Print Edition: January 9, 2013
Dr. Peter Raabe is a professor in the department of philosophy. He specializes in philosophical counselling, and is regarded as one of the foremost authorities on the subject. He has recently returned from Asia, where he participated in a conference as a presenter.
To start, can you tell me in your own words what philosophical counselling is?
Very simply, it’s using philosophy to help people with problems . . . I’m talking about emotional or cognitive thinking problems. You have to ask what philosophy is, and philosophy basically is examining the reasons that we have for the values that we think are good, for the things that we believe to be true, so that we don’t end up blindly following tradition or obeying authority figures.
Philosophy has always been historically taught as something you do for yourself, but you can also do philosophy with someone else and help them to examine their reasons for believing what they believe to be true and thinking what they do.
You’re often linked to studies of mental illness. How did that come about?
Well, a philosophical counsellor will offer his or her expertise to a person who is struggling with some kind of issue. That issue can be a life issue, a relationship issue . . . and so quite often it also involves issues that have been declared or diagnosed as actual mental illnesses. So I always promote the idea that philosophical counselling can help cure mental illnesses.
There are a lot of people who are really shocked when I say that, but when you look at psychotherapy, the talk therapy part is basically philosophical. There’s a good reason for that – because in the 1950s, when psychotherapy first broke away from psychoanalysis, the psychotherapists decided there was something good, something useful in analysis, but . . . it was considered to be really boring and academic. That carried over into the people who were studying philosophy. They were boring people who had an interest in the academics.
So it was basically, “Gee. They’ve got this great stuff that they’re not using to help anybody, so we’re just going to borrow it.”
As I understand it, you came into the field rather serendipitously. Can you speak to that at all?
I’d finished my master’s, and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do for my PhD—my wife didn’t want me to stop at my master’s, you see, but that’s another story—so I had a summer off, basically.[I ended up volunteering at a recovery center] teaching critical thinking skills to some men there, so that they wouldn’t be making the same bad mistakes in their lives that got them there in the first place. We did the same kind of stuff I now do in my critical thinking classroom.
After class, some of them would approach me individually and say, “Can I take a minute of your time?” And I’d use my knowledge of philosophy to help them talk through their problems.
I told a former classmate of mine what I was doing, and she said, “Oh, you’re doing philosophical counselling!” and I said, “What’s that?”
She lent me a book [on the subject], and oh my gosh – she was right.
You dedicate much of your time to raising awareness about these methodologies in Canada, as it’s more popular elsewhere in the world – is that right?
In North America—in Canada—we had an association for a short while, and it sort of fizzled out. The problem in North America is that people don’t know what philosophy is. So when I advertised myself as a philosophical counsellor, people didn’t know what it was . . . they were scared I would convert them religiously, or I’d be talking about things like meditation and so on . . . or that they wouldn’t understand what I was talking about.
You travelled to Asia recently – was that to educate people about philosophical counselling?
Actually, they are very aware of me in Asia. My books are translated to Japanese, Chinese, Korean . . . I was actually invited to Korea for the first time two years ago. They are using my books in the schools there . . . so when I went there, I felt like a rock star. I was autographing my book at the conference!
After I came back earlier this year, I got an email from one of the professors in Korea—actually, he was a translator of my book—[telling me my book] was one of the best books of that year. It won The Korean National Academy of Sciences award, which meant that approximately $15,000 Canadian was allocated to purchase that book and distribute it to schools and libraries across the nation.
So I was invited back again this year, and it was the same thing – they had me doing two conferences in a week-and-a-half. In July of this year, they contacted me again, and said they would really like to invite me to a combined conference to do another presentation . . . it was all about education and the humanities.
Just an hour ago, I got an email from a journal that’s being published jointly in the U.S. and China, and they want to have the presentation that I did in Korea in July published.
So they’re definitely aware of you, then!
I’ve been told that they actually consider me one of the foremost authorities on the subject, which is odd for me – I feel like I’m still [learning].
Can you tell us about your upcoming publication?
It’s about the role of philosophy in psychotherapy and counselling. What I’m doing is basically making the argument [that] the talk parts of philosophy are basically psychotherapy . . . differentiating between the mind and the brain. Can people change their mind? Of course, but here’s the trickier part – can they change their brain? Of course not.
So I don’t deal with brain diseases, I deal with what’s called mental illness – but the term illness is kind of weird. It’s like saying belief illness or assumption illness, because if that’s what your mind is, how can there be an illness there? That’s why I say philosophy can cure mental illnesses, because of how I define the term.
When you start with that, then you can go onto things like diagnosing and treatment ideas and so on. You have to start with that whole definition.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.