The Policeman Approach to Philosophical Counseling

by Morten Fastvold

In this fascinating and poignant article the Norwegian philosophical practitioner Morten Fastvold analyses two completely different ways of doing philosophy (be it with children or with adults): the caring approach and the policeman approach. The former tends to see the other person as a fragile, insecure self basically in need of empathy, care and understanding in order to develop philosophical thoughts in a later stage. The latter turns this upside-down: let's investigate closely the actual words the persons utters, and just for a moment forget about the psychological complexity that may lie beneath his words! Let's make the person responsible for his words, let him work and "sweat" a little in an attempt to spell out the implications of his statements!

In the adaptation of the article for the web, I have chosen to divide it into two separate parts although it was originally written in one piece:

Part One: Clarification of "the caring approach" and "the policeman approach"
Part Two: Extracts from a session with Oscar Brenifier—Discussion and Conclusion

Part Two: Extracts from a session with Oscar Brenifier—Discussion and Conclusion

The policeman approach at work: Oscar performing a session

During the seminar in Oslo, one of my fellow students agreed to be Oscar's guest during a demonstration session, which turned out to illustrate quite well, I believe, the policeman approach at work. As Oscar usually does, he asks his guest to prepare a question for the discussion, and my fellow student proposed:

"Why be a good person in a world that is not just?"

Oscar: Is the use of different adjectives (good and just) intentional?
Answer: Well ... Yes it is.
O: Okay. What word in the question is in need of clarification?
A: It must be "good".
O: So what is to be good?
A: It is to act in a way that does not hurt others.
O: So what you wonder about is: Why be a person who does not hurt others in a world that is not just? Is that okay?
A: Yes.
O: What does "just" mean?
A: Well ... Equality, and something else ...
O: And what is "something"?
A: It must be "desert"; to get what one deserves.
O: Now you have to choose the most important one of "equality" and "get what one deserves". Which one do you choose?
A: I choose "to get what one deserves".
O: So to put this in the question, it will be: Why be a person who does not hurt others in a world where one does not get what one deserves? Okay?
A: Okay.
O: Now, let's imagine that another person, let's say a woman called Birthe (isn't that a Danish name?) tell you the following: "Why be a person who does not hurt others in a world where one does not get what one deserves?" Why would Birthe say that?
A: She says it because ... well ... To get a better life for herself.
O: Where is "better life" in your question?
A: Nowhere ...
O: So let's stick to what's in the question, and ask what Birthe's motivation could be for her question. What do you think it could be?
A: To make the world just.
O: Is that person talking about making the world just?
A: I don't quite follow ...
O: Let me put it differently: Where is the problem which the initial question poses? Which consequences does it have for Birthe that the world is not just?
A: (a bit confused) Well ... that the world is not good ...
O: (a bit inquisitional) Is that the problem? That the world is not good?
A: Eh ... no, or rather: That she will not get something good when she acts good.
O: Now, what is it called: When you do something good, you get something good? If you should tell a person who did not understand this, for instance a child, what this means, what would you then tell this child?
A: That Birthe needs external motivations to do good actions.
O: Do we now see what is implied in the (initial) question?
A: I cannot see that this is implied in my question.
O: So this motivation you have given is not contained in the question?
A: No.
O: Not really?
A: No. I'm unsatisfied about this motivation. It appears to be rather childish ...
O: We'll try again, then. In order to analyse what is contained in the question, you must come up with a better explanation for why Birthe is asking the question. To explain: If a person asks if there is something to eat, our first expectation might be that he is hungry. But there could be other reasons for his saying so than he's being hungry, for instance a concern for the amount of food stored in the house, or whatever. So, returning to Birthe's question, what might be another reason for her asking it than the motivation you already have mentioned? You see my point?
A: Yes.
O: So what can you give as a better explanation?
A: Well ... Hm ... There might be a mismatch between her conceptions and how the world is.
O: And what is the way the world is?
A: It is unjust.
O: But we have already described what "unjust" is: it is not to get what one deserves.
A: Right.
O: So what could be a better explanation for Birthe's asking her question?
A: Well ... (A long pause)
O: If we don't get a better explanation, can we continue with the first one? Because we must ask ourselves: Have we understood the question?
A: I'm not totally happy with it, but OK ...
O: What are you unhappy with? The question or the explanation?
A: The explanation. Because it is childish.
O: Is this explanation, that you call childish, contained in the question? Or in our understanding of the question?
A: It has to be in our understanding of the question.
O: Nothing has to be. But it is possible that "the childish hypothesis of interpreting the question" is contained in the question? Would Birthe's asking this be out of this world? Or if it was your neighbour, would it then be out of the question?
A: (embarrassed) All right, I see that it is a stupid question.
O: No no, let's probe further into this. If this other person—Birthe or your neighbour—does not get what she deserves, will she then hurt others?
A: Well ... It is possible.
O: So we have to look for a condition: What would she need in order not to hurt others?
A: To make the world just.
O: Which is: To make her get what she deserves.
A: Well ... It's possible ...
O: Oh, come on. Commit yourself! Say: This is my answer!
A: Okay, this is my answer.
O: Well, then ...! Now, what would you answer your neighbour, asking her question for the reasons we have assumed?
A: Answering my neighbour ...?
O: Right. What would you answer her?
A: My answer to my neighbour would be: You should be a good person in order to be able to look yourself in the mirror in the morning.
O: To look yourself in the mirror in the morning—is that something you do only when shaving?
A: No. It is about conscience. About having a clear conscience.
O: I don't know what a clear conscience is. Could you tell me what it is?
A: It is that the person inside yourself is a good person. It is to know that you have not done anything wrong.
O: Let's look further for the motivations of that person. Could you qualify it by using one word only?
A: It must be ... reward.
O: So both persons are looking for a reward, then! Both the person who looks for an external motivation and the person who looks himself in the mirror and has a clear conscience?
A: Well, maybe not in the second case.
O: But if you didn't see it in the second case, why did you say it then?
A: I ... well, I think I made a mistake ... So if I might have another try at ...
O: (interrupting) No, let's stick to what you have said. Which is "reward".
A: (interrupting) But if I might try to ...
O: (interrupting) No no.
A: No?
O: (smiling) Are you assuming what you say, or are you escaping a little bit?
A: Well ...
O: Let's try to stick with what you did say. If both persons are looking for a reward, how can that be? Is it not the same reward? Are there two kinds of rewards? What might be the difference?
A: Well, the first reward is of an external kind, while the other is of an internal kind.
O: Is there one reward that you find more appropriate than the other?
A: The second one.
O: Why?
A: It is better in a moral way. It is a motivation for doing good actions without any external reward.
O: Is this a proof, or are you just repeating what you already have said?
A: Well, maybe repeating ...
O: So find a proof why the second one is more appropriate.
A: The first one is more fragile than the second one.
O: What is opposite to fragile?
A: Well ... Long lasting.
O: What is the opposite of long lasting?
A: Let's see ... (thinking) ... maybe ... ephemeral.
O: What is more opposed to long lasting: ephemeral or fragile?
A: Ephemeral ... Or maybe "hard" is a better opposite to fragile ...
O: (smiling) Do you want to see the horrific consequences, or not?
A: Well ... Yes ...
O: Do I believe you?
A: No. (They smile both)
O: Let's find the criteria: How do we know that something is long lasting?
A: I don't quite follow ...
O: Let me put it this way: How can we measure that something is long lasting?
A: (getting really confused) Measure ...?
O: Yes. If I should measure how long this table is, what do I use?
A: What do you use ...?
O: Yes, what kind of instrument do I use?
A: Instrument ...?
O: Yes. I will measure this table, to see how long it is from here to there. What kind of instrument do I use to do the measuring?
A: A yardstick?
O: Good! So by way of which instrument can I measure that something is long lasting?
A: (too confused to find an answer) ...?
O: (explaining in a very pedagogical manner) I use a yardstick to measure length, and to measure that something is long lasting, I use a ...?
A: Watch?
O: A watch! And what do we measure with a watch?
A: Time?
O: Yes, time! That was a hard one, wasn't it?
A: (smiles, being quite embarrassed) Yes.

The dialogue did not get much further than this, due to time running out (I'm not trying to be funny at the guest's expense!) and because of a general state of fatigue and confusion in the guest. This was just like I experienced myself in Paris, where the sessions tended to ebb out in this way, rather than reaching a conclusive step where the initial question was fully answered.

Before continuing my discussion, I must add that Oscar conducted his interrogation with much good humour, thus making it less stern and unbearable than it may look like in the transcript. What also escapes the transcript is how embarrassed the guest appeared to be when condemning his own question as being "childish" or even "stupid" ("This is a harsh judgment on yourself!" Oscar pointed out afterwards) because of its implicit preoccupation with external rewards. The guest seemed to be particularly embarrassed when he could not find an alternative interpretation to his own "childish interpretation of Birthe's question", despite his dislike of this interpretation. Then there was tension and drama in the dialogue—as it also was when Oscar refused his guest to have a second try at finding another key word than "reward" to explain the "clear conscience" answer, even if the guest claimed that he made a mistake. (When we later on questioned Oscar about his rigidity at this point, Oscar explained that the guest did say "reward", even if "reward" was quite inappropriate as a key word to his own answer, and that this really revealed how much the notion of reward meant in the guest's way of thinking.)

As he usually does, Oscar asked his guest afterwards what he thought about the dialogue, and also the bystanders were invited to have a say on what we had witnessed. This discussion became rather muddled, as there was no unanimous opinion on what the dialogue had revealed. The guest himself tended to oppose Oscar's opinion that he had tried to escape his own question throughout most of the dialogue, and contended that the notion of reward was not as important to him as we might have thought, due to Oscar's way of questioning. Instead, he would rather have discussed other matters than external reward, but was not allowed to do so, due to Oscar's persistence. It tended, then, to be at least two different conceptions of what had been going on, and when Oscar asked for a vote on "Who thinks, and who thinks not, that the guest tried to escape his question?", most people voted that the guest indeed had tried to escape.

So what to make out of this? The truth cannot of course be determined by a majority vote, but the discrepancy between what the guest meant had happened and what Oscar and most of the bystanders meant had happened, at least poses a problem: How should the guest relate to his being outvoted on his own interpretation of what the dialogue had revealed about him? Should he insist that he still is right, because nobody but he can really know what he was up to? Should he dismiss Oscar's claim that he was escaping his own question as a misconception, due to Oscar's rigid method and too hasty conclusions? Should he think that the majority vote against him was the result of the bystander's being unduly influenced by Oscar's very clear-cut opinion on what the guest was doing? All this is possible, I am not ruling out an affirmative answer as unjustified or self-deceptive. It is up to the guest himself to ponder about this: Did the session speak to him, or did it not speak to him? Did it make him see himself in a new way that might be helpful in his relating to himself, or was it much ado about nothing that should be forgotten? The guest has to decide for himself, and this will be entirely his business, unless he chooses to see the counselor once more.

Here we touch on the general question of what people are ready to see about themselves. There might be some disturbing traits about ourselves that we may not be able to face, even if they are pointed out to us. If so, we are likely to deny them, despite the evidence, probably out of self-protection. But at a later stage in life, we might be ready to admit the trait, and to realise how we have escaped this truth about ourselves up till now. (I am not particularly referring to Oscar's guest in our example by saying this, predicting that he eventually will see the light; I am just stating a general point about a very human tendency of escaping unpleasant truths about oneself.)

This very human tendency in turn highlights the fact that a method, or procedure, of doing philosophical counseling will not guarantee a certain outcome, for instance a person being able to see something about himself. Thus, a "failure" to make this happen will not prove the method or procedure to be "wrong" or inadequate, as the reason for this "failure" might just as well be the guest's unwillingness, or his being unable to realise at the moment, some aspects of his speech or behaviour or way of thinking. This only adds to the uncertainty of the philosophical counseling enterprise—and this basic uncertainty we have to acknowledge. (This, by the way, is no argument against employing methods or procedures in philosophical counseling—which is another issue, not to be discussed here.)

Returning to the demonstration session, Oscar emphasises that it is not the initial question—or the theme for discussion—that is most important. Even more important and interesting, he contends, is how the guest relates to himself, to his own way of thinking. This is why the "Did the guest try to escape, or not?" question played such a major part in the discussion afterwards. Oscar likes to use the game metaphor in describing his method; it is like a football game where the theme is the ball. Yes, there is a ball, he says, but as in football, it is the game, and not the ball itself, which is important. How you play; what you do when you receive the ball and have to make a move, in which direction you kick the ball and what propensities you then reveal—that is what mainly interests Oscar, and probably also the guest when the session reaches its final stage, when the focus now is much more on how you play than on the ball itself.

However, if the original question tends to be reduced to a pretext for discovering something else in this way, it does not become unimportant from a philosophical point of view. Having it exposed, as in our example, as a maybe childish preoccupation with external motivations for not hurting others or doing good in a general sense, is a quite considerable achievement from a philosophical point of view. Such an implication is not obvious from the start if you have not already looked into the question, and it surely is an interesting point to discover during a dialogue.

The implications of respecting the other's words

In detective stories, as in real life, the policeman states that "everything you say, can and will be used against you" when arresting a suspect. This saying is also contained in the policeman approach to philosophical counseling, as our example has shown. Most of us feel uneasy about the warning that our own words will be used against us, also when the investigation is not about some crime, but about our own way of thinking. Why we would rather not be confronted with our own words, even if this implies a respect for these very words, is, as I have already mentioned, a philosophical issue of its own.

Oscar contends that he indeed respects his guest's words, and that his way of counseling is founded on this respect. He is very intent on making his guest respect his own words, instead of abandoning them right away for some other words of his own, which in turn may be abandoned just as quickly, an so on. Please, slow down! he demonstrates, let's have a good look at your words before you choose to rephrase, and take the time to find a good reason why you are discontent with what you said before you change your words.

This is because words are very revealing; they often tell the truth about ourselves more than we would like them to do. In this respect our words betray us. So if we would like to find out more about who we are, instead of escaping ourselves by escaping our words, we have to stop the continuous flow of speech and listen to our words and examine them in a philosophically critical way. As this can be hard to do all by ourselves, the philosophical counselor, good policeman style, may be very helpful.

Such a counselor may also help people to structure and discipline their thinking, by way of making the guest have a critical look on his idea (in our example: by supposing that it was the invented lady Birthe, or the neighbour, who asked the initial question, whereon the guest has to interpret his own question as somebody else's, and to answer it in such an alienating context), or by making the guest deal with antinomies ("what is the opposite of long-lasting?"). Challenging the guest in this way also demands persistence, as such tasks may be difficult, especially for people without philosophical training. The guest may even find it painful and enduring, and not very funny. But why shouldn't he accept these philosophical exercises all the same, when he willingly accepts physical pain and endurance administered by the gym instructor? These exercises are given for similar reasons: the first ones to strengthen the thinking ability, the second ones to strengthen the physical ability.

Plato made such a comparison between philosophical and physical training, and wasn't he right in doing so? If we think he was, we may state that: As we all know that good physical shape cannot be obtained without some momentary sweat and pain and endurance, we should not be surprised that strengthening and structuring our thinking also demands its momentary sacrifices. A very caring gym instructor who anxiously asks the persons he supervises not to push themselves, no no, relax and have a nice cup of chocolate if you feel the least fatigue in your arms and legs; such an instructor will not get many satisfied customers in the end. Because the results will be far too poor. So wouldn't a very caring philosophical counselor be equally misguided?

Finally some words about harshness: Oscar is often accused of being too harsh in his way of counseling. His policeman approach may account for much of this impression, but, as he contends, it is by respecting the other's words that his method gets harsh, paradoxical as it may seem.

Oslo, October 28th, 2004

Page created: 06.11.04. Page last modified: 29.09.06 19:33.