] to establish or disestablish any philosophical statement. This leaves open only the possibility of an argumentum ad hominem [to the person] .” (Rorty quoting Johnstone here)

    ‘Since we cannot decide the validity of a philosophical argument either by an appeal to evidence or to internal consistency, the only alternative is an appeal to consistency with the intention of the original propounder of the argument. The general schema of an argumentum ad hominem is that it is a reply to a previous argument which shows that the first argument “defeats its own purpose”‘

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