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Is philosophy therapy?

Nigel Warburton: There’s been a lot of interest in reviving Stoic philosophy recently, particularly the therapeutic aspects of it. I’m skeptical about this, as in my view philosophy is primarily the attempt to understand, and as such is an activity of enquiry. There’s no guarantee that discovering how things are will benefit us psychologically: it might in fact make things much worse. As Friedrich Nietzsche pointed out, it might not even be possible to confront the deeper truths of reality head-on. That would make human existence unbearable. What do you think?

Jules Evans: Personally, I’m not arguing that all philosophy is therapy, but rather that ancient Greeks and Romans viewed philosophy that way, as did many Indian philosophers. They developed various practical techniques which they said would help transform suffering, that were part of a comprehensive ‘philosophy of life’. These techniques weren’t simply positive thinking, rather they argued that we need to see the world as it is, in all its instability and adversity, and accept it. Some of these techniques have now been rediscovered and tested out by empirical psychologists, who have found that they do indeed transform emotional suffering. I want to communicate this as much as possible, because ancient philosophy really can help people overcome suffering – and that’s to the credit of philosophy, which as you know is a much-maligned and under-funded subject these days. Don’t you think the more we communicate that, the higher philosophy’s standing and relevance in the world will be?

Is philosophy therapy, or is it simply a search for truth?

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