I tested a philosophical consultation

This is an article from Olivia Benhamou published in Psychologies Magazine, November 2004.


I tested a philosophical consultation

Why not consult a philosopher like one would consult a shrink?  Our journalist was lead into temptation. Here is the report of her session with Oscar Brenifier, a rigorous and exciting dialogue.


I always wanted to meet Socrates

When I realised, reading the book by the American philosopher Lou Marinoff, The Big Questions. How philosophy can change your life (Bloomsbury, 2003), that some philosophical « consultations » were available – and wide spread in the US – I immediately felt like going. I had been in analysis for three years, but still restless with many existential questions. I felt an urge to try a new method which would somehow be less at the mercy of my subconscious. It required quite some perseverance to find what I was looking for. After a few hours on the Internet, I finally found how to reach Oscar Brenifier, an ageless and address-less man since he was reachable by email only.

Several times, I wondered if he wasn’t looking to put my motivation to the test: first, he sent me a couple of rather arduous articles explaining in fifteen pages the principles of the philosophical consultation and the problems that could arise during them. After making sure that I had read those texts and that I accepted to submit to this process, he gave me an appointment for the following month. Apparently, the money side wasn’t a priority for him: “Fifty euros, but if you can’t, I will do the consultation for free”.


The dialogue

As the son of a midwife, Socrates was well placed to invent the maieutics, a method for “giving birth to the mind”. Four centuries before our time, he used to wander about the streets of Athens in search of possible interlocutors to whom he would apply his dialectical method, his goal being to teach how to reason. Any topic was good to explore as long as the interlocutor accepted to submit to the fire of his questioning, which aimed at stimulating the thinking and igniting reason. Thanks to Plato, his most devoted follower, we can still have access to dozens of Socratic dialogues on topics such as love, friendship, citizenship… some essential texts for whoever wants to learn how to philosophise.

On a summer afternoon, I am facing the gate of a house, in Argenteuil, a French town in the Val d’Oise department. Oscar Brenifier is waiting for me on the last floor. It is very warm in this office which feels like a cave although it is an attic. The man is tall, with glasses, and rather cheerful. But I soon realise the rather harshness of his thinking. The intense intellectual test is however yet to come. I sit opposite him and the consultation begins.  

–      What is your question?

–      How to find the right distance with my parents?

He repeats my words and notes them down.

–      So, first we need to clarify the elements of the question. What does “the right distance” mean? I don’t expect hundreds of answers from you. I want you to define precisely what you mean by right distance, in the absolute, away from the context of your question.

I find it hard to concentrate. Shyly, I venture:

–      A reasonable distance…?

–      No, it’s not precise enough. Let us beware of concepts deprived of intuition, as Kant would say.

–      A balance between authority and freedom.

–      Now there you go. But where are your parents in all that?

–      A balance between the authority that my parents have on me and my ability to be free.

–      So for you, freedom is the ability to emancipate yourself from your parents?

–      Yes, that’s it.

I don’t really understand what is going on. Only that the thinking is happening, through the mysterious grace of a dialectic which had always seemed theoretical to me. I am now fully focused and I take my time to give my best possible answers to the questions.

–      Then, reformulate what you initially meant by “right distance”.

–      The balance between authority and emancipation.

– How does the problem articulate with this authority and this emancipation?

–  My problem is to understand what value I should award to my parents’ authority.

–      And what about emancipation?

Oscar Brenifier is demanding. Tension is rising. I realise that, in order to move forward, everything will have to come from me.

–      It would be the possibility to be living with the authority, without it being a nuisance.

–      And why would it be a nuisance?

–      Because I can’t make do with it.

–      Ok, so let’s go back. What value should be awarded to the authority of parents?

–      A moral value?

–      Is this moral value disputable?

–      I don’t know. It should be.

–      No, you need to give a real answer. Is this moral value disputable, yes or no?

Is it the heat, the intense effort of concentration, the unusual confrontation with an interlocutor paying attention to every word I say? Suddenly I feel tears in my eyes. I think I am at the heart of my problem, although I haven’t shared anything personal or the slightest painful memory. I had never felt such a feeling apart from during a psychoanalysis session. I pull myself together and resume thinking:

–      So, on this moral value, is it disputable?

–      I can’t manage to dispute it.

–      But why would you want to dispute it?

–      Because it weighs heavy on me.

–      According to you, can one live without any weight on them?

–      I would like to think so.

–      This is not an answer. I repeat: can one live without any weight on them?

A rigorous thinking is demanding and cannot bear any compromise. Painfully, I keep up my effort. At this rhythmical relentless pace, the philosopher gradually takes me to the essential.

–      Ok, so on this balance, does it need to be found between your parents and yourself, or between you and yourself?

Reluctantly, I end up conceding:

–      Between me and myself.

–      Exactly. Because if you knew how to emancipate yourself, would there be any problem with your parents?

–      No.

     Then, what could be done to emancipate oneself from the judgement of others?

–      I don’t know.

–      Think of the question differently. How does a judgement become a problem?

–      Basically, when it leads to doubt.

–      Descartes on doubt, does that ring any bell?

I vaguely remember the famous cogito, but nothing precise… He explains:

–      According to Descartes, doubt leads to knowing. Do you agree?

–      Yes.

–   Ok so if you doubt but this doubt leads you to knowledge, what is the problem? And is there any problem?

–    My problem is to be able to assess people’s judgement without overestimating it.

–      And why would you overestimate it?

–      Because I lack confidence in myself.

–      There we are.”

He pauses, then resumes, looking satisfied:

–      Here is your true question: why do I lack confidence in myself. Your initial question was just an alibi question.

The demonstration is brilliant; I have nothing else to add. I pay the fifty euros without noticing. Before I leave, Oscar Brenifier humbly asks me what I thought of the consultation. I am quite moved and totally exhausted after this hour and a half of a mental harsh gymnastics.

I still manage to express my gratitude: despite the wave of emotions during the discussion, he enabled me to cope with a rigorous thinking. Without forcing, but without giving in to my hesitations, he allowed me to view my personal problem from a new perspective, and to reveal the true meaning of my words. The result is somehow close to what I had been able to obtain lying on a sofa. But the process is completely different. Nowhere near a shrink session, where the subconscious speaks involuntarily, and nowhere near a philosophy class which gives access to a fixed knowledge, the philosophical consultation pertains to a lively and subtle mechanism of the mind, which can only deploy itself in the presence of a stimulating interlocutor. A follower of Socrates, for instance.


To be or not to be a consultant

The philosophical consultation is an opportunity to put one’s received ideas to the test. A poor listening, an inability to slowly unwind a coherent reflection, an embarrassment about the question you are asking will just show that you have knocked at the wrong door.

There are very few philosophical practitioners; however, some “café-philo” speakers do offer some consultations in their “private practice”. I visited one of them. After kindly noting down the reasons for my visit, the verdict came: “In your case, I recommend Epictetus and Spinoza!”. After a quick rundown on their thoughts, he swamped me with examples to help with my issue. I felt like attending a high school philosophy class, a bit messier though. In the end, I was given some homework: “Take five maxims from the book of Epictetus, and reformulate them in your own words. Justify them all and then contradict them all.”. Fifty euros for this seems excessive to me… A philosophical practitioner is not whoever wants to be one.


0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *