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.


  • Joe Knippenberg

     I go to great lengths in my classes to problematize what we’re doing, at least so far as “philosophy” is concerned.  Indeed, I say that virtually everything unpleasant about the experience (I flatter myself here by saying “virtually everything”) stems from the fact that our intellectualy exchanges are embedded in a moneymaking enterprise, from which I receive a salary and they receive a credential.  We have to show up at a particular time and place to discuss, say, Aristotle, whether we want to or not.  They have to write papers and take exams, whether or nor they ahve anything to say.  I have to read them.  This is a far cry from leisurely contemplation, from the genuine pursuit of truth for truth’s sake.  We both–teachers and students–respond to different incentives in the context of the contemporary university.  There is learning, and there is leisurely contemplation, and there is the pursuit of truth for truth’s sake, but they occur in some ways despite the structures in which they are embedded.

    I realize that there is an ‘educational marketplace” and certainly have given some thought to that phenomenon.  It’s unavoidable in contemporary higher education.  But I always bear in mind that it is a problematical paradigm because there is–to my mind, at least–a huge qualitative distinction between students and customers or consumers.

    I am also aware that the market does a number of things quite well.  And in elementary and secondary education, I think that the market paradigm makes good sense, because it’s plausible to believe that parents actually care about and know what’s good for their children.  That paradigm seems to me less plausible in genuinely higher education, because knowing what we really need is a pretty amazing accomplishment in itself.  That said, I’m perfectly willing to live with a highly problematical higher education marketplace because it at least leaves room for cranks like me.

    • Joe, these are some great thoughts. I agree that there is an important difference qualitatively between students and consumer/customers. By definition students don’t know what they need to learn (at least in specific detail). And if the “customer is always right,” (and in America are also obsessed with pragmatic concerns) how can teachers really teach students what they don’t think they need to know (even if they do) if they behave like customers? There’s a kind of baseline disposition that students need to have to really learn, call it a posture of humility, that isn’t natural in the customer/provider relationship. But as you note, incentives matter, and unless you are a peripatetic then having a salary makes good practical sense. The question becomes how to align the economic incentives to maximize an authentic and genuine learning environment. What this would probably mean is that there would be far fewer students at the higher ed level than there currently are. Cultural expectations also play a huge part in determining whether the educational paradigm is essentially commodified/transactional or not.

  • On the question of counseling, Gene Edward Veith notes, “We do have a heritage of wisdom that one might draw on. There is also, of course, spiritual counseling, which, at its worst tries to emulate secular psychology but at its best brings Christ into people’s difficulties.”

  • Just a quick historical note: Philosophical Counseling arose in the United States, in no small part, as a response to, or alternative to, the pharmaceutical heavy approach to mental well being (see Lou Marinoff’s “Plato not Prozac”).  Most (on the order of 90+%) philosophical counselors are full time professors of philosophy and counsel philosophically as another, in some ways more authentic, use of their training.  It has yet to be shown whether or not the current economic troubles of the world will influence attraction towards the field of philosophical counseling.

    Also, let us not forget that before there was a field of psychology or biology or mathematics or physics there was philosophy.  Philosophy’s role in counseling whether through philosophical counseling or cross disciplinary study in professional counseling fields should be welcomed and embraced…but then again I am a philosopher and philosophical counselor so I would naturally promote the increased study of philosophy across the board.

    Thanks for continuing the discussion.