Acton Institute Powerblog

Commerce and Counseling

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My friend Joe Knippenberg notes some of my musings on the field of “philosophical counseling,” and in fact articulates some of the concerns I share about the content of such practice. I certainly didn’t mean to uncritically praise the new field as it might be currently practiced (I did say, “The actual value of philosophical counseling (or perhaps better yet, philosophical tutoring) might be debatable.”).

There are, in fact, better and worse philosophers as there is better and worse philosophy, and in practice the picture we get from the article does seem to embody quite a secularist and post-modern approach that probably isn’t appropriate for Christians, who shouldn’t seek what Bonhoeffer called “secular soulcare” (säkulare Seelsorge). In that sense, then, my challenge for theologians and pastors from this field of “philosophical counseling” becomes even more pointed.

The fact that the practice might be ad hoc and secularistic shouldn’t be surprising, though, considering that it seems to have arisen not from formal training preparing people to be “philosophical counselors,” but rather from casualties of the higher ed bubble. (Joe seems to intimate that “collapse” might be too strong a word, but one thing the example of philosophical counselors should teach us is the need for contingency plans.)

My basic point was really to show that this particular entrepreneurial response, which isn’t for everyone and may have questionable actual value as “counseling,” is one way to “get out while you still can.” These philosophical counselors are really just doing what they’ve been trained to do in a different setting, outside the traditional classroom.

So things might look a bit different if we don’t evaluate this field in terms of its therapeutic value, but rather as I intimated before, in terms of a kind of tutoring, mentoring, life coaching, or individual education, which in fact is a kind of hearkening back to older models of education. It used to be that once you got your doctorate, you could hold seminars and would collect your fees directly from the students. How much you made depended on how many students would come and find your course worthwhile.

The conclusion of Knippenberg’s challenge is that the kinds of things offered by philosophical counseling shouldn’t be commodified or commercialized. That to me seems to be a whole different question, worthy of more thought. It gets right at the basic question, “What is philosophy?” And I’ll just offer these following initial reflections.

The fact that people are willing to pay for such tutoring/counseling shows that they, at least, think they are being served and are getting something worthwhile. That’s one merit of market exchanges: they only continue happening when people are satisfied with what they are getting.

But Joe’s criticism also strikes at what entrepreneurs actually do. Some think that entrepreneurs just create new wants in order to have something to profit from, and that this is fundamentally destructive. Others think that entrepreneurs intuit or perceive needs and wants before others, anticipating and articulating those things even when customers haven’t been able to consciously grasp what was missing.

It’s true that entrepreneurs do both things, and that there is good entrepreneurship and bad entrepreneurship. It’s not praiseworthy to be innovative if all you are doing is to “invent ways of doing evil” (Romans 1:30 NIV). But if you are actually serving others, often in ways they didn’t realize themselves they were missing, then this is praiseworthy.

But Joe’s “different model for philosophy” would seem to have much more far-reaching implications. It would seem to mean that philosophy departments at schools should cease to exist, or that they at least shouldn’t charge people for their services. But why would this then be different for any other discipline? Perhaps then, on Joe’s reading, what is really wrong with higher education is that it doesn’t amount to “time to be friends, to think, to read, and to converse. For free.”

This criticism confuses friendship and education. And to be fair perhaps these things are confused in the realm of counseling as a whole. Perhaps. Friendship, counseling, and education are, in fact, different things. And while I’m not in favor of commercializing friendship, a bit more of actual market competition in higher ed might, as I said before, help the “destruction” of higher ed to be “creative” in a positive way.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.