Dixi et liberavi

Life as Philosophical Practice - Philosophical Dialogue for Goodness' Sake

Lecture by Petra von Morstein
March 11th 2005 - University of Oslo
Notes by Řyvind Olsholt

Philosophical practice is not to be based entirely on theory. The practice tries to reach "rock bottom" (Wittgenstein), i.e. solid ground, the basis where the person meets the theory. First von Morstein defines two basic (rock bottom) assumptions of philosophical practice:

  1. The "I" can only be a self if I am interconnected with other selves
    She finds support for this in Hegel's "Phenomenology" and in Buber's "I and Thou"
  2. We can't understand reality as a whole
    Here she relies on Kant and his distinction between the "two realities".

Then von Morstein goes on to explain her notion of philosophy. The purpose of philosophy is to:

  1. Gain clarity of thought and action (i.e. truth and goodness)
  2. Express concepts which are most difficult, general and basic to human existence
    These are concepts like knowledge, truth, freedom, responsibility etc. These concepts are especially called to our attention when our world breaks down. We can't do without these concepts. These concepts have their grounding in life itself. These are "lived questions" ? i.e. questions to be lived with, not questions to be answered. To live with the questions means to use them to examine yourself.

    Now, what do we express with our concepts? We express experiences. Experiences are very complex. Experiences are developed using different language games. There is no language without expression of language. In order to express experiences we use language. We do not ask for essence of freedom ? we ask: what are the experiences we express? Wittgenstein says that "What is freedom" is a false question as freedom cannot be separated from the situation in which it appears. This doesn't mean we have a definition of the concept, but we do have defined "a place" that can be explored.

To be human means being necessarily dialogical. There is no accessible truth in itself, but truth is moving in dialogue. But how do we live with the concepts? And how are concepts interconnected? Here we can again look to Kant. Kant's expositions stem from palpable urgency, from a personal quest. For instance he strives enormously to bring psychology into science. One the one hand he accepted determinism, but on the other hand he had to overcome it (he saw a contradiction between determinism and freedom/moral/immortality). Kant overcomes the contradiction by way of entering a philosophical counselling relation with himself! His philosophical texts should not be read only as text-books, but as human expressions, i.e. philosophical practice. Another example of the same is Descartes. He also tries to find "rock bottom" after having been exposed to the "ontological shock" of not knowing what is true and good in reality and in life. This shows that we should not read philosophical texts merely as academic studies, but as human expressions. It also shows that we can learn something about philosophical counselling by studying great philosophers.

This very same experience can be had in "real" philosophical practice. Also the clients/guests can come to us in a state of confusion and shock, grief etc. (just like Descartes who lost his beliefs). So the conclusion is: look to Descartes or Kant (and of course many others) to obtain an most vivid and valid example of philosophical counselling.

But philosophy has separated itself from lived experience by ignoring the particular. True, philosophy works with general concepts, but we must not turn down the concrete and particular. How can the particular be included in philosophy? Aristotle differs between historians, philosophers and poets. Historians search for the concrete, philosophers for the universal. But poets look for what is both concrete and universal. The poet shows us that we are able to make experiences without distancing ourselves from our own experience. The poet feels at one with the work, he is absorbed. This doesn't mean that he identifies with e.g. Oedipus, but that he is at one with the character of Oedipus. Universality is concrete, not abstract.

In philosophical practice too we need to be moved, absorbed, to go through catharsis together, and to have purpose-free experiences. As a counsellor you are invited into a field of experience, you're not meant to carry your own mental and emotional interests, these must be suspended. Enter the space of the other with as little baggage as possible. You must try to be one with the guest! Being at one with your guest/client is experiencing humanity. This experience is beyond good and evil. Therefore you must refrain from evaluative judgements, but on the other hand you must not be over-cautious. There must be rigorous acceptance of the responsibility of the "I-Thou". We need the same approach as when we confront a great work of art.

Questions from the audience

What is the relationship between philosophical practice and psychotherapy?

There are no definitive boundaries. On the contrary there is a deep connection between the two, because we are dependent of each other. Something is left out when we try to talk objectively about another person. Both philosophy and psychology must adhere to the fact that "man cannot be made science" (Kant).

You talked about Descartes and his ontological shock/despair. But is it fair to compare this kind of metaphysical despair with "normal" despair, the despair felt by people not engaged in philosophical questioning?

von Morstein defends the urgency of Descartes: his philosophical despair is no less real despair than other kinds of despair! However, the client must like thinking, and she must have a minimum of the psychological requirements [so on this score she seems to agree with Oscar Brenifier]. Besides, if the client is prone to talk heavily about her own despair, there is always the danger that the counsellor is seduced by the client. Therefore it is important as soon as possible to create awareness of the client's urgent issues [compare the process of "identification" in Brenifier's theory].

How do clients become aware of your practice?

Basically through word of mouth. And it does help to be a well-known professor :-)

"There is a danger that intellectual exploration can be pursued for itself without leading to action or change in life." "When you listen carefully, you think more carefully".

Petra von Morstein