From the beginning, more or less explicitly, quite unknowingly, we carried out philosophical consultations in an informal and semi-constructed way. Then, over time, we formalised this practice. However, one day, after having decided to “officialise” the practice, we discovered that there was a specific quality to the so-called consultations, which is undoubtedly owed to the dramatic emphasis on the context, or perhaps to the more established stage setting, and definitely to the gesture represented by a financial transaction and its outcome. Something which appeared more clearly in the human psychological pattern. We discovered, during one of our first “official” discussions, a crucial principle, which turned out to be very useful. A few years later, we called this principle: the “scarecrow concept”, the “ghost concept”, or the “the black hole of the thinking”.
Everything to be happy about
One of these initial formal consultations introduced a man who asked me the following question. “I have everything to be happy about, why am I not happy?”. In his sixties, he was a doctor who described himself as having everything to live for: “A life without major worries, a rather harmonious family, some successful professional and social lives, and even a gratifying artistic activity…” However, he could not find happiness, and even felt periodically quite unhappy. This was not preventing his functioning, neither was it obsessing him insanely; whilst talking, he feigned a certain detachment in the observation of this aberration which was affecting his psychological functioning. He wanted, however, to understand the nature of it, an intellectual desire which was somewhat haunting him. As I was asking what in his life made him the happiest, he replied that it was music. After I requested some precisions, he explained that he played the traverse flute, that he took part in an amateur group of music chamber, and that he played from time to time in small concerts. When he played the flute, he confided, he seemed to be finding an inner flawless peace which he could not find anywhere else. Since the secret of his happiness lied there, I decided to deepen the nature of what was so satisfying to him. “What makes you so happy when you play the flute?” I asked. His reply was a little surprising. “What I like most is the touch, the movement of my fingers on the keys, and feeling the frailty of the column of air at the core of the flute, which is as palpable as a living being”. I had already noticed, earlier in the discussion, the significant use of various expressions of material or organic type when expressing himself or answering my questions, but here, his answer was quite striking. The description of music as a physical activity exclusively, the manner in which he described the fact of playing his instrument, was somewhat surprising. So I asked him about the nature of what he used to play, as he had not mentioned it yet, happy to just tell about his connection to a material object erected as a living being. “What do you like to play most?”. Without any hesitation, he replied: “Mozart”. “So Mozart comes down to a touch and an air column?”, I asked. He stared at me in disbelief and granted a reply to my ludicrous question. “No, Mozart is much more than that! Mozart…”. He stopped and looked thoughtful. I insisted: “You did not finish your sentence. What is Mozart?”. He played it as if he had just emerged from a deep daydream, made a gesture so as to gain some courage or to support his own words, and said: “Mozart is…”. But he did not finish his sentence, interrupting his gesture, his hand frozen in the air, then falling heavily whilst the words could not come. The colour of his face had changed, his features were somewhat broken out, and his body was slowly collapsing on the chair. This man was not the same anymore, he had seen something, the exact nature of which I did not know, something I could only sense. Certainly, he had not replied to me, and although I could not reply for him, I could vaguely imagine what this was about. But he had perceived the “problem” himself, a true black hole in his thinking: the absence of a reply is sometimes a reply which is as substantial as a “real” reply: an absence often turns out to be a greater and more vivacious presence than an actual presence. The hollow has often more to tell than the full, for words as much as for people.
On several occasions I had to repeat the question without ever getting a clear and articulated answer. The main thing was for this man to become aware, and this enlightenment had occurred, even if he was not yet ready to name the object or phenomenon in question. I kept my inquiry during our discussion, in different ways: “What else do you find in Mozart, other than the touch and the air column?”. Sometimes he totally ignored the question, talking about something different, as if he had not heard, and other times he stared at me, speechlessly. This rational man who at the beginning of the session had answered all of my questions without any major problems, was not there anymore. Later, through experience, I would learn to stay away from a question which was too striking and I would use different angles to get back to it in a more natural manner. But here, I over-wanted a reply and in a way that was too direct. In the absolute, this was not a problem: he had perceived what I now call “his ghost”, this thing which lived in him, the reality which caused him a problem. However, through subtler and more precise questioning, perhaps he would have been able to name it, and then undoubtedly to reconcile with it. Today however, I doubt the possibility of such an outcome, as it seems that this man had done so much to deny this reality that it would have been almost impossible to summon it so bluntly. Perhaps, various hypotheses could have been discussed with him to see if one of them was speaking to him.
This is however how I now analyse this man’s situation. He had been trained as a doctor. The living must have been such an important concept even before his studies that he chose to devote his life to it, dedicating himself to the body and its harmony, fighting against pain and death. Besides, whilst speaking, he was using organic metaphors and explanations in a very natural way, more than his choice of studies could justify. I have met some doctors on other occasions who, although they shared a similar tendency, did not manifest it in such a sustained way. Also, he conveyed a rather organicist vision of medicine, or a materialistic one, where the first vision is the one of the organs, whether functioning or not, in other words a medicine of the visible, typically French, almost mechanical, where the materiality prevails, and not the processes and the psychological side of it. Now, if we follow one of Spinoza’s principles, quite useful in the work involved in the philosophical consultation, any assertion is a negation. To choose something is to reject something else, to choose a concept or an explanation is to refuse another concept or another explanation, however unpleasant this might seem to the contemporary believers of the inclusive thinking, which should actually be named the omnipotent thinking: those who think that everything is in everything, and the reverse. So, within his finiteness, within his partiality and his imperfection, man does choose, and what he does not choose says at least as much about him than what he chooses, the range being much wider. Therefore, by choosing to have the organic and the material prevail in his life, this doctor was trying to shelve a different reality which could be named, according to the circumstances, to the people and to the cultures: metaphysical, spiritual, mental, divine or other. As in general concepts have several contraries or opposites which, when they are pronounced, imply a choice that shed light on the initial term. So, if our man had “openly” picked the “other” reality, by qualifying or determining it, by naming it, we would have known more precisely which reality he was denying, but we would have also been able to specify the nature of the reality to which he desperately hung on to, through a mirror image process. But failing to do that, we only had a rough idea of what he was denying, yet still substantial.
Now if we go back to his initial question: “I have everything to be happy about, why I am not?”, what could we deduce? Let us try a “wild” interpretation of his case. On the material level, in both financial and practical senses of the word, I have everything I need, I am fully satisfied, I do not have anything else to ask for. Yet, I need something else, an “other”, something that is different and which I prefer to ignore the existence of, a desire which I shall admit to only if disguised, whether referring to its articulation or its satisfaction. This thing, which we will name “immaterial” since we know about it only through its negation and not through the assertion of its identity, yet constitutes the most urgent need, or even the only need, since the rest is fulfilled. Now, needing is necessary in life, without it we are dead, since life is desire and satisfaction of desire. So here is a man, haunted by life, denying his own life since he is denying his own need, preferring to ignore it. He fulfils it covertly however, pretending that it is something different from what it is: he conceals the immateriality in the folds of the materiality, since this is how he describes or explains his musical activity. However though, since the object of desire is being veiled, hidden, denied, the satisfaction can only be frustrated. If it were announced and clarified, it would undoubtedly still be frustrated, but at least there would be a reconciliation with the self, whereas here, this reconciliation is impossible and the self denial produces a pain which can become nagging and hard to bear. This is understandable since a whole portion of the self is denied, amputated, but in fact quite perplexing to find in an organicist mind for whom the being must be complete, integrated and fixed in order to be truly alive. We are left here with a form of partial suicide, or self-destruction. But to get to a reconciliation, the identification of the presuppositions on which the existence was founded, the existential engagement – in this case, the primacy and exclusivity of the organic and the material – would be required as well as the acknowledgement of this exclusivity is wobbly. But how to reach this with a man in his sixties who has endeavoured all his life to focus on one side of his being only. He managed to fulfil adequately, or even brilliantly, the various and numerous requirements of this idolised side of him, and he would now need to admit that he was acting in a reducing and rigid way, and recognise that he had only been grinning and bearing it. It is himself, but also his social recognition, the glory he had been granting himself all his life, his status, his personality and his relatives’ eyes which would be put in question here; his entire existence which had organised, crystallized or stiffened itself around a denial.
To recover or not
There is yet a certain difference between an approach of a psychological nature and an approach of a philosophical nature, if one can make such a generalisation. In our philosophical perspective, getting better or healing are not sought for, neither is reducing the suffering, not that these therapeutic or palliative dimensions should be excluded, but simply because they are not the purpose of our work. We do not deny that there might be a problem, that there might be suffering, or even a pathology, and those terms are useful to characterise what is happening, however we do not have to “heal”, we are no “therapists”, although the philosophical practice has a therapeutic dimension to it and our clients periodically tell us that they found in our practice a certain well-being or some attenuation of their moral suffering. Certainly, people visit us in general because they have a problem which they find hard to bear; certainly, a few colleagues call themselves philo-therapists; certainly, the consolation or the search for happiness are familiar terms in the philosophical culture; but despite all that, it is not how we conceive our practice. We would actually be in agreement with Spinoza: it is not by looking for happiness that we may find it. We could say the same about the problem itself: it is not by looking to “resolve” the problem that it may be solved. Actually, solutions are often just a “fig leaf”, a haven to hide away from the problem, to ignore or deny it. Moreover, to endeavour to solve a problem at all price is somewhat a reductive vision which pertains to a phobia of the problem.
In our opinion, philosophy is an art of the elsewhere, it is the place for the alterity, the unexpected and the unthinkable. In order to philosophise, in a certain way, one should not know what to look for. A problem can still be solved – there is no reason to exclude this possibility – but one can also accept it, ignore it, perceive its ridiculous nature, learn to love it, dissolve it, understand the constitutive dimension of its nature, one can sublimate it or transcend it, re-articulate it or transpose it, so many different ways to process a problem, but to do that, in order to find the appropriate way, one must give up any specific desires which would subordinate our reflexion to a predetermined purpose and prevent us from seeing what is going on. As the keyword, if there is any, is for us awareness: seeing, perceiving, noticing; there lies in our perspective the rooting, the non-negotiable, even though in the end the subject acknowledges, explicitly or not, that he does not want to see. Before we meet, the subject “knows” that there is something that he prefers not to see, he is necessarily aware of his desire or his will not to see. But does he accept this “knowing”? Then, with the philosophical dialogue, through the questioning, he sees, he knows, more explicitly, more inevitably. Then again, he has seen, he has lost this false virginity, the nature of which he ignored, and if he wishes to get back to the original, if he misses the garden of Eden and wishes to return to it, he will do knowingly. He won’t ever be the same. Even if, secondly, he manages to somewhat forget his own reality.
So, Socrates invites us to search for what we are searching for not knowing what we are searching for, even if it means deciding to stop searching it: we are not to decide in advance what to search for, the nature of the object that is sought for has yet to be determined. We ought to create new routes using clues, and slowly discover the object of the quest, knowing all the way that this object is not an idol but an icon; it does not constitute the substance, it does not stand for the unconditioned, it is solely reflection and circumstances. So when our doctor client does not name this dimension which inhabits him but which he refuses to inhabit, there is nothing extraordinary there. For Schiller, man is caught up in a tension between the finite and the infinite, he stands at the junction of two paradoxical dimensions, precisely the fracture of the being. There lies a human specificity. Animals are in the finite only, gods only know the infinite, as Plato tells us, so neither of them need philosophising. This rupture between the finiteness and the infinite nests at the heart of the human history, a singular or a collective history, at the heart of the human tragedy, a singular or a collective tragedy, and we do not see how we could either escape or fix this. In the same way, we could not escape our mortality or our humanity, since these diseases are constitutive of our existence. Or, ironically, let us say that we can only cure them through their accomplishment, through their realisation. Just as we would say that a cancer is cured by getting to the bottom of its process. Philosophy tells us that man is his own disease, so is there anything it could cure us from?
What will our doctor do once out of the philosopher’s practice, will he escape the questioning effect? Will he evade the awareness? We do not know and in the absolute it is not our concern, as cruel and inhuman as this may seem. We are scarcely interested in this, or just on an anecdotal level. He came, he saw, he did not say, but he perceived, he recognised or just made out the unspeakable; what more is there to do? We invited him to name the ghost, he preferred not to call upon it. Was he not ready? Was he not made for this? Does he not want this? We do not have to know for him, to decide for him, to want for him. He came to the Ball, we invited him to dance, he only cared for a few dance steps, either he got bored, he got scared, or he decided that dancing was not activity for him. The premise about the philosophical discussion is free consent: here we have an autonomous person, we may think whatever we want about him but what only matters is what he thinks of himself, what he thinks for himself, what he thinks from himself, although through our questions we invite him to think further, to think aside, to think differently. We have invited him to see, he has seen only what he could see, he has seen only what he wished to see. We have launched a process which will last what it lasts. No more no less.
Seeing and hearing oneself
Once this is said, we have to admit that we are not neutral in our practice: we do have a wish which is not completely undetermined, one without which our practice would not be called as such, or its nature would be unconscious. We actually feel suspicious about those who do not know how they operate, those who under the pretext of freedom or creativity pretend that they work in different ways according to the circumstances, as if things changed completely for each person. They simply do not dare to admit or identify their philosophical rooting, whether it be about the content or the methodology. This vagueness is just a pretext for the worst aberrations, for inconsistency and for narcissism. So for us, the key concept is awareness. Anxious about this, we found out that there was a practical problem. We wanted the subject who consults to be able to see what was going on, but we realised that during the consultation, having to focus on our questions and on the answers having to be produced, he could not see what was happening. He could not see himself answering, neither could he see us questioning him. Caught up in the succession of things, he could not have any general perspective allowing him to go further in this approach, which is to see better. Moreover, after an hour of consultation, the subject is frequently in a state of cognitive dissonance, feeling knocked sideways by the strange places he has had to visit, and it is hardly possible for him to remember what happened. We do however want this recollection, both for him to know himself and enjoy his philosophical work, and also for him to see how we operated, for him to understand that there is no jiggery-pokery, so that he is able to recognise a few basic operations of the thinking which he can re-use at later stage. So, at the beginning, we started offering any volunteers a recording of the discussions, then, later, once the technicalities taken care of, we offered them to videotape them so the dialogue could be watched later. We even wrote a questionnaire to ease the work involving assessments and analysis. But to our astonishment — naivety knows no limits — we noticed that most people did not wish to hear or watch those recordings, not facing up to this fact, hiding behind obscure alibis. The few times when we got an explanation for this phenomenon, although just introductory remarks, other than “I did not find the time” and “I will do shortly”, they had to do with a feeling of self hopelessness which, supposedly, was associated to the exercise. Besides, this was confirmed to us by several clients amongst those who managed to find the courage – and the time – to watch and hear themselves, they found themselves “silly” or “unable to answer the questions”. However, those who had invited a close friend to share this moment with often said that the friend’s perception was different from theirs, that they had found the exercise more revealing and interesting than they had themselves. Something which confirms a very useful hypothesis for the group work: others are clearly more aware than ourselves of our own limits or imperfections; they have less to lose and so they accept better to perceive them, and also they are used to them. So others often know us better than ourselves, another premise which distinguishes us from many therapists. More recently, we started inviting clients to analyse the recording of their consultation with us, so as to go beyond the first impressionistic, shameful or fearful degree, and to try together to find the meaning of what emerged.
There are two incidents which seem to illustrate significantly this “self rejection”. The first one concerns a man in his thirties who visited us because he had a practical question: “Should I go back to studies?”. After a quarter of an hour of discussion, the underlying problem, the problem behind the problem – or at least one of the problems behind the problem – appeared clearly, as always out of the man’s mouth itself: with his own words. Actually, he just hoped to be loved, and going back to studies mainly represented a strategic tool designed for his personal and social success so as to be better loved, more loved, or actually loved like he hoped, some wishful thinking. When this person heard his own words, after a short moment of quiet hesitation, he suddenly stood up, angry, and declared that he wanted to leave, that he “had had enough of it”, an expression which is in fact quite interesting, expressing both irritation and saturation or satisfaction. For anyone who hears such words, “I want to be loved”, not being involved in the internal drama of this person, what is there that is so extraordinary about them? Wanting to be loved, wishing to be loved more or better, how unremarkable! There is nothing to make a fuss about! But for this person, this confession is a true tragedy. Why is that? What is his story? Here again, as inhuman and cruel as we may seem, the narration of a story is not our business, the historical origin is scarcely interesting; we would even add that it is often misleading, or that at most it conceals the actual reality of the subject. So this man could not bear to hear himself say that he wants to be loved, this sentimental or emotional side of himself was something unthinkable, unbearable. Now, it is precisely this place of resistance that matters to us. Since the nature of man is predominantly the one of a living being, with needs, vulnerabilities, fears, which the philosophising tries to deal with, to solve or to conceal, to shift or to annihilate. Therefore, to pinpoint a resistance, to obtain a reaction, is to make the life behind the words, or the spirit behind the letter, or the subject behind the object, visible. Just like a doctor would gently use a reflex hammer on the knee to examine some reaction and liveliness, the questioning tries to find the sensitive nerve centre of the thinking and therefore of the being. It is where the resistance is that the being can be found, the being as a pathology, the being as a way of being, the being as a momentum, the being as a reason of being, the being as an absence of being. About this man, it is not the fact that he wishes to be loved that is interesting, but the fact that he cannot admit it. What will he implement so as not to see this significant dimension of his being? Will he accept it when he sees it, or will he get angry, as he did with us?
The second incident concerns a woman in her sixties. She already knows me because she has taken part in some collective workshops in a town library for a few years and she has a practical problem which she would like to resolve. She has been working for her employer for many years and he now wants her to go into early retirement. She does not want that, however she wonders if it is worth fighting and refusing, whilst she still can, or if she should just accept what she is ask to do. I ask her a few questions to understand the context and I learn the following facts. She has been working all her life for the same employer, she hasn’t had any family and she got very much involved in her job. Obviously, whilst looking to identify her main motivation for the work, we naturally and easily stumble across the fear of death. Here again, nothing extraordinary. As we explained, there are a certain number of concepts which I name “scarecrow concepts” and each one of us unknowingly elect one, which is exactly the concept which we permanently try to evade or not to see. These concepts all revolve around the annihilation of the being, they incarnate the nothingness in different ways, disclosing different aspects of it. Broadly speaking, we almost always find the same concepts. They relate to not being loved, not being useful, not being recognised, not being free, having nothing, being lonely, being nothing, being impotent, suffering, and of course dying, which was the case for this person. One might say that these “negative” ideas all converge, that they all revolve around the same thing, which we do agree to, since they all deal with the “non-being”, with the cessation of being, the absence of being, the lack of being. Now, as Spinoza says in his conatus, the being always strives to persevere in its being. If psychologically these distinctions all fundamentally amount to the same thing, on the existential level it is totally different as, according to the cases, the subject will be mainly looking for love, usefulness, recognition, freedom, possession, company, over-existence, power, pleasure, life. And as much as the subject could be wanting several or pursuing them all, there is in general a specific concept which is the key-concept and which refers to what I call the “scarecrow concept”, the one which most incarnates the nothingness for this specific person. This fear, or flight, will constitute the keystone of her existential and conceptual axiology. Of course, it is sometimes necessary to dig into the conceptual mess and untangle the web of ideas to identify this keystone as, according to the principle of the octopus who throws ink in order to protect its running away, the human mind creates confusion in order to conceal to others and to itself the nerve centre of its functioning, a perspective of which the simple mention could be frightening. And when a subject is questioned so as to detect this nerve centre, he often shows the characteristics of what we call the syndrome of the drowned person. He struggles frantically, throws his words all over the place, protests, becomes aggressive, jumps from one subject to another, so many red herrings which are certainly unconscious and which sometimes become hard to contain and avoid, since the reason is given up. Sometimes, the conclusion that the person is not ready to identify this black hole in their thinking simply has to be reached. I call this concept the “black hole” because, like the astronomical black hole, it seems to be absorbing all the mental energy of the subject, in such a degree that nothing appears in the region of this concept, where a void is being created. It is therefore very tricky to define.
For this woman on the verge of retiring, as we indicated, the “black hole”, the “scarecrow” concept was death, which is – quite sensibly – a classic. What could be more natural for a living being than to refuse death, even if only the idea of it! So, during the discussion, it was established clearly and without much resistance that the flight or fear of death had been the main reason for this woman to get so involved in her job. But naturally, as a principal of reality, all the things that had been postponed indefinitely during the working life were sent back inevitably on the cusp of this new period, as long as it may be. This rendezvous, missed a million times, now became unescapable. I must admit however having been surprised by the relative ease with which the concept had emerged and had been work on during the consultation. But another more significant surprise was yet to happen. Once the discussion over, I left for ten minutes to get to my computer to engrave the recording of the conversation onto a CD. When I came back and held the CD out to this person, she stood up, made some grand gestures with her hand and dropped: “It wasn’t me speaking! It was not me!”. I answered gently that, anyway, this recording belonged to her, that she could take it and do whatever she wanted with it. She took it but it was the last time I ever saw this person again; she never took part in a workshop again.
Failure or not
This last reaction, and others of the same kind, pose the question of the continuity of the philosophical work and its commercial profitability, since it is so risky. On that subject, the practitioners do not have the same vision. During an international congress in Seville, Lou Marinoff, a famous colleague of mine, and myself had different views. As a matter of fact, quite proud of his work, he was narrating his successes to the audience when he “confessed” one of his failures. It was about a client who never came back after a session where he had discovered an upsetting concept. Since this incident was described negatively, I raised the objection that, on the contrary, this proved that a crucial point had been reached, which seemed to me to be point of a philosophical consultation. Ironically, but not jokingly however, I ventured a hypothesis that, on the contrary, it was undoubtedly the most successful session described that day, since the subject in question had reckoned he had completed what he had to do with the philosopher, and that it was up to him, alone, to pursue his own work. And undoubtedly, or maybe, during this last – or only – consultation, he had perceived or identified the “scarecrow” concept which inhabited him, and which had been enough for him. Once out of the philosopher’s practice, it is up to the client himself to determine whether he prefers to forget about this concept or bring it to life, it is not the philosopher’s business anymore, since the subject will now deliberate autonomously on the question. It is up to him to find out later if he feels an urge to consult a philosopher again, to decide if he needs a certain assistance in case he feels overtaken by his own thinking, or simply to carry on as he used to, after a short philosophical break.