Andrei Simionescu-Panait on Elegance
33 minutes read - 6968 words
In this interview, Dr Simionescu-Panait talks about his research on the phenomenology of elegance, about ‘Socratic’ approaches to philosophical counseling and about his new book on elegance: “The Reconciled Body.”
Dr Simionescu-Panait, welcome! It’s great to have you here for an interview on your new book, “The Reconciled Body,” which deals with the phenomenology of elegance. Before we go into the details of what this means, would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself? Who are you, where do you come from, and how has your career brought you to this question of the philosophy of elegance?
I’m still living in the city I was born in, which is Bucharest, Romania. I travel now and then, which is something I enjoy, but in contrast to many migrating academics, I stay and watch the same city slowly changing. It’s a bit like watching the weather change, an exercise in focus and patience.
I stumbled upon philosophy when asking myself what I wanted to do with my life. I had a good background in mathematics because of my father, who was an academic and mathematician, teaching at the University of Bucharest. Yet I was drawn to the arts. I can say I’ve tried most of them, except dancing. Music is what I love the most. When I was about 14, I wanted to play the songs I loved on my own, so I took up guitar. I had a four-year training period in classical guitar before switching to electric guitar. Playing is a form of getting in tune with alterity, anticipating, and harmonizing with the other. What I learned then later facilitated the listening competencies I needed in my job as a philosophical counselor.
Being reasonably good at hard sciences but wanting to pursue a more humanistic career brought me to philosophy. At that time, I told myself I am going to study philosophy to better understand this ambivalence of mine. But then, I started to enjoy philosophy on its own, especially its capacity to make one understand the subtleties of relating to a thinking other. Up to this day, I do not enjoy purely formal philosophical affairs. Nor do I promote a kind of “philosophy for the masses” approach, screaming “applied philosophy,” as in “useful philosophy.” Reflection is an intimate but partially abstract experience that can be shared. It is a customized experience, not unique but fairly individualized. I naturally arrived at Husserlian phenomenology because of its focus on experience. Despite producing difficult texts, there is something personal yet lucid, even generous in Husserl’s texts, a trait I also find in another philosopher who taught me how to philosophize: Aristotle. You can see how both do their best to explain their thinking and the shifts it implies, without trying to embezzle the reader, to look smart, or to be intellectually intimidating.
Reflection is an intimate but partially abstract experience that can be shared. It is a customized experience, not unique but fairly individualized.
This philosophical attitude I grew to admire initiated the question related to elegance. I concretely lived the text’s elegant relation to my reading consciousness. Being convinced that it is not only me who goes through such an experience, I started to believe that there may be something common, perhaps even universal, in how people make sense of elegance.
But the topic was relatively uncharted, so the method could have taken almost any form. This was a match with my general desire to be more experimental, more creative. I generally like philosophies that let you push them further, that are not rigid, pretending to have the last word. I like to play the game a method proposes, but in a way in which I overdrive it. So it was a must for me to develop this preoccupation with elegance within a phenomenological frame that is experimental on its own. The somewhat intuitive match was between elegance and a phenomenology of body and movement. Both topics are intimate, even visceral, and they are an excellent ground to develop examples of things you know but neglect. I sometimes treat the text as if it were literature, giving extended examples, submerging the reader to a level that is immediately recognizable for him or her.
I don’t think my passions built up and culminated into my preoccupation with elegance. Surely, it would be a nicely ordered picture, but it would also be somewhat misleading. Rather, there was an attitude that appeared under many guises throughout various activities, mathematics, arts, music, philosophy. I guess that sometimes it is good to be all over the place; you have a chance of stumbling upon an idea that eludes the more focused people.
You call your book specifically the phenomenology of elegance, rather than something more general, like the “theory” or “philosophy” of elegance. Since many of our readers are not philosophers, could you briefly explain what “phenomenology” means to you in the context of your book? How is the phenomenological approach different from other approaches to the problem of elegance?
When we think about theory we usually refer to a model or a blueprint for something that can be made one way or another, that can be brought into concreteness. Theories about plane engines offer models that indicate what a plane engine should look like. These do not only explain how the engine works but also specifies how it should exist. Similarly, a theory of elegance would most likely be a blueprint for elegant people. This has practical implications: follow the theory of elegance and become elegant. Since elegance is a pretty volatile topic, more theories about elegance can emerge. This sets the ground for possible philosophies of elegance: discussions about which theory or model of elegance is better, for what it is better, what its caveats are. Usually, philosophers that touched upon elegance produced theories of elegance. Castiglione, Shuzo, or von Hildebrand expressed their beliefs regarding what elegance is. Some thought that their model is absolute, while others believed that their model is particular and relative to their culture.
I do not enjoy the prospect of doing the philosophy of elegance, comparing and analyzing other people’s theories. I am more selfish, in that I just take an idea and try to see if it is meaningful in some way to me or if it can be meaningful to a particular type of person.
A phenomenology of elegance, in contrast to a philosophy of elegance, is an entirely different avenue. Right from the start, I have to bracket other theories and have a clean surface to explore the topic, not through other people’s theories but through my own experience. Methodologically, I must refrain from what others say and first look to my own experience containing some sense of elegance. This experience always includes others, so it is an experience of both relating elegantly to others and to myself. A phenomenology of elegance is not an argumentative endeavor, so it is out of the question to relate to other philosophies of elegance and then to argue against them and defend my position. Phenomenologies do not defend themselves. They are just descriptions of the author’s experience, followed by an analysis of what can be generic and common in that experience and anyone else’s experience. The emphasis on the commonalities of experience is what makes phenomenology an essentialistic or eidetic endeavor.
Phenomenologies do not defend themselves. They are just descriptions of the author’s experience, followed by an analysis.
The idea of focusing on elegance arrived in a conversation I had some years ago with Roberta de Monticelli, who is a terrific philosopher and poet. At that time, I was meandering through the problem of volition and wanted to somehow connect it to descriptions of clothed embodiment. So she brilliantly mentioned elegance at some point. This suddenly synthesized the concepts of value, body, and consciousness in my mind. It was a really wonderful moment. Then, I had to recalibrate the phenomenological descriptions. During my time as a Ph.D. candidate, but also afterward, I benefited from the philosophical guidance of Viorel Cernica, our top philosopher, who leads the Pre-judicative Hermeneutics project at the University of Bucharest. He is responsible for guiding students interested in phenomenology during the last couple of decades in Bucharest. Our discussions related to Kant, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Sartre were essential for my work.
My phenomenology of elegance is actually structured as a phenomenology of movement. Maxine Sheets-Johnstone is to credit here for showcasing what a phenomenology of movement looks like and for inspiring me to do this. In a phenomenology of movement, I look at patterns from my actual movement. Then I try to see if these patterns are founding blocks for other patterns of perceiving, of relating to others, or of relating to myself that I find in my experience.
Doing a phenomenology of something is much like knocking on a wall to find its hollow point.
Doing a phenomenology of something is much like knocking on a wall to find its hollow point. There is much self-reflection and self-analysis involved, not in a therapeutic way, but towards finding something so basic — the things themselves, as Husserl calls them — that I cannot doubt it is universal in human experience. In this way, my phenomenology of elegance is a search for uncovering what makes anyone intuit that something is elegant or not. I am not talking about the ability to say or to judge, but about the knack for sighting elegance. Based on what do we form this ability to recognize elegance? The search goes through experiencing movement, perception, dreaming, posture, pain, and possession — a motley crew, for sure, similar to the great variety of elegance.
In your book, you introduce the topic by pointing out a contradiction in our understanding of elegance, a tension between being focused and being casual. Can you tell us a little about this?
When somebody is focused on achieving something, that person quickly becomes too invested, too rigid. The person revolves around that goal. Elegance usually presupposes some form of detachment, a casual aspect, some lightness in approaching one’s actions. On the other hand, being casual usually develops into carelessness, clumsiness, even ignorance, which go against what we intuit elegance stands for. So when thinking about elegance, we are initially confronted by the problem of being casual: if you are not casual, focused, and bent on achieving something, you miss elegance, while if you are casual and remain as such, you most probably become insensitive, not detached but distant from others, perhaps even thick-skinned. This contradiction between being focused and being casual as ways of life opens up the discussion about elegance. This discussion cannot be resumed by saying something like “elegance needs the right balance between focus and casualness”. That would be lazy philosophy.
Phenomenology. The Basics. Dan Zahavi’s book is concise introduction to phenomenology and a good starting point for further study.
Amazon affiliate link. If you buy through this link, Daily Philosophy will get a small commission at no cost to you. Thanks!
In your section on “naming” in the book, you distinguish between the questions “what is elegance?” and “how do you act elegantly?” Why are these different questions? Isn’t elegant action that kind of action that produces elegance as a result? Wouldn’t it be enough to answer one of these two questions in order to have the answer to the other one?
Structuring our question with “what” or “how” involves the structuring of what we expect from the answer. With “what” we expect an object, or at least something definite, while with “how” we expect a process, which might very well be ongoing, having unclear boundaries. “What is elegance?” implies the existence of a definitive elegance waiting to be discovered and analyzed. This question implies that elegance can be defined, and the question concerning it can be settled. We can use this question provided we realize that the topic cannot be exhausted.
On the other hand, “How do you act elegantly?” requests the description of a process of becoming and maintaining an elegant relation to the other and to oneself. This description does not include the idea that it is definitive. The latter question is more open, more philosophical.
Structuring our question with “what” or “how” involves the structuring of what we expect from the answer. “What is elegance?” implies the existence of a definitive elegance.
For a phenomenologist, it is problematic to affirm that acting elegantly produces elegance, at least in the sense of producing a standalone entity called elegance. At most, acting elegantly produces our awareness and maybe other people’s awareness of our elegant action. In this sense, elegance is an object of my consciousness and of a bystander’s consciousness. But other than that, there is no transcendent idea of elegance that is being brought to the fore if someone helps an old lady cross the street or if a model crosses the street as if the crosswalk were a catwalk.
It wouldn’t be enough to answer one question to have the answer to the other question as well because these two questions usually belong to different philosophical methodologies and to different philosophical attitudes. The “what” questions broadly belong to a mentality that searches for certainties, while “how” questions belong to a mentality that searches for the changes in things. Usually, the latter mentality is not bothered by uncertainty, ambiguity, and shifts in thinking. Processes imply change, unpredictable things happening, unforeseen ideas dominating what you initially thought, being proved you have been wrong all this time — the usual things that happen in a phenomenological description as well.
Is elegance, in your opinion, an aesthetic or a moral concept?
It is rather a moral concept. A person acting elegantly from a moral perspective will radiate bodily, postural, or at least facial elegance as well. But for this, I limit the sense of elegance and leave out some connotations, like that of seduction.
Whenever seduction meets elegance, the latter concept becomes more aggressive.
An old person speaking to his family, understanding the situation, trying to improve relations while being discreet about important things, knowing these things should not surface now or else the conflict will blow up, such a person is not being seductive at all, but can easily be seen as elegantly relating to others.
Whenever seduction meets elegance, the latter concept becomes more aggressive. This is sometimes the case with aesthetic elegance. It becomes aggressive; it demands attention and appraisal. By doing this, it diminishes its initial elegance. An aesthetically elegant person is not necessarily a very moral or good person. Most probably, each of us knows beautiful people that are not very nice, people you wouldn’t want to be around. At most, just admire from a distance — people you prefer to know at a more shallow level. Otherwise, the apparent elegance will fade away.
Part of your argument is based on the idea that every person has “at least two bodies,” as you write. What exactly is this distinction between “Leib” and “Koerper,” and how does it help us approach the philosophical understanding of the human body?
Yes, in our consciousness, we relate to the human body in two ways.
First, there is the Leib, which is our pre-reflective consciousness of ourselves, our moving body, our sense of verticality, how close we can get to fire before feeling burned, how much can I stretch to grab that hanging apple.
Then, there is the Körper, which is the objectified version of the body. The Leib often loses face in relation to the Körper. We tend to perceive ourselves based on the objectified body. For instance, the Leib is connected to moving freely or heavily, making an effort, or going through effortless motion. The Körper, on the other hand, is when we objectify ourselves as being, in this case, too fat or too thin. The problem is that we sometimes perceive ourselves more as a Körper than as a Leib. We think we are too fat when in fact, we move relatively freely, or we move heavily because of something other than weighing much. We background the Leib and foreground a Körper we desire or fear.
Then, there is the Körper, which is the objectified version of the body. We tend to perceive ourselves based on the objectified body.
Now this distinction from consciousness is especially telling when considering how we perceive other people. I look at that woman in the picture. The context makes me judge that she is beautiful, happy, and successful, as she is on the cover of a fashion magazine. How could she suffer from a divorce or from losing one of her kids? She looks so happy; her smile radiates. We are used to reduce our understanding to what we already know, and this occurs on an elementary level. We tend to overwrite the Leib and project a Körper unto the other or unto ourselves. For instance, an uneducated man misses the naturalness of a beautiful and well-dressed woman walking across the street and instead only sees selfishness and materialism. This is not only a matter of belief but also of trained perception. This is why sexism or racism are deeply rooted in perception. The best soldiers are those who can fully objectify the enemy into a threatening body, into a menacing Körper. Genocides are facilitated by this trained perception of seeing the other as less than human, as a body exclusively destined for exploitation or annihilation.
Then again, we must not condemn objectification but learn to live with it and make the best out of it. Objectification can have a nice side to it. When someone is madly in love, that person idealizes his or her lover, doing beautiful, romantic things that would not occur otherwise. Or take the games children play, such as leapfrog, in which they objectify one another into “big rocks” and “frogs.”
The problem of elegance then becomes a problem of resisting our tendency to objectify ourselves and others, at least to take a step back and reflect on how we objectify. This effort cannot last long, for sure. We do objectify one way or another. However, the effort of abstaining from the inevitable objectification is worth it because it opens up the sphere of uncertainty in judging others and ourselves, an uncertainty that makes us a little more flexible and tolerant.
The problem of elegance then becomes a problem of resisting our tendency to objectify ourselves and others, at least to take a step back and reflect on how we objectify.
Not so much a trained ignorance, as Cusanus would put it, but a trained acceptance of uncertainty. It does not help us understand the human body, let us say, on a medical level. Instead it helps us understand how can we steer our body consciousness into the reconciliation with ourselves.
Now this perhaps is a somewhat weird question, but I am myself interested in robot ethics. Reading your book, I kept asking myself what parts of your theory might be helpful in understanding artificial bodies, cyborg bodies, robot bodies and, possibly, robot elegance. What do you think? Is it possible to apply the insights of the phenomenology of human bodies to artificial bodies? In your book, you contrast a human body with a (lifeless) rock. But robots, and particularly cyborgs (say, humans with advanced prosthetic limbs) seem to occupy an intermediate place in that continuum from human body to rock. How can we apply your method to these?
The contrast between the human body, or lived body in general, and a rock is founded on experiencing in some way or not. Robots do not experience the world and themselves, so a phenomenology from the standpoint of what could be a “robot’s consciousness” does not appear to make sense at this point.
On the other hand, an interesting topic for phenomenology would be our consciousness of robots. Husserl has an example in Experience and Judgment about seeing a human at a distance behind a shop window. As he approaches, he gradually realizes two things: that the human may very well be a mannequin and that he experiences an ambiguity in sense-making. He sometimes fools himself and sometimes becomes conscious of self-deception. What if we are not conscious of the self-deception we profess?
Phenomenology will be helpful in the context of passively assigning humanness to robots and AIs. Not only will a phenomenological reflection build self-awareness about the robots in our minds, but it will also describe how interacting with robots changes our consciousness, our readiness to assign humanity, and our new forms of self-deception. And I’m not talking about robots only, but also VR or augmented reality. We are willing to augment our reality, but are we ready to acknowledge that the game shapes how we think and cognize?
You seem to describe elegance as if it were a natural kind, a feature that we can define and delineate in a particular way and that we can identify when we see it. You talk of elegance in motion, elegant movements, and objective properties of elegant movement, for example, that it is tranquil. But do you think that there might perhaps also be a cultural relativity of elegance? Can one culture have a concept of elegance that is different from another, or is elegance a property that changes little across cultures and times?
Some aspects of elegance are relative to culture, while some are not. So far, I have searched for those that are not relative. In my book, I looked for how transcendental aspects of embodiment and movement open up the possibility for elegance. Transcendental aspects are by definition not relative: for instance, having a sense of duration in any of our experiences is not relative. Nor is experiencing our body spatiality as a spread of some kind.
Starting from such very basic ideas, the things themselves, as Husserl calls them, I look for the most basic, even visceral sense of elegance I can find in my experience. Methodologically, I try my best as a phenomenologist of the body to bracket cultural aspects of experience and see what sense of elegance I find in raw, pre-cultural, though not solipsistic experiences. So I come across ideas such as finding traces of elegant movement in the fuzzy floaty movement we have when dreaming or in the attitude that caps volition depending on the other’s presence; an elegant subject takes the other to be the fixed limit to his volition, a mode of consciousness which emphasizes the lack of constraint. These ideas are meant to describe invariants of elegance regardless of the culture. Since phenomenology is eternally provisional, these ideas could be sharpened by more phenomenologists interested in elegance.
Your book focuses on the elegance of the human body and its movements. But there can be argued to also be something like elegance in artefacts, or even things in nature. Trees may be more or less elegant in appearance, for example. Or we might talk of the elegance of a tea bowl in a Japanese tea ceremony, or even the elegance of a phrase in a novel. Are these totally different things that only share the word “elegance” with each other? Or are these other, non-bodily manifestations of elegance, related to the elegance of the human body? Are they derivative concepts, where the human body elegance is the primary concept, or are they equally valid and basic forms of elegance? And could your approach help us analyse and understand these other kinds of elegance?
In phenomenological terms, the elegance of things is the aspect of some consciousness objects, so in this sense, the elegance we assign to things derives from our consciousness of elegance primarily related to ourselves and others. A dress cannot be elegant on its own. Imagine the most elegant dress in the world lies washed up carelessly on a bed, all wrinkled and shapeless. The appearance of elegance is jammed here; we can only see a nicely colored fabric that promises to have some rationale behind it if worn appropriately. If your sister wears the dress upside down, the presumably elegant dress will not create an elegant appearance. Unless it is worn elegantly, unless the dress is animated, or even placed to promise animation, for instance, on a nicely postured mannequin, the dress by itself cannot be elegant.
A dress cannot be elegant on its own. Imagine the most elegant dress in the world lies washed up carelessly on a bed, all wrinkled and shapeless.
The examples you mention could easily support this view. The very elegant Japanese aesthetics needs people to enact it and build consciousness of it. A tea ceremony is elegant when it is performed. We cannot say the same about an abandoned tea ceremony, where things are still in place, but without the promise that anyone would return to them, locked into oblivion that would rather cause anguish or other strong existential feelings. Likewise, with the elegance of Zen archery or calligraphy, they lack focus on the object, the actual bow or brush. They focus more on the quality of the performed action and the Zen attitude. This is strikingly similar to philosophy and to the Socratic method in particular. After all, Socrates mainly teaches an attitude in thinking.
What the phenomenological method can do for us is to make us explore and understand the intentions trapped in objects, including aesthetic intentions. When handling a fine porcelain cup, you intuitively understand the movements you should or should not do simply based on perceiving the intentions laid in that cup: it is made to be fragile, made to be delicate, made to be handled with care. This would be a chance at deepening a classical phenomenological theme — objecthood and appearance — but also a chance to learn more about how we assign more existence, or reality, to things, more than they originally have in our minds.
Besides being an academic philosopher, you are also a philosophical practitioner. We had an interview with Luis de Miranda on Daily Philosophy not long ago. What is your approach to philosophical practice, and how does it relate to the philosophical health movement of Luis de Miranda?
I come from Oscar Brenifier’s school of philosophical practice (the Institute de Pratiques Philosophiques), which has a rather methodical approach in contrast to other free-form approaches. In a consultation, we redo the kind of Socratic dialogue we find in Plato’s dialogues on the client’s problem. As philosophical practitioners, we question the client and work with him or her towards building self-consciousness and improving their thinking competencies. However, thinking competencies are almost always affected by various attitude or character elements such as fear, pride, stubbornness, rushing, idea greediness, lacking focus, or jumping from one idea to the other. Thus, we practitioners must work on this level as well. Working only on competencies is often pointless because the client quickly returns to the more facile thinking behavior, which negates a good argumentation or a good interpretation. On many occasions, the consultation is a series of thinking challenges generated on the spot together with the client. The series’s overarching theme remains the clients’ live observation of their own thinking, owning up to it and empowering the client to take control of it.
Luis de Miranda lives in Sweden and is a philosophical practitioner, author of essays such as Being & Neonness (MIT Press), Ensemblance (Edinburgh University Press), and novels such as Who Killed the Poet? and Paridaiza (Snuggly Books). He is the founder of the Philosophical Health movement.
I stumbled upon Luis de Miranda’s work a couple of years ago. The title Being and Neonness did the trick; it’s very eye-catching, very interesting. Reading your rich interview disclosed to me the Philosophical Parlour, de Miranda’s side business in philosophical counseling. I mostly agree with de Miranda and his concept of philosophical health because the problems of philosophical “health” are present in my daily encounters with clients. I meet more and more people that do not have a particular practical problem, nor a trauma of some sort. Yet, they do have the inability to question themselves, to investigate their lives, to understand their past and how it weighs on them now, especially on how they think and view the world on a daily basis. In other words, they neglected their philosophical status. So I think that what de Miranda is doing, along with other famous counselors such as Oscar Brenifier, Lou Marinoff, Ran Lahav, or Lydia Amir, is something to promote and to admire. Philosophical health is something all people have and should be able to preserve.
Philosophical health is something all people have and should be able to preserve.
One thing that puzzles me is de Miranda’s insistence on co-creating philosophical conviction with the client, as his Parlour website says. Creating convictions is characteristic of Plato, especially in later dialogues, where he tries to push a whole theory into the reader’s mind, straying away from actual dialogue, but it is certainly not characteristic of Socrates. Creating a conviction is usually the endpoint of the thinking process. Often people create convictions because it’s more convenient to rely on ideas that are considered to be true instead of constantly investigating; there are some practical advantages to holding convictions, such as social cohesion, being appreciated by others, convincing others to think like you, conserving your energy, being able to focus on more pragmatic goals. So people already have their own strong conclusions. These can sometimes go to the next level and be philosophically informed because of reading books or attending or watching conferences on Youtube. A budding philosopher full of convictions is not only appreciated by others in general but by experts as well, increasing his or her self-esteem and pride, welding oneself to one’s intellectual self-image.
So doing a philosophical consultation towards creating any convictions seems to contradict what a philosophical consultation is about: freeing the clients from themselves, their heavy thoughts, their pride, their desires, obsessions, and insecurities. In order to do that, the consultation makes the client pursue thinking especially after reaching a conviction; it makes the client go past the first truth they stumble on in their path, then past the second, then past the third. Ultimately, philosophical consultations train the client to enjoy the process of thinking even when the process proves the client to be wrong, to have been in error all this time, to have endorsed hollow convictions time and again. Maybe there is a special connotation assigned to conviction in the philosophical health movement that I am missing. After all, hanging on to your convictions is sometimes a healthy thing to do.
Is there any connection between your philosophical practice and your interest in the question of elegance? Can you use some insights from your theoretical work in phenomenology to enrich or augment your philosophical consultations?
I started working on my phenomenology of elegance before training in philosophical counseling. I must admit that my phenomenology got better because of the order and the concreteness philosophical counseling offers.
The connection between the two is this: is a Socratic behavior elegant in any way? Does Socratism inform or enlarge the sphere of meaning pertaining to elegance? Well, yes, at least for philosophers, it does. Socrates’s attitude towards interlocutors, constantly challenging them without wanting to prove a point, is elegant from the standpoint of thinking. Through this overlap, thinking receives an aesthetic quality. Not falling to easy conclusions and prejudice becomes a display of beauty. An intellectual beauty, if that can be pictured. Besides, there is a moral connotation to Socrates’s worldview and relating to others, as it is displayed in his Apology. This also fits the bill when talking about elegance of character.
Not falling to easy conclusions and prejudice becomes a display of beauty. An intellectual beauty, if that can be pictured.
So, I understand the role of the philosopher in a philosophical consultation to have this intellectual elegance displayed by challenging the other without producing theses for the other, without telling the client what to think. The metaphor of Socrates being unable to give birth to knowledge is actually an indicator of the lightness and suppleness of his thinking, which gives him the ability to think, just like a dancer’s lightness confers an elegant appearance to an otherwise solid body moving.
How do you see the positioning of philosophical counseling, especially considering the “competition” from the more medical side of mental health treatments? Is philosophical counseling just a milder form of a psychological consultation, or does it have a distinct approach and value for the patient?
The main trait of philosophical consultation is to make the client think but not necessarily feel good or reconcile with emotions or other people. These latter things can happen, but they are not on the counselor’s agenda. This is where a psychotherapist’s and a philosophical counselor’s scopes diverge.
Sometimes the counselor can recommend psychotherapy to the client because the counselor cannot always handle the client’s traumas by doing attitude work, and those traumas might very well invalidate efforts on thinking. In this sense, philosophical counseling is not a milder form of psychotherapy but rather an educational effort that can have therapeutic side effects. More precisely, philosophical counseling educates the client about controlling one’s own thinking and about patterns of thinking to be recognized in oneself and other people. Psychotherapy does not necessarily train the client to become a psychotherapist, whereas philosophical counseling trains the client into becoming Socratic and, if he or she wishes so, to become a counselor.
Philosophical counseling is not a milder form of psychotherapy but rather an educational effort that can have therapeutic side effects.
Another difference comes from the emphasis on facts that can be found in psychotherapy: who did what to whom, who said what to whom, how did it feel back then in contrast to how it feels now. This rarely occurs in philosophical counseling because it is pursuing the client’s concepts which form his or her worldview and mentality, and not the client’s life story. This is actually hard to do when training to become a philosophical counselor, because most students are initially inclined to practice an amateurish form of psychotherapy, asking clients about their mothers and lovers, and trying to give them wise, life-changing advice. People are more used to giving birth to precious truths than to be someone’s thinking midwife.
Psychotherapy does not necessarily train the client to become a psychotherapist, whereas philosophical counseling trains the client into becoming Socratic and, if he or she wishes so, to become a counselor.
Last, we reach the part regarding making the client feel good. Psychotherapy usually centers around making the client overcome heavy episodes from past or present dilemmas. Even though psychotherapy implies some pain, it ultimately wants clients to be at peace with themselves or to at least bring the client to a stable and socially functional state of mind. On many occasions, psychotherapy wants to at least alleviate the client’s pain.
Philosophical counseling does not specifically pursue some form of happiness. However, philosophical counseling presupposes that thinking is fun, enjoyable, and that it can bring happiness to the thinking subject. Yet, philosophical counseling does not specifically pursue happiness. That should be something happening in the clients on their own when thinking. Otherwise, we have a topic for a philosophical consultation: why does thinking make me sad?
I find it necessary as a philosophical counselor to actively collaborate with a psychotherapist.
I find it necessary as a philosophical counselor to actively collaborate with a psychotherapist. The philosopher deepens the knowledge on pathologies and therapy schemes, while the psychotherapist deepens critical thinking competencies, especially questioning, and knowledge on various philosophical paradigms. I, for one, have a very fruitful collaboration with Anca Tiurean, who is a psychotherapist from Timișoara, trained in Transactional Analysis and Systemic Family Therapy. Apart from the methodological overlap between phenomenology and transactional analysis, there is an excellent exchange of practice experience for both parties involved. We are working together on courses and workshop designs, and try to bring something new to people who want both therapy and philosophical education.
Psychology and psychiatry are regulated professions where the state makes sure that the practitioners are sufficiently qualified to not cause harm to the patients. No such regulation exists presently for philosophical counseling. Do you see this as a problem? Could philosophical counseling cause harm to patients if we cannot be sure of the qualifications of its practitioners? Or would it lose some of its value if it was restricted in its scope and freedom by state regulators?
Philosophical counseling is taught in a number of prominent schools around the world. There, training involves some form of mitigating the possibility of hurting the client. Training includes the development of having a therapeutic affinity, of seeing how some line of questioning might be too abrupt for the client. The counselor knows when the client’s problem is not a problem for an expert on critical thinking but for an expert in psychotherapy. That is why clients that can be hurt by the Socratic process are usually recommended to psychotherapy by counselors. It is implausible to have philosophical counselors hurt an otherwise reconciled or mainly unproblematic client.
Indeed we are not regulated by states. This is not a problem because the profession is regulated by the philosophical school producing young practitioners. It is actually a good thing because training is more accessible. Counseling is not yet an industry. It is not primarily focused on money-making but on pursuing a humanistic goal. In our case, this goal is the philosophical education of the general population, developing the ability to think, tolerate, make informed decisions, and enjoy dialogue and collaborative thinking activities. To be honest, I enjoy this profession also because of its current state of development.
One’s philosophy always develops, while books are, in a sense, thoughts that are frozen in time. If you were to rewrite and republish your book, would you change anything the second time around?
I haven’t read my book after having it published. I am waiting for some time to pass before rereading it. Maybe I am setting the stage for some nostalgic experience. Since you brought up rewriting, this was a big part of the process. I rewrote my Ph.D. thesis about four times. That was five years ago. During that time, I rewrote the thesis entirely into what is today The Reconciled Body. Even the main topic was changed; my thesis was about volition and agency, and marginally about sartorial objects. Basically, every phenomenological description was altered. New descriptions were added, and others were discarded. In my case, rewriting and republishing the book would produce another book on another topic. I am happy with how this one turned out.
I am now working on a text related to the possibility of attaining Socratic elegance in our digital era. In a way, the attitude progress one makes in one hour of philosophical consultation can easily be brutally dismantled by getting glued to a smartphone; I think of the ability to focus, to be patient, to think for oneself, or to abstract from one’s Ego.
The progress one makes in one hour of philosophical consultation can easily be brutally dismantled by getting glued to a smartphone.
Socratic sessions passively become digital detox hours, even when happening over Zoom and Google Docs. There is nothing distracting the thinking student during those hours, nothing inciting them to crave for something, to invest in something, to be someone in front of others. This opens up a space that is rarely set up, the space to reflect on oneself. So Socratic practice also becomes the efficient thinking hygiene people need in a quite messy digital world.
Before we finish, tell us where our readers can find more information about you and your book!
Anca Tiurean and myself have developed a nice small landing page. It is called Rent a Philosopher. It contains condensed information on philosophical practice. It also has a set of exercises for people to try out and see if critical thinking is something they would like to develop. They will receive a short evaluation of their work from us and an invitation to start a customized training program.
Anca Tiurean and Andrei Simionescu-Panait offer their services under the heading “Rent a Philosopher”. You can also just go there and do the self-testing exercises, in order to judge your own critical thinking skills.
Dr Simionescu-Panait, thank you so much for this interview!
Thank you very much for your provocative line of questioning! It was a delight to think with you on this topic. All my best wishes to you and to Daily Philosophy!
◊ ◊ ◊
Do you have an opinion on this topic? Tell us about it! Leave a comment below!
Andrei Simionescu-Panait is a philosophy Lecturer at the Polytechnic University in Bucharest, teaching philosophy of technology and history of philosophy courses. He also works as a philosophical counselor and critical thinking coach for psychologists, teachers, and company employees. His research combines phenomenology and Socratic dialogue techniques and is being directed at improving the learning experience for students with the help of instruments from both philosophical traditions.
Cover image on this page by Maximilian Jaenicke on Unsplash.