September 16-22, 1999
Dr. Think Good
The philosopher will see
The most striking thing about philosopher Lynn Levey
is that she doesn't look like a philosopher. She isn't
male or bearded or dead. She speaks for as long as she
can in a raspy turbo rush of ideas, despite a voice-altering
cold. Over coffee and crumpled tissues, Levey tosses
around tenets of Socrates and Lao Tzu along with her
long, braided brown hair.
While the 44-year-old Levey
sounds like the proverbial sage on the mountaintop,
it's hard to imagine her scrambling down in her fashionable
black skirt to deliver wisdom to the masses. As the
first accredited philosophical counselor in the city,
however, that is exactly what she's doing.
Philosophy is older that
both psychology and psychiatry, as is the notion of
using it to help people solve their problems. Confucius
advised warlords on creating a more civilized society.
Socrates helped his pupils live more fulfilling lives.
Now Levey and about three dozen philosophers affiliated
with the New York-based American Philosophical Practitioners
Association are taking their lessons out of the classroom
and applying them to moral angst.
APPA counselors must have
at least a master's degree in philosophy and complete
a relatively brief training program. They don't prescribe
drugs or probe the past to uproot deep-seated insecurities.
Instead, they instruct people to think through problems
that are philosophic in nature. According to APPA founder
and City College of New York Philosophy Professor Lou
Marinoff, leading an examined life will help you "make
sense of the world and your place in it." Marinoff
offers this bit of advice for free.
Since returning from the
training in New York last month, Levey says she has
conducted about a dozen philosophical counseling sessions.
One client is a woman in her early thirties who is beset
by a desire to move. The woman has moved five times
in ten years, always for a specific reason, such as
family or jobs. But this time, she feels compelled to
move without being able to express why.
In one lengthy session, Levey
examines the lack of external motivation for moving
and suggests it would be beneficial to ponder the concepts
of stillness and waiting. So she prescribes the I Ching,
a Chinese book of wisdom that deals with non-action,
emphasizing stillness as a catalyst that often prompts
answers to emerge on their own.
"We make the implicit
explicit," Levey asserts. "That doesn't always
mean that people can make the changes. But at least
In addition to private sessions,
Marinoff conducts monthly philosophy forums in Barnes
and Noble bookstores in New York. Inspired by public
philosophy discussions in Europe, the group sessions
reach people who can't afford private sessions, which,
at $100 an hour, can be quite cost-prohibitive. (Levey
charges $65 in Cleveland.)
In the meantime, Marinoff
is attempting to get the State of New York to license
philosophical counselors - a prerequisite to obtaining
third-party reimbursements from insurance companies.
So far, he's received little support. The idea has drawn
fire from the psychiatric and psychological communities,
and Marinoff has been derided by former American Psychiatric
Association President Herbert Sacks for "practicing
medicine without a license."
Marinoff doesn't take the
"If he would prescribe
drugs or electric shock therapy or restraints or a rubber
room for someone who has a moral problem, I would say
he's practicing nonmedicine with a license," he
says. "That's quackery. [Psychiatrists and psychologists]
are very quick to say, 'what about severely disturbed
people? You're not trained. How can you recognize this?'
I ride the New York subway. That's the short course."
With his colorful style and
brash arguments, the Socratic-bearded Marinoff casts
a glare of disdain on the psychiatric establishment
for placing too much emphasis on drugs and too little
on thought. He brags about his misdiagnosed and gratuitously
drugged clients whom he says dumped their MDs for PhDs
and happy pills for Plato.
"We're David and they're
Goliath," he says of traditional mental health
professionals. "There are tens of thousands of
them and only a few dozen of us, and they feel threatened."
Levey, who is also a Gestalt
psychologist, views the different approaches as complementary
rather than competitive. "I became interested in
[philosophical counseling] because often clients have
deeper issues they don't want to talk about," says
Levey, an interdisciplinary doctoral candidate at the
Union Institute in Cincinnati. "Sometimes the initial
problem is more amenable to philosophical counseling.
We don't talk about feelings as much as we examine beliefs."
Colin McLarty, who chairs
the Department of Philosophy as Case Western Reserve
University, likes the idea of using philosophy to help
people think through their problems. But he doesn't
think Marinoff's newly released book, Plato, Not Prozac!,
was sufficiently deep or well-organized.
"From reading the book,
you could get the impression that philosophers went
to kindergarten too," he says. "And since
that's where you learned everything you need to know,
you can get it from them."
Edwin Locke, a psychologist
and business professor at the University of Maryland,
is even more cautionary. Bad philosophy, he believes,
is just as damaging as bad psychology.
"It would be better
not to go near most modern philosophers with a ten-foot
pole, because they're philosophically totally and completely
bankrupt," argues Locke, who is also a senior writer
The Ayn Rand Institute. "The only absolute of most
modern philosophers is complete skepticism. So if anything,
they would just make you worse."
Despite early speculation
that job-market-challenged philosophers would rush to
fill the ranks of the year-old APPA, many are reluctant
to join. McLarty, for one, says he "wouldn't have
the patience for those philosophical cafes." Nor
has the book caused a buzz in his department beyond
another professor asking to borrow it from him.
Still, Marinoff's dreams
for philosophical counseling loom large. He believes
that most mental health professionals are more curious
than resistant and realize they aren't equipped to deal
with philosophical problems, just as philosophers aren't
trained to handle psychological or psychiatric problems.
If they work together, Marinoff envisions, they could
run full-service counseling centers designed to address
the entire spectrum of a person's cerebral needs.
Right now, it's still a quiet
battle - though one Marinoff is sure he will win.
"Did David know Goliath
was going to topple?" he asks. "Yes. Did Goliath
know? No. Not until he falls does he actually realize."
Or until he starts losing
third-party reimbursement patients to philosophical