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Excerpt: Philosophy as therapeia.

By JONARDON GANERI and CLARE CARLISLE [From the introduction to Philosophy as Therapeia] –

‘Empty are the words of that philosopher who offers therapy for no human suffering. For just as there is no use in medical expertise if it does not give therapy for bodily diseases, so too there is no use in philosophy if it does not expel the suffering of the soul.’

The philosopher Epicurus (341-271 BCE) gave famous voice to a conception of philosophy as a cure or remedy for the maladies of the human soul, and this recurring theme in Hellenistic thought has been the subject of two important recent studies.

Clare Carlisle.

What has not until now received a comparable degree of attention is just how prominent an idea it has been across a whole spectrum of philosophical tradition. Scholars of Buddhism have known for some time that a medical analogy features strongly in Buddhist conceptions of philosophical practice, but this fact has rarely been the object of explicit discussion. The idea that philosophy should be therapeutic, indeed that this is philosophy’s first function, was indeed widely spread in India, and the analogy between philosophy and medicine was put to important use in several other, non-Buddhist, Indian schools. In the West, too, this conception of philosophy has displayed a great resilience, persisting long past the Hellenistic age. It can and will be argued that medieval scholasticism, a mode of philosophizing now so often and often so naively criticised, should be understood as therapeutic in intent. If that is right it is important, because it allows us to see continuities between ancient, medieval and early modern thought where too often discontinuities alone are emphasised. For Spinoza too thought of philosophy as therapeutic, and after him Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. So the conception of philosophy as therapeia allows for, and even necessitates, a new reading of the history of philosophy, one in which deep continuities come into vision which have been obscured, a reading which also contradicts those who have wanted to maintain that philosophy is a peculiarly European cultural product, and instead affirms its identity as a global intellectual practice.

With this in mind, we have assembled together here a set of new essays, all specially commissioned for our volume….

William James, observes Logi Gunnarsson, distinguishes philosophical melancholy from any psychiatric disorder. Philosophical melancholy is produced by philosophical reflection. It is characterized by the judgment that life is not worth living, by a tendency to suicide, and by sentiments such as a feeling of uncanniness. So philosophical melancholy is not an unfortunate philosophical condition but rather involves an existential crisis, threatening to a person’s life. In the late 1860s and early 1870s, James had a psychological and biographical crisis. However, as Gunnarsson argues, he also understood himself as being subject to philosophical melancholy. James took this condition to be generated by the assumption that theoretical reason alone can settle various philosophical issues, such as the question of free will. Contrary to widespread interpretations of James, his solution was not to decide the matter by an arbitrary act of will. Rather, he thought that emotions had an integral role to play in discovering the right solution to pressing philosophical questions, and maintained that the cure to philosophical melancholy is to give up the assumption that theoretical reason alone can solve these questions. Gunnarsson considers whether James succeeds in presenting an effective cure to philosophical melancholy, and whether certain form of this ‘disease’ may even be a condition worth preserving.

In James’ refusal to allow that further reflection can cure the melancholy produced by philosophy’s inability to decide if there is free-will or not, there is an important echo in the Buddha’s famous refusal to enter into debate about a number of philosophical dilemmas (and in James’ ensuing claim that ‘our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds,’ there are intriguing resonances with Indian moral theorists’ appeal to ātmatuṣṭi in the same circumstances). David Burton focusses on three significant features of Buddhist philosophical therapy. First, Buddhist philosophical thinking claims that various ‘diseases’ of our belief-desire psychology are the maladies that require treatment. Second, it maintains that successful therapy needs to address the entrenched dispositions that inform our views, desires, and emotions. Third, it acknowledges that the therapy will vary according to the specific needs and difficulties of the individual. Burton responds to the worry, presented by Gowans and others, whether Buddhist philosophical therapy misdiagnoses the human predicament and espouses a misguided goal of emotional detachment, and whether it neglects the physiological, social, political, and economic causes of suffering by concentrating too heavily on personal cognitive therapies. These are important challenges, which future work in Buddhist philosophy will certainly need to engage with; and they receive further support from many of the essays in the volume.

From Philosophy as Therapeia: Volume 66 (Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements), Edited by Clare Carlisle (University of Liverpool) and Jonardon Ganeri (University of Sussex). Cambridge University Press.

Continued at the Royal Institute of Philosophy Blog | More Chronicle & Notices.)

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