Dr. Think Good

The philosopher will see you now.

For Love of the Game.
Levey and a philosopher's best friend. - Walter  Novak
Levey and a philosopher's best friend.
The most striking thing about philosopher Lynn Levey is that she doesn't look like a philosopher. She isn't male or bearded or dead. She speaks for as long as she can in a raspy turbo rush of ideas, despite a voice-altering cold. Over coffee and crumpled tissues, Levey tosses around tenets of Socrates and Lao Tzu along with her long, braided brown hair.

While the 44-year-old Levey sounds like the proverbial sage on the mountaintop, it's hard to imagine her scrambling down in her fashionable black skirt to deliver wisdom to the masses. As the first accredited philosophical counselor in the city, however, that is exactly what she's doing.

Philosophy is older than both psychology and psychiatry, as is the notion of using it to help people solve their problems. Confucius advised warlords on creating a more civilized society. Socrates helped his pupils live more fulfilling lives. Now Levey and about three dozen philosophers affiliated with the New York-based American Philosophical Practitioners Association are taking their lessons out of the classroom and applying them to moral angst.

APPA counselors must have at least a master's degree in philosophy and complete a relatively brief training program. They don't prescribe drugs or probe the past to uproot deep-seated insecurities. Instead, they instruct people to think through problems that are philosophic in nature. According to APPA founder and City College of New York Philosophy Professor Lou Marinoff, leading an examined life will help you "make sense of the world and your place in it." Marinoff offers this bit of advice for free.

Since returning from the training in New York last month, Levey says she has conducted about a dozen philosophical counseling sessions. One client is a woman in her early thirties who is beset by a desire to move. The woman has moved five times in ten years, always for a specific reason, such as family or jobs. But this time, she feels compelled to move without being able to express why.

In one lengthy session, Levey examines the lack of external motivation for moving and suggests it would be beneficial to ponder the concepts of stillness and waiting. So she prescribes the I Ching, a Chinese book of wisdom that deals with non-action, emphasizing stillness as a catalyst that often prompts answers to emerge on their own.

"We make the implicit explicit," Levey asserts. "That doesn't always mean that people can make the changes. But at least they'll know."

In addition to private sessions, Marinoff conducts monthly philosophy forums in Barnes and Noble bookstores in New York. Inspired by public philosophy discussions in Europe, the group sessions reach people who can't afford private sessions, which, at $100 an hour, can be quite cost-prohibitive. (Levey charges $65 in Cleveland.)

In the meantime, Marinoff is attempting to get the State of New York to license philosophical counselors — a prerequisite to obtaining third-party reimbursements from insurance companies. So far, he's received little support. The idea has drawn fire from the psychiatric and psychological communities, and Marinoff has been derided by former American Psychiatric Association President Herbert Sacks for "practicing medicine without a license."

Marinoff doesn't take the affront lightly.

"If he would prescribe drugs or electric shock therapy or restraints or a rubber room for someone who has a moral problem, I would say he's practicing nonmedicine with a license," he says. "That's quackery. [Psychiatrists and psychologists] are very quick to say, "What about severely disturbed people? You're not trained. How can you recognize this?' I ride the New York subway. That's the short course."

With his colorful style and brash arguments, the Socratic-bearded Marinoff casts a glare of disdain on the psychiatric establishment for placing too much emphasis on drugs and too little on thought. He brags about his misdiagnosed and gratuitously drugged clients, whom he says dumped their MDs for PhDs and happy pills for Plato.

"We're David and they're Goliath," he says of traditional mental health professionals. "There are tens of thousands of them and only a few dozen of us, and they feel threatened."

Levey, who is also a Gestalt psychologist, views the different approaches as complementary rather than competitive. "I became interested in [philosophical counseling] because often clients have deeper issues they don't want to talk about," says Levey, an interdisciplinary doctoral candidate at the Union Institute in Cincinnati. "Sometimes the initial problem is more amenable to philosophical counseling. We don't talk about feelings as much as we examine beliefs."

Colin McLarty, who chairs the Department of Philosophy at Case Western Reserve University, likes the idea of using philosophy to help people think through their problems. But he doesn't think Marinoff's newly released book, Plato, Not Prozac!, was sufficiently deep or well-organized.

"From reading the book, you could get the impression that philosophers went to kindergarten too," he says. "And since that's where you learned everything you need to know, you can get it from them."

Edwin Locke, a psychologist and business professor at the University of Maryland, is even more cautionary. Bad philosophy, he believes, is just as damaging as bad psychology.

"It would be better not to go near most modern philosophers with a ten-foot pole, because they're philosophically totally and completely bankrupt," argues Locke, who is also a senior writer for The Ayn Rand Institute. "The only absolute of most modern philosophers is complete skepticism. So if anything, they would just make you worse."

Despite early speculation that job-market-challenged philosophers would rush to fill the ranks of the year-old APPA, many are reluctant to join. McLarty, for one, says he "wouldn't have the patience for those philosophical cafes." Nor has the book caused a buzz in his department beyond another professor asking to borrow it from him.

Still, Marinoff's dreams for philosophical counseling loom large. He believes that most mental health professionals are more curious than resistant and realize they aren't equipped to deal with philosophical problems, just as philosophers aren't trained to handle psychological or psychiatric problems. If they work together, Marinoff envisions, they could run full-service counseling centers designed to address the entire spectrum of a person's cerebral needs.

Right now, it's still a quiet battle — though one Marinoff is sure he will win.

"Did David know Goliath was going to topple?" he asks. "Yes. Did Goliath know? No. Not until he falls does he actually realize."

Or until he starts losing third-party reimbursement patients to philosophical counselors.

Jacqueline Marino can be reached at [email protected].

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