Philosophical Counseling: A Call to Counselors

Dr. Duane Halbur

University of Northern Iowa



Author’s Biographical Information:
Dr. Halbur is a Counselor Educator and co-owns a private practice. He focuses his research and practice on bridging contemporary theories of counseling with traditional philosophy.

609 Franklin St
Cedar Falls, IA 50613

Fax: 319.273.5175
Home: 319-266-2823
Work: 319-415-1267


The field of Philosophical Counseling is quickly becoming a unique service field in the United States. Counselors have the opportunity to become active in this field and be on the forefront of this contemporary approach in the helping field. This article offers a rationale for counselors to research and apply philosophical concepts in practice. Additionally, it addresses why incorporating philosophical lessons with counseling may help the clinician to enhance therapeutic practice. Further, this article offers applied examples as to how a therapist could use philosophical counseling.

Philosophical Counseling: A Call to Therapists

Commonly understood in the field of counseling is that the history of psychotherapy sprung from earlier philosophies. The field of counseling cannot separate its history from philosophy. However, as has occurred before, the ever-evolving field of philosophy is now again placing its knowledge and insights into an applied realm. Philosophical counseling is a growing field. However, counselors are not promoting this field but instead contemporary philosophers are taking the lead. The bridging of philosophy and counseling became highly popular in Europe in the 1980’s (Raabe, 1999) and is currently gaining popularity in the United States. Unfortunately, most therapists have little awareness of this emerging trend and consequently may be losing a great opportunity to bridge practice with the field of philosophy. The field of philosophical counseling is becoming a contemporary alternative to psychotherapy (Achenbach, 2003) and hopefully counselors can become active in modeling this approach.

The Importance of Philosophy to Counseling

Philosophy is the foundation of theoretical counseling approaches and consequently influences every intervention that occurs with clients. The pre-Socratic stoic philosophers created the then new ideology that thoughts create how people feel (Hyland, 1993). This revolutionary idea of its time has become highly pervasive in not only modern psychology but even in the layperson’s world. This is the very foundation of contemporary therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy. However, those greatly quoted in counseling literature are not the only philosophers who have lessons for contemporary therapists. For example, Aristotle brings to the counseling field the concept of living in moderation and finding life balance, an idea so key to contemporary approaches. Even contemporary authors such as Cohen (2003) who wrote What Would Aristotle Do? are bridging philosophy to every day living to help readers have a better life. Philosophies from all areas are being incorporated into everyday living (e.g., His Holiness Dalai Lama & Cutler, 1998).

However, where do psychotherapists start? Those who want to begin to include ideologies from philosophers into their practice need to be intentional and have a rationale for why they choose and include certain philosophical interventions into their therapies. Counselors need to first believe that their own theoretical approach to counseling is indeed rooted in philosophy. This requires having a strong understanding of one’s theoretical orientation. Second, counselors need to educate themselves on philosophies that can aid and enhance their already existing theoretical orientations. Third, counselors need to learn how to apply what they have learned in ethical and effective ways that continuously keep the client’s welfare as the paramount goal. Following these three steps, the counselor can begin to implement intentional philosophical counseling.

Application—An Example

Imagine a therapist who works from an existential psychotherapy paradigm. He or she, naturally, has an already philosophically based orientation of counseling and believes philosophy is important in the therapeutic process. His or her next step is to promote self-education and examine what philosophies or philosophers offer tools that can aid therapy. For example, one of the common goals of existential psychotherapy is promoting authenticity (Yalom, 1980; Yalom, 2002). Authenticity is the ability to understand one’s own feelings paired with the ability to convey these feelings to another. The state of being authentic is ultimately the ability to be true to self and others. Aristotle, concerned with understanding the nature of happiness (Durant, 1961) discussed the need for an understanding of truthfulness (Ross, 1998). More formally, he expressed the need for each individual to live an authentic, honest life. Aristotle offers contemporary readers stories, metaphors and lessons on how to live a truthful, authentic life. These readings offer the helping professional a viable and meaningful, form of biblotherapy for the client. Additionally, as a skilled clinician, the counselor can utilize the lessons and metaphors within session with the client, helping the client to gain new understandings and insights. For example, Aristotle is greatly known for defining authenticity as being a balanced consideration. He states, “…the truthful man is another case of a man who, being in the mean, is worthy of praise, and both forms of untruthful man are culpable” (Ross, 1998, p. 101). Sharing this infamous lesson with clients may help to promote authenticity and responsibility in clients both in individual and systemic therapies. By introducing this ideal to clients, the clinician can provide therapeutic fodder for client interventions.

Or, imagine instead, a Cognitive-Behavioral therapist [CBT] working with a client suffering from feeling a loss of control. Observed externally, Epictetus, the early stoic philosopher, suffered greatly. However, he found emotional balance through terrible situations. He professed that beyond his suffering he could survive and thrive. He understood he was in control of his own thoughts and finally his own beliefs. He knew how he thought, eventually defined his emotional experience. He and his ideologies teach that men and women can survive hardships, especially those beyond control, by learning new ways to think. Additionally, he and other early philosophers, promoted the revolutionary idea that emotions are based on thought. Ultimately, how we think is the basis for how we feel. This fundamental belief, ideally, can be utilized to help clients realize that their views of the world are primarily more important than what happens to them. For example, a CBT family therapist could, through philosophical counseling, help parents and children adapt to family crisis. For instance, it is not uncommon for adolescents to view protective and care-taking actions of either parent as “over-protective.” Utilizing the applications of Epictetus, the clinician can challenge the client to change cognitions. For example, the automatic cognition of the client, “I am watched because I am not trusted,” may be altered to “I am watched because I am loved.” If the clinician is successful in helping a client alter his or her cognitions to this thought, the clinician may be highly successful in assisting the client in emotional change.

These philosophical lessons may be shared with clients in need. The therapeutic opportunities offered by these philosophical musing offer clients the opportunity to be shared with clients or even sent home as a work to read. These examples are just a few of the many applications that therapists can draw upon in the inclusion of philosophy in counseling.


The existential writer Blackman (1971) writes, “Every philosopher seeks to establish his statements by some method, and in turn his statements are examined in the light of the method he has used to establish them” (p. 7). This is the fundamental job of a therapist. Statements, like words that make magic, are the tools used to help others. If a statement reaches a client, change may occur.

Philosophers, both historic and contemporary, devote their lives to understanding such diverse ideas as morality to the nature of understanding. Their immense field can offer counselors a great array of tools to understand themselves and to help clients to examine and change their own lives.

However, as counselors it is important to promote research that evaluates the effectiveness of philosophical counseling. This will help the field to find contemporary applications of wisdom already written. Additionally, the basis for contemporary therapy is deeply rooted in philosophy. Thus it is important for the field of counseling that counselors become proactive in incorporating philosophy into contemporary approaches. Otherwise, the field loses the chance to be on the forefront of the emerging field of philosophical counseling.


Achenbach, G. B. (2003). A short answer to the question: What is philosophical practice. Retrieved September 21, 2003 from

Blackham, H. J. (1971). Reality, man and existence: Essential works of existentialism. New York: Bantam Books, Inc.

Cohen, E. D. (2003). What would Aristotle do? Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Durant, W. (1961). The story of philosophy: The lives and opinions of the world’s greatest philosophers form Plato to John Dewey. New York: Pocketbooks.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, & Cutler, H. C. (1998). The art of happiness: A handbook for living. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc.

Hyland, D. A. (1993). The origins of philosophy: Its rise in myth and the pre-Socratics 5th (ed.). Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, Inc.

Raabe, P. B. (1999). What is philosophical counseling? Retrieved September 2, 2003 from http://www.interchange.ubc/raabe/Raabe_article1.html.

Ross, D. (1998). Aristotle: The nicomachean ethics. New York: Oxford Press.

Yalom, I. D. (2002). The gift of therapy: An open letter to a new generation and their patients. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential Psychotherapy. Basic Books.