Philosophical consultation—the difficulties

by Oscar Brenifier

The present text completes a first text which describes our practice of philosophical consultation. The methodology inspires itself primarily from Socratic maïeutics, where the philosopher questions his interlocutor, inviting him to identify the issues and stakes of his speech, to conceptualize it by distinguishing key terms in order to have them fully operate, to problematize it through a critical perspective, to universalize its implications. Let us specify for comparative reasons that this practice has for particularity to invite the subject to estrange himself from simple feelings in order to engage in a rational analysis of his speech and of himself, a sine qua non condition in order to deliberate on cognitive and existential issues that must first be clarified. The self estrangement and positive alienation that presupposes such an activity, hardly natural, reason for which it necessitates the assistance of a specialist, implies a certain number of difficulties that we shall here attempt to analyze.


Beyond the immediate interest for philosophical exercise, the predominant negative feeling, the one most frequently expressed by the subject in the course of philosophical consultations, as well as during collective philosophical workshops, is the one of frustration. First, the frustration of interruption. The philosophical exchange not being the premise for psychological release or conviviality, any long-winded or unclear speech, or one that ignores its interlocutor must be interrupted. If it does not directly feed into the dialogue, it does not serve the exchange and so does not have any reason to be in the context of this very exercise. Our goal is here the construction of thinking, not a mere associative thought process. Second, the frustration linked to the pungency. More than pronouncing words and speaking, our goal is to analyze our speech, and all that we say and have said can be and should be utilized "by us", "for us" and "against us". Third, the frustration of the slowness. We should not accept accumulation of sentences, the rushing and hustling of words. Silences should not be feared, nor to stop on a given expression or proposition in order to apprehend fully its substance, in the double meaning of the verb to apprehend: to capture and to fear. Fourth, the frustration of betrayal. There again in the double meaning of this term: active betrayal of our own word which reveals what we did not wish to say or know, and passive betrayal of our words, which do not say or refuse to say what we want to say. Fifth, the frustration of being. Not to be what we want to be, not to be what we believe to be, to be dispossessed of the illusory truths that we entertain on ourselves, our existence and our intellect, consciously or not, often since a very long time.

This multiple frustration, sometimes painful, is not always clearly expressed by the subject. If he is slightly emotional, sensitive or little inclined to analysis, he won't hesitate to denounce censorship, or oppression. "You stop me from speaking!", says he, when in fact long unused silences, unoccupied by speech, periodically punctuate this same speech which has a hard time to find its way. Or again "You try to force me to say what you want!" says he, when in fact to his own question the subject can answer what he wants, at the only risk of provoking new questions, probably embarrassing. In those cases, the frustration initially expresses itself often like a reproach, although, in verbalizing itself, it is allowed to become an object for itself. It allows the subject that expresses it to become an object to himself. With this acknowledgment, he becomes capable to reflect, to analyze his being through the challenge implied, to better understand his intellectual functioning, and he can then intervene on himself, as much on his being than on his thinking. Of course, the passage through moments with a certain psychological tonality is hardly avoidable, although without insisting to much, since our goal is to quickly move to the subsequent philosophical step, through the mean of the critical perspective and by attempting to define a problematic and the given stakes.

Our work hypothesis consists primarily in identifying certain elements of subjectivity, scattered snatches that we can name opinions, intellectual opinions and emotional opinions, in order to shake them up and enter the experience of an "other" thought, what we call a necessary and beneficial alienation. Without this, how can we learn to voluntarily and consciously emerge from conditioning and free determination? How can we escape the sheer feeling and the pathological? Nevertheless, it might happen that the subject does not have in himself the capacity to accomplish this work, or even the mere possibility to envisage it, by lack of distance, by lack of autonomy, by insecurity or because of some strong anguish, in which case we might not be able to work with him. Just like the practice of a given sport requires minimal physical dispositions, philosophical practice, with these difficulties and demands, necessitates minimal psychological dispositions, short of which we won't be able to work.

The exercise must take place with a minimum of serenity, which implies the diverse preconditions necessary to this serenity. An overbearing sensitivity or fragility would hinder the process and even grind it to a halt. In the manner in which our work defines itself, the causality of a lack in this domain is not of our competency: we can not deal with it. If we restrain our self to our strict philosophical function, we can not go to the roots of the problem: we can only acknowledge the situation and draw the consequences. If the subject does not seem to be capable to go through the exercise although he feels the urge to reflect upon himself, we will incite him to undergo some psychological type of consultations, or maybe other types of philosophical practices which are less concerned with falling into a purely psychological activity. To conclude on this aspect, for what concerns us, as it remains limited, the "psychological" passage has no reason to be avoided, subjectivity must not play the rule of the scarecrow. Even though certain philosophical professionals, rather academic, conceive this individual reality as an obstruction to "pure" philosophy. The formal and shivery philosopher—primarily book oriented—fears that by dealing with subjectivity, the distance necessary to philosophical activity be thus abandoned.

The speech as pretext

One aspect of our practice, which causes a problem to the subject, is the relationship to speech that we attempt to install. Indeed, on one side we ask him to sacralize his own speech since we demand of him to weigh attentively the slightest term utilized, since we authorize ourselves to delve from inside—together—the expression utilized and the arguments forwarded, to the point they become sometimes unrecognizable for the author. A surprising recognition that once in a while will lead to some outcry from the subject by seeing his speech thus manipulated, even so these words are his own. On the other side, we ask him to banalize his speech, since the totality of the exercise is dealing with mere words, no matter the passionate sincerity or overwhelming truth that is meant by those words. From this standpoint, our primary concern is to play with ideas without necessarily adhering to what is being said. All that interests us is the overall coherency, or the echoes that sentences send to each other, the mental silhouette that slowly and imperceptibly establishes itself. We ask the subject to play a simple game, which implies a certain distance to what is conceived as reality, and at the same time we ask him to play with words in a most serious fashion, with the greatest application, with more efforts than he generally mobilizes to construct his own speech and analyses it.

Truth advances here behind a cloak. It is no more a truth of intention, it is no more sincerity nor authenticity, it is a requirement founded on reason. This requirement which forces the subject to make choices, to take charge of the contradictions coming to broad daylight while working the jumble of speech which obliges sometimes to realize radical reversals of directions, brutal displacements and refusals to see. This sometimes obliges him to conclude to keep silence in front of the multiple cracks that hint at the gravest abysses, the fracture of the self, the hiatus of being. No other quality than rigor is here necessary for the interrogator, and little by little for the subject, beside the one of a policeman, a banker as Nietzsche says, or a detective watching over the slightest moves of speech and behavior, one who asks to account for each act, each event and each moment.

Indeed we might make mistakes in the twists and orientations given to the discussion, a responsibility which remains the prerogative of the interrogator. The undeniable power he detains and must accept, including his undeniable absence of neutrality in spite of the great effort he makes in this direction. The subject as well can "err" and "make mistakes" in the analysis and the ideas he forwards. Undeniably, his hypotheses are influenced by the questions they submit to, confronting a subject blindly moved by the convictions he wishes to defend, guided by different bias for which he has already opted and on which he might very well be incapable of deliberating. "Over interpretation", "misinterpretation", or "under interpretation" flourish. Little matters those mistakes, apparent mistakes or so-called mistakes. What counts for the subject is to stay awake, to keep alert. To observe, to analyze and to be conscious: his mode of reaction, his dealing with the issues, his way of reacting, his ideas that emerge, his relationship to himself and to the exercise, everything must become here a pretext to analysis and conceptualization. In other words, to make mistakes does not have so much meaning anymore. It is more the question of playing the game. All what counts is to see or not to see, conscience and unconsciousness. There is no more "good and bad" answers but there is "to see the answers", and if there is deceit or illusion, it is uniquely in the lack of fidelity of speech to itself, not anymore in the relationship to some distant truth, pre-inscribed in the background of some starry heaven or in some unconscious pit. Nevertheless, this fidelity is a truth without any doubt more terrible than the other one, more implacable: there is no more possible disobedience, in spite of all the legitimacy of this disobedience. There can only be blindness.

Pain and epidural

The subject rapidly becomes conscious of the stakes involved. A sort of panic may rapidly initially set in. For this reason, it is important to install different types of "epidural" for the birth in progress. First, the most important, the most difficult and most delicate remains the indispensable delicate touch of the interrogator, who must be apt to determine when it is appropriate to insist on a given interrogation and when it is time to move on—"to slide". Or when it is time to say or to propose rather than interrogating, when it is time to alternate between the raw and the generous. This judgment is not always easy to pose, since we so easily get carried away in the heat of the action by our own impulsion, by the desire to go all the way, by the will to arrive in a determined place, or the different tendencies related to fatigue, to despair and many other personal inclinations.

Second, the humor, the laughter, related to the playful dimension of the exercise. This induces a sort of "let go", a "not clinging" spirit, which allows the individual to free himself, to escape his own existential drama and observe without pain the derisory of certain positions, positions to which he sometimes clings with a touch of ridiculous, when it is not with the most flagrant contradiction with himself. Laughter frees the tensions that could completely paralyze the subject in this very corrosive practice.

Thirdly, the splitting, the self-separation which allows the subject to go out of himself, to consider himself as someone else. When the analysis of his own speech undergoes a perilous moment, when the judgment fumbles on issues too heavy to carry, it is useful and interesting to transpose the case in study on an imaginary third person, by inviting the subject to visualize a film, to imagine a fiction, to hear his story in the form of some fable. "Let's suppose that you read a story where you are told that…", "Suppose that you meet somebody, and all that you know about this person is that…". This simple effect of narration allows the subject to forget or relativize his intentions, his desires, his wills, his illusions and disillusions, in order to only deal with his speech as speech as it emerges during the discussion, letting this speech effectuate its own revelations without attempting to permanently erase or change its meaning because of heavy suspicions, because of blatant accusations of insufficiency or treason.

Fourthly, conceptualization and abstraction. By universalizing what tends to be initially perceived exclusively as purely personal dilemmas or issues, through problematizing and dialectizing, in time, pain alleviates itself as the intellectual activity undergoes its own process. Hence philosophizing itself becomes a form of sophrology, a "consolation", such as envisaged by the ancients like Boetius, Seneca, Epicure, or more recently Montaigne, a balm which allows us to observe in a more serene fashion the suffering intrinsic to human existence.

Annex exercises

A few complementary exercises reveal themselves very useful in the process of reflection. For example the requirement of the link. It allows the speech to emerge from a sort of "flow of consciousness" which functions purely trough free associations, thus abandoning to the obscurity of the unconscious the crucial articulation and joints of the thinking. The link is a concept that is fundamental, since it profoundly bears on being: it connects its multiple facets, its different registers. "Substantial link" says Leibniz. "What is the link between what you said here and what you said there?". Besides the contradictions that will be brought to the fore by this interrogation, will appear as well the ruptures and jumps signaling knots, blind spots, and their conscious articulations allows through speech to closely work on the mind of the subject. This exercise is one of the forms of Socratic "anagogic path", allowing to go back to the primal unity, to outline the anchoring of self, to shed light on the point of emergence of the subject's thought, even if it later invites to criticize this unity, even if one wishes to modify this anchorage, which implies then a real deliberation.

Other exercise: the one of the "real speech". This is to be practiced when a contradiction has been detected, to the extent the subject accepts the qualification of contradiction as an attribute of this particular moment of thought, an acceptance which is not always the case. Certain subjects refuse to even envisage it and a priori negate the simple possibility of a contradiction in their speech. By asking which one of the two contradictory proposition is the real speech—even so in the sequential moment where they are pronounced they contain as much sincerity one as the other—we invite the subject to justify two different positions which are his, to evaluate their respective importance, to compare their relative merits, to deliberate in order to finally take side in favor of the primacy of one out of the two prospective, a decision which will bring him to become conscious of his own functioning. It is not absolutely indispensable to take side, but it is recommended to encourage the subject to risk himself to such a judgement, since it is rather rare—if not almost impossible—to encounter a real absence of preference between two distinct visions, with the epistemological consequences deriving from this impossible neutrality. "We are like children who want everything at the same time" wrote Plato. The notions of "complementarity" or "simple difference" to which often refers common language, even so they contain their share of truth, often are used to escape the real issues, somewhat conflicting and tragic, of all singular thinking. The subject will as well attempt to explain the "why" of the speech which is not the "real one". Often, it will correspond to the expectations, moral or intellectual, that its author perceives—or believes so—in society, or to one of his own desire he considers illegitimate. In this sense the speech reveals a certain perception of the world and a given relation to authority or reason.

Other exercise: the one of "order". When we ask the subject to give a reason, explanations or examples about such or such of his remarks, we can ask him account for the order in which they were enumerated. Especially the first element of the list, that will be clarified by setting it in relation with the subsequent elements. By utilizing the idea that the first element is the most evident, the clearest, the surest and therefore the most important to his mind, we will ask him to accept this choice, generally unconscious and take responsibility for it. Often the subject will rebel to this exercise, refusing to accept this choice, denying his "offspring" brought forth from him in spite of him. By accepting to go along with this exercise, he will have to account for the different presuppositions contained by such or such a choice, no matter that he adheres in an explicit manner, implicitly or not at all. At worse, like most of the exercises of the consultation, this will accustom him to decode and identify any proposition coming out, in order to seize the epistemological content and foresee the concepts forwarded, even so he wouldn't wish to admit any solidarity with those ideas. But as well, we may allow him to change his mind: it all depends on the strategy we opt for or the rigor we think can be imposed on the particular subject.

Universal and singular

Globally what do we ask a subject who desires to interrogate himself? What do we demand from the person who wishes to philosophize by starting from his own existence and thought, from and about his own existence and thought? He must learn to read, to read and understand himself, which implies to learn how to transpose his thoughts and learn how to transpose himself through himself; a self-splitting and alienation which necessitates the loss of self by a passage through infinity, by a jump in pure possibility. The difficulty of this exercise is that there will always be a requirement to erase something, to forget, to momentarily stay blind on the body or the mind, reason or will, desire or moral, pride or placidity. In order to go through the process, one must silent the annex and parasitical speech, the speech of circumstance, the speech of apology, the speech of padding or appearance: either speech takes up its own responsibilities, realizes its content or implication, or it must learn to keep quiet. The speech which is not ready to accept its own being, in all its amplitude and breadth, the speech which does not fully desire to become conscious of himself has no more rights to come out to broad daylight. In this particular game where only consciousness is recognized any right, theoretically and tentatively at least. Of course, some will not desire to play the game, considered too harsh, since speech is here overloaded with issues that we generally prefer to hide.

By obliging the subject to select his speech, by sending it back to him through the tool of reformulation the image he deploys, it implies to install a procedure where speech will be as revealing as possible. Of course it is possible and sometimes useful to borrow on paths already drawn, for example by quoting authors, which the consultant might propose to the subject at some point in the discussion, or at the end to prescribe some reading material. But if the subject wants to refer to some passage of some author—an event which is extremely rare in our practice—it is then a rule that he should hold the content as if it was exclusively his. Since what are we attempting to do, if not to rediscover in each singular speech as frail and awkward as it is, the great issues, codified and coined by illustrious predecessor? How in each particular subject are articulated absolute and relative, monism and dualism, body and soul, analytic and poetic, finite and infinite, etc.

All this happens at the risk for the subject of feeling betrayed, since we can hardly support to see our own speech thus escaping from ourselves, including through some kind of abstract universality where we don't recognize our self, or rather we recognize "something" we don't want to recognize. We feel mistreated, including by our self, especially by our self. A feeling of resentment, and especially dispossession, like one who would watch his body being operated on even so all physical pain would have been annihilated. Sometimes, foreseeing the consequences of an interrogation, the subject will attempt by all means to avoid answering: he does not want to see. If the interrogator perseveres through roundabout ways, a sort of answer will most likely end up emerging, but only at the moment where the personal stakes will have disappeared behind the horizon, so that the subject, reassured by this disappearance, won't be able to establish anymore links with the initial problematic. If the interrogator recapitulates the steps in order to reestablish the Ariadne's vital lead of the discussion, the subject can then accept or not accept to see, depending on the circumstances, but the lesser the immediacy, the easier the acceptance. A crucial moment arrives, even so the refusal to see occurs, it often may only be verbal: the accomplish path can not avoid having traced a few prints in a mind of a subject. Even so by mechanism of pure self-defense he will try sometimes to verbally render all work impossible. He might then appear confused, but this apparent confusion is a symptom of a profound understanding.

Accepting the pathology

In guise of conclusion on the difficulties of the philosophical consultation, let us affirm that the main test resides in the acceptation of the idea of pathology, taken in the philosophical sense. In fact, any singular existential posture—always based on a choice that accomplished itself more or less unconsciously as the years went by—for many reasons remains blind on a number of ideas and logics. Fundamentally, these pathologies are not in infinite numbers—like in psychology—even so their specific articulations and combinations vary enormously. But for the one who undergoes them, it is difficult to admit and conceive that these ideas on which he bases his daily existence be reduced to the simple consequences, almost predictable, of a chronic disease in his capacity of reflection and deliberation. Although, is not the "think by yourself" that good numbers of philosophers prone, an art which has to be worked on and acquired, rather than innate, offered as a gift, which would not have to go back on its own footsteps? A life that is not examined is not worth living. A thought that is not examined is not worth thinking. But now of course, anyone can be what he wants to be or pretends to be, anyone can think what he thinks or pretends to think.

Page created: 20.01.05. Page last modified: 29.09.06 19:34.