Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Philosophical Counselor

By Daniel Connolly

JULY 26, 1999:  Is philosophy a tool that can help people cope with real-world problems? Ross Reed thinks so.

Reed, who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy, counsels people who come to him with personal problems.

"The idea of philosophy helping people -- most people think that's a laughable proposition. But I don't think it's funny," says Reed. "I think that philosophy began with the Greeks by being therapeutic, and it's been therapeutic for me and many people I've known."

Philosophical counseling began as a movement in the early 1980s in Germany, with the central tenet that modern psychology doesn't solve moral or existential issues --what philosophers call "problems of living." The profession is still growing and virtually unregulated in the U.S., but the American Philosophical Practitioners Association (APPA) is attempting to certify members. Founding president Lou Marinoff says his group has certified just 19 counselors in the U.S., but Reed is currently not one of the them because he has not paid his dues recently.

Originally from Pennsylvania, Reed worked in mental-health facilities while in graduate school at Baylor University in Texas and at Loyola University in Chicago. For more than 10 years he taught part-time at four institutions in the Chicago area, where he began to apply what he was teaching.

"[Students] might come down to my office and say, 'Do you think I should have an abortion?' I came to realize that with most of those important questions, it's really hard for anyone to find a place to go to discuss it. I mean, you could go to a priest or a rabbi, but you pretty much know what the answer's going to be."

Unable to find a full-time teaching position in the competitive job market for humanities Ph.D.'s, Reed followed his girlfriend to Memphis when she took a job at Rhodes College. His business got started last June, and he says that in the last year he has seen more than 20 clients out of his home near the University of Memphis. He charges up to $60 per hour on a sliding scale.

Clients come to Reed with a variety of problems. When an evangelical Christian came to him complaining of visions of angry "satanic angels," Reed says that he drew heavily on ideas from David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion to help him.

"He finally admitted he was angry at God," says Reed. "And for a while we talked about what that would mean, and what his concept of God is, and whether or not it would be legitimate to get angry at God if you envision God in that way." The man's hallucinations eventually subsided, Reed says.

Clients with various sorts of addiction visit Reed, and he shows a reporter his doctoral dissertation, which he has given out as assigned reading to a man with an unspecified addiction. It's an existential theory of addiction, a small blue volume titled"Love" and Addiction: The Ontological Phenomenology of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

Many might say that the hallucinations and addictions of these clients are purely psychological problems with roots in brain chemistry, but Reed says that's not necessarily so. He points out that behaviors such as compulsive gambling, which involve no substances, are now sometimes labeled addictive. The important question is why the person wishes to destroy his consciousness, Reed says.

What's more, Reed says that the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that delusions sometimes result from a desire to avoid dealing with concrete ethical problems. This turned out to be the the case of the second man described above, he says.

The APPA's code of ethics requires that philosophical counselors not attempt to treat people whose problems are beyond their expertise. This is a point that worries critics of philosophical counseling.

Arthur Houts, a professor of psychology at the University of Memphis, studied philosophy as both an undergraduate and graduate. He's concerned that those who seek help from alternative sources don't realize that for many illnesses, psychologists have gained empirical knowledge of what treatment works.

Houts particularly objects to the suggestion of Lou Marinoff's new book Plato, Not Prozac. "The idea that Plato is a substitute for bona fide treatment for real depression is stupid and dangerous," he says. "It's harmful for people."

However, Houts says that if anyone is uncomfortable with organized religion, tutorial work with a philosopher could help him or her solve the moral and ethical problems that religion solves for most. "To me that's part of education," he says. "It's not a substitute for real therapy for real problems."

According to Reed, most of his clients already see a psychiatrist and many of them are on medication. "I would never say that any one approach is sufficient," he says, and adds that he would never tell people to stop taking their medication.

But he still questions the effectiveness of the medicated approach.

"How much understanding does it give you to take a pill?" asks Reed. "You might feel a lot better. But what I've heard many psychiatrists say is that you take medication to take the edge off your pain so you can deal with the real issues."

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