“In Holland, they do it quite openly. And for a fee.”
That’s what I wrote in a deliberately flippant effort to create a provocative positioning for a book proposal. The book, which had by that point evolved through titles such as Philosophers’ Stones; Touchstones; and Making Sense of Experience is a one-time philosophy teacher’s statement about the value of insights garnered even from an undergraduate’s rudimentary study of philosophy and the figures that loom large in its history.
The attempt at a “saucy” catchphrase was based on reading that, in Holland, people were “hanging out their shingles” as practicing philosophers; available to counsel clients confronted by the mass, the complexity, the seemingly insoluble challenges of their life experiences. But if I was surprised by that news, it was clear that even then in the waning days of the 20th century I was already well behind the times.
Studies, movements, national and international associations to establish the guidelines and standards for the practice of Philosophical Counselling were advancing in countries all across the globe by the 1970s. Presumably the German Society for Philosophical Practice and Counseling is among the oldest. And that may account for why a young neighbor will be licensed to practice Philosophical Counselling when he returns from studies in Berlin as a newly minted Ph.D. with a license to practice issued here in the US. Base line qualifications include a graduate degree in Philosophy (MA and/or PhD) and, of course, the temperament and commitment to clear-eyed and nurturing interaction.
I won’t be seeking that license (though I should have learned by now never to say never) but I am hard at work on the book after the hiatus enforced by the need to make a living. I am still encouraged by the observations of a well-respected literary agent who kindly said the book might have a good shot at being worked into “a high-end self-help book.” To illustrate the genre, he referred to Alain de Botton. And by that, even more kindly pointed me to that modern-day philosopher’s book How Proust Can Change Your Life.
What would self-help mean in this context? Think of how (and how many!) people would welcome the news that they own assets, stashed like cash under a mattress, that we can help them rediscover and use to start earning dividends. As a teacher of philosophy, I’ve met thousands of them. They are all the college students who had a course in philosophy but have forgotten that the thinkers and the way of thinking they studied then have the power to help them enrich their lives by sorting out the experience overload they live with every day in this 24/7 culture of constant “connectedness.” Putting them back in touch with this source of enrichment is the mission and the basis of a book that is now clamoring to be completed.
As a teacher of undergraduate philosophy at Marymount College, Tarrytown, the definition of the study I used was “Philosophy is a system of ideas that helps make sense of experience.“ Revisiting those courses, Making Sense of Experience will invite a dialogue with readers that encourages them to revisit the insights of great philosophers that they remember, even vaguely, from their student days, and to explore the connection between those insights and real-life experiences – the philosophers’ and their own. Together with the readers the search will be on to identify some “light bulb” moments that gave rise to philosophies that still have the power to illuminate the individual’s own experiences.
The big hope is that I know enough to be helpful, but not so much as to be mind-numbing. A lifetime spent giving advice: solicited and unsolicited, paid for and given gratis means that I have, as Rilke said, “lived the question” long enough to be more confident and creative about ways to find the answers. I know that recognizing the link between life experience and the philosophers’ theories has power to turn the “base metal” of collected facts into the “gold” of humanizing insight (hence the early Philosopher’s Stone and Touchstone references.) And I’m ready to indulge in the luxury of a second chance to deliver that bit of good news.
As a marketing strategist, I made a career of recognizing a trend when I saw one, and I see one now. It seems like a good sign that books about philosophy have appealed to reviewers in publications from shelter magazines to The New Yorker. The Swiss-born Brit Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness was praised as “a thoughtful and funny history/philosophy of the art.” Since his book on how reading Proust can change one’s life, this man alone has turned philosophy into a mini-industry with several books, a TV series imported by PBS and lately into a travel program. Open Court publishers have ground out dozens of titles in their “Popular Culture and Philosophy” series with titles such as 1999’s Seinfeld and Philosophy. There was even a popular line of beauty products called Philosophy, presumably for those who aspire to a “more than skin-deep” attitude towards beauty.
The “how dare they!” high dudgeon reactions to this popularizing of philosophy on the part of some self-appointed priests and priestesses of philosophy as an elitist preserve, seems to me a good sign that philosophy as the illuminator of everyday experience is in line for some liberating.
No less an authority than Kierkegaard sets the scene for that liberation. From The Journal of Søren Kierkegaard, translated by Alexandre Dru, p.iii:
“Experience, it is said makes a man wise.That is very silly talk. If there were nothing beyond experience it would simply drive him mad.”
The Danish philosopher’s observation couldn’t be more timely and relevant than in today’s world of “24/7” accessibility. i-Phoned and Android-connected, tableted and i-podded masses (and let’s not even go to the “friended/unfriended, Twittered at) are at the receiving end of an electronic umbilical cord that endlessly delivers the world’s joys, woes and trivia.
Citizens of this now digitalized “global village” face two equally unattractive possibilities of being isolated or inundated. The difference between those swamped by today’s tidal wave of stimuli (aka unprocessed experience) and those enriched by it lies in what they think of it. Or perhaps more precisely, in whether they actually do think about it. For them, this constant flow of stimuli triggers at least two kinds of responses to the “What just happened?” question.
- Does what I just experienced have any relationship to what has happened to other people, or to our larger world, or to some model that could help me at least to classify the experience?
- Does this experience have a name; (because that may make it less strange or puzzling or seemingly meaningless)?
This very human and instinctive progression from raw experience to a search for understanding is one of the explanations of why we go to the theater, read books, relate to poetry, watch Oprah or listen to Chopra. For many, the beginning of making sense of their own personal experience is the attempt to establish that others have had a similar experience; and better still, that they have gained some clarity about it that can be applied to their own lives – first on the level of common sense and then on another and more universal level.
Looking at experiences can benefit from a three-step approach. Take, for example, the experience of fear.
- The lived experience you have.
- The “common sense” perspective of FDR’s observation that “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” provided a mantra able to move people who heard it forward from the isolating tyranny of raw fear to a point where they knew they shared the experience with many other people.
- Then consider how Kierkegaard “made sense” of the experience of fear within the context of his existence-affirming philosophy. Fear and Trembling to the Leap of Faith.
The good news is that the three-part approach can also be applied to this list of experiences, and more.
- falling in love,
- the judgment that some things beautiful and others not,
- the perils of office politics,
- the impotence of life in the body politic,
- the temptation to think that “It doesn’t matter,”
- the honest question “what really does matter?”
- the crucial distinction between could and should.
Help is at hand. A look at the insights scrawled in notebooks and really or figuratively “stored under the mattress” since undergrad days can be pulled out and deliver the welcome message that you may know a great deal more than you think you do about how to make sense of each of those experiences. Just get back in touch with people who have had and reflected on experiences similar to your own.
Take a fresh look at the wisdom to be found in adages, insights and even song lyrics. All who ever had a course in philosophy need never be left in the lurch of unprocessed experience. You can latch on to the lifeboat that navigates “beyond experience” and that Kierkegaard believed could stave off being driven “mad.”
In an era when the sheer volume of experience is overwhelming there’s a way to reclaim the tools philosophers developed to deal with experiences like your own. By relating the philosophers’ theories to the kinds of experiences that may well have inspired them, these insights are turned from theories to be memorized from a textbook into tools for living a more focused and rewarding life. However rusty or disused, some of the ideas from History of Philosophy 101 can be rediscovered and help turn life from something that just happens into a work of art that the individual actively creates.
Be pleasantly surprised to find that the catch phrases that featured in late night cramming for philosophy exams started life as a sensible human being’s effort to make sense of what was going on in his or her life. Imagine the amazement of discovering that compulsory courses in philosophy were, after all, about life! That provides useful fuel to the effort to make your own life make sense: “In the open” and with or without a fee.