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Encounters with Philosophers

by Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.(more info)

listed in psychology, originally published in issue 61 - February 2001

Recently, I read in the newspapers about the current trend for people who are troubled to seek help through philosophy rather than visit the psychotherapist's office. The hope is that the philosopher, with his knowledge of the great ideas, can lead the disturbed patient to acceptance of life's difficulties and perhaps offer some time-tested logical solutions to conflicts and dilemmas.

In France and England, there are now 'philosophy cafes' where guests rub shoulders with real philosophers from university faculties, who offer the knowledge of 2,000 years of the best tradition in Western thinking.

One can understand this current trend to seek help via philosophy when we see the rest of the playing field – most people are only vaguely aware of what to do about their psychic despair: they may be cognizant of the recent attacks on Sigmund Freud and the long years and relative lack of success of psychoanalysis. On the other side, they are offered newer and more expensive psychopharmacological concoctions – Prozac and its followers. These biological remedies may, of course, cause various nefarious side effects. Some suffer more from them than from their original presenting illness. So the consumer is wary. The philosopher, then, is seen to offer a pristine, new way through the labyrinth of therapies. Not why not give it a try?

So some philosophers have set themselves up as 'practitioners' and try to help people who would otherwise seek assistance from a medical doctor, psychologist, or some other healer. This is quite prevalent in New York now, I have heard from colleagues. I have also seen 'advice-giving' columns in papers and magazines, which formerly had psychologists or psychiatrists answering reader's queries, which now have a house philosopher who will try to tackle the current question in his monthly columns.

I have nothing against this idea; in fact, for many people, seeking help at the hands of a well-educated philosopher is one effective way to plug them into Western civilization; certainly a plus for many people in this confused age. We live in a time of changes and transitions; there is a striving for values and clues to the meaning of life. Religion does not appeal to huge numbers of citizens in the 21st century as it did in the past. Perhaps a meeting with a rational mind would do wonders for a large number of lost souls. At the same time, one must keep in mind that there are many neurotic knots that cannot be untied easily by a reasonable discussion of possibilities. For example, what could a philosopher, however well trained, do about someone suffering from terrible, recurrent nightmares; or handle the patient with convulsive behaviours, such as constant hand-washing? For them and many other difficult symptoms, perhaps effective psychotherapy is the only possible path.

I have had some interactions with philosophers. When I was a young student living in New York's Greenwich Village, I frequented the local coffee houses where the late hours offered a prime selection of local homespun philosophical thinkers and tinkers. Arnold became a very good friend. He was a self-educated man, about 25 years older, with a soft, kind face. I have never liked the cold, hard intellectual type, but Arnold was the opposite. His voice was appealing, and he had a naïve quality of openness to the world – as I wrote in an obituary (for he died at the age of 46 in 1966) 'there was no veil between himself and the world'. He owned a small bookstore, and there he would sit most of the day, reading the best books, until he luckily sold a book, in which case he would close up shop and go out for lunch. He was well versed in the ancient philosophers, and I recall from the year we were fellow students in a psychology course, he could quote them in class to the perplexity of many professors who were not so well read. So you can imagine that Arnold did not get along well in class since an auto-didact is always at the mercy of the academic establishment. In any event, I found his late-night conversations fascinating: he knew his Freud, Wilhelm Reich, DH Lawrence, Belloc, Chesterton, Aristotle, Plato, as well as the German philosophers. He was a contributor to encyclopaedia articles on philosophy, and wrote book reviews. One of his major themes dealt with the dualities of life: male/female; life/death; good/evil etc and he would spin out the philosophical underpinnings of classical thought, adding his own idiosyncratic interpretations. He was a master of enchanting his listeners, since he was passionately interested in the topics he was discussing. How different to the boring professors at University, who droned on in their lectures as if they would have preferred to be in their laboratories researching rats! Naturally, being a gifted teacher, Arnold could never land a decent job in the academic world and drifted through a few minor appointments at low-level colleges until his untimely death.

One year after Arnold's death, I met Louis, a chess master and coffee house philosopher. He conversed all night long – which meant him talking, you listening; he was the proverbial mouth seeking an ear. He smoked those strong French cigarettes, which coloured his fingers yellow; blowing smoke through his gentle, white beard. Born in Romania, he taught in Paris, arriving in New York after the war.

He had no fixed address when I fist met him, moving from one room to another; luckily, I was able to arrange for him to move into Arnold's old village flat! A changing of the guard. For Louis, however, the world was not duality; but three. There was always a third figure above the dichotomy: in the case of male/female, there was God. His was a universe of trinities, and though I was never able to grasp fully the underlying principle, it was a pleasure to listen to him preaching from 10 pm (after my night classes) until 4 or 5 am. This was an education for me. Louis wrote a philosophical novel about God for a major publisher, which unfortunately was not a success, and, in fact, his editor, one of Louis' disciples, was sacked form his job for this failure. The last time I saw Louis he was dying from lung cancer, consoling his girlfriend, a young student 30 years his junior, in that little flat I knew so well.

We can learn a lot from the philosophers.


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About Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.

Dr Sheldon Litt is an American psychologist who trains professionals in modern methods of psychotherapy. He has taught at many universities in northern Europe. He was trained by Fritz Perls at the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy.S. Litt, Inedalsgatan 25, S-11233 Stockholm, Sweden. Tel: +468 651 2489 Email:

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